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
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
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
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