The Great Stirrup Controversy: Why others feel the stirrup’s importance in medieval warfare stirs up more fiction than fact


Cavalry, which greatly increased an army's mobility and speed, became increasingly important in Medieval warfare

As I’ve shown in my previous blog, some historians strongly believe the stirrup, a utilitarian piece of riding equipment that requires a fraction of the craftsmanship necessary to make a horse saddle or bit, is what revolutionized the use of the horse in war. So powerful were the advantages created by the stirrup in mounted warfare, such historians believe, they led to the establishment of feudalism and the dominance of the mounted knight.

Consider the words of historian David Black: “The medieval knight in armour did not become a fighting force with which to be reckoned until the introduction of the stirrups…Their adoption was revolutionary, for it enabled a heavily armoured horseman to retain his balance in the saddle whilst using a weighty spear, sword or lance.”

Yet other historians, such as John Hood and Philip Sidnell, remain staunchly unconvinced.

“It is certainly true that the feudal period ought to be highly regarded as the ‘age of the horse’, but the use of the stirrup by medieval horsemen was not the cause of the predominance of the mounted knight, as is commonly asserted,” writes John Hood in his essay, Significance of the Stirrup in Medieval Warfare, published in the Journal of Ancient and Medieval History at Dickson College.

Let’s look in detail at the reasons some historians remain skeptical of attempts to accord the stirrup great significance in revolutionizing mounted warfare.

The Avars, a nomadic people of either Turkic or Mongolian descent, 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 Byzantine warfare manual Strategikon, written in the late sixth or early seventh century. The stirrup is listed as part of the equipment for every Byzantine trooper. Franks began using stirrups in the late seventh century. They appear in warrior graves in East Prussia and Lithuania, on the eastern extent of the Frankish domain and not far from Avar territory. That means it took about a century for the adoption of the stirrup to travel the few hundred miles from where it first showed up in Avar warrior graves in Hungary.

“If they really were decisive military assets, we might expect them to have become a cherished part of every mounted warrior’s equipment very rapidly, but this doesn’t seem to have been the case,” writes Sidnell in his book Warhorse.

He points out that of over 700 Frankish warrior graves identified from the late seventh to the ninth century containing military accoutrements, less than two percent contain stirrups in arguing that “we may accept that stirrups were known to some Franks in the early eighth century but the archaeological record gives no reason to believe that their use had yet become general, or even common, a century later.”

Golden Psalter of St. Gallen

WIDE SPREAD USE? The Golden Psalter of St.Gallen provides pictorial evidence of the use of stirrups in Western Europe. The warriors in this scene are shown with stirrups but warriors in other scenes are depicted without stirrups.

Pictorial evidence also doesn’t indicate wide spread use of the stirrup. The earliest western European representation of cavalry using the stirrup is from the Golden Psalter of St. Gallen, dated from the mid- to late-ninth century. It shows several mounted warriors wearing mail hauberks and riding with stirrups. Yet it also shows some horsemen riding without.

What to make of this? Can it be simply put down to the isolated monks who created the Golden Psalter being ignorant of the wide-spread use of stirrups in warfare or at least being negligent in ensuring consistency across all the drawings in the Psalter? That’s what medieval history professor Lynn White, whose paper Medieval Technology and Social Change presented the strongest argument that the stirrup made possible a new and more effective way of fighting on horseback, argued.

Yet Sidnell believes it is White who is not being consistent in his examination of the pictorial evidence.

“They (the monks) faithfully reproduce other details of military equipment, including ‘winged’ spears which White claimed were specifically linked to the use of shock cavalry….(The Psalter) illustrator is clearly aware of their (stirrups) existence but chose not to show them as universal, even though he gave the horsemen uniform spears, shields and helmets,” Sidnell writes in Warhorse.

He also points out the Utrecht Psalter dated around 830, shows no stirrups in its battle scenes.

Another argument advanced by White and other historians is that the use of the stirrup led to a new style of mounted combat: the couched lance. With the lance “couched” under the armpit, they theorize the mounted warrior can bear down on opponents and use the weight of his horse and armor to charge through anything in his path. Essentially, it is argued, the “couched lance” technique introduced shock warfare to the battlefield and the knight became the only element that mattered in the medieval army until the adoption of the pike and the longbow.

