John Sloan: "The Stirrup Controversy"
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For purposes of citation, this work was posted by John Sloan on discussion
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"The Stirrup Controversy."
22 November 1994
Here is a brief discussion of this question focused mostly
on the purely military aspects.
The issue is the direct causal relationship between the
adoption of the stirrup for cavalry and the introduction and
development of "feudalism" in Carolingian France. This
relationship was expounded at length by Lynn White Jr in his book
"Medieval Technology and Social Change". (Available as a Galaxy
paperback from Oxford Univ Press, New York , 1966).
There is no question that the introduction of stirrups
improved the effectiveness of cavalry. Whatever arguments there
may be about the details of the nature of "feudalism" and its
growth as a social-political system, it is sufficiently clear
that a society in which "feudalism" played a prominent (or
defining) role did come to exist in northern France.
The question remains, did the stirrup cause feudalism?
White's final passage on this is unequivocal.
"Few inventions have been so simple as the stirrup, but few
have had so catalytic an influence on history. The requirements
of the new mode of warfare which it made possible found
expression in a new form of western European society dominated by
an aristocracy of warriors endowed with land so that they might
fight in a new and highly specialized way." (And more
following.) Such as, "The Man on Horseback, as we have known him
during the past millennium, was made possible by the stirrup...."
The question is complex on both sides of the equation. How
and why did "feudalism" develop and was it exclusive to
Carolingian and later France? When and how did the stirrup
develop and was it a critical technology required for the
supremacy of cavalry over infantry? Why was infantry supplanted
by cavalry as the arm of decision? Why then were not all the new
cavalry armies based on "feudalism".
The causation equation can itself be argued in both
directions. 1. Recognizing that the stirrup would give cavalrymen
a decisive advantage in combat, the Carolingians adopted it and
developed a social-political system that would provide for the
armored cavalryman. or 2. Having a social-political system based
on the leader maintaining only a relatively few "strong men" in
his retinue, the Carolingians naturally armed these "thugs" with
the most powerful weapons suitable for individual combat against
These issues had been argued already for about 70 years when
White sought to bring closure. He supported the line advanced by
Heinrich Brunner 'Der Reiterdienst und die Anfangedes
Lehnwesens', reprinted in "Forschungen zur Geschichte des
deutschen und franzosischen Rechts", Stuttgart, 1894 against,
among others, Hans Delbruck's study "Geschichte der Kriegskunst
im Rahmen der Politischen Geschichte, Vol III Mittelalter",
Berlin, 1900, which is now also available as "The Barbarian
Invasions: History of the Art of War volume II" translated by
Walter Renfroe Jr, Univ of Nebraska Press, 1990. I am skipping a
long discussion of Delbruck's views. In essence he notes that
effective infantry, as exemplified by the Roman legion, relies on
strict discipline and teamwork with each person subordinating
himself to the needs of the group. This is only possible in a
society that promotes it. In contrast, the Germanic invaders,
including the Franks, were supreme individualists who insisted on
fighting as independent heros. He argued that is only natural for
such warriors to shift to the weapons system that would provide
them the most powerful means of individual combat, a means that
would also enable them to enhance their individual superiority
over the civilian masses.
In the course of a long argument, White wrote, "The whole of
Brunner's magnificent structure of hypotheses stands, save its
keystone." (Which was that the struggle of Charles Martel with
the Muslim invaders from Spain caused the critical change) "We
are faced, in the reigns of Martel, Carolman, and Pipin, with an
extraordinary drama which lacks motivation. A sudden and urgent
demand for cavalry led the early Carolingians to reorganize their
realm along feudal lines to enable it to support mounted fighters
in much greater numbers than even before. Yet the nature of the
military emergency which brought about this social revolution has
eluded us. The answer to the puzzle is to be found not in the
documents but in archaeology." At this point White launches into
a detailed examination of the origin and spread of the use of
stirrups. He then digresses into other related issues such as
that the Franks also developed the kite-shaped shield for the
Leaving aside the social-political questions related to
"feudalism", the stirrup itself poses a difficult task for White.
He has to show how the stirrup could be associated so uniquely
with the Carolingians as well as with cavalry in general. For
many years it was popular wisdom to associate the end of infantry
predominance and rise of the cavalry arm with the Gothic victory
over the Roman legions at Adrianople in 378 AD. And this was
presumed to be due in part to the Gothic cavalry using stirrups.
