How The Stirrup Changed Our World
By Dan Derby
24 September 2001
A stirrup is such a small thing -- a bit of metal and leather weighing in around 600 grams -- but some scholars think it changed the world, or at least some important pieces of the world. Typically a ring with a horizontal bar to receive the foot, it is attached by a strap to a saddle. Certainly it is handy for the vertically challenged. Don't laugh; Cambyses, the king of Persia, stabbed himself to death around 500 BC while leaping onto his horse fully armed without stirrups. But this is not a story about safety, it is a story about competitive advantage.
Tarth the Boaster
The horse was domesticated around 6000 BC in southern Russia. It was a food animal long before it was a pack animal. It evolved in the Americas 20 million years ago but with the coming of humans was eaten into extinction by 5000 BC. Only its fortuitous prior expansion into Asia saved it from total extinction. Around 4000 BC our ancestors were raising and eating smallish horses out on the grasslands of the Eurasian steppes. One can imagine some young buck, we'll call him Tarth the Boaster, deciding to show off by riding one. You know how it worked; his long haired friends dared him while the girls giggled. So off he went, hanging on for dear life, the first ever to ride this semi-wild food beast.
Eventually, being young and athletic, Tarth becomes an accomplished, although not very controlled, bareback rider. Soon, one of his friends invents a horse steering wheel: the bridle. This happened, according to Dr. David Anthony, Director of the Institute of Ancient Equestrian Studies at Hartwick College, somewhere in Kazakhstan. Then, with these new skills and tools, young Tarth could sneak out to the next village late at night. Why he might want to do this is lost in history, but he and his friends could then cover distances in hours that had taken days before. And because of this, Tarth unknowingly created a major new weapon: the high speed retreat.
Retreat as a weapon
A person can run long distances at, tops, fifteen miles per hour. On horseback a man can retreat at upwards of 45 mph, triple his speed on foot. Equally important, he can do it with a payload like a spear. Not only could our boy from the steppes outrun most of his jealous rivals, he and his friends could outrun the neighborhood bad guys. That turned out to be really important. According to Dr. Anthony, the most dangerous part of primitive warfare was getting away. Tarth, one can imagine, would usually sneak in and attack, winning a temporary victory. However, once things started to heat up, he would best be on his way. Enter Tarth's horse. With hit and run tactics, the run part is the most important and a horse can run. With this rapid means of escape it's possible to reduce retaliation significantly.
With practice and the application of youthful athletic skills, Tarth's gang developed the ability to use arms while hanging on to their running beasts. This begat mounted soldiers, and they would reign over the steppes for the next several thousand years. Tarth, one can imagine, became a hero and his long hair became fashionable. What Tarth did not know was that the potential for this weapon was far, far greater. But it took the stirrup to make that happen, and the stirrup took another three thousand years to invent and adopt.
In the case of these horsemen, the horse-enabled fast attack and retreat was a critical competitive advantage, allowing a village to prosper at the expense of its neighbors. The adoption of new technology often spells the difference between extermination and domination. Such was the case with the horse. Expensive to maintain, it none the less was a "must have" in its society. Over the next centuries, the horse would give speed and mobility to the people of the steppes. It is conjectured that only the horse's ability to cover distances allowed civilizations to exist at all in the huge expanses of grass lands of the steppes. Archaeological remains show that tribes with horses became larger, with greater wealth and larger households. Horses enabled them to exploit the resources of the steppes, trade with distant lands, and bring sudden, ferocious warfare on their less mobile neighbors. Tarth's family prospered. Of course, eventually everybody got horses. It was another step in an arms race as old as humanity.
Skill and the arms race
Only an extraordinarily skilled horseman could ride while shooting, throwing, or striking effectively at the same time. Skill takes lots of practice which, in turn, is costly. Keeping hordes of horse warriors required a large support population. Alternatively, the horse soldiers needed to withdraw resources from someone else's bank. Both strategies would be employed enthusiastically for the next few thousand years.
