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Technology and Culture 44.3 (2003) 574-585

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Once More into the Stirrups
Lynn White jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change

Alex Roland

Lynn White's Medieval Technology and Social Change, first published by Oxford University Press in 1962, was brilliantly conceived and researched. It was informed by White's compelling vision of the Middle Ages as a coherent and ultimately rational age. It addressed large historical questions of continuing significance. It brought to bear ten languages and almost as many categories of evidence, from epigraphy and archaeology to anthropology and philology. And it sparkled with clarity, wit, and insight. Still, the strenuous criticism it attracted almost from the start, and the accumulation of four decades of subsequent scholarship, call into question its continuing viability.

While admitting that Medieval Technology and Social Change may be dangerous to their professional health, many historians of technology are loath to renounce it. Many still concur with Joseph Needham's assessment that it is "the most stimulating book of the century on the history of technology." 1 White demonstrated the importance of technology in an era widely perceived as technically stagnant. He focused on artifacts seldom studied by historians of technology: stirrups, ploughs, horse harnesses and shoes, cranks. He brought insight and imagination to a wide range of evidence. And, most important, he argued that technology sparked social change, that the history of technology mattered. But can these many [End Page 574] virtues, can this utility for historians of technology, outweigh the most fundamental standards of the profession? Can historians of technology continue to read and assign a book that is, in the words of a recent critic, "shot through with over-simplification, with a progression of false connexions between cause and effect, and with evidence presented selectively to fit in with [White's] own pre-conceived ideas"? 2

The answer, I think, is yes, at least a qualified yes. But this requires more than a little explanation. Let me first review briefly what White claimed, what his critics have said, and then why I think the critics may be discounted. Then I will recommend an antidote to the allegedly fatal flaws of Medieval Technology and Social Change.

The Argument

White's first and most controversial argument tied feudalism to the stirrup. 3 As with all three of the essays that make up the heart of Medieval Technology and Social Change, White built upon the work of a famous and distinguished predecessor—in this case, Heinrich Brunner. In 1887, Brunner had argued that Charles Martel returned from the battle of Poitiers in 732 convinced that he needed a mounted army to defeat the Muslims and other horse warriors. 4 He therefore confiscated Church land and distributed it to his followers. Income from the land would arm and equip the bondsmen to serve their lord on demand as mounted warriors. In other words, Martel, said Brunner, created vassalage; he invented feudalism. White embraced most of Brunner's famous thesis, but he concluded from more recent scholarship that the battle of Poitiers had actually occurred in 733, not 732. It could not have moved Martel to the confiscation that clearly began the previous year. What, then, did inspire Martel to set in motion the steps that made the heavily armed and armored mounted knight the dominant force on the battlefields of Europe?

It was the stirrup, said White, that allowed the knight to engage in shock combat, to strike with his lance tucked under his arm without fear that the impact would unseat him. The stirrup, White showed, appeared in Europe early in the eighth century. Martel's inspiration, then, was not the mobility and fighting power of the Muslims at Poitiers, but rather the realization that the stirrup could make the mounted warrior supreme. With characteristic [End Page 575] flair and drama, White concluded: "Antiquity imagined the Centaur; the early Middle Ages made him the master of Europe." 5 The stirrup was an indispensable part of that achievement.

White's second chapter took up an argument made by Marc Bloch in...


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