Equestrian peoples

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Even today the horse plays a particularly important role in the culture of the former equestrian people of the Kazakhs .

Equestrian peoples in the classic sense is a comprehensive term for ethnic groups ( tribes , tribal associations or peoples ) of the Eurasian steppe , whose way of life, economy and worldview was closely linked to the use of the horse . The steppe area inhabited by these cultures reached from Manchuria in the east to Hungary and Burgenland in the west, which is why the term steppe peoples is also used for these groups .

These equestrian peoples lived a semi or fully nomadic way of life with a change of pasture areas. Horses were initially one of their sources of food and for about 4,000 years also their most important means of transport, with camels and trampoline also being used as a means of transport relatively early on . A specialized way of life developed in the course of time enabled the equestrian nomads to survive even in ecologically difficult settlement areas and speaks against an often adopted primitive way of life. The various (often rather short-lived) steppe empires often also comprised urban centers that were conquered by the cavalry warriors or (more rarely) founded by them themselves.

The relationship between equestrian peoples and settled civilizations was ambivalent. One feature is the often documented conflict between nomadic, often heterogeneously composed equestrian peoples, who did not have a permanent state organization, and the neighboring settled population, which was increasingly organized into states since ancient times. The nomads were able to generate surpluses from their livestock farming, but it was not uncommon for the yields to be insufficient for supply. In addition, there was insufficient economic specialization in many areas of life, which, however, took place in sedentary societies. Because of this often precarious livelihood, equestrian peoples were dependent on the exchange with settled societies in the agrarian cultural zone and on their agricultural and handicraft resources, which resulted in a situation of tension known as an "endemic conflict". This not infrequently led to violent conflicts, with militarily potent equestrian peoples practicing a real policy of forcing economically relevant tribute payments from neighboring wealthy empires (as in the case of the Huns against Rome or in the Far East the Xiongnu and the following groups against China), according to you To stabilize structures of rule.

Only very rarely is even with the mounted Indian peoples of the Americas, which made between the 16th and 18th centuries, introduced by the Europeans Horse advantage of horse people talk. In contrast to the " ethnic groups of the Old World ", however, they did not have their entire economic life on horseback: Above all, the periodic change of place of residence among the Indians was largely done on foot.

The classic equestrian peoples of Eurasia

Mongol riders in the 14th century
Due to the enormous mobility that the horse gave the Huns, they were able to penetrate as far as Central Europe in a short time.

Historical equestrian peoples

Contacts with classical equestrian peoples influenced different cultures in the Eurasian area. This applies at the latest beginning with the Scythians , who already existed in the 6th century BC. They threatened the border of the Achaemenid Empire and were still a danger in Hellenistic times . They appeared early on in the field of vision of ancient historians and had a lasting impact on the image of equestrian peoples in the West, as their name served as a generic term for mobile tribal groups of nomadic character. They were followed by numerous groups who, like them, were often not ethnically uniform. Mention should be made of the Sarmatians , who are related to the Scythians , the Kimmerer , Saken and the Parner (who, according to tradition, founded the Parthian Empire in Iran in the 3rd century BC ).

In late antiquity , the Greco-Roman and Iranian worlds came into contact with various equestrian peoples, including the various groups of the Iranian Huns in Central Asia , who penetrated as far as northern India in the early 6th century. In Europe, the “real” Huns appeared , then the Kutrigurs , Onogurs , Sabirs , Utigurs and, in the transition to the early Middle Ages, the Avars and Proto-Bulgarians .

In the Middle Ages, the Khazars , Magyars , Pechenegs and Cumans were added, until the Mongols broke in in the 13th century ( Mongol storm ), who had previously established a great empire in East Asia under Genghis Khan .

