The Great Stirrup Controversy

Jessica Hemming

Some Useful Concepts

“Historiography” is a broad term that refers to the writing down of history (which may be done by historians of the distant past as well as by modern scholars), to the study of such historical writings, or—more generally—to academic discussion and debate about historical matters of various kinds. In this last situation, the term “historiographical debate”is often used, especially where there is considerable disagreement amongst scholars on how particular historical data should be interpreted and understood.

“Determinism,” appearing by itself in the dictionary is typically defined as a position held within the discipline of philosophy. However, in the context of the academic study of history, it means something rather different, and usually has an adjective in front of it, such as “economic determinism.” It refers to a tendency to explain complex phenomena or largescale historical processes by means of one category of factors that determine certain types of change. To use the same example, “economic determinism” would explain historical patterns and events as having been driven primarily by economic forces. Thus, economic explanations would be considered more important than explanations based on religious change or intellectual developments and so on. In the discipline of history, “determinism” often carries a slightly negative connotation and has frequently been used as an accusation of over-reliance on one category of evidence. The criticism often implies an oversimplification of historical events and processes, even when the “determining” category of analysis is itself highly complex (like economics).

In this section, we will be looking at a famous twentieth-century historiographical debate that hinged on charges of technological determinism and continued to resurface for some thirty years. This debate, the so-called “Great Stirrup Controversy,” is an excellent example because it is relatively simple, focused, and easy to understand.

The Claim

In 1962 the distinguished American historian Lynn White, Jr (1907-87), published an important book entitled Medieval Technology and Social Change. His overall thesis was that certain key technological developments in the Middle Ages had provoked significant changes on a much larger scale than previously thought. One of his chapters focused on the adoption of the stirrup in Western Europe.[1] In it he argued that this technological innovation was a kind of trigger that led to the emergence of a set of social arrangements often referred to as feudalism.

“Feudalism” itself has been a contested concept for some decades now,[2] but in the 1960s it was still routinely used to describe a system of relationships between noblemen and their warrior subordinates (vassals). In the feudal arrangement, the lord (the higher-ranking person, starting at the top with the king) gave a land grant known as a fief (Latin feudum, hence “feudal”) to the vassal in return for military service and an oath of personal loyalty (homage). Thus, the arrangement involved formalized social bonds, a distinctive type of land tenure, and a means of organizing military manpower, all in the context of a society where centralized state authority and governmental structures were limited. It was also a laddered hierarchy, where except at the very top (the king) and very bottom (the humblest knights), each lord was simultaneously a vassal to someone above him and each vassal was a lord to someone below. Furthermore, in most cases, there was an expectation that the vassal would be able to equip himself as a mounted warrior—a cavalryman, or what we think of in general terms as a knight.

The origins of this strikingly distinctive kind of arrangement—that is, of “feudalism”—had been the subject of intense historical research for a long while by the time White’s book appeared. Many historians had presented theories accounting for how, when, and where feudal practices began because feudalism was regarded as one of the defining features of medieval European civilization. In other words, it was a very big research topic. There was a vague consensus, or at least a common view, that feudalism emerged in its earliest forms among the Franks, perhaps at some stage during the changeover from the Merovingian to Carolingian periods.[3] This put its origins generally in the regions of Western Europe that are now parts of France and Germany, in roughly the eighth century. Whether the primary motivating factors giving rise to this new social structure were political, social, or military was hotly debated. Those historians who leaned more toward military explanations were especially interested in looking for the roots of feudalism in the expansion and development of Frankish armies under the ruler Charles Martel (died 741 CE), from whom the “Carolingian” dynasty took its name.

