Stirrup Stir-Up

How an experimental take on stirrups—a.k.a. the things you put your feet in while riding on a horse—led to a longstanding debate among historians.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: Ever think about how most of the debates we have on social media seem to fade in and die out after a day or so? It turns out, this is not always the way it was, and some debates linger on years after the fact, in essays on blogs or in books whose opinions target other academics. One of those debates came about in the early 1960s, when a respected historian who had spent time at Princeton, Stanford, and UCLA released a book that took a novel approach to thinking about how new technology benefited people during an earlier time. And it lingered for a little bit, carrying a legacy in part because it was a respected work, and in part because the argument was so novel and unusual that others couldn’t help but poke holes in it. Today’s Tedium talks about a debate in history circles that could be best described as stirrup-gate. Yes, stirrup-gate. — Ernie @ Tedium

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Medieval Technology and Social Change

The spicy argument about stirrups that made other historians mad

A stirrup, for those of you who do not ride horses on a regular basis, is a ring used to keep a rider’s foot in place when riding on a horse. You probably have seen them thousands of times if you watch a lot of Westerns. We take them for granted today.

They were something of an interest of Lynn White, Jr., a noted historian of the Medieval era. First writing about the topic in a 1940 book, Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages, White argued for a much broader definition of technology than we generally accept today:

Broadly speaking, technology is the way people do things. (In a certain sense there is even a technology of prayer.) Yet it is startling to reflect that we have, as a rule, only the vaguest notion of how the men of the Middle Ages actually did things, and how, from time to time, they learned to do them better.

White was a technology enthusiast of sorts, having helped to found the Society for the History of Technology in 1958 and serving as one of the organization’s first presidents. SHOT is known for supporting the study of the ways that emerging technologies can change the landscapes around politics, economics, and labor. Then and now, it lives up to the truism that changes in the way we interact with the world shifts with each new innovation.

And in that sense, a stirrup was once an innovation. How pivotal that innovation was is a subject of debate, but White argued in his 1962 masterwork, Medieval Technology and Social Change, that the stirrup, for its time is just as pivotal as something like the iPhone might be considered now. At the beginning of the first chapter, White lays out the benefits of the stirrup versus what was available previously:

The history of the use of the horse in battle is divided into three periods: first, that of the charioteer; second, that of the mounted warrior who clings to his steed by pressure of the knees; and third, that of the rider equipped with stirrups. The horse has always given its master an advantage over the footman in battle, and each improvement in its military use has been related to far-reaching social and cultural changes.

Before the introduction of the stirrup, the seat of the rider was precarious. Bit and spur might help him to control his mount; the simple saddle might confirm his seat; nevertheless, he was still much restricted in his methods of fighting. He was primarily a rapidly mobile bowman and hurler of javelins. Swordplay was limited because ‘without stirrups, your slashing horseman, taking a good broadhanded swipe at his foe, had only to miss to find himself on the ground.’ As for the spear, before the invention of the stirrup it was wielded at the end of the arm and the blow was delivered with the strength of shoulder and biceps. The stirrup made possible—although it did not demand—a vastly more effective mode of attack: now the rider could lay his lance at rest, held between the upper arm and the body, and make at his foe, delivering the blow not with his muscles but with the combined weight of himself and his charging stallion.

The stirrup, by giving lateral support in addition to the front and back support offered by pommel and cantle, effectively welded horse and rider into a single fighting unit capable of a violence without precedent. The fighter’s hand no longer delivered the blow: it merely guided it. The stirrup thus replaced human energy with animal power, and immensely increased the warrior’s ability to damage his enemy. Immediately, without preparatory steps, it made possible mounted shock combat, a revolutionary new way of doing battle.

From that starting point, White takes his research in a direction that suggests the stirrup became such an important invention that it allowed for the rise of feudalism in Europe.

“The use of cavalry in the early Christian centuries demands much more careful investigation than it has received,” White wrote.

Basing his thesis on the prior work of German historian Heinrich Brunner, White argues that the stirrup, despite seeming like a relatively minor invention on the surface, allowed for new types of weaponry and styles of attack, which proved important for military leaders of the time, such as Charles Martel, the Frankish military leader who emphasized horses in combat. (Beyond the stirrup, he also suggested a new type of horse to Europe at the time, the heavy horse, allowed for different approaches to battle than had been used prior to that time.)

While noting some prior historical evidence that other parts of the world had stirrups first, White takes the stance that it was a European invention, and suggests that based on existing information, it was likely the stirrup was a new invention at the time of Martel, an invention that gave Martel’s forces a significant leg up in military combat, allowing for new types of weapons such as lances and horse-based sword fighting. Essentially, what we think of Medieval combat exists because of the stirrup, per White.

White’s book took other basic stances of this same effective approach—that specific inventions were at the center of sudden innovations in the historic field.

Despite turning 60 years old this year, the book remains in print and can be purchased from Amazon, though it’s also available on the Internet Archive as well.

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and they in turn shape us.”

— Marshall McLuhan, a prominent media theorist, in one of his more notable quotes. (An even better one that you might be familiar with: “The medium is the message.”) McLuhan’s views historically reflected some of the most prominent around the idea of technological determinism, the idea that technology shapes the world around us. McLuhan was one of the most prominent supportive voices of White’s work on stirrups, arguing in his 1970 book From Cliché to Archetype, cowritten with Wilfred Watson, that White effectively makes the case for small innovations to make wide-scale changes: “Such inventions as the horse collar led to the development of the modern world,” he wrote of White’s book. (It was the stirrup, but fine.)



