The Great Stirrup Controversy: Why some believe this simple device revolutionized mounted warfare and led to feudalism

BoulgarofygonOn a late October day in 732, Charles Martel, stood by the River Loire in present day France, blood stained, battle weary and surrounded by the still lingering sounds and smells of carnage – men breathing their last breaths in excruciating pain from mortal wounds, horses thrashing about in their final death throes, the horrible smell of entrails mixing with the metallic smell of free flowing blood.

He stood in the cold amidst his liege men, many of whom had fought alongside him for more than a decade across Europe. His shield wall of Frankish heavy infantry had withstood charge after charge from the much larger force of Arab heavy cavalry with its long lances and swords under the leadership of Emir Abd-er-Rahman and carried the day. The emir lay dead, his army broken.

The Mozarabic Chronicle of 754 describes it in this manner: “And in the shock of the battle the men of the North seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming at 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, [they] carried all before them. Their tireless hands drove their swords down to the breasts [of the foe.]

The battle stemmed the Muslim advance into Europe, earned Charles the sobriquet of Martel or “The Hammer”, and proved the strength and resiliency in battle of well trained, heavily armed infantry. There is no mention of cavalry among the Frankish host. Perhaps not since the famed days of the Roman legions centuries earlier had the trained foot soldier proved his worth better than at the Battle of Tours.

512px-Charlemagne_at head of army

Yet, within 70 years Martel’s grandson, Charles the Great (more commonly known as Charlemagne) would have at his disposal as many as 35,000 heavily armed cavalry men. And during those 70 years the Franks would expand their domain to cover all of France, the Low Countries, part of northern Spain, half of Italy, and most of Germany along with some control over the Balkans and central Europe. By 891 and the Battle of the Dyle, the Franks fought almost exclusively on horseback, transforming themselves from an infantry force to mounted cavalry.

What could have caused the Franks to adopt such a radically different way of waging war? And why so soon after such a precious victory and confirmation of the strength of their heavy infantry? What could have convinced them to adopt a heavy cavalry considering the much greater time and cost necessary to prepare men for mounted combat and breed, train, and maintain large numbers of horses for battle?

(A ninth century document outlining the costs of various types of military equipment evaluated against the cost of a cow, shows just how expensive horses could be. A spear and shield were worth two cows; greaves would be valued at six cows; a helmet was also valued at six cows, and a sword and scabbard were worth seven. A horse for war, however, would cost 12 cows – twice as much as the cost of a helmet. And as any equestrian knows all too well, the initial purchase of the horse is the cheapest part of horse ownership; the mount’s keep over many years proving much more expensive.)

For some historians, it is the introduction of the stirrup which made this transformation not only possible but logical, despite the heavy expense.

 StirrupAmong the earliest converts to this thinking was German medievalist Heinrich Brunner who in a thesis published in 1887 claimed the use of the stirrup in Western Europe can be reliably dated to the eighth century and linked with military reforms carried out by Charles Martel. Brunner further believed the need to provide the economic system and land necessary to maintain such horse herds provided the motivation for Martel and his son Pippin III to drive a change in social organization, confiscating church lands (an action for which there is plenty of evidence) and distributing them to supporters. The land provided Martel’s chosen elites with the income needed to support themselves as mounted warriors, ready to heed his call to war. And this, according to Brunner, served as the seed for feudalism, an economic and military system that would last centuries.

The link between the stirrup and the rise to power of the medieval knight and feudalism was perhaps most notably championed in the 1960s by Lynn White, a professor of medieval history at Princeton, Stanford, and, for many years, the University of California. White was a “technical determinist”. He adhered to a school of thought that explains historical development in terms of technological leaps.

In his paper, Medieval Technology and Social Change, White argued that the stirrup made possible a new and more effective way of fighting on horseback. Before the stirrup, it was argued, mounted warriors were restricted to either throwing their lances at the enemy or thrusting with them. What the stirrup made possible was the “couched” lance technique with the lance carried under the arm by the mounted warrior charging full speed straight into the enemy. The stirrups allowed the mounted warrior to better maintain his balance and brace against the shock of impact. In White’s view, the lance made mounted shock warfare a reality.

In his book The Art of War in the Western World, author Archer Jones, another adherent, describes the full impact of the stirrup in battle:

“Of uncertain origin, the stirrup spread rapidly over the Western World, its obvious utility guaranteeing rapid acceptance: with stirrups a rider lost most of the hazard of falling from his horse. In combat he could, in a charge with his lance, transmit the full force of his horse’s motion to his target, secure in his unity with the horse, provided by saddle and stirrups. In combat with his sword he had little reason to fear that a missed stroke might bring him off his horse. He could even increase his height above an opponent on foot by standing in his stirrups.”

Battle of Arsuf

Jones adds the stirrup made it possible for even mediocre riders to perform well. (Think of it as the equivalent of the automated transmission in the medieval world – with it a great deal more people could ride effectively.)

The Franks became famous for the irresistible charge of their stirrup-stabilized heavy cavalry, writes Jones, and their method spread to Christian Western Europe. After meeting such cavalry, according to the historical record, the Byzantines concluded: “So formidable is the charge of the Frankish chivalry with their broadsword, lance and shield, that it is best to decline a pitched battle with them till you have put all the chances on your side.”

 The warriors of Islam also adopted the stirrup. There is not much written about it that has survived for the historical record but Al Jahiz (d. 868), passed on the opinion that “stirrups are among the best trappings of war for both the lancer who wields his spear and he who brandishes his sword.”

The argument follows that adopting the couched lance technique made cavalry forces practically invincible on the battlefield.

 Historian Rupert Furneaux describes the “true knight” of the thirteenth century as:

“The plate armoured, faceless horseman, … symbol of aristocratic wealth and power, charged knee to knee, with lance couched, galloping in a thundering unwavering wall of steel-clad men and horses, .. crashing through the enemy lines by force of impact.”

 So powerful an image, so enticing an explanation for a critical development in both warfare and society. Yet as convincing as the stirrup argument may sound at first, there are a number of problems with it when the historical evidence is more deeply examined.

 I will be sharing the many issues raised in my next posts.

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