Friday, August 03, 2007

Stirrups, horse harnesses and Richard Carrier

Apologies for the lack of a post on Wednesday. I had my PhD viva and could hardly lift a finger after two and a half hours of being grilled on sixteenth century natural philosophy and mathematics.

In a recent post on his blog, Richard Carrier has attacked the work of the distinguished American medieval historian Lynn White. Scroll down to the section headed ‘Horse S**t’ in the blog post here. Carrier’s motive is quite clear from his references to the ‘Horse collar of Christ’ and heavy cavalry as a miracle of Jesus. In fact, the relevant book by Lynn White, Medieval Technology and Social Change, makes almost no mention of Christianity. While White was certainly a Christian, he is most famous for a 1967 article blaming our current environmental problems on Christianity, which is hardly the action of an unqualified admirer of the religion. Carrier, of course, is up to his normal anti-Christian bashing that we have come to expect from this luminary of Internet Infidels.

Carrier mentions White's theory about the stirrup. White correctly notes that this made heavy cavalry possible and that European warfare was revolutionised by it. Carrier sneers at this. He points out that the Romans used four horned saddles which worked almost as well as stirrups. What he doesn’t tell us is that these saddles were big, heavy and expensive. There is simply no way that you could equip a large contingent of light cavalry with them and stay within budget. And Carrier admits they were no good for heavy cavalry who really did need stirrups to function. He then tries to suggest that heavy cavalry did not radically alter warfare because it could be seen off by infantry in a defended position. True enough – everyone knew attacking dug-in troops with cavalry was suicidal (though that didn’t stop some fools from trying it). But once the infantry started to move, heavy cavalry could smash it to pieces in the field and often did. Witness the Battle of Hastings where the Saxon shield wall held off the Norman cavalry all day. But as soon as they broke formation they were dead meat. It was not until the fourteenth century that the real answer to heavy cavalry appeared – the pike. These long spears allowed infantry to form a prickly hedgehog that cavalry could not penetrate. The trouble was that pikes require trained professional soldiers who are able to move in formation. These didn’t exist in the feudal armies of the High Middle Ages or the barbarian hordes that preceded them. Warfare is a game of paper, scissors, stone. If you have heavy cavalry, you rule the roost until someone invents scissors.

The horse-collar too, was an improvement that, coupled with horse shoes, three field rotation and heavy ploughs, allowed agriculture to increase yields well beyond what the Romans managed. Where White went wrong was to assume these changes happened overnight. Of course, as we learn from Robert Fossier in the New Cambridge Medieval History, progress was actually much slower and the agricultural system that White assumed was in place by 900AD did not in fact become ubiquitous until after 1200.

So, White’s work has been criticised, adapted and finessed. That’s all within the rules of the game. But his fundamental point that the Middle Ages were a period of technological advance is unchallenged. Carrier’s blinkered hatred of Christianity is also preventing him from see the facts.

By the way, further to my recent post, it seems the Jesus Project is coming a part at the seams. Jim West and others have been finding all sorts of people are listed as fellows who know nothing about it including Richard Bauckham and Dom Crossan. Both have asked to be removed. Richard Carrier is still listed as a fellow though....

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