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Stirrups-Hist-art - 4/8/08


"A Short History Of Equestrian Stirrups" by The Honorable Lady Maria de Andalusia.


NOTE: See also the files: horses-msg, horses-lnks, horses-bib, Horse-n-t-MA-art, horse-racing-msg, saddles-msg, warhorse-size-art.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



A Short History Of

Equestrian Stirrups



by The Honorable Lady Maria de Andalusia


Table of Contents



What is a Stirrup?


The First Stirrup, a Toe Stirrup?

First Complete Stirrup


Shapes and Style

Stirrup Controversy





If you speak the truth, have a foot in the stirrup.

Turkish proverb



Introduction of Stirrups


Stirrups have been an important component of equestrian saddles for more than 1700 years.  





What Is a Stirrup?


The word "stirrup" has its roots in Old English, Middle English, and the Old Saxon word, "stirope," meaning to climb or mount.  The Anglo-Saxon word from which stirrup was developed with stigrap, and if this were to be literally translated into modern English, it would become "sty-rope" or "climbing-rope."  The Anglo-Saxon word is composed of the root stig, from stigan (to climb), plus rap (rope).


The first stirrups used were thought to be made of short lengths of rope thrown over the back of the horse and having loops tied in either end.  With leather, wood and metal coming along several hundred years later.    




I started my search for stirrups with trying to locate the earliest evidence available of man astride his horse.  It would have to be a permanent record to withstand the thousands of years since man domesticated horses and the present.  So I started researching the people with the oldest recorded history on earth.  Which brought my search to Egypt and their tombs.  


To my delight, to date, the earliest record of a horse being ridden was found in a tomb in Egypt, dated 1600 BC.  From this we can calculate horses have been ridden for over 3500 years.  


So I started my search forward through history looking for signs of the first stirrup…


I found a wall carving from Abu-Simbel, two temples near the Egypt and Sudan border built by the Egyptian Pharaoh, Ramses II (1302 – 1213 BC).  Amelia Ann Blanford Edwards (1831-1892), an English Author and Egyptologist best describes the wall carving in a volume from her lectures printed in 1891, titled, "Pharaohs, Fellahs, and Explorers."  [1]


Rameses Great Horses


The Battle - by Amelia B. Edwards






From the great Temple of Abu-Simbel.


This     sculpted tableau is divided horizontally by the river Orontes, represented     by zigzag lines.


The fortified   city of Kadesh occupies a projecting tongue of land, almost surrounded by the   great bend of the river. To the right, where there is apparently a ford, some   Egyptian chariots are dashing across in pursuit of a Khetan chariot, in which   are seen three warriors.


The Egyptian chariots are distinguished from those of   the Kheta by containing only two.


In the top register, to right, an aide-de-camp on   horseback gallops off with orders for the tardy rear-guard, and we see a   horse running away with an empty chariot.


To the left   Rameses (depicted of colossal size) pursues the flying foe to the water's   edge. Some lie trampled under his chariot-wheels, and some are drowning in   the river.


A drowning chief is dragged   to shore by a soldier of the garrison.



Alas no recognizable signs of stirrups. A.D.H. Bivar [2] wrote an article, The Stirrup and Its Origins, citing the danger involved in mounting a horse while carrying weapons.  He used as an example… Cambyses, the King of Persia in 522 BC.  Cambyses stabbed himself fatally with his sword while leaping onto his horse.


Could a stirrup have contributed to his safety?  Possibly…


This has led some to conclude that the first true stirrup was developed not to increase the stability of the rider, but to provide him with an easier and safer method for mounting his horse.  Historically, the first mounting stirrup did not come in pairs, and was attached to only one side of the saddle.


Coming forward in history, 1000 years after our earliest record of a horse being ridden, we come to the year 360 BC.


