Medieval Feudalism and the Metal Stirrup

views updated

Medieval Feudalism and the Metal Stirrup


The European feudal system was intimately linked with the creation of a military upper class. Historians widely credit the development of a relatively stable feudal system as one of the main factors behind the rise of the modern nation-state in European history. The feudal system that rose to prominence in medieval Europe effectively grew out of and displaced the older social organization, principally Germanic in origin, which revolved around small groups of warriors. Changing attitudes toward land ownership and fealty, or obedience, to a lord necessitated the creation of a new social system.

These changes, however, may be linked to new advances in military technology. Because the feudal system empowered a military aristocracy, changes in warfare that accompanied the new social system must be taken into consideration. One of the main technological innovations that had a lasting impact on feudalism was the metal stirrup, which allowed for the dominance of cavalry in the feudal system and enabled high-intensity shock combat.


The feudal system grew and developed as the European nobility gained greater and greater amounts of land. Furthermore, feudalism grew from changing attitudes toward the concepts of property and inheritance. The feudal system is based on the notion of tenure. This means that a holder of a piece of land has a right to that land, a right that is granted by another party. Mere possession of land, however, does not constitute tenure: possession in and of itself does not account for the ownership of land.

In the older Germanic tribal organization, the lord, known as the ring-giver, maintained his leadership role through the distribution of gifts to his followers. In the feudal system, on the other hand, the lord operated as a landlord. The landlord maintained control over the military organization through his granting of tenure. Land formed the basis of military organization. The king granted plots of land in exchange for the service of heavily-armed cavalry troopers. These knights, then, owed their allegiance directly to the king. At the same time, knights were grounded, linked to specific plots of land in a manner that clearly differentiated feudalism from the tribal military society that preceded it.

However, because knights were responsible for military service, and were subject to up to 60 days of military service a year, the knights needed to sublet their lots in order to build up their armed forces and to ensure that the land was managed effectively. In this situation, social hierarchy was based solely on land distribution. This, combined with the arrival of the stirrup in Europe by the eighth century, helped to merge military distinctions and class distinctions. It may be claimed, then, that this unique intermingling of military and class concerns resulted from the technological advances that elevated the importance of the heavily-armored mounted warrior in medieval Europe.


The introduction of the stirrup into Europe is indicative of drastic changes in warfare styles throughout Asia and the Middle East. The metal stirrup was invented by the Chinese, and scholars presume that it resulted from the influx of Indian culture into China during an extended period of Buddhist missionary activity around the fourth and fifth centuries. Prior to this, archaeologists are unable to find evidence of actual stirrups. Furthermore, literature from the period makes no mention of the device. The stirrup as we know it is not mentioned by the Chinese until the early fifth century. However, by a.d. 477, the stirrup was in common use.

Scholars contend that only stirrups made of metal were capable of transforming warfare practices. Archaeologists have found evidence of saddle straps, or of loose leather surgicles used as mounting aids, from as early as a.d. 300 in India and the Middle East. However, these were not particularly effective in battle. These leather straps frequently broke, and were unable to support the weight of a heavily-armed fighter. In fact, there are many accounts of warriors injured or killed by their own weapons after slipping off their mounts. But severe hand-to-hand combat required warriors to carry many weapons with them in case they were disarmed or one of their weapons happened to break. A stable mounted fighting force was an effective fighting force.

Indeed, scholars have found manuscripts that document initial response to the stirrup in the Arab world. A ninth-century Middle Eastern account describes the reaction of the seventh-century warrior 'Ali (600?-661). According to this account, "when he placed his foot in the rikab, he said, 'In the name of God' three times." Different sources record the same reaction, hinting that the stirrup was considered a gift from the heavens. These ninth-century manuscripts indicate that within 30 years of 'Ali's discovery, the stirrup, or rikab, became a standard feature in the Middle East. Also, nearly three centuries after 'Ali's reaction, these accounts provide detailed descriptions of the early stirrup.

The metal stirrup was so significant because it provided lateral support to the rider. But its importance was also tied to earlier developments such as the leather saddle, with its well-defined pommel and cantle. When combined, these devices effectively linked the horse and the rider. Such a combination enabled this fighting unit to deliver blows guided and amplified by animal energy. The warrior was able to inflict a large amount of damage. Such a change engendered mounted shock combat, a military development that shifted the focus from the axe-wielding infantry man to the heavily-armored, lance-carrying knight.