The falsity of this view was rather well known by the time White
wrote and he correctly points this out. The victory was not
especially due to cavalry, nor did the Goths have stirrups. But
he still assumes that cavalry replaced infantry for technical
military rather than for other reasons. And he attempts to
discount any groups other than the Franks initiating this shift.
White does not explain why the introduction of the stirrup was
necessary to get the Franks to "see the light" and become
cavalrymen or why the Goths had been so successful as cavalry for
centuries prior without stirrups.
Nevertheless, it is clear that in both the Byzantine
professional army and those of most of their opponents cavalry
did supplant infantry over the immediately following centuries.
White's response is rather lame, "The use of cavalry in the early
Christian centuries demands much more careful investigation than
it has received."
He does mention the introduction of the saddle with high
pommel and cantle. In my opinion this is more necessary for the
effective lancer than are stirrups. White goes into great detail
to show that the stirrup was not in general use before the 8th
and even 9th centuries. And he may be correct in his dating of
its adoption in Western Europe. What he fails to address are the
following: 1. the effective use of heavily armored cavalry
without using stirrups outside France long before 700AD. and 2.
the continued use of armored cavalry with stirrups outside France
after 700AD but without "feudalism". He completely ignores the
question of why cavalry supplanted infantry in the first place,
not only in France, but in many places. He focuses on the
technological question without considering the more fundamental
issue of the relationship of military institutions (army
structures) to the social-political institutions of the societies
that create them.
Another overlooked aspect is training. One cannot simply had
a person a horse's bridle and expect him to become a horseman,
even with stirrups. Even more, a untrained mass of horsemen do
not become an effective cavalry. Clearly whatever change was
consciously desired took years to implement.
Some of the older references that discuss this question
include, besides Delbruck, which is indispensable.
Montross, Lynn, "War through the Ages", Harper and Brothers,
New York, 1944. Cited by White as a support, but heavily
dependent on previous sources, especially Oman. Popular survey of
Oman, Sir Charles, "A History of the Art of War in the
Middle Ages", Burt Franklin, New York, 1924. (There was also an
earlier edition in one volume in 1898.) The most important of the
earlier general works. Oman does not even discuss stirrups, but
describes the development of cavalry in the Byzantine Empire and
elsewhere prior to 700AD. His picture of the Merovingians and
Carolingians contains much information opposing White's view that
the latter does not address. For instance, "The tendency (to
shift from general levy to retainers) was all the easier because
a well-armed band of henchmen, however small, some or all of them
mounted, was worth a much larger count's general levy". Just as
"all politics is local" in Tip O'Neil's immortal words, so too
the internal security role of armed forces takes precedence over
their external role, something White does not consider.
Moreover, Oman notes that two major external enemies
Charlemagne fought were the Saracens and Lombards. The Lombards
at least were already heavily armored cavalry (non-feudal). And
they, once conquered, became the main strike force of the
Carolingian army in its wars with the Avars in modern Hungary.
But Oman considers that the most dangerous enemy, whose influence
played the more significant part in developing defensive,
localized (ie feudal) social-political structures was the
Vikings. White's only mention of Vikings is in his section on
crop rotation!!! There is more worth reading in Oman.
Spaulding, Oliver Lyman, Hoffman Nickerson, and John W.
Wright, "Warfare: A Study of Military Methods From the Earliest
Times," Washington DC. Infantry Journal, 1937. This was for long
the standard general military history text and it is still a good
read. The authors mention the introduction of the stirrup in the
Byzantine army of the 5th-6th Century but have no detailed source
information. They point out that irrespective of stirrups, the
Byzantine army relied on cavalry and infantry in combined-arms
operations. Their cavalry had the full saddle with high pommel
They also consider "feudalism" to be a response to the
Viking and Magyar invasions. "Such a system solved the all-
important 9th-century problem of local defense.... I repeat, the
idea of raising an army by summoning various lords each to bring
his vassals, could not have arisen except in a time in which the
problem of local defense was paramount." The theory divorces the
question of "feudalism" from the issue of cavalry versus infantry
all together. This is because the "feudal" infantry militia was
also an important element in the defensive levy. However, they go
on to note that, "Feudal cavalry were exactly the troops needed
for the emergency." That is, sudden raids of a local character.