Xenophon [3] wrote, "The Art of Horsemanship," in which he describes the process for mounting a horse…


"The master, let us suppose, has received his horse and is ready to mount.  We will now prescribe certain rules to be observed in the interests not only of the horseman but of the animal which he bestrides. First, then, he should take the leading rein, which hangs from the chin-strap or nose-band, conveniently in his left hand, held slack so as not to jerk the horse's mouth, whether he means to mount by hoisting himself up, catching hold of the mane behind the ears, or to vault on to horseback by help of his spear. With the right hand he should grip the reins along with a tuft of hair beside the shoulder-joint, so that he may not in any way wrench the horse's mouth with the bit while mounting.  In the act of taking the spring off the ground for mounting, he should hoist his body by help of the left hand, and with the right at full stretch assist the upward movement (a position in mounting which will present a graceful spectacle also from behind); at the same time with the leg well bent, and taking care not to place his knee on the horse's back, he must pass his leg clean over to the off side; and so having brought his foot well round, plant himself firmly on his seat."


Interestingly enough, as clear and logical as Xenophon was with his instructions for mounting, he still didn't make the leap to an "aid" in mounting.  And so the stirrup's invention was still another 600 years away.


The First Stirrup – A Toe Stirrup?


Lynn White [4], in his book Medieval Technology and Social Change, offers his research regarding the first stirrup.  He believes the earliest forms of the stirrup, as evidenced in the sculptures of Sanchi in India, is a loose surcingle or saddle-strap behind which the rider's feet were tucked. It was made of either rope or leather.  The sculptures of Sanchi date to the late second century B.C.


File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0

"The Great Departure" at the East Gate, Sculptures of Sanchi, India


White also states to have found evidence of a tiny stirrup for the big toe, of approximately the same time frame. However, as White also observes, riders of colder climates would only be able to use a big-toe stirrup with great difficulty, so it is highly unlikely that it would have been more than an isolated development.


Corroborating White's claim, author of Horse Watching, Desmond Morris [5], states a simple loop through which the rider placed his big toe was seen in India sometime between 4th century and the 2nd century B.C.  It was felt that this was of limited value for stabilizing a rider, and had no real merit as an aid in mounting a horse.


Another example White cites of an early form of stirrup is upon an engraved Kushan gem, circa 100 A.D.  The gem appears to depict some sort of hook-stirrup, but without corroborating evidence, it also seems an isolated example.


Interestingly enough, the toe stirrup is not only confined to the Asian continent.  


Karl H. Reinhard [6], associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's School of Natural Resource Sciences and co-author of Learning from the Ancestors: The Omaha Tribe Before and After Lewis and Clark, analyzed the skeletons of the Omaha tribe here in the United States.


"The most revealing discovery is that the Omaha were fully equestrian buffalo hunters by 1770," Reinhard says. "That makes them the first documented equestrian culture in the Northern Plains. This is nearly one hundred years earlier than in the Dakotas." Reinhard documents this by finding similar bone patterns between the Omaha and those of an English cavalry. But a key piece of evidence is unique to the Omaha. "The Omaha used a 'toe stirrup,' which was essentially a thong that went around the big toe," Reinhard explains. "Because riding, mounting, and dismounting puts pressure on the toes, the first toe joints went arthritic prematurely."


Regardless of the argument put forth by Lynn White and Desmond Morris, there appears to be quite a wide gap between scholars about the invention of the first stirrup.


In addition to the earlier theories, other scholars believe the first true stirrups were devised in Central Asia during the first century B.C. by a nomadic group known as the Sarmatians.


The stirrup could have spread to other Central Asian peoples, who would have quickly noted that bracing one's feet in a set of stirrups made it much easier to shoot a bow from the saddle.


While many researchers acknowledge the possibility of a toe stirrup, most prefer to support the earliest reliable representation of stirrups, which came from a Western Jin dynasty (265-316 A.D.) tomb, near Changsha, in China, circa 302 A. D…  


A pottery figure of a cavalryman displayed a mounting stirrup [7]!


The First Complete Stirrup


Western Jin dynasty (265-316 A.D.) tomb, near Changsha, in China, circa 302 A. D revealed a pottery figure of a cavalryman displaying a mounting stirrup.  The mounting stirrup was attached to only one side of the saddle.  At the time of its discovery, it was thought to be a mounting stirrup because it was felt that it was too short to be of use once the rider had mounted.


