The Technological Advantages of the Stirrup

Jessica Hemming

General: Mounting and Stability

As indicated in the introduction to this module, stirrups provide two basic advantages for a rider: a “step” to use for mounting a horse and a means of supporting the feet once mounted. For mounting, only one stirrup is needed: a rider faces the horse’s side, puts the foot that is closer to the horse’s head into the stirrup, and then pushes off the ground with the other foot to swing the free leg over the rear of the horse. Linguistic evidence suggests that in Europe, at least, this was initially regarded as the primary function of stirrups.[1] Once a rider is in the saddle, a single stirrup is useless: to serve even as footrests to prevent fatigue, let alone firm foot-bracing platforms for high-stress activities like roping cattle or fighting, stirrups must be in pairs. Stirrups spread into Europe initially in a military context (see “Origins and Spread”); so our particular focus in this section is on the use of this simple technology in combat.

For stirrups to function at all, there first needs to be a rigid saddle for them to be attached to. This may seem obvious, but it is important to keep in mind. Historically, many equestrian peoples have developed high levels of horsemanship with only the use of fabric pads to cushion both horse and rider where their bodies are in contact. Even once proper saddles with a solid “tree” (an internal wooden or other rigid framework) were invented, apparently among the Eurasian steppe cultures,[2] they were not used everywhere and the use of simple pads or cloths continued for many centuries—in some places well into the Middle Ages.[3] Even once the treed saddle has been adopted, stirrups do not necessarily follow automatically. As we have seen in the “Origins and Spread” section, although we cannot be certain when (or exactly where) paired metal stirrups were first invented, it does appear to have been considerably later than the saddle.

A saddle already provides significantly increased security of seat for a rider, even without stirrups. Furthermore, adaptations can be made to the raised parts at the front (the pommel) and rear (the cantle) to hold a rider firmly when performing manoeuvres that might otherwise be too risky. The most striking example of this is the Roman military saddle, which over time developed four leather “horns” stiffened with metal—two at the front and two at the back. Structurally, these were similar to the single horn of the modern Western (cowboy) saddle, but they were positioned to grip a cavalry rider’s thighs from the front and brace him at the back. Even without stirrups (which the Romans did not have), this would have provided a secure seat during quick stops and starts, side-to-side and circling movements of the horse, and lateral or twisting motions of the rider using a sword or spear.[4]

If this is the case, then what is the big deal about stirrups?

Mounted Shock Combat

“Mounted combat” can mean many things. “Cavalry” can mean even more. “Light” cavalry may mean lightly armoured warriors on fast, agile horses, often using projectile weapons such as arrows or javelins. They may be used to support infantry units, sometimes by harrying the enemy troops in quick forays, or by pursuing retreating foes at speed. “Heavy” cavalry usually refers to more heavily armoured warriors, using closer-combat weapons, perhaps on more powerful horses and often used in massed groups to charge at or encircle the enemy. These terms are relative and vary according to place and time. The historiography of cavalry warfare is enormous and will not be entered into here in any great detail.[5] It is abundantly clear that fighting from horseback (as opposed to just riding to the battlefield and then dismounting) long precedes stirrup-use and can involve a wide range of combat styles that were once believed to require stirrups.

Where stirrups seem to have made the greatest difference in European military practice is in the development of a technique that is generally known as “mounted shock combat.” Simply put, this refers to holding a lance (a long, heavy thrusting spear) tucked firmly under the arm in a horizontal position and then galloping forward so that the combined weight and momentum of horse and rider drive the weapon into an opponent. The “shock” is not only on the receiving end, but also in the impact transmitted to the lancer who would be unseated without the bracing effect of stirrups. Note that properly speaking this is a mounted knight against mounted knight tactic, rather than a cavalry against infantry one.[6]


William Marshall unseats an opponent, from Matthew Paris, Chronica maiora II, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 16ii, fol. 88r. (Digitized by Parker Library on the Web: Manuscripts in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge).
Figure 7.11 William Marshall unseats an opponent, from Matthew Paris, Chronica maiora II, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 16ii, fol. 88r. (Digitized by Parker Library on the Web: Manuscripts in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge).

