Updated: Jul 29
Shoulder to shoulder in their shield wall, gruff barbarians remind us that true fellowship isn’t free. We must earn it by being there for our friends.
“You will grow, you will learn the sword, you will learn the way of the shield wall.”
- Bernard Cornwell from The Last Kingdom
A Wall of Ice
In the early decades of the 8th Century, Europe was reeling due to a new enemy. That enemy was the Islamic Caliphate (or State). Just a few decades after Muhammed first attacked Mecca a century before, the armies of Islam had swarmed across three continents -- conquering cities, consuming empires, and converting millions to their new religion. By the 8th Century, the Islamic empire stretched across Arabia, Persia, North Africa, most of Byzantium, and nearly all of Spain. Not even Alexander or mighty Rome had conquered so much.
As red tunics rippled and Arabian swords glistened across his 6 million square miles of empire, the Caliph in Damascus turned his eye towards Christian Europe. With Spain all but conquered, the Iberian commander, Emir Abdul Rahman, turned his army north to the Pyrenees Mountains. Cresting its peaks with 60,000 light troops and cavalry, plus a logistical caravan that snaked back over the horizon, his Moors marched right into the heart of Europe.
Bypassing already conquered territories in what is now southern France, the Emir drove his forces north “like a desolating storm” slaying thousands, according to one chronicler at the time. After conquering Bordeaux, the Emir turned north to his grand prize: Paris. The year was 732 and France lay battered. If Paris fell, all of Europe would be next.
As the invaders dashed north to Paris, however, they saw trouble ahead. On the road just outside Tours, a town halfway between a smoldering Bordeaux and a vulnerable Paris, the Moors eyed Charles Martel with 20,000 heavily armed Franks standing in their way. They also saw one of the greatest shield walls in history.
Standing in rows shoulder to shoulder, and several men deep, thousands of burly Franks – just a few centuries removed from worshiping pagan gods and defeating Roman legions -- braced their shield wall for battle. Armed with torso-sized oak and steel shields and bone-crushing broadswords, Martel’s warriors, according to an Islamic chronicler, “stood firm together” like “a wall of ice.”
Beating their 3-foot-long swords against their 3-foot-diameter shields, the Franks dared the invaders to attack. And thus began what historian Hans Delbrück called the most “important battle in world history.”
Without the Franks' shield wall at The Battle of Tours, Delbrück argues, western civilization and Christendom would have likely died with the Dark Ages. And that means no Charlemagne, no Renaissance, no Enlightenment, no Industrialization, and so on. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing is open for debate. What interests me most about this battle, however, is the Fellowship of those who formed that “wall of ice.”
The Fellowship of the Wall
I love shield walls. The gruff barbarians, armed with giant swords, shields, spears, and clubs -- plus titanic loads of Vigor and Fellowship – have always captivated me with Wonder. To this day, I still imagine being in a medieval shield wall, especially before I work out!
I imagine the mud in my boots, the stench of horse manure, the clanging of swords, the blaring of horns, the shouts of rage… it all gives me goosebumps! And then there’s the intimate horror of it all. Medieval combat seems analogous to playing football with metal spikes in your helmet. Sprinting men slamming into a shield wall at full tilt with edged weapons is a brutal game and one that was played non-stop for thousands of years. (Concussions were the least of their worries.)
When attacking such a fortress of muscle, bone, wood, and steel, I’ll offer this passage from Bernard Cornwall’s great novel, The Last Kingdom about 9th Century combat:
“You look ahead and see the overlapping shields, the helmets, the glint of axes and spears and swords, and you know you must go into the reach of those blades, into the place of death, and it takes time to summon the courage, to heat the blood, to let the madness overtake caution.”
Beyond the ultra-violence of it all, for me, the shield wall remains the ultimate symbol of Fellowship. A shield wall provided protection for all in it. Lined shoulder to shoulder, your shield (held with your left arm) not only protected you, it helped protect the man to your left. And the shield of the man to your right, helped protect you and so on down the line. In short, a shield wall could only work if every man (or woman in some cases) stood their ground and didn’t flee.
As I dive into this battle from so long ago, ask yourself this: “Who is in my shield wall? Who will bleed for me? Will I bleed for them?” Whoever they are, be good to them. Because when life starts firing arrows at you, you’ll want their protection.
When picturing the shield wall at The Battle of Tours, according to historian Victor Davis Hanson, “we should imagine a literal human rampart, nearly invulnerable with locked shields in front of armored bodies.” Penetrating this wall of men with Moorish cavalry, Hanson writes, “was impossible… as long as the Franks stayed in rank.”
