9. Stirrups

9. Stirrups



Caption. ‘Pedes, humi ut, stetere equo, insidentium. Cito levati, ut ipsa scala, sublevat.’ / ‘The feet of the horsemen rest firmly while on horseback, as if they are standing on the ground. They have been raised quickly, as if by climbing stairs.’

Description. A crowded street, seen in perspective. In the foreground, a lavishly dressed man with a long sword mounts his horse, spurs prominent on his left foot, which is already in the stirrup. To his right, a shop assistant shows him a pair of stirrups. Behind him, one artisan is decorating another stirrup; above them both, more are being forged in a furnace, hammered into shape on an anvil, and displayed in a shop. In the street, another mounted warrior, holding a lance, shows how stirrups allow him to stand firmly while on horseback. His mount’s iron horseshoes are clearly visible. In the left foreground is a saddle with large ‘pommel’ before and ‘cantle’ behind. The wooden ‘trees’ which support such saddles are being fabricated in a shop on the left of the image. The saddle as well as the stirrups also features prominently on the title page of the Nova reperta.


The ‘nova reperta’ depicted by Stradanus are not ‘new’ in the sense that they were only recently discovered, invented or introduced into Europe.  This image depicts a set of equestrian innovations, centuries old at the time of the engraving, which were ‘new’ only in the sense that they were unknown to the ancients (like horseshoes and stirrups) or had increased in sophistication and significance during the Middle Ages (in the case of spurs and saddles). Although individually they may seem too simple to rank as major technological achievements, their combined impact on European society was profound: by the time this engraving was made in 1600, they had helped transform the structure of medieval warfare, society and culture for eight hundred years.

The oldest of these interconnected inventions was spurs, which were already in use by the ancient Celts, Greeks and Romans as well as the medieval Arabs. In the medieval West, spurs became symbols of knighthood: knights wore gilded spurs, their squires wore silvered ones, and ‘to win one’s spurs’ was equivalent to being made a knight. This association rests on the deeper identification of the ‘knight’ as a ‘horseman’ or ‘rider’: in French, the word for ‘knight’ (chevalier) derives from the word for ‘horse’ (cheval); the Italian cavaliere, Spanish caballero, and Portuguese cavaleiro are similar (cf. the English cavalier); while the German Ritter and Dutch and Scandinavian ridder correspond to the English rider.

A more recent development is the horseshoe. The closest well-attested Roman equivalent was the ‘hipposandal’: a solid-bottomed iron plate strapped to the hoof with leather boots. The origin of crescent-shaped iron horseshoes, with holes for the nails which attached them to the hooves, is debated. The timing of their origin is disputed -- some archaeological evidence suggests pre-Roman Celtic origin, and the became more commonplace in fifth century Belgium -- but in either case they originated in the north, where softer, heavier, wetter soils soften horses’ hooves and render them prone to splitting.  Textual references are unknown before c. 900 CE; cast horseshoes become common from about 1000 CE; their manufacture is widespread by the twelfth century; by the thirteenth they could be purchased ready-made; and in the sixteenth ‘hot-shoeing’ became common, in which the pre-fabricated shoe was heated and shaped to the horse’s hoof immediately before fitting. Through these developments, the blacksmith became one of the most staple and ubiquitous artisans in Europe.

The saddle – which had evolved since Assyrian times (c. 700 BCE) – was also modified during the European Middle Ages to serve the purposes of chivalric warfare. In order to prevent the knight from being unseated by the shock of jousting, the ‘cantle’ behind the saddle and the ‘pommel’ in front were raised, and the entire wooden ‘tree’ structure was reinforced to distribute the weight of a rider sheathed in armor and carrying heavy weapons across the small of the horse’s back.

The most famous of these developments – today and when the Nova reperta were engraved – is the stirrup. The full-length, double-sided riding stirrup may have originated in China as early as the fourth century, and was certainly widespread by the late fifth.  By the early seventh century, invaders from Central Asia had introduced it via Hungary into Europe, where it was adopted during the eighth century.  In Europe as in Asia, the use of stirrups coincided with the rise of armoured heavy cavalry.  The firm platform provided for the feet allowed a mounted warrior to lean to either side without losing balance and thereby to use the long sword more effectively against infantry. When combined with the kind of saddles described above, stirrups also increased the effectiveness of shock tactics such as the iconic medieval cavalry charge, in which heavily armoured cavalry with couched lances gallop at full speed against an enemy formation.

Together, these innovations made possible the dominance of the mounted knight on the medieval battlefield which, sustained over centuries, had a profound effect on European society and culture. To maintain armies composed of such heavily armed and highly trained mounted warriors, feudal hierarchies spread from France to northern Italy, Spain, Germany, Slavic territories and England, in which warrior nobles receive from a ruler the land grant (called a beneficium, later feudum or feodum) needed to arm and train themselves and their retainers in exchange for the promise of military and non-military service.

So impressive was this relationship between military technology and social structure that the pioneering historian of medieval technology, Lynn White jr., famously argued that the stirrup was responsible for the rise of feudalism. ‘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’ (Medieval Technology and Social Change, 1962).

White’s work has given rise to a sustained controversy which has spread out from the specific question of the role of the stirrup in the rise of feudalism to the broader question of technological determinimism as a species of historical explanation. For an account of the controversy, see Kelly DeVries, Medieval Military Technology (Toronto, 1992), ‘The Stirrup, Mounted Shock Combat, Chivalry, and Feudalism’, pp. 95-122, which is usefully summarized by Paul J. Gans on The Medieval Technology Pages.

Credits: Howard Hotson (October 2018)