The first known representation of a pair of riding stirrups were the stirrups shown on the Nanjing horse found in a tomb dated 322 A.D.  I was not able to find a picture of the Nanjing horse.  However I've read that the stirrups were triangular in shape.


Xianbei site, near Anyang in 1974 revealed the first actual physical stirrup ever discovered.  It was thought to have dated from the fourth century.  Wooden stirrups formed the core and were covered with gilded bronze plate.  It was triangular as well.  


Once "invented," the Chinese had refined their metal casting abilities over the previous thousand years to such an extent that they were able to cast stirrups at an extraordinary rate.  This lead to the large number of stirrups spread in a relatively short time throughout China, northeast Asia, and Korea, even into Japan.



Clay horse, a haniwa, from the Kofun period in the history of Japan. Haniwa horse statuette, complete with saddle and stirrups, 6th century, Kofun period, Japan in the Tokyo National Museum.


From the 4th century on, the stirrup spread throughout Eurasia by the horsemen of the central Asian steppes.  It is uncertain when it was first adopted by the Nomads, however the first confirmed use was by the Alans, an Iranian nomadic group among the Sarmation people.  Sarmatians live on the plains between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, north of the Caucasus.  


Some historians also believe the Huns must have used them to enable their conquests. The Huns were a group of Central Asian nomadic tribes who appeared in Europe in the 4th century. Hun has also become a more general term for a number of Central Asian equestrian nomads or semi-nomads.


By the 6th century, Sweden had stirrups.  This led to the establishment of Thegns, or mounted elite warrior, established during their Vendel Age, or Germanic Iron Age (550 – 793 A.D.).  


By the 7th or early 8th century stirrups became known in Persia. Knowledge of stirrups then rapidly spread to other Arab lands and to Byzantium and quickly thereafter to France.


By this time, stirrups provided a number of advantages to the horseback rider. They provided an easy way to mount a horse as contrasted to the earlier methods, using either a wooden stool or leaping directly on to the horse's back.


Furthermore, they provided lateral stability while mounted, and, in a particular advantage to mounted warriors, made it much easier to strike to the left or right with a sword while mounted without losing one's seat.


When used with the contoured saddle, the stability the stirrups provided allowed a mounted warrior to deal powerful blows with a sword, axe, mace, or lance.  A fighter, using stirrups and a lance in the couched position could deliver a blow utilizing the energy of his charging horse.


Stirrups were first indirectly documented in Central Europe during the reign of Charles Martel in the 8th century.  Martel prepared for war against the Muslim invaders (who had stirrups, a larger force and superior technology) intent upon getting a foothold in Europe. He trained his army to fight in a formation called the phalanx, which had been used by ancient Greeks to withstand superior numbers and weapons.  By his actions at the Battle of Tours and other campaigns, he is credited for preserving Christianity and western civilization, as we know it.



Pair of stirrups found in 8th century burial in Holiare, Slovakia.


It took France until the 8th Century before they made the connection between the stirrup and a weapon of war. By fixing the rider firmly on his horse, they created their version of mounted combat.  



Howarth, D., 1066, The Year of the Conquest. New York: Penguin Books, 1981.


By 1066, cavalry was a way of life in Europe, but it hadn't made much of an impact in England, who was an isolated country. For years Saxons fought back Viking raids with whatever they had.  Swords, spears, battle-axes, stone missiles won more than one battle.  The Saxon's first battle with armored cavalry was on a hill near Hastings when William the Conqueror claimed the English crown from the nobleman Harold who had succeeded King Edward.


William's armored horse might well have defeated Harold, but fighting uphill and bad timing, Harold's men, fighting from behind shields, savaged the horses with battle-axes and using previous techniques that worked… Harold indeed won the first round, but it must be said, not the war.


It was only after the introduction of the stirrup into Europe in the eighth century that the armored knight began to replace the axe-wielding freeman as the mainstay of the military.