In any case, the main area of ​​action of equestrian peoples was above all the steppe zone between the northern edge of the Black Sea, further to Central and then to East Asia, to the border of the powerful Chinese Empire . At the northern border of China around 200 BC. The tribal federation of the Xiongnu formed, which should play an important role in the Chinese history. Numerous other equestrian peoples followed on the Chinese northern border or in the adjacent steppe area, for example the Yuezhi , Tabgatsch , Wusun , Xianbei , Rouran , Kök Turks (who established an important but relatively short-lived empire), Uyghurs , Kara Kitai , Jurchen , the already mentioned Mongols, Kyrgyz and Kalmyks .

The reports of ancient and medieval as well as Chinese historians who reported on these contacts and conflicts are significant . The classically oriented Greek historians (from late antiquity to Byzantium ), for example, referred to the horsemen from the steppes that followed the Huns, often simply referred to as "Huns". But this says nothing about their origin, since this term, like "Skythe" before, was often only a stylistic device (in the sense of an ethnographic generic term) used by the Greek historians to designate peoples in the Pontic steppe area north of the Black Sea. For example, after the end of the Huns in the Balkans (454/55), the already mentioned Kutrigurs, Onogurs and Utigurs were sometimes referred to as Huns, although their exact classification is problematic. A major role here is that political units (tribes) in the steppe zone were often heterogeneously composed and only loosely organized.

In this context it should not be overlooked that many sources portray the equestrian peoples in a very negative way. This is not least due to the military clashes between equestrian peoples and settled civilizations, whereby equestrian warriors were usually the aggressors, but not a few representations are characterized by typical topical "barbarian images" and sometimes distort the historical view. This is absolutely independent of the other quality of the presentation, because even an otherwise reliable historian like Ammianus Marcellinus followed the barbarian topos in his excursion into the Huns. On the other hand, the account of the historian Priskos about the court of Attilas , king of the Huns , which Priskos visited as a member of a Roman delegation in 449, is quite sober.

Avars equestrian bow
Skythe stretching a double recurve composite bow, drawing from a Scythian electrum cup from
Kul'-Oba ( Crimea )

The armament of to horse fighting rider was easy to transport, but effective: These included primarily arrow and bow as one of the oldest missile weapons. In addition, battle axes (later also maces ) and lances were used. Typical of steppe nomads from the early Scythians until the introduction of firearms were recurve bows (also equestrian bows ) with curved tips and grip areas (double recurver bows) in a double S shape. These were bows in composite construction made of glued wood, horn and sinews, which gave them such great elasticity and stability that the arrows of the riders achieved much greater range and penetration than the arrows of the simple D-shaped, wooden longbows . Some archaeologists suspect that these composite bows were neither invented by the equestrian peoples nor used exclusively by them, but are older. However, because of their long range in the open steppes and their small size, they were ideal for equestrian use.

However, their tactics were innovative. The equestrian peoples (also called steppe riders or equestrian nomads) have in common that they were militarily superior to their opponents on suitable terrain due to their speed and flexible fighting technique . The tactic of "needle pricks" with long-range weapons and immediate flight in case of danger had nothing to oppose foot troops or heavily armored cavalry (see: Parthian maneuver ). B. with the conquest of Mesopotamia by the Mongols . Outside of their only extensively managed areas of origin with extensive pastures, the equestrian peoples often had supply problems and were either wiped out in the long term ( Otto the Great's victory in the battle on the Lechfeld ) or settled in the conquered areas. This often resulted in a social stratification of the indigenous population.

They left some clear marks on the material culture of the West. Militarily went on z. B. not only the lance of the lancers or the bell tree of the former Ottoman military music back, but above all innovations in the fortification technology of the cities. On the other hand, Spain and Portugal owe their irrigation culture and much more originally to Berber riders.

Nomads and high agricultural cultures

Historical sociology was created by Alexander Rüstow the importance expansive reiternomadischer cultures highlighted the existential contrast to rural and sedentary societies intense social change brought. Central is the relationship between equestrian nomads and the settled peoples, be it in Europe, in Central Asia (as compared to Persia in antiquity) or on the border of China (starting there primarily with the Xiongnu and then continued by other groups into the Early modern times ). There was always an interrelation between steppe and agricultural land, and it was a dynamic process that repeatedly led to military conflicts and the formation of political power, an "endemic conflict". This interplay between nomads and high agrarian cultures determined the rhythm of the history of Asia for millennia.

