One of the most important advances in military technology came with the invention of the stirrup. The stirrup allowed warriors on horseback to use the power of horse and rider to deliver more powerful spear thrusts from a mounted position. With the stirrup, riders could rest the lance between the upper arm and the body to create a steadier, more effective fighting position. Stirrups also allowed horsemen to stand in the saddle and use their swords to chop down on their opponents. This small invention revolutionized military strategy and techniques on the medieval battlefield — especially among the Franks who became well-known for their use of heavy cavalry — but when did the stirrup actually reach Western Europe?
Stirrups are most likely a Chinese invention, appearing in that region sometime in the 5th century, possibly even earlier. Historians and archaeologists debate when they actually arrived in Western Europe. Walther Veeck, author of Die Alemannen in Württemberg, and H. Muller-Karpe, author of Hessische Funde von der Altstenizeit bis zume fruhen Mittelaltar, both claim the stirrup came to Germany in the late seventh century. Their claims are based on excavations at Andelfingen, Oetlingen, and Pfahlheim in Wurrtemberg, though Veeck’s inventory at Andelfingen does not include stirrups and neither does his source.
At Oetlingen, an iron spur and bit appeared in one grave without stirrups, but in a neighboring grave, stirrups did emerge. The Pfahleim cemetery includes seven horse burials, and of these seven, only one contained stirrups.
Some historians point to the grave of an Alemanic chieftan in Alsace to prove the Germans did not have stirrups in the late seventh century, as evidence by the lack of stirrups in this prominent chieftain’s grave, which was found with a complete set of horse equipment but no stirrups. These historians believe the stirrup did not arrive in Germany until the early eighth century.
Western art does not really provide us a clearer picture of when the stirrups fist came to medieval Western Europe. Artists in the early Middle Ages did not concern themselves with naturalism, and as a result, depictions in art often lagged behind reality. The stirrup does not show up in Middle Eastern or Byzantine art until the late eighth or early ninth century, and there is a similar lag in Western art, though Frankish art does begin to depict stirrups a few decades earlier than Greek art. Two horsemen wearing stirrups do appear on panels of the altar of Sant’ Ambrogio in Milan around 840. Also, in the Golden Psalter of St. Gall from the second half of the ninth century, there are seven riders in its miniatures who are shown wearing stirrups.
It is, however, in archaeology and not in art history that the true evidence of the diffusion of the stirrup into medieval Western Europe appears. At the time of Charles Martel, in the early eighth century, the verbs insilire and desilire, used in reference to getting on and off horses, were replaced by scandere equos and descendere, referring to the fact that someone must step when mounting or dismounting as opposed to leaping.
An even more convincing set of evidence is found in the drastic change in the group of weapons used by the Franks at that time. The fransisca and the ango, both staples of the Frankish infantry, disappeared while swords used for horsemen became longer. Also, the Franks developed a spear with a heavier stock and spurs below the blade, which soon became the typical Carolingian wing-spear, featuring a cross-piece. These spurs prevented too deep a penetration of the lance — which could only have occurred with the full momentum of a horse, fitted with stirrups, and rider wielding the lance under his arm — thus making it easier for the rider to withdraw his lance from his opponent. Under previous conditions — without stirrups — a horseman could never have impaled his enemy so deeply as to require the need for barbs on his spear. Such it was that Charles Martel took advantage of this technology, and with the combined force of rider, horse, stirrups, and lance, changed the face of the medieval battlefield for decades to come.
White, Lynn Jr. Medieval Technology & Social Change. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.
Veeck, W. Die Alemannen in Wurttemberg. Berlin, 1931.
Muller-Karpe, H. Hessische Funde von der Altstenizeit bis zume fruhen Mittelaltar. Marburg, 1949.