History of International Relations Textbook

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Stirred up over stirrups

Now this is a proper academic dispute. In 1962, the historians Lynn Townsend White published a book, Medieval Technology and Social Change, in which he argued that feudalism was introduced in Europe as a result of the introduction of stirrups. What are stirrups? We’ll they are this:

White’s point was that stirrups made it easier to control the horses and this made it possible for heavier cavalry to engage in more ferocious forms of combat. In order to reward the mounted warriors for their efforts, the Carolingian dynasty, in the 8th and 9th centuries, organized their land into a system of vassalage.  This is how feudalism, according to White, got started.

Other scholars are not convinced. While they agree that cavalry replaced infantry in Carolingian France, and that feudalism emerged at this time, they are skeptical regarding the technological determinism which White’s thesis implies. Cavalry had existed before stirrups, and, besides, there is no actual evidence for the thesis.  Modern reenactments of Carolingian military techniques give little evidence that stirrups made all that much difference.  It could have been that the introduction of the saddle made a bigger difference. The saddle, however, was introduced quite a lot earlier.

What’s interesting for our purposes is that stirrups seem to have been introduced from China already in the late 6th or early 7th century.  The people responsible may have been the Avars, a Central Asia nomadic people, which, together with so many others, pushed into post-Roman Europe.  An amazing archeological find, the Treasure of Nagyszentmiklós, consisting of 23 gold vessels created by the Avars was discovered in 1799. Incidentally, it was discovered by a Serb peasant, in the Hungarian part of the Habsburg empire which today is a part of Romania. The treasure itself is on exhibit at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Check this out:

The saddle too was invented in Central Asia, but a lot earlier, by the Scythians in the first millennium BCE.

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