Riding nomads developed a way of life that enabled them to survive in an ecologically sensitive region through specialization, whereby a distinction should be made between steppe oaks , riding nomads and equestrian warriors . The various horsemen and steppe peoples led a partly different way of life, especially since some of these heterogeneously composed groups later only lived a semi-nomadic way of life. Their respective, differently extensive territories also included urban centers, especially since in Central Asia not only equestrian nomads have been occupied since antiquity, but also urban regions. In this context, steppe empires often relied on the economic and administrative skills available there (for example the Gök Turks on the Sogdians , see Maniakh , or the Mongolian Yuan dynasty on Chinese officials). Chance of even their own towns were founded by them, Karabalgasun of the Uyghur or Karakorum by the Mongols.

Nomads were often not completely self-sufficient, but relied on exchanges with agrarian societies. This primarily affected food, but above all luxury goods and sometimes weapons. The products were often bartered with agricultural societies, who were given animal products (such as furs and milk) and animals in return. The equestrian tribes were also important in terms of securing trade routes. This arrangement had the problem, however, that the agricultural countries were not equally dependent on the nomads' livestock products, so that prices rose and the nomads lost their "sales market". The result were military conflicts to secure the livelihoods of equestrian tribes, who now tried by force to achieve what normal trade did not allow them to do. In addition, there were also climatic changes that particularly affected the way of life of nomads.

In order to be able to maintain effective contact with agrarian societies, it was necessary for the tribes to organize themselves structurally. Equestrian peoples did not have a complex, organized rulership structure, but as a rule acted in very loosely organized associations that could well be composed of different tribes. It was not a question of rigid ethnic associations; rather, other groups could join the tribe as long as they were willing to obey the tribal leader. The size of such groups was therefore subject to a dynamic process, with the success of the tribal leader being decisive in keeping the association together. In this context, the prospect of rich booty played a role in several associations of cavalry warriors (who should be distinguished from pure equestrian nomads): They later often largely gave up their nomadic way of life in order to then spend the constant supply of supplies and prestige goods wealthy neighbors, be it through acts of war or through tribute payments. These goods were distributed among the top management and their warriors' appendages in order to ensure their own claim to power within the association. This applies, among other things, to the Huns at the time of Attila (see below).

Relatively well researched on the basis of the sources are the relationships between the steppe peoples and China, with its cultural and economic superiority and a differentiated political structure. This often resulted in “ confederations ” of equestrian peoples who had organized themselves rudimentarily under a leadership group and now raided the Chinese border zone in order to contractually force tributes and trade rights from the Chinese emperor. However, due to their very loose structure and limited objectives, such associations only had a limited lifespan. The Mongols were the only group in the central steppe zone that managed to conquer the Chinese heartland, making them an exception and not the rule.

Approximate extent of the Hun Empire under Attila and dependent tribes

Securing one's own supply, however, is only one aspect of the relationship between steppe and agricultural land. There could also be military ventures by equestrian tribes that were exclusively geared towards profit and that were not triggered by any previous action or external factors (such as climate changes). This applies, for example, to the Huns invading the Roman Empire from the beginning of the 4th century, which aimed primarily at securing material goods. In the 430s and 440s, Attila , the ruler of the Huns , deliberately played with this policy towards the Western and Eastern Roman Empire in order to stabilize his own following. However, when it came to a decisive conflict with the Western Roman Empire in 451 and Attila was effectively defeated, the cohesion of his empire crumbled, which only dissolved shortly after his death in 453.