White was among these historians and he believed he had found the answer. His bold contention was that in the 730s Charles Martel became aware of a new technological arrival that had not yet been appreciated by his contemporaries: the stirrup. Recognizing its revolutionary potential as a means of bracing a rider so that he could use a lance with much greater force, he realized that a newly effective type of mounted combat was suddenly possible. This led swiftly (White argued) to a shift among the Frankish forces from a preponderance of infantry to one of cavalry; to a development of the “Carolingian wing-spear” as the major weapon for these improved mounted fighters; and to a need to supply warriors with grants of suitable land on which to raise and maintain warhorses.  Thus, in White’s view, Charles Martel essentially invented feudalism because the stirrup made cavalry vastly more effective and important. Over the next two generations, the Carolingians then spread feudalism (and stirrups) over much of the rest of Europe. At the end of the chapter, White asserts his central, technology-based, claim: “Few inventions have been so simple as the stirrup, but few have had so catalytic an influence on history.” In the same concluding paragraph, we find an example of one of his characteristic rhetorical flourishes: “Man on Horseback, as we have known him during the past millennium, was made possible by the stirrup, which joined man and steed into a fighting organism. Antiquity imagined the Centaur; the early Middle Ages made him the master of Europe.”[4] This statement has been much quoted because of its vivid imagery, but fundamentally it is not true.

The Reaction

While there were certainly some positive responses to White’s essay, especially in praise of the boldness and originality of the argument, negative critiques also came quickly. The first was a strongly critical review article by Peter Sawyer, who accused White of “technical determinism,” among many other failings.[5] Despite this and some other published challenges to White’s thesis and methods, his main argument was not seriously undermined by means of contrary evidence until 1970 when two new key publications on the subject appeared, one by D.A. Bullough and another by Bernard S. Bachrach.[6] Between them, these two articles presented extensive primary-source evidence that largely demolished the support that White had put forward for his theory. Bachrach’s lengthy article, in particular, dismantled White’s points one by one and so meticulously that the debate basically went quiet.

Kelly DeVries’s chapter (see footnote 3) gives a detailed summary of Bachrach’s critique as part of his clear and useful survey of the history of the controversy. He notes that “Bullough’s and Bachrach’s criticisms were not later answered by Lynn White, nor has any other historian risen to White’s defense” (as of 1992).[7] Historians did continue to talk about various aspects of the role of the stirrup in changes in mounted warfare, but nobody resurrected White’s causal argument. Also, these later discussions were much calmer than the initial burst of vigorous claim and counter-claim, which had included some fairly emotive statements of position and accusations of flawed scholarship. It was this initial flair-up which had led to the popular designation of the argument as “the Great Stirrup Controversy.”

One well-known example of this more measured reaction from a major scholar was the discussion by Philippe Contamine in his influential book War in the Middle Ages (first published in French in 1980). In a section called “The Problem of the Stirrup,” 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 uneven. He accepts a greater role for cavalry in parts of Western Europe 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 seemboth to have been only patchily used. For instance, the Anglo-Saxons demonstrably knew of stirrups but did not use them when they faced the Normans at the Battle of Hastings. Furthermore, the Bayeux Tapestry (c.1080, which shows stirrups) and the Old French heroic epic called the Chanson de Roland, written down about the same time, both seem to indicate that Norman and French cavalry were still throwing overhand and stabbing with their lances rather than always couching them even by the late 11th century. Thus, he argues for a slow uptake of the stirrup and equally slow implementation of its full technical advantages.[8] By the middle of the 1990s, specialists were quite clear that there was no going back to the position that stirrups somehow “changed everything,” whether in strictly military or in broader social terms. Two especially good examples which contextualize the debate and lay it gently to rest include an article on warhorses by Matthew Bennett (1995) and one on Anglo-Saxon and Norman military technology by Matthew Strickland (1997). Bennett, a military historian, encapsulates the state of the topic succinctly on a single page, saying:

Another contribution to the myth of the overwhelming superiority of the knightly charge is due to the concentration by historians upon the importance of the stirrup. It used to be thought that the rise of the Carolingian empire was based upon(not just owed much to) the introduction of stirrup-equipped, lance-armed cavalry in the mid-eighth century…. Yet, from all pictorial evidence, the stirrup was not in use in the West until at least a century later. … Nor does the stirrup, in fact, make a crucial difference in the use of the lance. Recent work on the Roman saddle has pointed out that its four-horned construction gives a perfectly secure seat for wielding lance and shield.[9]

