2012/04/16

Back in the Saddle

...but, as it turns out, the stirrups are irrelevant.

So you've probably heard of the Great Stirrup Controversy. Probably not by name, but it's the idea that European cavalry really caught on because of the stirrups' aid to lance-charges. Probably the stirrup came from some horse-nomads out of Asia, whether Huns or early Turks, and that is useful for the propaganda that Europe was backward compared to Asia (which is not true—also, one of those groups of steppe-nomads were the Magyars, and by the time they show up in history, they were every bit as European as, say, Copenhagen).

But lately, apparently, it turns out that the Stirrup Theory...is not true. Many scholars and reenactors have discovered that stirrups don't do jack-all for you, when you're lancing. Nope, turns out, it's the high-backed saddle1 and rowel-spurs that make a bigger difference—although, as some have pointed out, Greek heavy cavalry (kataphractoi, Latinized as cataphracts) dates to Alexander the Great, or c. 1000 years before Europeans first used the stirrup, so the theory should never have arisen in the first place.

4 comments:

penny farthing said...

That. Is awesome. I like to think that Full Metal Jousting had something to do with this discovery, because it's the coolest extreme sport there is, unless you consider barnstorming an extreme sport.

By the way, the captcha that I had to type was mariew ulledian. Which is a cool sounding name. That is all.

Sophia's Favorite said...

Supposedly, Captchas are texts from old books in the Google Books library.

Perhaps it means something in Welsh? I have had to ReCaptcha because one of the words offered me was in freaking Greek.

Joshua Shaw said...

I think the stirrup theory has only been controversial amongst generalist historians. The importance of a saddle that supports the rider during the impact had been understood by military historians at least since the original theory was popularized.

-Doc

Joshua Shaw said...

One last nipick, as I recall, before the European war saddle was developed, heavy cavalry didn't charge with couched lance but used long spears two handed to stab from the saddle.

Your point about Alexander makes me wonder, his heavy horse is usually called Companion Cavalry in the texts I'm familiar with, I wonder if the Greek they're translating to 'companion' is related to the root of 'cataphract'.

I lie, here's another point. While the stirrup isn't a requirement for what we think of as lance charges, it makes a hell of difference in keeping your seat in the middle of the press, and allows horse archers to stand in the saddle to fire, for better stability while firing on the move.

Which is why a knight has long stirrup straps to sit low, and a horse archer has high stirrup leathers so he can stand clear.

-Doc