There were ways around the cost problem. Animal carts had been around down in Sumaria since 3500 BC, but around 1600 BC a Hurrian in Syria hitched a cart to a couple of horses, and the chariot was born. This may have predated mounted warriors. Even though a village elder could ride in a chariot, it wasn't used much on the steppes. Perhaps this was because of the culture's long tradition of horse-mounted skills. The Egyptians, on the other hand, were overrun by a mysterious people called the "Hyksos" who used battle chariots and cavalry. The Egyptians eventually adopted horse and chariot warfare and kicked the Hyksos out; the invaders were never to be heard from again. The Egyptians would be credited with creating the first disciplined cavalry units, which were later perfected by the Persians around 600 BC.
The chariot had almost the speed of the horse, plus it had the carrying capacity of a cart. It was, in many ways, a study in efficiency. While cumbersome compared to a man on a horse, it could carry two. This allowed separation of driver and shooter (or chopper) skills. This division of labor made for easier and cheaper training, an efficiency gain.
A cost/benefit breakthrough
Many major innovations are efficiency breakthroughs. Business refers to this as the cost/benefit balance. While the chariot was more efficient, the mounted horseman was more mobile and flexible. Around 1000 BC, someone came up with a really elegant breakthrough that tipped the scales to mounted horsemen for the next two thousand years.
The Synthians in the Altay Mountains on the Chinese border added a bit of extra leather to their horses' saddles to ease mounting. It was probably only a single loop on one side of the horse. You can still buy mounting stirrups for those of us not quite as athletic as young Tarth. Don't laugh, remember Cambyses, the king of Persia? But soon another someone created a saddle with two. Early on, these were simple loops of leather for hanging on with one toe. Not a great cold weather solution, but the advantage was clear. The Sarmatians, next door to the Synthians, also began using this trick. Something this cheap and good spreads fast.
Now here's a true cost/benefit efficiency. Stirrups cost next to nothing, yet make a huge difference. The stirrups are solidly attached to the horse, thus eliminating the muscle strain of holding on with your legs. The stirrup stabilizes the rider, allowing him to couple (and decouple) with the horse at will. This, in turn, allows for dramatically better control. It gives the rider a much firmer base to push against when swinging a sword or axe, significantly increasing the power behind the weapon. The stirrup also allows a significantly less skilled rider to stay in the saddle while taking advantage of the horse's speed and agility. It turns a rider's legs and trunk into shock absorbers that steady him for more accurate distance weapons such as spears and bows. If you'd like a demonstration, try throwing a spear while sitting on a stool. All this for the price of a couple pieces of leather and metal.
Historically a man who could ride and shoot bareback had to be a wonderful athlete. With the stirrup, this was no longer true, and the less-than-athletic were its first users. The stirrup is so effective that some modern riding instructors insist on bareback riding so that their students develop a "feel" for the horse and their own balance.
China takes a beating
Mounted archery began early in the third century. With the adoption of the stirrup, by 317 AD all of China north of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) had been overrun by Xianbei nomadic peoples from the steppes. (Probably decedents of our Tarth.) They were skilled at light and heavy cavalry and became the ruling elite of this part of China. They used stirrups. The Chinese could mobilize untold numbers of foot-solders but these typically had little affect on battle outcomes. The horse soldiers ruled.
Like the Egyptians, the Chinese were no fools. By 415 AD the use of two riding stirrups was popular throughout China. And with them, heavy armor, horse bardings (armor) and mounted archery came into use. The stirrup spread quickly through Asia, all the way to Korea and into Japan. It evolved from large toe loops on the side of a saddle to the flat, oval bronze or iron designs recognizable today. The face of warfare had changed forever.
The Chinese, by the way, never did overcome these horse soldiers. Instead, they infiltrated into the Xianbei ranks by joining them to the point that eventually they were running the show. But it was the horse soldiers from the North, such as Genghis Khan, who spread out to the rest of the world. Gu Zhun, a modern Chinese historian, suggests that "stirrups . . . immediately made hand-to-hand combat possible, and this was a revolutionary new mode of combat. . .very seldom had there been an invention as simple as the stirrup, but very seldom did it play the kind of catalytic role in history that this did."