Since their book is focused on purely military matters, they do
not address the concept that perhaps the new class of local
magnates liked a military structure in which they retained
decisive power in their own hands rather than letting it reside
in the population at large. (See Delbruch)
More recent references:
Contamine, Philippe, War in the Middle Ages", trans by
Michael Jones, Basil Blackwell, New York, 1984. One of the best
recent, general books on this subject. Contamine devotes about 5
pages specifically to the question of the stirrup. He describes
White's hypothesis and then points to the specific objections
raised by Bachrach. These relate to interpretations of primary
source texts. He lists six of Bachrach's works, but does not
discuss the more general issues. His conclusion about the
adoption of the stirrup by the Franks is, "Rather than accepting
Brunner's thesis, rejuvenated and completed by Lynn White, one
can reasonably prefer, in our present state of knowledge, a
version of the facts which stresses the slowness of the
evolution." He does not address the concept of a possible link
between either stirrups or cavalry and "feudalism".
Wise, Terence, "Medieval Warfare", Osprey, London, 1976. The
subject is a later period, but Wise points out that it was the
cantle and pommel of the saddle in which the knight was strapped,
that enabled him to deliver the powerful blow with couched lance.
He sees the full use of lance as a development of a later period.
Dupuy, Trevor, "The Harper Encyclopedia of Military
History," Harper Collins, New York, 1993. He as this to say, "The
great impetus to the employment of cavalry, particularly for
shock action, came through Asian developments. First, the
invention of the saddle, with stirrups, gave to the horse soldier
a firm base from which a stout lance could brutally apply the
force resulting from the speed of the horse multiplied by the
weight of horse and rider. Second, in Persia and on the steppes
of Central Asia new breeds of heavy horses appeared, particularly
suitable for such shock action. These were soon adopted by the
Romans, who - like the Persians - covered man and horse with
coats of chain mail to make them relatively invulnerable to small
missiles and light hard weapons."
Jones, Archer, "The Art of War in the Western World", Univ.
of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987. This may be considered the
current replacement for Spaulding as standard general reference.
Unfortunately, the author repeats the general theme of the Franks
being the first to exploit the stirrup. Social issues are beyond
the scope of this military history, therefor he does not get
involved with any possible links to "feudalism".
Heath, Ian, "Armies of the Dark Ages 600-1066", Wargames
Research Group, Sussex, 1980. A comprehensive reference to all
the armies of the period, their organization, tactics, and
armament, and the battles. Contains an extensive bibliography.
Heath shows that the introduction of the "kite shaped" shield in
Germany was later than the time given by White, and it was used
initially by infantry rather than cavalry and came from
Byzantium, not the other way around. He writes that the
Carolingian cavalry threw or used their lance overarm more often
than in a couched position. He notes that stirrups were
introduced after the Merovingian dynasty, during Carolingian
Barker, Philip, "The Armies and Enemies of Imperial Rome,
Wargames Research Group, Sussex, 1981. Comprehensive, illustrated
reference for all the armies 150BC to 600AD. Contains a short
bibliography. Barker shows illustration of the stirrup he writes
was introduced in the Byzantine army around 580AD, from the
Avars. He shows many examples of fully armored horses as well as
warriors who fought successfully without stirrups.
Nicolle, David, "The Armies of Islam 7th-11th Centuries,"
Osprey, London, 1982. The author is an expert in his field. He
indicates that the Arabs developed armored cavalry armed with
lances as shock troops very early and copied Byzantine tactics.
He notes, "The Umayyad era was also a transitional one as far as
stirrups were concerned. Those of the leather-loop variety were
already known, though they were generally despised as signs of
weakness. Arabs met iron stirrups in Khurasan, where the Muslim
governor is recorded as having obliged his troops to adopt them
at the close of the 7th century." Further he notes, "It is even
possible that the kite-shaped so-called Norman shield was of
Byzantine origin, ultimately being a development of an Iranian
Nicolle, David, "The Age of Charlemagne 750-1000", Osprey,
London, 1984. The author extended his investigations to the
opponents. He believes Charlemagne's emphasis on cavalry was due
to the extended, long-range nature of his campaigns in which
dependability of the troops was more important than sheer
numbers. Nicholle also points to the Avars in introducing the
stirrup to Western Europe, and relates this to Avar settlement in
Brittany. Matthew Bennett published a very enlightening review of
Nicolle's book in the March 1985, # 118 issue of "Slingshot:
Official Journal of the Society of Ancients". Bennett traces this
idea of Avar influence by settlement to Bernard Bachrach's books,
specifically, "Merovingian Military Organization 481-751.