But only metal stirrups enabled this transformation. They provided the perfect complement to the leather saddle, and both of these devices were especially suited for the heavy horse, the ancestor of the draught horse and the medieval destrier. These horses were desired for combat because they could support heavily-armored knights and still move effectively.

This shift in focus was most significant in Carolingian France. Archaeological evidence indicates that, once the stirrup reached Europe in the early eighth century, there was a drastic shift from infantry combat to heavily-armored mounted combat. Frankish weapons underwent a rapid transformation at this time. Before the stirrup, the freeman with his battle-axe served as the mainstay of a kingdom's military. In France this was particularly true. The battle-axe used by Frankish troops was even named the francisca. This battle-axe, and the barbed javelin, another infantry weapon, disappeared in the eighth century. The weapons that replaced them hint at the supremacy of the cavalry. A spear with a heavy base and spurs below the blade became a standard weapon; the wide base forced the horse to absorb the impact of a blow and the spurs prevented the spear from becoming too deeply embedded in bone and tissue. Prior to the stirrup, horse-carried warriors were frequently jerked from their mounts because their spears had penetrated too deeply into their victims. A spear with a cross-piece, such as the Carolingian wing-spear, indicated that the medieval Franks were the first to realize the possibilities offered by the metal stirrup.

Use of the stirrup alone, however, did not cause social transformation or military victory. As the Frankish archaeological record reveals, a device such as the stirrup had to be used in conjunction with other technologies in order to create a total transformation in warfare. The Anglo-Saxons, for instance, who were crushed by the Normans in 1066, did not utilize the stirrup to its full potential.

The Frankish society that dominated medieval Europe utilized this new type of warfare; along with this came the social structure called feudalism. In essence, shock combat was effective, but also very expensive. Horses were extremely costly, and armor and weapons were just as difficult to secure. In the barter-economy of the eighth century, the military equipment for a single knight cost as much as 20 oxen. Indeed, in 761, a man named Isanhard acquired a horse and a sword through the sale of his ancestral lands and a slave. Skilled craftsmen were few and far between, but armor was necessary to secure a place in court and to possess political power.

The feudal aristocrat's rank was contingent on his role as a warrior. In order to maintain his equipment, he had to further sublet his own land and, in that way, secure the services of others. In the feudal system, the entitlement to wealth was linked to social responsibility. All freemen were required to bear arms when necessary. Freedom and service accompanied one another. This was the combination that powered the Germanic tribes and the Frankish infantry. But this direct link between freedom and service was complicated by the need for high-maintenance cavalry. In feudalism, true freedom was linked with economic position. The freeman was no longer distinguished from lower classes by certain rights or privileges. The feudal system erected additional levels of stratification that eventually produced a gulf between the warrior aristocracy and the greater mass that constituted the peasantry.

Military service, then, became a matter of class. Those unable to fight on horseback suffered socially as well. As the system developed, these distinctions became hereditary. The possession of land and the ability to secure more land was restricted to a select group of families who passed their estates down to their offspring and relatives.

Such a gap between rich and poor was, perhaps, unavoidable. The feudal system differentiated among people merely on the basis of who could and could not afford to purchase and support an armored horse. As the example of Isanhard reveals, only the extremely wealthy could afford to do this. Such economic restrictions could even limit the size of a king's cavalry, his strongest fighting force.

Charlemagne (742-814) attempted to alleviate this problem through a system that, had it been effective, might have limited the degree of social division that characterized feudalism. Charlemagne attempted to increase the size of his cavalry by forcing less prosperous freemen to pool their resources. Thus, a group of freemen would have been able to provide a single horseman. However, the political instability of the time prevented the full implementation of such a system. Furthermore, the rights and responsibilities of freemen in such an agreement were not clearly delineated.

While the feudal system developed in response to numerous impulses and influences, it was, above all, a military system. As such, the history of military technology provides intriguing glimpses into the motivations that accompanied the formation of this political system. These connections between material developments and the social fabric broaden our understanding of a distant time.


Further Reading

Brooke, Christopher. From Alfred to Henry III: 871-1272. New York: Norton, 1961.

Contamine, Philippe. War in the Middle Ages. Translated by Michael Jones. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1984.

Edge, David, and John M. Paddock. Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knight. New York: Crescent Books, 1988.

Heath, Ian. Armies of the Dark Ages: 600-1066. Sussex: Wargames Research Group, 1980.

Jones, Archer. The Art of War in the Western World. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

White, Lynn. Medieval Technology and Social Change. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.

About this article

Medieval Feudalism and the Metal Stirrup

Updated About content Print Article