Europe gets the stirrup
By 600 AD, the Avars had been pushed west from the steppes by the Turks, introducing the stirrup to Europe. They were one of many hordes encroaching into the remains of the collapsed Roman Empire. These horse soldiers, including Attila the Hun, were the cultural sons and daughters of Tarth. So strong were their horse warrior traditions and skills that some even eschewed the use of their own invention, the stirrup. As usual, they excelled at hit and run tactics, although they often did it en masse, overwhelming opponents. The European armies, primarily foot soldiers, had difficulty combating these fast-moving forces. Probably only the disciplined Roman phalanxes would have stood a chance had they still been around. Even they could not match the mobility of these mounted warriors.
By 700 AD European nobility began to combat these and the Nordic encroachments by developing a new kind of social structure, the feudal system. Faced with experts in mounted warfare, they adapted. Combining the best ideas of the enemy with their own, they integrated mounted warriors, stirrups, saddles with high pommels and cantles, and lances into a new fighting system that was co-dependent on the economic structure of the society. The result was not just a warrior. It was a fundamental escalation in warfare. Rather than adapting a society to a particular weapon, as the mounted warrior had done, they simultaneously evolved a way of life and a weapons system.
A shocking experience
Imagine Tarth's great, great, great, (you get the point) grandson sitting astride a tough little steppe pony on the edge of some French meadow. He carries a recurved bow or a spear, and is probably wearing leather armor. If he carries a spear, it would be roughly six feet long and he would hold it in the middle, at the balance point. This gives him a striking range of eight feet, which is well outside the axe range of these European "freemen." He wears his hair long. We'll call him Barth the Evader.
Barth and his friends snort with excitement and bravado as they look at the unsuspecting French just outside a fortified town. They have done this before, a quick rush, surprise and speed overwhelming slow-footed soldiers, then rape, pillage and back to their camp. It has worked countless times.
Taking a deep breath, Barth charges with a piercing yell and swift kick in his pony's side. Clearing the woods, he sees woodsmen and armed guards alike running for their lives. He looks into gloom of the keep's entrance and abruptly pulls up and stops. Coming out of the entrance is the biggest horse he has ever seen, and it's wearing armor! A growing unease comes over Barth.
On this large horse is a large man, also wearing armor, but it's metal armor rather than the leather kind Barth has. It gets worse: this man is carrying the biggest spear Barth has ever seen. The French call it a couched lance and it's over ten feet long from its vamplate, the funnel shaped handle, to gleaming iron tip. He is carrying it under his arm (couched) at its end. This gives him a five-foot reach advantage over Barth's two pound lance. That is, if Barth were to stand and fight. However, this is not going to happen because Barth is now running for his life. Rapid retreat is a tradition Barth learned from his ancestors.
In full pursuit of Barth is a troop of fully armored, superbly trained, beautifully equipped, mounted warriors. These are the edge of Europe's weapon system, the shock troops of the seventh century. These are mounted knights. Chivalry has arrived and it isn't all poetry and fair ladies. These guys are professional killers. They will dominate European warfare for the next six hundred years.
Dr. Lynn White Jr. in his book Medieval Technology and Social Change, explicitly states that there is a direct causal relationship between the adoption of the stirrup for cavalry and the introduction and development of feudalism in Carolingian France. His belief is that the stirrup was necessary for "shock troop" capability and that without it, the mounted knight could not have evolved. His hypothesis started a fire storm among historians, since it attributed a major social system, the feudal system, to a simple mechanical device. Scholars with vested interests in the social causes of societal change were profoundly offended and a battle was joined that continues today.
