Sources & Suggestions for Further Research

Jessica Hemming

Further Reading

*Note that this section demonstrates best practices for the creation of an annotated bibliography

Bennett, Matthew. “The Medieval Warhorse Reconsidered.” In Medieval Knighthood V: Papers from the Sixth Strawberry Hill Conference 1994, edited by Stephen Church and Ruth Harvey, 19-40. Cambridge: Boydell Press, 1995.

This is a very clear article, with many illustrations, which builds on and updates work done by R.H.C. Davies (see below) on medieval warhorses. Bennett discusses weapons and tack, but focuses especially on the horses themselves and what can be done with a horse in combat. He provides a succinct assessment of stirrups, saddles, and couched lances.

Contamine, Philippe. War in the Middle Ages. Translated by Michael Jones. Oxford: Blackwell, 1984. First published in French in 1980.

In a section called “The Problem of the Stirrup” (pp. 179-84), Contamine responds cautiously to Lynn White and others, stressing that any argument about sudden changes in quantity or style of early medieval cavalry is probably wrong because these processes would have been slow and patchy. He accepts a greater role for cavalry by Charlemagne’s time (late 8th century CE), but cautions that even by the mid to late 11th century the stirrup and the powerful couched lance position that it makes possible seem both to have been only patchily used: e.g. the Anglo-Saxons knew of stirrups but did not use them when they faced the stirruped Normans at the Battle of Hastings. Furthermore, the Bayeux Tapestry (c.1080, which shows stirrups) and the Chanson de Roland both indicate that Norman and Frankish/French cavalry were still throwing and stabbing with their lances rather than always couching them in the late 11th century. Thus his key argument is about a slow uptake of the stirrup and slow implementation of its full technical advantage.

Curta, Florin. “The Earliest Avar-Age Stirrups, or the ‘Stirrup Controversy’ Revisited.” In The Other Europe in the Middle Ages: Avars, Bulgars, Khazars, and Cumans, edited by Florin Curta with the assistance of Roman Kovalev, 297-326. East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450, vol. 2. Leiden: Brill, 2008.

This volume as a whole focuses on the often undervalued contributions of four groups of steppe peoples to the history of the Eastern European region. Curta’s article offers extensive archaeological evidence (with several illustrations) for the presence of Avar-style metal stirrups in Central Europe in the first half of the 7th century, thus providing substantial new material culture data to contribute to the controversy. His stated main purpose is to correct the chronology of European stirrups, but he remains cautious about exactly what effect the stirrup had on either Avar or Frankish military practices. This article is an excellent example of how to incorporate archaeological data into a historical analysis. It also benefits from wide reading in Eastern European and Russian scholarship.

Davis, R.H.C. The Medieval Warhorse: Origin, Development and Redevelopment. London: Thames & Hudson, 1989.

This was a groundbreaking book at the time and remains extremely informative despite being outdated in some respects. Davis was one of the first historians of medieval chivalry to actually take a serious look at the horses themselves, as opposed to the knights, the battle tactics, feudal relationships, and other social and military matters. His study was then supplemented by the practical experiments done by Ann Hyland (see below). The most important correction to his study has to do with the notion of extremely large, heavy horses being used at the height of the Middle Ages. It is generally agreed now that the size of the medieval warhorse was more moderate. The University of Exeter project on medieval English warhorses, which began in 2020, provides an excellent current follow up:

DeVries, Kelly. Medieval Military Technology. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 1992.

In a chapter called “The Stirrup, Mounted Shock Combat, Chivalry, and Feudalism” (pp. 95-110), DeVries spells out the stirrup controversy with great clarity, focusing particularly on the argument over whether stirrups contributed ultimately to the rise of feudalism by causing a dramatic shift in use, numbers, or style of cavalry. He gives a nicely clear summary and explanation of Heinrich Brunner (1874) then Lynn White, Jr. (his famous book of 1962), and then the critiques by P. H. Sawyer (1963, which DeVries finds excessively harsh and emotional), J. D. A. Ogilvy (1966, which DeVries describes as ill-informed and says “probably should not have been published,” p. 104), D. A. Bullough (1970, which seriously undermined White’s thesis), and Bernard S. Bachrach (1970, which delivered another serious blow). He ends inconclusively, noting that nobody (by the time of writing, in 1992) had rebutted Bullough or Bachrach, nor resurrected White’s thesis. He presents no opinion of his own on any aspect of the matter.

