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The stirrup - history of Chinese science

For most of the time that man has been riding horses ,he has had no supports for his feet. Stirrups were unknown to most of the great armies of ancient times-the Persians and Medea, the Romans, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks. The horsemen of Alexander the Great made their way across the whole of Central Asia without being able to rest their feet while in the saddle. When galloping or jumping, horsemen had to hold the horse's mane tightly to avoid falling off. The Romans devised a kind of hand-hold on the front of the saddle which gave them something of a grip when the going got rough; but their legs just dangled whenever they were not pressed tightly against the horse.

Mounting a horse without stirrups was not so easy either. Fierce warriors took pride in their flying leaps, gripping the mane with the left hand and swinging themselves up; and some bareback riders still do this today. Cavalrymen of ancient times used their spears to help them up, either by hoisting themselves aloft as in pole-vaulting, or by using a peg sticking out of the spear as a footrest. Otherwise it was necessary to rely on a groom for a leg-up.


Bya about the third century AD, the Chinese had remedied this situation. With their advanced metallurgical expertise they began to produce cast bronze or iron foot stirrups. No inventor of the stirrup is recorded and the original idea probably came from the occasional use of a loop of rope or leather to assist in mounting. Of course, such loops could not be used for riding, because if one fell off, one would be dragged along and come to a sticky end. Such loops may have been first used by the Chinese, the Indians, or the nomads of Central Asia bordering on China. The essentials, of the stirrup may thus have originated in the steppes, the product of ingenious men whose lives were lived on horseback. Apparently from the third century, the Chinese were casting perfect metal stirrups. The earliest surviving depiction of a stirrupis on a pottery figure of a cavalryman found in a tomb in Changsha (Hunan) and dated to 302 AD.

The transmission of stirrups westward took place with the migrations of a fierce tribe called the Ruan-Ruan, who came to be known as the Avars. Their cavalry was devastatingly effective because they had the use of cast-iron stirrups. About the middle of the sixth century, they were driven westwards and moved across south Russia to settle between the Danube and the Theiss. By 560, the Avars were a serious threat to the Byzantine Empire, and the Byzantine cavalry was entirely reorganized in order to counter them. The Emperor Maurice Tiberius prepared a military manual, the Strategtkon, in 580, specifying the cavalry techniques to be adopted. He mentions the need to use iron stirrups-the earliest mention in European literature.

Stirrups then spread to the rest of Europe by means of the Vikings and possibly the Lombards. One Avar-style child's stirrup has even been excavated in London, brought by a Viking. But the use of stirrups in Europe (other than by the Byzantines and the Vikings) was long delayed, for reasons which are not entirely clear. Conventional armies of Europe do not seem to have adopted them until the early Middle Ages. Perhaps the lack of metallurgical expertise was a handicap, with stirrups having to be of wrought rather than cast metal for a long time. Mass production of stirrups was only possible with cast metal.

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