Feudalism, the Stirrup and the Franks


Many works have attempted to define feudalism and its origins. In fact, it has been the subject most debated upon by social and legal historians. No definite answer has yet been given. However, the closest explanation to its origins seems to have been from a military necessity. From the need to reform the army around a new technology – the stirrup – the social order of Europe was transformed.

Military Theory of Feudalism:

It was the German historian Heinrich Brunner who first forwarded the idea that feudalism was essentially a military organisation created to support the use of cavalry in the armies. He based this theory on two factors, the change of emphasis amongst the Franks to a more cavalry focused army and the confiscation of Church lands by Charles Martel.

As to the first point, he noticed that when Charles Martel fought against the Muslims at the battle of Poitiers, 733, his army comprised mostly of infantry, as had previously been the case. However, at the battle of Dyle in 891, a source claims that the Franks were unaccustomed to fighting on foot. Brunner argued that it was the use of cavalry by the Muslims at Poitiers that led the Franks to drastically alter their style of combat to a more focused use of cavalry.

He then argued that in order to pay for the new use of cavalry, as horses were very expensive, as was the training needed for those to use them, Charles Martel seized vast amounts of church property. Although there was no conclusive evidence which linked the two factors, Brunner concluded that they had to have been linked. He furthered his argument by stating that the lands were given to his men in exchange for military service, essentially cavalry service. Hence, the ancient custom of swearing allegiance to a leader, known as vassalage, was combined to the granting of land, known as a benefice, to create feudalism.

Brunner’s arguments, however compelling, have been somewhat flawed by recent studies, mostly from Social and Economic historians. They claim that the feudalism he forwarded, and understood by most people to-day, only deals with the relations between leaders and their men, either the church or the king. They may not apply the idea of feudalism as argued to the vast majority of the population as records were hardly kept concerning the ties that bound the peasants to others.

In addition, military historians have disproved the effect of the Muslim influence on Charles Martel. They claim that they themselves mostly fought on foot. Something else had to have influenced Charles to make such a shift in the military practices of his people.

The Introduction of the Stirrup:

It seems that the stirrup has a long and complicated history. Its origins are shrouded in mystery. Had it originated in India? Was it introduced to the Muslims via Persia? Had then the Greeks brought it into Europe through the Avars? All these questions have been argued by archaeologist and historians alike without a clear conclusion.

Regardless of the debates, it seems that a consensus has been reached among archaeologists and historians to date the arrival of the stirrup into Western Europe. The date forwarded places its entry at around the early eight century, or the time of Charles Martel. Whether or not he was the first to use the new technology is unknown, what is certain, however, is that he was the first to see the possible uses for it in combat warfare.

The Effects of the Stirrup on Society:

The cost of developing and maintaining an army focused on cavalry is very great, which explains the vast confiscations of church land by Charles Martel. For example, military equipment may have cost about 20 oxen or the plough teams of at least ten peasant families. Since the majority of the Franks, at first, participated in the military services do to the king, it was clear, by the time of Charles’s sons, that only a select few had enough resources to fight with horses.

It became apparent, especially by the eight century, that in order to field a well trained and properly armed army, military service needed to become a matter of class. The poor could not participate, and this economic status became legal by around 825AD more or less.

Nobles were granted their lands based on tenure; they had to fight in the king’s army to keep their benefits, the land they were granted. Their land was developed by poorer people enabling them to practice their arts and develop the necessary training needed for military service. The system established by the Carolingians was developed further and spread throughout Europe. By the twelfth century, the essential social order of the Middle Ages, as is understood by the majority of the people of to-day, was fact.

For such a small tool, its effect on the social order was great. The stirrup ranks amongst the great inventions, and applications of an invention, to effect European culture and history.