Skip to main content
No. 476:

Remember the poem, All for the want of a horseshoe nail? Well, the University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run. And sometimes a small machine takes us very far.

Historian Lynn White turned history upside down after WW-II. He forced historians to admit they'd been looking in the wrong place. He showed us that kings and queens don't shape the world. Artisans, millwrights, and engineers do.

White's best-known work was Medieval Technology and Social Change. It set out the remarkable idea that the invention of the stirrup created the feudal system. His first sentence is classic:

The history of the use of the horse in battle is divided into three periods: first, that of the charioteer; second, that of the mounted warrior who clings to his steed by pressure of the knees; and third, that of the rider equipped with stirrups.

From there on, White is relentless. He begins with a Frankish King, Charles Martel. Around AD 732, Martel finally stopped the advancing Moorish cavalry near Poitiers in central France.

But Martel did another rather strange thing that same year. He seized huge lands from the Church and set up horse farming on them. So, it seemed, even though he'd beaten the Moorish cavalry, Martel decided to copy it.

And so begins one of the great historical detective stories. White agrees that Martel wanted cavalry, but he wonders why. Horsemen didn't have stirrups. Without them, they couldn't fight on horseback. Swing a sword, or run a lance, and you fall off your horse. You could get into position quickly on a horse. But then, unless you were crazy, you got off and fought on foot.

While White worked on the puzzle, historians redated the Battle of Poitiers to 733. Martel, it seems, began horse farming before the Battle. Now we really have to ask what he was up to.

So White went looking for stirrups. Stirrups were known in China around the time of Christ. They showed up in India as a ring for the big toe. Toe stirrups appeared wherever the aristocracy went barefoot. But they were never commonplace.

White carefully studied archaeological sites. He found that the wide use of full-foot stirrups began right in AD 732. Very suddenly we find war lances, armor, and heavy saddles.

The most ghastly element in his dating was the appearance of crossbars on lances. Stirrups put the full momentum of a horse behind a lance. Crossbars kept lances from going all the way through victims. You couldn't get your lance back without one.

So that's why Martel took up horse farming! Someone in his court had figured out how to take the stirrup to war. The machinery of feudalism -- fiefdoms, knights in armor, and finally horse-driven agriculture -- all rode in on this little invention.

Lynn White and his stirrup tell a remarkable tale about the power of even small technology to transform human life.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

White, L., Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. (White's message is shot through the entire book, but see especially Chapter I.)

For more on the stirrup, see Episode 312.


Drawing by Maria Zsigmond Baca. By permission of Peter Gordon

A medieval war saddle with stirrups.


Drawing by Maria Zsigmond Baca. By permission of Peter Gordon

A western working saddle with stirrups.
Note the kinship to the medieval saddle.