That last sentence refers to Ann Hyland’s landmark book on warhorses (which had been published while Bennett was working on his article) and to experimental work done by Roman military expert Peter Connolly who had spent some years painstakingly reconstructing Roman cavalry saddles based on archaeological finds. Connolly had published his first successful result in 1986 and Hyland—an expert horsewoman as well as a historian—had used one of his reconstructed saddles on her own horse to test how much stability it provided for a rider. Between them Connolly and Hyland conclusively demonstrated that stirrups are not necessary for high-impact mounted combat, including thrusting with a heavy lance.[10]

Strickland’s article two years later reinforced this conclusion, making it clear that a new consensus about stirrups had been reached: “Just as it is now recognized that the stirrup spread only gradually after its appearance in Western Europe, so I would argue that the ‘invention’ of the couched lance—itself an inherently implausible idea—is a chimera” (emphasis added).[11] He also alludes once more to the dangers of excessive determinism. In speaking of the longstanding emphasis on the massed cavalry charge, he says: “This is not to dismiss the charge with the couched lance, which was undoubtedly very effective, but rather to challenge its use as a deus ex machina of technical determinism to explain social or military change.”[12] In some ways, it is surprising that in 1997—twenty-seven years after the demolition of Lynn White’s argument—it was still necessary for a military historian to state this in a specialist publication. It seems that White’s ideas were hard to relinquish.

The Afterlife

One would think that this would be the end of the story. The fixation on stirrups did indeed settle down, at least among experts. However, despite the heated debate from 1962 to 1970, followed by the consolidation of a revised position based on new evidence in the 1990s—including conclusive practical demonstrations with reproduction equipment—sometimes scholars today still make statements about the adoption of stirrups in Carolingian Europe that reflect the influence of White’s original argument rather uncritically. Consider this passage from a brand-new edition of a well-respected undergraduate history textbook, speaking of how the ancient warband bonds between mounted warriors and their lords developed into the medieval system of relationships known as vassalage:

By the early eighth century, a technological advance—the use of the stirrup—gave renewed importance to these past methods of creating bonds between men. The stirrup made it possible for a soldier to fight with confidence on a horse … and it had two direct effects: first, a strategic reliance on cavalry instead of infantry, and second, a new class of full-time fighters. Before the stirrup, all freemen had been both peasants and warriors; after the stirrup, horse-borne soldiers needed so much equipment and training that fighting became a career. These professional soldiers (or knights) needed to be supported—fed and housed, of course, but also equipped with horses, weapons, and protective armor and trained in their use. Vassalage answered that need. Wealthy men in need of soldiers (lords) promised to support and protect the men under their command (vassals).[13]

This is very close indeed to Lynn White’s formulation of the stirrup as the technological determinant of the development of feudalism except that “vassalage” takes the place of the vexed term “feudalism.” It also returns to an insistence on the stirrup as a necessary item to secure a rider in the saddle.

What is a student of medieval history to make of this? Here there is an important distinction to make. The supposed requirement of stirrups to give a mounted warrior a firm seat has been disproved. The contention was disprovable because it was based on something that could be tested through practical means. The argument concerning the role of technical developments in the emergence of new socio-military structures, on the other hand, is more complex and subject to a range of interpretations of the historical and archaeological data. Such large, multifaceted questions are much more difficult to resolve. While most military historians with expertise in the history of horsemanship would probably now reject the focus on the stirrup as the transformative item, the question of the origins of “feudal” forms of social organization is still an active area of research for specialists in a range of different historical subdisciplines. To cite one recent example, Hyun Jin Kim argues that the roots of many early medieval European socio-political structures, as well as military practices, lie in Inner Asian traditions brought westwards by the repeated incursions of steppe peoples from the fifth century CE onwards.[14] Although compared to the older approaches this may sound like a wildly unusual proposition, it should be contextualized as part of a growing awareness among historians that the socio-cultural impact of nomadic groups from the Eurasian steppes upon sedentary states and peoples in both Asia and Europe has been much more extensive and profound than previously recognized.[15] This is another lesson about historiography: the study of history is dynamic and ever-changing. There is always more to learn, more to find out, more dots to join up. We will never know all that there is to know.