Like most things, this distinctive type of mounted shock combat did not come into being all at once. Military historians continue to disagree about exactly which group first used the couched-lance technique in its fully developed form and it is important to observe that lances continued to be used in a range of different modes even after the couched position can be clearly recognized in artwork and literary descriptions.[7] Some argue that the Frankish forces of Charlemagne’s time (or even earlier, under Charles Martel in the early 8th century) were the innovators, but we have seen in the “Origin and Spread” section that the evidence for stirrup-use in Central or Western Europe is very limited until well into the 9th century. Ann Hyland regards the Battle of Lechfeld in 955, where the German emperor Otto the Great used eight divisions of heavy cavalry to defeat the Magyar horse-archers, as likely to be the first instance of Western Europeans employing true shock cavalry warfare.[8] Others credit the Normans in the later 10th or the 11th century with exploiting the combination of stirrups and couched lance for the first time. Even on the Bayeux Tapestry of the 1080s, however, not all the Norman knights have stirrups and those that do are deploying their lances as javelins (throwing them in an over-arm motion) or stabbing them diagonally downwards at infantry and fallen opponents, as well as using the horizontal couched position.[9] Because of this, some historians believe that the full shock combat style did not crystalize until the First Crusade (1096-1144), by which time it is difficult to pin the invention on the Normans versus the other (non-Norman) French or indeed the Germans. It is also sometimes argued that stirrups-plus-couched-lance were still not enough and that double-girthing (having two large straps securing the saddle tightly to the horse instead of only one) was also necessary for fully-fledged mounted shock combat—and such girthing seems to have been a 12th-century development.[10] There are other technical challenges too, particularly the strain on a knight’s arm caused by holding a lance horizontally and, of course, coping with the force of the impact. This led to various forms of support (fewters or lance-rests) to help steady the lance or to halt its “kickback” motion; these could be fastened to the saddle or to the knight’s breastplate.

In any case, once it finally all came together, certainly no later than the First Crusade, the mounted shock combat package was distinctive and terrifying enough to provoke commentary from both the Byzantines and the Muslims of the Middle East. In her history of her father’s reign, The Alexiad (written in the late 1140s), Anna Comnena, daughter of the Byzantine emperor Alexios I, described the Western knights’ special military skills and equipment. Note that, like Muslim observers, she calls all Western Europeans “Franks,” although the leader of the particular contingent described here was in fact a Norman lord from southern Italy, Bohemond of Taranto:

He [the Emperor] furnished them abundantly with arrows and exhorted them not to use them sparingly, but to shoot at the horses rather than at the Franks. For he knew that the Franks were difficult to wound, or rather, practically invulnerable, thanks to their breastplates and coats of mail. Therefore, he considered shooting at them useless and quite senseless. For the Frankish weapon of defence is this coat of mail, ring plaited into ring, and the iron fabric is such excellent iron that it repels arrows and keeps the wearer’s skin unhurt. An additional weapon of defence is a shield which is not round, but a long shield, very broad at the top and running out to a point, hollowed out slightly inside, but externally smooth and gleaming with a brilliant boss of molten brass. Consequently, any arrow, be it Scythian or Persian, or even discharged by the arms of a giant, would glint off such a shield and hark back to the sender. For this reason, as he was cognizant both of Frankish armour and our archery, the Emperor advised our men to attack the horses chiefly and ‘wing’ them with their arrows so that when the Franks had dismounted, they could easily be captured. For a Frank on horseback is invincible, and would even make a hole in the walls of Babylon, but directly he gets off his horse, anyone who likes can make sport of him.(emphasis added)[11]

