In 1962, historian Lynn Townsend White Jr. altered the way the medieval-era system of feudalism was viewed as a whole forever through the publishing of his book “Medieval Technology and Social Change”. In his book, White proposed that the introduction of the stirrup to society resulted in a much more cavalry-dependent army. This lead to lords and the nobility granting land to mounted warriors for their services, which essentially created the feudal system the medieval system is known for. White’s hypothesis heavily impacted historians, both those who agreed with him and those who did not. White supported his argument by pointing t0 Carolingian France. White pointed to the change of mounted weapons from throwing axes to lances and longswords around 800 A.D. as evidence that the Franks had started using the stirrup in their cavalry units.
Most historians concur that cavalry became the primary element of armies in France around the same time feudalism entered society, and that the shift to cavalry certainly influenced and perhaps solely brought about the feudal system. The real question then is whether the rise of cavalry units was brought about by the adoption of the stirrup. One critic of White’s argument was D. A. Bullough. “Bullough was able to show that there was little evidence that the Frankish armies of Charles Martel, Pippin, or Charlemagne won their battles because of mounted shock tactics” (Gans). Bullough also pointed out that the tombs of soldiers buried in the 800s A.D. did not contain stirrups, but did contain most other weapons and tools of war. Stephen Marillo, a military historian, argues that cavalry rose as the primary military unit in the medieval era because of a lack of centralized government. A centralized government, he argues, is vital to a disciplined and trained infantry, whereas cavalry becomes the main military unit of loose or disorganized governments such as medieval Japan, China, Mongolia, or in this case, Europe.
I certainly see the thought process and reasoning behind White’s argument. Cavalry undoubtedly played a major role in the implementation of feudalism in medieval Europe, and cavalry would not have been nearly as effective in medieval combat without the stirrup. However, as Bullough and Marillo argue, there are many other factors at play in both the rise of cavalry and the creation of feudalism.
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Gans, Paul J. 2002. “Medieval Technology Pages – The Great Stirrup Controversy.” New York University. 2002. http://scholar.chem.nyu.edu/tekpages/texts/strpcont.html.
This article is very applicable to White’s argument and its’ criticisms. Overall it is a great source of information involving the Great Stirrup Controversy and medieval societal practices.
Sloan, John, and Lynn Nelson. 1994. “Internet History Sourcebooks Project.” 1994. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/med/sloan.asp.
This article discusses the Great Stirrup Controversy from a more militarily-oriented viewpoint. It summarizes White’s argument and explains how White followed the research of Heinrich Brunner. Overall it is very informative, especially due to the different perspective it brings.