Section Author: Jessica Hemming, Corpus Christi College


Learning Objectives

  • Trace the invention and spread of the stirrup, recognizing the difficulties arising from a lack of written evidence.
  • Explain the technical advantages offered by the stirrup.
  • Summarize the arguments of the so-called Great Stirrup Controversy.

Sometimes the simplest technological innovations can have a profound social and historical impact. The most famous example is perhaps the invention of the wheel in late prehistory. The metal stirrup was less world-changing than the wheel, but nevertheless represented a breakthrough in riding technology that led to widespread improvements in the effective use of the horse in combat. This in turn gave rise to several knock-on effects that will be examined in this module. Invented in East Asia no later than 300 CE and perhaps much earlier, the iron stirrup reached Europe by the middle of the sixth century, and by the end of that century it had been adopted by the Byzantine imperial army. Its spread north of the Alps is harder to trace with any precision, but it was likely adopted by the Franks from the neighbouring Avars some time during the earlier part of the Carolingian period (in the late 8th into early 9th centuries). It may also have reached Scandinavia at around the same time, although the route it took is not entirely clear. In both cases adoption of the stirrup seems to have been slow and patchy.

Why was it so important? Although it is perfectly feasible to achieve very high standards of horsemanship without stirrups, this humble item of tack makes certain manoeuvres easier or at least more effective—particularly with regard to the military use of the horse. Rigid stirrups provide solid platforms that support and brace a rider’s feet, giving a more secure seat in the saddle and allowing the rider to stand up, if necessary, to deliver a forceful downward blow. Similarly, they add extra stability to that already provided by a saddle with a high pommel and cantle (the raised parts at the front and back, respectively), thus allowing a rider to withstand greater frontal impacts generated by using a couched lance. They also make mounting much easier and can help relieve leg-fatigue; these issues are not specific to military situations and explain why once stirrups were in wide use among European cavalries, they were then used for the everyday riding purposes of any members of society who could afford to keep a saddle horse.

Perhaps surprisingly, the process of the acquisition and military deployment of stirrups in the early Middle Ages provoked a 20th-century scholarly debate of sufficient prominence to have a nickname of its own: The Great Stirrup Controversy.

A serious impediment to the study of the invention and spread of the stirrup is the extremely limited number of written sources referring to this object. The Byzantine military strategy handbook called the Stratēgikon, written or commissioned by Emperor Maurice c.600, includes the only clear written reference from the approximate time when stirrups began to be used in Europe. Archaeology in this case must be used to supplement the historical record, but this only provides a partial picture because early finds of stirrups tend to be in graves and not all peoples buried their dead with grave goods. Artistic representations in illuminated manuscripts of horses with stirrups also provide evidence, although this is fairly limited before the 11th century. One famous three-dimensional artwork is the monumental cliffside sculpture in Bulgaria known as the Madara Rider, thought to represent the early Bulgarian king Tervel (reigned 701-18).[1] Unfortunately, erosion has damaged the clarity of this sculpture’s outlines and the stirrup is no longer as visible as it must once have been.


The Madara Rider, very early 8th Century Bulgaria
Figure 7.1 The Madara Rider, probably very early 8th century, Bulgaria (UNESCO World Heritage Site). More information about this monument is available on the UNESCO site.

  1. Uwe Fielder, “Bulgars in the Lower Danube Region,” in The Other Europe in the Middle Ages: Avars, Bulgars, Khazars, and Cumans, edited by Florin Curta with the assistance of Roman Kovalev (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 151-236 (esp. 202).


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The Ancient and Medieval World Copyright © by Adrianna Bakos; Barrie Brill; Niall Christie; Jessica Hemming; Aleksandar Jovanović; and Tracey J. Kinney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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