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John Sloan:

The Stirrup Controversy

The following discussion is the product of Professor John Sloan, to whom this site extends its thanks for the opportunity to present it. Please remember that permission for electronic access does not diminish the author's rights to the intellectual content of the work, nor does it preclude its later publication in paper form. The work may be copied and redistributed, provided that the author's name is kept and proper acknowledgements are made. Anyone wishing to reproduce all or part of this work in paper form should seek the express permission of the author, [email protected]

For purposes of citation, this work was posted by John Sloan on discussion list [email protected] on 5 October 1994 as part of the thread "The Stirrup Controversy."

Lynn Nelson

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 the masses.

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 armored horseman.

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 marginal value.

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 and cantle.

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 times.

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 infantry shield."

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?

John Sloan

[email protected]

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