The stirrup, one of the seemingly small innovations of the ancient world, was one that changed the face of warfare and expanded the exploitation of horses in defense. The article by Colin Clarke offers an in-depth discussion of how the stirrup lead to different forms of warfare, weapons, and social structures.
Prior to the introduction of the stirrup, the use of horses in warfare was not fully exploited. The Greeks used mounted troops for raids and to chase retreating armies, as well as locating and observing enemy troops, but did not use them in battles. The Persians, who were feared enemies of the Greeks, were believed to have hired Asian horsemen, skilled in the “War of Horse and Bow”, to aid them in battle, giving them an advantage over most armies at the time. Some ancient legions, such as the Romans and Germans, would ride into battle, but dismount before they began fighting. Although saddles were prevalent in Rome, the design limited fighting abilities and mobility.
The stirrup first emerged in nomadic cultures in Siberia and the Altaian Mountains during the 5th century. The Chinese began to use this technology soon after. From here, the stirrup expanded into Western Europe; the exact time is uncertain, but it is estimated to have been in use between 500 and 750 AD, when they began to be depicted in artwork. As time progressed, the stirrup grew widespread and were made shorter to allow for more bend in the knee. As the stirrup was used more, weaponry in Western Europe changed, allowing for the use of bigger weapons, including spears and lances.
It is undeniable that the stirrup changed warfare, as it increased stability and comfort in the saddle. Stirrups made cavalry more useful, allowed the use of bigger weapons, and gave the rider greater mobility. The height, speed, and weapons of mounted troops gave then an advantage over ground troops. Many historians consider the stirrup one of the most influential inventions, ranking them among clocks and the steam engine.
However, the direct effects tend to “stirr-up” argument among historians. Some historians, such as Lynn White, link the use of stirrups to widespread cavalry use, bigger weapons, and the emergence of feudalism. Evidence from cultures beyond Western Europe suggest otherwise, instead supporting that culture had more to do with the effects of the stirrup than the invention itself. Although the Japanese adopted a form of feudalism, they continued to use the bow and arrow, instead of the lances in Europe. At the time, the “War of Horse and Bow” was an honorable martial art; the skill associated with this type of warfare was considered superior to using lances and spears. The Mongols, who had a culture that was heavily dependent on horses, never developed a system of feudalism. Even after the introduction of the stirrup, they continued their nomadic lifestyles. As with most technologies, the effects of the invention were dependent on the society that it was used in.
“The Stirrup Controversy,” by John Sloan, provides further arguments against Lynn White. Many of White’s supporting statements have been proven wrong since he first published of his hypothesis in “Medieval Technology and Social Change,” including when stirrups were being used by different armies. Part of his thesis also seems to contradict itself, as some examples provided, such as the Gothics and French, were known to have had a powerful cavalry before stirrups emerged. Sloan also argues that much training and development had to take place for each army; the stirrup did not suddenly appear and automatically make everything better. As time progresses, more evidence is uncovered that goes against White’s theory and other historians are developing varying beliefs, including the idea that feudalism was a defense mechanism against the Vikings.
In short, the introduction of the stirrup did have many advantages and changed the face of warfare. However, the social impact of the stirrup is widely argued, and the effects were not solely dependent on the technology itself. As with anything else discussed involving the history of technology, the use and development of the stirrup was influenced largely by culture and the people that used them. Technology is not an isolated concept. In addition, the study of a technology requires looking beyond Western Europe.
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Image Found At: http://en.chinaculture.org/created/2005- 1