This is how White describes it:

“The stirrup made possible…a vastly more effective mode of attack: now the rider could lay his lance at the rest, held between the upper arm and the body and make at his foe, delivering the blow not with his muscles but with the combined weight of himself and his charging stallion. The stirrup, by giving lateral support in addition to the front and back support offered by the pommel and cantle, effectively welded horse and rider into a single fighting unit capable of violence without precedent.”

White goes on to say that the couched lance technique delivered such awesome power that it called for the development of a new weapon: the winged spear. The eight- to 10-foot lance had projections or “wings” below the spearhead to prevent the head from penetrating too deep into the victim’s body so it can be more easily removed and used again in battle.

Yet the historical record once again raises an issue with the belief that the couched lance technique made possible by the use of stirrups was so powerful that it became quickly widespread.

“There is a chronological gap in the argument. If we accept that the stirrup comes into general use in the early part of the eighth century, then we can expect the use of the couched lance to occur some time soon after that date. There is almost no evidence for the first use of the couched lance,’ writes Hood in Significance of the Stirrup in Medieval Warfare. “There is, however, some very good evidence for the continued use of throwing and thrusting techniques some two hundred years later!”

640px-Bayeux_Tapestry_4 Gabriel Seah

THE OLD AND THE NEW: The Bayeux Tapestry shows pictorial evidence of the use of the couched spear technique in battle(the first rider). But notice the traditional overhand stab techique is also prominently shown.

One of the first clear depictions of the couched lance technique is found in the Bayeux Tapestry’s scenes of the battle of Hastings in 1066, some four centuries after the stirrups ‘revolutionary’ arrival in western Europe. This is also well after the feudal system was established throughout the former Frankish empire. And contemporary manuscripts actually show the Carolingian cavalry using their winged spears in the traditional overhead downward stab (with thumb pointed to the rear) method. In fact, the majority of the Norman and French knights on the Bayeux Tapestry itself are actually depicted employing the overhand technique.

The final counter argument to over emphasizing the importance of the stirrup I want to point to comes from plain common sense – at least the common sense that comes from people who regularly ride horses. As California jouster Richard Alvarez points out on his extensive journey to understand and recreate medieval cavalry training,  “unfortunately, many of the historians and archaeologists (amateur and professional alike) who study the era have little or no training in equestrian skills, and almost none have any training in mounted combat.”

While I don’t know if Lynn White himself or others who support his argument had experience with horses, Sidnell is a keen rider and experienced in re-enacting battlefield cavalry maneuvers using replica weapons and equipment. 

He points to what everyone who has had some professional training in riding a horse knows: The foot is only supposed to rest lightly on the stirrup, which should be used simply as an aid in maintaining the right leg position.  It’s leg pressure and good posture that do most of the work of signaling the horse and balancing the rider to maintain a good seat on the horse. 


A LIGHT TOUCH: The foot should rest lightly on stirrup rather than be used as a crutch to balance the rider. It is the upper legs, knees and seat which should be used to balance the rider and direct the horse

As every riding instructor I’ve personally had has repeatedly stressed, routinely relying on the stirrups to balance leads to bad posture and shoddy riding.  One of the visual exercises I was often asked to perform was to imagine my legs cut off at the knee and rely only on the strength of my upper legs to maintain my balance, rise from the saddle,  and apply the pressure necessary to move the horse in either direction.

“Modern European cavalry, though equipped with stirrups, were trained to ride without, precisely to prevent an overdependence upon which might lead to poor riding habits and potential disaster should the trooper lose his stirrup (when his foot slips out),” Sidnell points out.

All this is not to say that stirrups are worthless. Certainly by allowing the rider to place weight on one foot or the other as necessary, makes it easier to retain or regain one’s balance, particularly during the bouncy trot of some horses before a charge. They are particularly valuable during fast turns and the unexpected maneuvers likely to occur while moving quickly under enemy fire. They would also have made it easier for a warrior to learn how to ride while in armor, which can feel cumbersome at first and make the rider top heavy.

But the extent to which the stirrup revolutionized mounted warfare, especially when one considers that cavalry existed for more than 1,000 years prior to the introduction of the stirrup in western Europe, has been greatly exaggerated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>