"Military orgnization in Aquitaine under the early Carolingians"
in Speculum 49, 1974, and "The origin of Armorican chivalry" in
Technology and Culture 10, 1969, and "Charles Martel, shock
combat, the stirrup and feudalism" in Studies in Medieval and
Renaissance History 7, 1970. For the question of the couched
lance, Bennett provides a reference to D. J. A. Ross,
'L'originalite de Turoldus: le maniement de la lance;, in
"Cahiers de Civilisation medievale" 6, 1963. He writes that Ross
traces this technique to the 12th century. Bennett also disagrees
with Nicolle's views on the origin of the couched lance tactic.
Heath, Ian, "Byzantine Armies 886-1118", Osprey, London, 1979.
The authors shows Byzantine use of fully armored lancers and both
cavalry and infantry equipped with kite-shaped shields.
Edge, David and John M. Paddock, "Arms and Armor of the
Medieval Knight", Crescent Books, New York, 1988. They note that
the Romans had heavily armored cavalry before the breakup of the
Empire. The authors write that Charlemagne expanded the role of
cavalry in the Frankish army to cope with the mounted Lombards
and Saracens. And they report that the stirrup was introduced
into Europe by the Lombards and Avars, not the Franks. Moreover,
they consider that England of King Canute already "possessed one
of hte most sophisticated and formidable feudal defense systems
in medieval Europe." They also point out that, "The increasing
requirement for offensive military operations in this (11th) and
subsequent centuries, however, was something that the feudal
system was simply not designed to fulfil..." This idea is similar
to that in Spaulding that "feudalism" originated as a military
defensive measure. Since Charlemagne's military policy was
offensive, it would seem that "feudalism" was not an inherent
part of it.
English translations of the two Byzantine military manuals
attributed to Leo and pseudo-Maurice have only recently been
published. George Dennis, "Maurice's Strategikon", Univ. of
Pennsylvania, 1984, and "Maurikios Das Strategikon des
Maurikios", Vienna, 1981. William Hamblin reviewed this and a
number of other new works, 'The Strategikon et al", in #116 of
"Slingshot". There is still a lot of discussion going on about
the nature of the evidence and exact details of this army. For
instance, see Duncan Head's article, 'Procopius on the Cavalry of
Belisarius', in the March 1985, #118 issue of "Slingshot" and
Dimitris Christodolou's 'The Maurikian Byzantines: A New Look at
an Old Friend' in the November 84 #116, January 85, #117 and
March 1985, #118 issues of "Slingshot". Christodolou points out
that the Strategikon is the first military manual to mention
stirrups (written between 619 abd 628 AD) but that a famous
fresco painting of Emperor Justinian II, 688 AD, depicts him on
horseback without stirrups. In issue #116 David Putt draws
attention to a little used source, the "Aethiopica" of
Heliodorus, in which the fully armored Byzantine cataphract is
depicted charging into battle on his fully armored horse in the
early 4th century. The fascinating detail relevant to the
discussion of stirrups is that the lance is supported by straps
around the horse and only guided by the rider. If true, this
would negate the problem White and some others have of a lancer
retaining his seat upon impact of his lance.
Whatever one wants to say about the social-political aspects
of "feudalism", I hope it is apparent from this review that from
a military point of view the significance of the stirrup involves
not only what the Franks may or may not have had in mind but also
what the Byzantines and Arabs and others were doing with it. In
my opinion the latest word will be found in the writing by Phil
Barker, Duncan Head, William Hamblin, Ian Heath, and David
Nicolle. They are engaged in nearly continuous interaction
searching for new materials and testing hypotheses.
Some other relevant references include:
Bachrach, Bernard, "A History of the Alans in the West"
Beeler, John, "Warfare in Feudal Europe 730-1200", 1971.
As a final comment, can anyone imagine that, if Caesar with
his legions had found the army of Charlemagne, Fulk the Black, or
William the Conqueror arrayed for battle in northern Gaul, he
would not have destroyed it at least as fast and the Romans
overcame the Celts, stirrups notwithstanding?