Questions for Consideration

  1. Has the Great Stirrup Controversy become irrelevant as a result of more recent research?
  2. Archaeological reconstructions of equipment, domestic objects, weapons, and settlements are increasingly used to test historical hypotheses (and assumptions) about how items of material culture may have functioned in real life. Can you find some other examples on the web (besides the Roman saddles discussed above)?
  3. Why do you think historians are still arguing about the origins of “feudalism” when so many of them no longer think the term has any validity?

  1. Lynn White, “Stirrup, Mounted Combat, Feudalism, and Chivalry,” in Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), 1-38. Read this beautifully written argument with caution, preferably in conjunction with the article by Alex Roland listed and annotated in the Sources section of this module: Alex Roland, “Once More into the Stirrups: Lynn White jr. Medieval Technology and Social Change,” Technology and Culture 44, no. 3 (July 2003), 574-85. It is easy to be convinced by White because his writing was so good.
  2. See “Feudalism? An Essay on the Problem,” plus some associated reviews and documents, at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook:
  3. See the module on The Early Carolingians for an explanation of these terms. For a brief, clear summary of the historiography of the quest for feudal origins leading up to White’s contribution in 1962, see Kelly DeVries, Medieval Military Technology (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 1992), especially the chapter entitled “The Stirrup, Mounted Shock Combat, Chivalry, and Feudalism,” 95-110.
  4. White, 38. A centaur is a mythological creature from Greek and Roman mythology, with the upper body of a human joined to the whole body of a horse where the horse’s neck would normally begin.
  5. R.H. Hilton and P.H. Sawyer, “Technical Determinism: The Stirrup and the Plough,” Past & Present 24 (1963), 90-100. Hilton wrote the section on the plough, Sawyer the section on the stirrup.
  6. D.A. Bullough, “Europae Pater: Charlemagne and His Achievement in the Light of Recent Scholarship,” English Historical Review 85, no. 334 (January 1970), 59-105; Bernard S. Bachrach, “Charles Martel, Mounted Shock Combat, the Stirrup, and Feudalism,” Studies in Medieval & Renaissance History 7 (1970), 47-75.
  7. DeVries, 110. This chapter is very good for sources dealing with the stirrup controversy up to 1992.
  8. Philippe Contamine, War in the Middle Ages, translated by Michael Jones (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984), 179-84.
  9. 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 Press, 1995), 19-40 (34).
  10. Peter Connolly, “A Reconstruction of a Roman Saddle,” Britannia 17 (1986), 353-55; Ann Hyland, The Medieval Warhorse: From Byzantium to the Crusades (Stroud: Sutton, 1994). Both are illustrated.
  11. 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 Press, 1997), 353-82 (361). By “chimera” he means, metaphorically, a mirage or phantom—something unreal that only seems to be there (the chimera was a fabulous monster of Greek mythology). In this article Strickland praises the work (at the time very new) of both Bennett and Hyland.
  12. Strickland, 366.
  13. Judith M. Bennett and Sandy Bardsley, Medieval Europe: A Short History, 12th edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 150-51. The authors explain some of the problems with the term “feudalism” in the immediately preceding paragraph.
  14. Hyun Jin Kim, The Huns, Rome, and the Birth of Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); see especially chapter six, “The Later Huns and the Birth of Europe,” where he explicitly discusses “feudalism” (he puts it in quotation marks too).
  15. See Pamela Kyle Crossley, Hammer and Anvil: Nomad Rulers at the Forge of the Modern World (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). This is a challenging and thought-provoking book.


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