Lynn White again, in his Medieval Technology and Social Change, offers an interesting hypothesis that the feudal class of the European Middle Ages was a consequence that was in the end, derived from the invention of the stirrup.  


"Few inventions have been so simple as the stirrup, but few have had so catalytic an influence on history. The requirements of the new mode of warfare which it made possible found expression in a new form of western European society dominated by an aristocracy of warriors endowed with land so that they might fight in a new and highly specialized way."

So after the arrival of the stirrup in Europe by the eighth century and the dominance this gave the horse and armor in warfare over foot soldiers, the state made land grants to certain nobles in return for their pledge to provide armored knights on horseback.


The freeman with his battle-axe no longer was the foundation of the military might of the state, though the warrior was still subject to call whenever he was needed.


The eventual result was the distribution of land to vassals on condition of knight's service; from this followed the creation of a fighting elite.  In other words, this made fighting now a matter of class.


It must also be noted, two opposing views to White's theory…


In 1970, Bernard S. Bachrach wrote an article, titled "Charles Martel, Mounted Shock Combat, the Stirrup, and Feudalism," which was published in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History. Also that same year, D. A. Bullough wrote an article in the English Historical Review.  


Both Bachrach and Bullough oppose Lynn White Jr.'s ideas.  Both scholars state that stirrups have no advantage in shock warfare, but are only useful in allowing a rider to lean to to the left and right on the saddle without falling off.  Therefore the switch from infantry to cavalry in medieval armies, and the appearance of feudalism is not related to the invention of stirrups.  


According to what I've read, these ideas have been accepted as the truth by some scholars.  I believe Backrach and Bullough came to that conclusion possibly because the Chinese "invented" or certainly mass produced stirrups and their civilization did not develop feudalism.


I, on the other hand, choose to believe some of what White says.  I do think that having stirrups caused a tighter, more cohesive cavalry.  The cavalry did eventually replace the foot soldier.  Also weapons were improved and tactics were created that used this new 1000 pound weapon, the horse, as it had never been used before.




Lynn White, in his book Medieval Technology and Social Change, offers research regarding the first stirrup. He believes the earliest stirrup was a loose surcingle or saddle-strap behind which the rider's feet were tucked. It was made of either rope or leather.  As these materials deteriorate more rapidly than their successors, wood and metal, I have not been able to find pictures of early stirrups in those materials.


Wood and metal examples of early stirrups…


LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01                          

                                    Wood                                            Iron



Created by ImageGear, AccuSoft Corp.         


                           Brass                                            Bronze


Combination of materials…


    Created by ImageGear, AccuSoft Corp.


           Leather and Wood                              Leather and Iron


     Created by ImageGear, AccuSoft Corp.


   Iron and Copper                      Brass and Copper


Shapes and Styles


While the basic form of the stirrup needs to stay consistent, after all, its job is to hold a foot, whether for balance during riding or to help mount; there are as many shapes as there are makers of stirrups and styles of riding.


Early stirrups…



618 – 907 AD – Tang Dynasty




900 – 1100 AD Viking, made of iron and copper



African … found in Nigeria

Made from one piece of iron, date unknown




Japanese mid-Edo period (1603 – 1867 AD)





Created by ImageGear, AccuSoft Corp.


Post 1700 Moorish Spain, brass and copper




11th Century, found in Uppland (Sweden)







17th Century

Unknown location




Late 18th Century

Made for a Spanish Side Saddle




Undated, found in Thai, made of iron



Created by ImageGear, AccuSoft Corp.


Replica of 17th Century made for Peruvian Paso Horse




14th Century sketches

Stirrup fragments found in London



Replica of Bedouin stirrups made for the Arabian horse



THE Chevalier D'Arvieux's
TRAVELS IN Arabia the Desert

Originally published London, 1718

Of the Arab Horses
rom the KHAMSAT Volume 2 Number 1 January 1985

Translation by Dr. Sherman Stinson



"Their Saddles are of Wood, covered with Spanish Leather; they have no Panels as ours. Instead of that they make use of a stitched Felt that goes cleverly betwixt the Saddle and the Horses back, standing out about half a foot upon the Crupper. The Stirrups are very short, so that a man fits a Horseback as in a Chair, when he gallops he lifts himself above Saddle, and bears upon the Stirrups, to strike with the greater Vigor. The Bottom of those Stirrups is flat, large, and square; their Corners are pointed, and sharp: They use 'em instead of Spurs to prick their Horses with. This cuts their Skin, which makes the horses so tender, that if they are tickled ever so little in that Part, they manage 'em as they please."