Dien, Albert E. “The Stirrup and its Effect on Chinese Military History.” Ars Orientalis 16 (1986): 35-56. Reprinted as Chapter 9 in Warfare in China to 1600, edited by Peter Lorge, 185-208. London: Routledge, 2005.

This is a classic article with much careful assessment of dates, many references, and many pictures. Dien does not criticize Lynn White’s thesis at all, although he opens with it. He confirms the dates of two early Jin period ceramic figurines of saddled horses with stirrups (302 and 322 CE), thus proving that some kind of stirrup was known in China long before the commonly-cited date of c.500 CE. Dien raises interesting questions about the various reasons why the stirrup would be invented by equestrian nomadic steppe warriors, or by mountain peoples, or by sedentary cultures that did not have such spectacular equestrian skills (like the Chinese—who might need more help with riding than expert steppe riders would). He also raises the possibility that a single, so-called mounting stirrup on only the left side of the saddle might assist in bracing a right-handed mounted archer. Consultation with professional riders suggests that this is unlikely.

Goodrich, Chauncey S. “Riding Astride and the Saddle in Ancient China.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 44, no. 2 (1984): 279-306. Reprinted (in facsimile with original pagination) as Chapter 8 in Warfare in China to 1600, edited by Peter Lorge, 146-84. London: Routledge, 2005.

In note 69 Goodrich says that his attention has been recently drawn to an Eastern Han period bronze plaque unearthed in China in 1979 that shows a saddle with stirrups. The reference is to an article of 1983 in Chinese, but Goodrich says that the plaque’s date would be 1st or 2nd century CE. The Chinese author (Feng Chou) ascribes the invention of stirrups to “steppe-nomads, in particular the Hsiung-nu” (original p. 303/reprint p. 169)—that is, not to the Chinese themselves. The Hsiung-nu (Xiongnu) were a confederation of eastern steppe peoples who had an empire in the region of modern Mongolia from the 3rd century BCE to c.200 CE. Scholars continue to argue over whether they are to be identified with the later Huns.

Gorelik, Michael. “Arms and Armour in South-Eastern Europe in the Second Half of the First Millennium AD.” In A Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour, edited by David Nicolle, 127-47. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2002.

Gorelik states (p. 130) that stirrups were invented in northern China, then introduced to Europe by the Avars. This is a fairly standard position, but ignores the scholarly debates over exactly who invented the stirrup. There are several pages of detailed drawings by Gorelik himself in the plates section at the back of the book. Plate XI-9 shows many stirrups, identified by date and location in the accompanying caption.

Haldon, John. “Some Aspects of Early Byzantine Arms and Armour.” In A Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour, edited by David Nicolle, 65-79. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2002.

Haldon states that the stirrup was introduced to Europe by the Avars “who ultimately brought it from the eastern steppes and China” (p. 66). This is a very measured way of describing the place of origin of the full stirrup, as it is currently impossible to be more precise. Haldon also finds the multiple references to the Avars in the Stratēgikon to be indicative of especially strong Avar influence on Byzantine cavalry practices in the late 6th century.

Hyland, Ann. The Medieval Warhorse: From Byzantium to the Crusades. Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1994.

