Did the invention of the stirrup, a utilitarian piece of horse tack for horse riders around the world today but unknown in the ancient world, revolutionize mounted warfare and even pave the way for the feudal system of the Middle Ages? Or has its transformative effect been overstated by historians much more convinced with the stirrup’s impact than the Medieval mounted warriors who adopted it?
It’s a Medieval mystery that dates back 1700 years, spans two continents and culminates in some of the most famous battles in history. And it has engaged historians in debate for more than 120 years, with both sides equally entrenched in their positions.
Man has been riding horses for 6,000 years but from what we can glean from the archeological record the stirrup was a late invention, originating in or near China. The first literary reference is in the memoirs of a Chinese general dating to 477 AD. It is also represented on statuettes dated from around 300 AD. The Avars are credited with bringing the stirrup across the Asian steppe with stirrups appearing in graves of the warlike nomads from the late sixth century in what is now Hungary. The earliest written record of the stirrup in the West is found in the Strategikon, written in the late sixth or early seventh century. The stirrup is listed as part of the equipment for every Byzantine trooper.
But it is in the land of the Franks, challenged by the incursions of the Muslims, that the introduction of the stirrup is thought to have had the most revolutionary impact. Consider the change in the use of mounted warfare the Franks experienced over a 70-year period: In 732 a large Muslim force under the leadership of Emir Abd-er-Rahman of Cordoba made its way across the Pyrenees, advanced to the River Garonne and easily set aside the local forces sent against them by the count of Aquitaine. The invading Muslim force then moved towards Tours where it was confronted by the famous war leader of the Franks, Charles Martel. The battle that ensued near the River Loire would stem the Muslim advance and earn Charles the sobriquet of Martel or “The Hammer”.
According to the Arab Chronicles: “Near the River Owar [Loire], the two great hosts of the two languages and the two creeds were set in array against each other. The hearts of Abderrahman, his captains and his men were filled with wrath and pride, and they were the first to begin the fight. The Moslem horsemen dashed fierce and frequent forward against the battalions of the Franks, who resisted manfully, and many fell dead on either side, until the going down of the sun.”
Writing on behalf of the Franks, the chronicle of Isidore of Beja notes that “in the shock of battle the men of the North seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to one another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice; and with great blows of their swords they hewed down the Arabs. Drawn up in a band around their chief, the people of the Franks, carried all before them.”
Many historians believe that had Martel failed at Tours, the Muslim force would have overrun the land of the Franks and perhaps much of the rest of Western Europe. Martel’s victory is not only significant for stemming the Muslim advance into Europe but also for the way it was done. The generally accepted view of the battle gleaned from references in the historical chronicles such as “forming as it were a bulwark of ice” and “drawn up in a band around their chief” is that the Franks gained victory by employing an impenetrable shield wall, stoically resisting repeated cavalry charges from the Muslim force. There is no mention of Frankish cavalry.
Yet, as Philip Sidnell mentions in his excellent book Warhorse, a mere 70 years later, Martel’s grandson, Charles the Great (more commonly referred to as Charlemagne) had as many as 35,000 heavily armed cavalrymen available to him. Maintaining and training horses for war is expensive and time consuming, much more so than the cost of foot soldiers. What could have pushed the Franks towards this transformation in how they wage war?
During those 70 years the Frankish domain spread to cover all of France, the Low Countries, a part of northern Spain, half of Italy, and most of Germany along with some control over the Balkans and central Europe. It was the closest thing to the return of the Roman Empire Europe had experienced in more than 300 years.
Squadrons of heavy cavalry are thought to have played a central role in this Frankish expansion. At the same time the archaeological record shows that the stirrup began to be added to the collection of weaponry included in Frankish warrior graves around this time.
Could the advantages provided by this new technology in combat been what caused the Franks to aggressively grow their commitment to a heavy cavalry force?
It’s this convergence of new technology, change in battle tactics and subsequent Frankish expansion that has caught the eye of historians ranging from medievalist Heinrich Brunner in the late 1800s to technical determinist Lynn White in the 1960s. In White’s own words, from his book Medieval Technology and Social Change:
“Before the introduction of the stirrup, the seat of the rider was precarious. ..[The mounted warrior] was primarily a rapidly mobile bowman and hurler of javelins…The stirrup, by giving lateral support in addition to the front and back support offered by pommel and cantle, effectively welded horse and rider into a single fighting unit capable of violence without precedent… Immediately, without preparatory steps, it made possible mounted shock combat, a revolutionary new way of doing battle.”
In my next posts I will examine why these historians came to believe the stirrup not only revolutionized mounted warfare but also led to the development of feudalism. And I will also look at why their views continue to spark debate.