The Stirrup Controversy


The Stirrup Controversy arose after Lynn White wrote his best known work; Medieval Technology and Social Change in 1962. His first sentence sets the stage:


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."


Pre-stirrup fighting consisted of a man on horseback riding up to battle as quickly as he could.  He then dismounted, drew his sword and fought on foot.  White argues that stirrups allowed a man to stay seated on his horse while fighting.  This in turn, opened up the scope of warfare and created a need for new weapons utilizing the strength of the horse.  


How much more devastating to a foot soldier was it to have a heavily armored 1000 pound animal chasing him faster than that soldier could ever hope to run, all while desperately trying to evade a couched lance coming towards him?  Even if the foot soldier escaped the lance, the mounted warrior could still use the weight of his horse and armor to crush anything in his path.


White also wrote, because of the invention of stirrups, Charles Martel (Frankish King ruled from 715 – 741 AD) recognized the military potential of a heavy long-range cavalry and created a whole class of "shock" warriors who wore armor, carried a lance, and subsequently a whole new class of weapons was developed.  This new cavalry was able to ride longer and faster than the non-stirrup army they were against.  Then mounted archery was created and eventually the cavalry evolved into both an organized light and heavy cavalry.


Now, supporting and armoring a knight in the 8th century was quite expensive.  Adding to the cost of the horse and then the additional cost of the horse's armor and only a few were able to pay the price.  So, Martel started a breeding program for the type of horse he considered suitable for his "shock warriors."  


He distributed church land to support them, thus creating the basis for feudalism.


So, White claims that it was because of the invention of the stirrup that Europe invented the feudal system or the giving and holding of land in fief or fee.  This resulted in a new relationship being based on lord and vassals, characterized by homage, military service and the resulting legalities of owning property.  Feudalism remained in effect from approximately the 9th to the 15th century.  


Now, the controversy comes in when scholars discount the value White places on the stirrup in their discussion of the importance of the cavalry within the feudal system.


Two points that were made was the effective use of heavily armored cavalry without stirrups that existed long before 700 A.D and the continued use of armored cavalry with stirrups, without feudalism, as in the case of China's culture. Scholars also considered feudalism to be a response to the Viking and Magyar invasions.  Feudalism solved their current problem of local defense.    


Another point scholars feel was overlooked is training.  They felt it was unreasonable to hand a person a horse's bridle and expect him to become a horseman, even with stirrups.  Following that logic out to a conclusion, it has been stated that an untrained mass of horsemen does not become an effective cavalry.  




First documented evidence was China.  Once "invented," the Chinese had refined their metal casting abilities over the previous thousand years to such an extent that they were able to cast stirrups at an extraordinary rate.  This lead to the large number of stirrups spread in a relatively short time throughout China, northeast Asia, and Korea, even into Japan.



No, it took approximately 2000 years to develop the stirrup from the time man first recorded a horse being ridden until the stirrup was officially documented.


1600 BC (horse ridden) – 302 AD (mounting stirrup)



It all started with China.  Spread throughout the east, including central Asia. In the 6th century Sweden established their mounted elite warrior.  By the 10th century in Western Europe, the mounted cavalry and the mounted knight was an established way of life.  


An added benefit, in some opinions, of the development of stirrups was that it redefined warfare.  Riders realized they could brace themselves, which made it not only easier to shoot a bow or throw a spear, but because of the bracing, were able to shoot or throw it farther and faster.  A rider could also strike with his weapon and utilize the energy of his charging horse to demolish his opponent.


So, to sum it up…


In the beginning, a simple loop of leather formed into one stirrup and was used as an aid in mounting the horse.