Clearly, the Western knights packed a powerful punch. Their skills with the lance were striking.[12] However, it is important to pay attention to the logical sequence of equestrian technologies here (not to mention various difficulties to do with limited evidence for ascertaining precise dates and with interpreting artistic evidence). The adoption of stirrups perhaps led to the ability to wield a particular kind of lance in a new way that gave it formidable impact, literally. This has often been seen as a revolutionary change in medieval warfare. Yet, as we have seen, the first step—the adoption of stirrups—took something on the order of 200 years to become widespread among the earlier Europeans to take it up: the Franks, various Central European German groups, Scandinavians, Normans. Note also that Eastern Europe had fresh influxes of stirrup-using steppe populations in the regions that became Bulgaria (7th century) and Hungary (10th century), yet claims for the invention of mounted shock combat do not typically look there (because mounted warfare in steppe cultures normally involved high-speed skirmishing on light horses, using mostly archers); clearly stirrups do not necessarily lead to couched lances. Stirrups then continued to spread more widely from the 10th century, but do not seem to be routine items of Western European cavalry equipment until the 11th. During this extended period of time, assorted adjustments and innovations in the use of spears of various kinds were also going on. Saddles were changing too. Yet is not until, roughly, the turn of the 11th century to the 12th that we can be sure that the whole technological package had come together enough to represent something impressively advanced. The point is that all these improvements happened gradually, and at different speeds in different places. This has been recognized and argued since at least the mid 1990s, but even so sometimes new, fairly general publications still present a picture of a sudden and transformative technological change from the moment when Western Europeans began using stirrups. This is in fact profoundly misleading and hearkens back to a well-known historiographical debate known as “the Great Stirrup Controversy.”

Questions for Consideration

  1. For what other types of medieval technology might it be useful to conduct practical experiments using reconstructions?
  2. Can you think of other technological “break-throughs” that took a long time to have a widespread impact?

  1. See Origins for information about early French and English (and other Germanic) words for stirrups (variations on “climbing strap”). See the introduction to our primary text, The Stratēgikon, for comments about the Byzantine Greek term, skala (“step, staircase, ladder”).
  2. The earliest known “treed” saddles were discovered in burial chambers at Pazyryk in southern Siberia, dated to the 5th century BCE: Sergei I. Rudenko, Frozen Tombs of Siberia: The Pazyryk Burials of Iron Age Horsemen, translated by M.W. Thompson (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970).
  3. For example, there is no firm evidence that the Welsh used saddles before the Vikings arrived in the 9th century. See Mark Redknap, “Ring Rattle on Swift Steeds: Equestrian Equipment from Early Medieval Wales,” in Early Medieval Art and Archaeology in the Northern World: Studies in Honour of James Graham-Campbell, edited by Andrew Reynolds and Leslie E. Webster (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 177-210 (p. 202). The Irish may have continued to use pads rather than structured saddles for considerably longer.
  4. Experimental reconstructions were made by Peter Connolly and then thoroughly tested by Ann Hyland on her own horses. Connolly, “Reconstruction of a Roman Saddle,” Britannia 17 (1986), 353-55 (drawings, p. 354). Hyland, The Medieval Warhorse: From Byzantium to the Crusades (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1994), 5-6 (with photographs). There is some interesting discussion of Connolly’s prototypes, with abundant photographs, available on the Comitatus Roman re-enactment society website:
  5. An excellent starting point for further reading, despite its publication date, is still Philippe Contamine, War in the Middle Ages, translated by Michael Jones (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984).
  6. Matthew Bennett, “The Medieval Warhorse Reconsidered,” in Medieval Knighthood V: Papers from the Sixth Strawberry Hill Conference 1994, edited by Stephen Church and Ruth Harvey (Cambridge: Boydell, 1995), 19-40 (esp. p. 34).
  7. A thorough discussion, with pictures, is Matthew Strickland, “Military Technology and Conquest: The Anomaly of Anglo-Saxon England,” in Anglo-Norman Studies XIX: Proceedings of the Battle Conference 1996, edited by Christopher Harper-Brill (Cambridge: Boydell, 1997), 353-82.
  8. Hyland, The Medieval Warhorse, 51.
  9. The Bayeux Tapestry’s embroidered panels can be viewed easily on Wikipedia, especially under “Bayeux Tapestry tituli” (captions):
  10. Bennett, “The Medieval Warhorse Reconsidered,” 34. Also, Rob Webley at the University of Exeter “Warhorse” project (pers. comm., Oct. 2020); see
  11. Anna Comnena, Alexiad, book 13, section 8, at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook:
  12. Just as with stirrups, one must be careful of placing too much emphasis on the couched lance as a transformative factor. See Strickland, 361-66. Pamela Kyle Crossley’s view on stirrups—that they allow more warriors to be turned into cavalry because they are an aid for less accomplished (but still good) riders might apply in connection with using the couched lance too. That is: maybe more knights (and not just the very best ones) could manage the lance if they had stirrups (see Origins and Spread in this module).


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