Why historians didn’t like this argument, but philosophers like Marshall McLuhan did

Perhaps you’re familiar with time-travel movies like The Butterfly Effect, which imply that small changes to the shape of the universe can create much larger impacts over time. One can read an argument like White’s, and extend it to the idea that, because this one thing happened, suddenly the full landscape of history changed. (Certainly, that’s the case McLuhan made.)

This idea of technological determinism is not really related to time-travel movies. But it has that sort of charm to it, even if it’s seen as reductive of broader circumstances. It’s called technological determinism, and makes the case that technology moves at its own pace and comes to shape the culture as it moves forward, in some ways choosing the winners and the losers. This philosophy, believed to have been coined by Thorstein Veblen, actually started from more political roots as an example of why technology is inherently anti-democratic, and is seen in some of the thinking of Karl Marx, though he is not responsible for the term, which came after his time.

If you’re a historian, you might find White’s take on the stirrup to be absurd—just the idea that one small innovation effectively changed the course of history. (Maybe history doesn’t work like time-travel movies.) Certainly, that was the response that White got at the time of his book’s release.

Perhaps the harshest review came from P. H. Sawyer and R. H. Hilton, two historians who were down on the approach White used to make his determination about the stirrup:

Technological determinism in historical studies has often been combined with adventurous speculations particularly attractive to those who like to have complex developments explained by simple causes. The technical determinism of Professor Lynn White, Jr., however, is peculiar in that, instead of building new and provocative theories about general historical development on the basis of technical studies, he gives a misleadingly adventurist cast to old-fashioned platitudes by supporting them with a chain of obscure and dubious deductions from scanty evidence about the progress of technology. This is particularly marked in the first two of the three chapters of his book, Medieval Technology and Social Change.

In the early 1970s, around the time McLuhan, two works, titled “Europae Pater: Charlemagne and His Achievement in the Light of Recent Scholarship,” by D.A. Bullough, and “Charles Martel, Mounted Shock Combat, the Stirrup, and Feudalism,” by Bernard S. Bachrach, essentially tore the original work to shreds by pointing out that primary-source evidence didn’t actually support White’s conclusion.

Despite this, this debate continued in various forums for decades. As noted in the open-sourced history book The Ancient and Medieval World, this debate gained steam for decades after the book’s initial release—and despite the savage discrediting at the hands of prior historians and researchers, others still felt the need to weigh in more than 30 years later.

For example, John Sloan, a professor at Fordham University, argued in a discussion list in 1994 that White’s idea deserved a sympathetic reading, despite the fact that gaps in logic were clear:

Another overlooked aspect is training. One cannot simply had a person a horse’s bridle and expect him to become a horseman, even with stirrups. Even more, [an] untrained mass of horsemen do not become an effective cavalry. Clearly whatever change was consciously desired took years to implement.

Despite the controversy around his thinking, however, White’s work has found support from others who found White’s approach to history and technology refreshing, like McLuhan. While McLuhan has been dead for more than 40 years, the Canadian media theorist’s thinking on digital culture gained stock after his passing, in part because his ideas seemed to be baked into the concepts of the modern internet.

I forgot this movie existed, did you?

Which, if we’re going to follow this thread of technological determinism to its extreme, one could make the case that the stirrup created the circumstances for Marshall McLuhan to be inspired by Lynn White, which then led other digital thinkers to be inspired by Marshall McLuhan to create the modern internet. (Take that, Ashton Kutcher.)

OK, yes, that is absurd. But it does show the way that even controversial lines of thinking can inspire us, even if we think that they, logically, don’t really hold together after doing a little research.

Which is why, even if White’s line of thinking might be controversial or even discredited today, it’s ultimately an important enough line of thinking that it deserves to be in print all these years later, because it highlights an important, original perspective to how we approach history.

Beyond the ideas that Lynn White discussed, I’d like to consider the fact that we have so many arguments instantaneously these days. One thing happens, then another thing, then another thing, and the argument is forgotten after the next argument appears.

The stirrup controversy, even though it is arguably meaningless in the long run (unless White is right, in which case it is arguably the root of all post-Medieval history), was a debate that happened over a number of decades, one that involved a lot of people debating and thinking about it in over the span of years. Rather than reacting with the jerk of a knee, other historians and researchers went out there, took a second look at White’s spicy take, and tried to figure out how they could defeat it.

In a way, this is what White wanted. As he wrote in the introduction to this book, he intentionally used an unorthodox way of thinking to make his case:

If historians are to attempt to write the history of mankind, and not simply the history of mankind as it was viewed by the small and specialized segments of our race which have had the habit of scribbling, they must take a fresh view of the records, ask new questions of them, and use all the resources of archaeology, iconography, and etymology to find answers when no answers can be discovered in contemporary writings.

By taking such a controversial view, he spurred historians to challenge him by actually digging deeper, to prove him wrong. By taking such a stance, it forced others to be better in pushing forth a broader debate. That debate took years, because of the nature of the back and forth.

Social media, for all its benefits, doesn’t allow us to have debates at this speed. Certainly not about anything truly tedious, like stirrups.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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