Eying the Frankish line, where each man stood with seventy pounds of arms and armor plus a fearsome reputation for hand-to-hand combat, the Emir made the foolish decision to attack. Soon trumpets sounded, banners waved, and thousands of horses galloped beneath thousands of arrows in flight – all heading to demolish that growling shield wall standing in their way.
Charging uphill with their sabers drawn, the chain-mailed Moorish cavalry had no intention of smashing like a fist into a wall. Instead the light cavalry rode up, slashed at the lumbering Franks, attempting to exploit gaps in their wall. Yet, no gaps appeared. The Franks closed ranks even tighter while jabbing their spears into the horseman’s legs, slicing shins, and pulling wounded men off the saddle.
Within the chaos of battle, 20,000 attacking horses kicked up dust while 50,000 men swung blades, threw elbows, and broke teeth. Due to the poor visibility and limited movement in the confined valley, the Emir’s army – built for speed and endurance – began to feel the bare-knuckled savagery of heavily armored men.
As they fended off waves of cavalry attacks, the Franks gradually began to move forward, “advancing en masse” like a giant lawn mower with 20,000 blades, cutting down anything and everything in their way. All along the front, the Franks swung their swords down like sledgehammers, severing limbs, splintering bones, and spilling organs until the mounds of men muddied the ground with a river of blood. Slogging through the gore, the Franks never quit. Though exhausted, they fought on – disciplined and together – until their medieval lawn mower chopped the Moors to bits.
By the time Frankish knights had ridden down and killed the Emir, the battle was already won. In full panic, the invaders turned around and fled back to Spain.
Standing victorious with panting breaths in the autumn dusk was the man of the hour, Charles Martel, grandfather of the mighty Charlemagne and founder of the Carolingian dynasty which ruled France (and much of Europe) for the next two hundred years. On that day, Charles earned his nickname, “The Hammer.”
Never again, Victor Davis Hanson writes in his book Carnage and Culture, would a Muslim army venture this far north into Europe. And to this day, the Battle of Tours (also known as the Battle of Poitiers) became the highwater mark of Islam’s imperial advance. By the height of Charlemagne’s reign in 800 AD, any remnant of Islamic fighters in France and Italy were gone.
Together by Choice
As much as Charles “The Hammer” Martel and his grandson Charles the Great (Charlemagne) captivate my imagination, I’m even more interested in the rough men who formed that “wall of ice.” Who were they?
According to Hanson, the Frankish foot soldiers were “free property owners, rather than slaves or serfs.” Free men fighting as heavy infantry in pitched battles like Tours, Hanson argues, is “the western way of war.” Fighting in this way with “citizen soldiers,” he asserts, continued the western tradition established in Greece and Republican Rome that free men fight. It would continue for another thousand years through the American Revolution.
Unlike professional or conscripted soldiers, citizen soldiers choose to fight. Fellowship is made of such freedoms. Those Franks chose to fight. They chose to hold their ground. And they chose to do it together.
Had Charles stood alone on that hill without his brothers in arms, history would remember him as “the nail” instead of “the hammer.” But when he stepped into the shield wall and felt the man to his left and right, he felt protected and loved. And each man along that defensive line felt the same: all for one and one for all.
Strengthen Your Wall
So here we are 1400 years later… in a softer age where inertia keeps us in the house, on our phones, and away from friends. During such an age, it’s worth asking ourselves, “Do I have a shield wall? And who stands with me?”
Who stands with you likely depends upon who you’ve stood with in the past. So I ask... to whom have you defended or cared for? To whom have you risked your reputation or job for? And who would do the same for you?
These are heavy questions involving risk and sacrifice. Yet, close friendships are made of such things. But what if there is no battle? What if there is no great emergency to stand with your friend? Fortunately, there are many other ways (little ways) to build your shield wall -- and all are easier than medieval combat.
When a friend invites you to a party, RSVP damn it! When a friend shares an accomplishment with you, praise them. When they’re performing or presenting their creative work, show up and cheer them on. If they’re experiencing stress, call them or write them a letter. And don't be afraid to tell them, “I love you.”
When we’re alone with our battles, we feel vulnerable and sad. When we have stout barbarians by our side, we feel strong and grateful. And more than that, we feel loved.
But to get those barbarians by our side, we must always remember this: shield walls are conditional. To keep them strong, we must stand shoulder to shoulder and be there for each other. When we do this, like Charles Martel and all his men did so long ago, we save our world.