Hyland’s books on the history of the military use of horses revolutionized the understanding of many aspects of ancient and medieval equestrianism. Her distinctive contribution rests on the fact that, unlike nearly all scholars who studied the topic before her, she is a professional rider and horse-trainer with practical knowledge of horses’ capabilities. As part of her study of pre-modern horsemanship, she has experimented extensively with reproduction ancient and medieval equipment (saddles, bridles, and so on) on her own horses. Her experiments with “horned” Roman saddles proved that a cavalry rider can use a thrusting spear effectively without stirrups if the saddle is sufficiently supportive (pp. 4-6). Those interested in the subject will enjoy Hyland’s Equus: The Horse in the Roman World (1990) and The Warhorse, 1250-1600 (1998).

Nickel, Helmut. “The Mutual Influence of Europe and Asia in the Field of Arms and Armour.” In A Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour, edited by David Nicolle, 107-25. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2002.

Stirrups appear only on p. 108 (plus an image in the plates section at the back of the book), but Nickel gives abundant references. He notes that it is commonly asserted that the stirrup was invented by the Chinese c.500. He argues that “Scythians of the Ukrainian steppes as early as c.400 BC” might have had stirrups of some kind, based on what seems to be a representation of hook-like stirrups on a carved golden torque (neck ring) of this date from a Crimean kurgan (burial mound). There is a drawing of this object (plate X-5).

Pohl, Walter. The Avars: A Steppe Empire in Central Europe, 567-822. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018.

This important book is a monumental study of the Avars (thoroughly updated and translated from the German first edition of 1988), a steppe people of great significance to the history of medieval Central and South-Eastern Europe. Among other things, the Avars introduced stirrups to Europe.

Roland, Alex. “Once More into the Stirrups: Lynn White jr. Medieval Technology and Social Change.” Technology and Culture 44, no. 3 (July 2003): 574-85.

This is a review and reassessment of Lynn White’s influential but controversial 1962 book and the critical reaction to it. It is very level-headed and more recent than DeVries (although Roland praises DeVries’s summary for its clarity and usefulness). Roland also praises Contamine’s cautious comments in War in the Middle Ages (1980, 1984). His assessment is that White’s classic is still worth reading, but that students should be given contextual cautions. He also makes the interesting comments that White’s article was a modified public lecture (an oral form which lends itself to hyperbole and rhetorical flourishes) and that White was too skillful a writer for his own good, in some ways.

Sloan, John. “The Stirrup Controversy.” Posted on discussion list, 5 October 1994. Accessible at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, edited by Paul Halsall,1996.

This is not an article, but an informal contribution to an academic discussion list and it does have quite a few typographical errors (“typos”). It nevertheless provides a useful review of the state of the stirrup controversy by the mid-1990s. Unlike DeVries, Sloan takes a stand on the debate. Focusing primarily on the technical military aspects, he criticizes a number of White’s points and gives a helpful annotated list of references to relevant publications by a range of military historians. This is a reliable piece of writing by a scholar, but in general it is wise to be wary of social media sources unless you can be of sure of the qualifications of the authors. The stirrup controversy has a large online presence, not all of it worth reading.

White, Lynn, Jr. Medieval Technology and Social Change. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

This is the book that started the Great Stirrup Controversy, even though it builds on the earlier work of Heinrich Brunner (1874). Note that White’s stirrup theory does not take up the whole book, the overarching thesis of which is that certain key technological innovations in the Middle Ages triggered major social changes. His famously provocative argument about the stirrup connects its adoption by the Franks (specifically Charles Martel in the early 730s CE) to the development of feudalism, thus attributing a notoriously complex and variable social system to the sequence of changes set in motion by the acquisition of a simple technology at a precise point in time. Ideally, students should read this highly stimulating book in conjunction with DeVries’ chapter on stirrups in Medieval Military Technology (1992), as many of White’s specific points have been comprehensively demolished and his overall argument is vulnerable to accusations of determinism.


Primary Sources:

Dennis, George T., trans. Maurice’s Stratēgikon: Handbook of Byzantine Military Strategy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984. 

Panel from the Bayeux Tapestry, c.1080. “File: Odo bayuex tapestry.png.” Wikimedia Commons, 3 April 2018. Public domain.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The Ancient and Medieval World Copyright © by Jessica Hemming is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book