From a technical point of view, White proposes that the energy transfer from animal to human to lance is enabled primarily by the coupling of the stirrup. It connects the horse's 1000 pounds and forty-mile-per-hour speed to the end of the couched (under arm) lance via the knight. This massive momentum was used much like a tank to take down massed foot troops or mounted warriors. It gives competitive advantage to the user primarily in striking force, overpowering lightly armored horsemen such as our friend Barth.
White's thesis set off this debate, because he credited the stirrup in changing the European world. His supporters and detractors generally agreed that there are good points in the counter arguments; a lance can be couched without the stirrup, that feudalism had other drivers and that other innovations made their own differences. However, no one disagreed that the stirrup was damned handy in mounted warfare.
Changing the world
The advantages of the stirrup, White believes, launched sweeping changes in warfare and society that lasted for nearly two thousand years. It shifted the balance of power in Europe. The maintenance of horses was expensive, and cavalry training was a long process. To support this, nobility granted land to mounted warriors for their service. The land provided the income to support the knight and this system of land holding was a key part of feudalism. Eventually, knighthood became a mark of social distinction, and the opportunity to become a knight was usually limited to men of noble birth. This web of political and military relationships among nobility, Professor White believes, caused the creation not only of the feudal system, but also of city states themselves.
White does not mince words. He writes,
Few inventions have been so simple as the stirrup, but few have had so catalytic an influence on history. The requirements of the new mode of warfare which it made possible found expression in a new form of western European society dominated by an aristocracy of warriors endowed with land so that they might fight in a new and highly specialized way. . . . The Man on Horseback, as we have known him during the past millennium, was made possible by the stirrup. . . .
These mounted warriors were not just individual horsemen, they were part of an integrated fighting system. That fighting system was destined to finally shut down the mounted warriors from the steppes. It allowed the Europeans, for better or worse, to mount excursions into the lands of Arabia on the Crusades and to battle with each other for hundreds of years. And the system of government it spawned was to influence the west for hundreds of years. While the debate over the feudal system continues, there is no doubt that the stirrup enabled new forms of warfare for several millennia. Success in those forms of warfare changed who ruled and who perished. The languages we speak, the food on our table, the system of government we use and even our genetic makeup were affected. All from a few bits of metal and leather weighing around 600 grams. It changed our world.
Only the adoption of another amazingly simple innovation would bring the mounted warrior down. Sometime in the thirteenth century, the English adopted "Five and a half feet of European Yew wood . . . about two pounds," better known as the English longbow. Allowing striking distances several orders of magnitude beyond the mounted knight's lance, it also countered his heavy armor with its penetrating power. Adopted from the Welsh, the English longbow would reverse the success of the tradition-bound French ground and mounted troops. In early battles, kill ratios (enemy soldiers vs. archers) of 1000 to 1 were not uncommon. With a range of nearly an eighth of a mile, the English longbow became the most feared weapon on earth. By any comparison, it was cheap to build and cheap to man. Overnight, it would dominate warfare and its users would dominate their lands. But that, as they say, is another story.
Copyright 2001 by The Derby Consulting Group, LLC
Trained as a designer, Dan Derby has designed hi-tech gear, fixed dysfunctional organizations and for a decade taught university courses. Now he's dug-in on a hill in rural New Hampshire. It's warm and snowy there and the people are strong and true. He writes about the impact of technology on society.
References and Further Reading
Dien, Albert. "The Stirrup and Its Effect on Chinese Military History."
Eade, Anthony. "A Short History of the English Longbow."
Fjellman, Lynda. "Overview of Tack Western European Tack from 900-1600 c.e."
Furnival, Mark. "The Avars Origins of the Avar Empire."
Goetz, Hans-Werner, Albert Wimmer, trans., and Steven Rowan. Life in the Middle Ages : From the Seventh to the Thirteenth Century.
Hood, John. "Significance of the Stirrup in Medieval Warfare."
Liang, Qiao and Wang Xiangsui. "Unrestricted Warefare."
Lienhard, John H. "Stirrups."
Sloan, John. "The Stirrup Controversy."
White, Lynn Townsend. Medieval Technology and Social Change.