Leather loops were soon replaced by metal stirrups around 300 A.D., which at first imitated the shape of the leather loops.  


Early riders soon found that a pair of stirrups provided appreciated stability and balance to their riding, especially over rough terrain or adverse conditions.  


Once armed horsemen began to use stirrups on both flanks of their horses, cavalry warfare was transformed. The rider was now able to rise up in his saddle and turn around to fire arrows at his pursuers, and allowed more freedom of movement with his sword, because he didn't fear losing his balance and falling off.  


And this in turn, encouraged the use and development of heavier weapons, heavy lances and horsemen axes, and armor that used the horse as a weapon itself.


Betwixt the stirrup and the ground,

Mercy I asked, mercy I found."

William Camden (1551-1623)




[1]  Edwards, Amelia B. "Ramses' Great Horses" Pharaohs, Fellahs, and Explorers. Harper and Brothers, New York, 1891.


[2]  Bivar, A.D.H. "The Stirrup and Its Origins". Oriental Arts, n.s. 1 (1955): 61-68.


[3]  Xenophon, "The Art of Horsemanship", compliments of the Perseus Project at Tufts University.


[4]  Lynn White, Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change, Oxford, 1962 (paper).


[5]  Morris, Desmond. "Horsewatching". Random House, New York,1988.


[6]  Reinhard, Karl H. Learning from the "Ancestors: The Omaha Tribe Before and After Lewis and Clark". University of Nebraska-Lincoln's School of Natural Resource Sciences, 2003.


[7]  Graff, David Andrew. "Medieval Chinese Warfare. 300-900", Rutledge, London and New York, 2002



British Museum, room 46 -- Europe: 15th-18th centuries


Metropolitan Museum of Art – Viking room 780 – 1100 A.D.


Tokyo National Museum – History of Japan


Bachrach, Bernard S. Charles Martel, Mounted Shock Combat, the Stirrup, and Feudalism, article in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, 1970


Bullough, D.A. Age of Charlemagne, English Historical Review, University of Oxford 1965


Bivar, A.D.H. The Stirrup and Its Origins. Oriental Arts, n.s. 1 (1955): 61-68.


Bunch, Brian and Hellemans, Alexander, eds.  Science & Technology information about Year 302 ce. History of Science and Technology. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.


De Vries, Kelly. Medieval Military Technology. Broadview Press, 1992.


Edwards, Amelia B. "Ramses' Great Horses" Pharaohs, Fellahs, and Explorers. Harper and Brothers, New York, 1891.


Farris, William. Heavenly Warriors, the Evolution of Japan's Military, 500- 1300. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1992.


Gies, Frances and Joseph Gies. Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel subtitled "Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages". HarperPerennial, 1995 (paper).


Graff, David Andrew.  Medieval Chinese Warfare. 300-900, Rutledge, London and New York, 2002


In Search of Ancient Ireland. Educational Broadcasting Corp. 2002


Lienhard, John H. The Engines of Our Ingenuity. Oxford University Press, 2003.


Morris, Desmond. Horsewatching. Random House, New York,1988.


Old World Contacts. The Applied History Research Group. The University of Calgary, 2000.


Reinhard, Karl H. Learning from the Ancestors: The Omaha Tribe Before and After Lewis and Clark. University of Nebraska-Lincoln's School of Natural Resource Sciences, 2003.


Stinson, Dr. Sherman. Translation of The Chevalier D'Arvieus's Travels In Arabia the Desert, Chapter XI Of the Arab Horses from the KHAMSAT Volume 2, Number 1, January 1985.  Originally published London, 1718.


Xenophon, The Art of Horsemanship, compliments of the Perseus Project at Tufts University.


White, Lynn, Jr. Medieval Technology and Social Change. Oxford, 1962 (paper).


Whitehouse, Dr David Whitehouse, Sci/Tech Editor. Earliest Writing Found. BBC Online, 1999.


Copyright 2008 by Maria Hall, 3152 Brethren Church Road, White Pine, TN  37890. <berthall at bellsouth.net>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
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Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org