Similar behavior applies to the so-called Iranian Huns (see Kidarites , Alchon , Nezak and Hephthalites ) in Central Asia in late antiquity , who expanded at the expense of the Sassanid Empire , threatened its north-eastern border and, in some cases, extorted money, such as the Kidarites and Hephthalites. The history of China, in turn, has been shaped by the centuries-long efforts of numerous steppe tribes on the Chinese northern border to obtain money and goods from the imperial government or even to conquer parts of China and use them for their needs.

Equestrian tribes were often urgently dependent on the resources (money and goods) of the much richer sedentary cultures, as numerous examples of contacts between steppe peoples and China show (as well as between Huns and Rome, see above). Successful subjugation of the agricultural state was not absolutely necessary for the equestrian tribes to secure their own interests; Rather, it can often be observed that nomadic societies were satisfied with the existence on the fringes of agrarian societies, but only through this represented a potential threat and were thus able to reinforce demands. This happened in the case of the Xiongnu against the Chinese Han dynasty and in the case of the Huns against Rome; in order to avoid a conflict, money or luxury goods flowed to the respective tribes. In China, the targeted action to appease the Xiongnu, who lived around 200 BC, was adopted. Acted aggressively against the newly founded empire of China, known as heqin policy.

The Xiongnu, on the other hand, basically required Chinese tribute payments from an economic point of view, since their own way of life was not a sufficient material basis. This procedure had a major impact on the respective tribes, where the leaders used the money and gifts received to bind subordinates to themselves. In this sense, the Xiongnu (as well as other equestrian peoples who pursued such a policy towards states in the settled zone) were dependent on the economic prosperity of the Han Empire. However, the Chinese Han finally gave up this appeasement policy in the 2nd century BC. And went militarily successful on the offensive, which hit the loosely established tribal association of the Xiongnu.

The pattern of behavior towards China conceived by the Xiongnu was often copied in the following period in the context of contacts between nomadic equestrian tribes (both towards China and briefly towards Rome and Persia); the subsequent equestrian tribes generally endeavored to share in the disproportionately greater material wealth, be it through direct military confrontations or indirect pressure. However, this led to a dependency of the affected tribes (so-called prestige economy ) and which therefore repeatedly appeared as a threat factor.

Only when the material services failed to materialize did a conflict arise. Military actions in turn made it necessary to create a contingent that was always available, which in turn partly led to the fact that the leaders of individual associations saw themselves compelled to force other tribes or tribal associations by fighting under their suzerainty. This structure formed the nomadic rule. However, the military pressure of the ruling tribes was also an important factor in the formation of rule among nomadic tribes. If the attempt of (partial) conquest was made, the agricultural population had to be controlled, which, however, led to their rapid assimilation due to the numerical inferiority of the nomads. The attempt to take over the civil administration of the subjugated agricultural state also led to linguistic assimilation and mixed marriages. In later uprisings, the elimination of the originally nomadic upper class was no longer a major problem.

The Mongolian equestrian people ruled most of Asia in the middle of the 13th century.

In the case of China, the Xiongnu even tried to found their own states on the soil of the empire; these, however, proceeded from the already sinized southern Xiongnu, who settled in the 1st century BC. BC to the Chinese (see Liu Cong , who conquered the two capitals of China 311 and 316 respectively). Some of the following steppe tribes also tried to establish a state in China, although apart from the Mongols they only temporarily conquered or ruled parts of the northern border region. The Mongols, on the other hand (who also established a great empire in the Russian steppe, see Golden Horde ) were driven out again after less than 100 years (fall of the Yuan dynasty in 1368) before the Manchus conquered China in 1644 and founded the last imperial dynasty ( Qing dynasty ).

The equestrian cultures of America

North American Cheyenne used horses as draft animals for Travois .
The Mapuche are considered the quintessential South American equestrian nation.

The adoption of the horse from the Spaniards and Portuguese by numerous Indian peoples led to a profound cultural change in the affected ethnic groups.

The early Spanish expeditions to North America brought horses with them. Runaway horses feral and spread relatively quickly in southwest North America, the Great Basin and the Great Plains from the 16th century (see distribution map ) . They were captured by many Indians in these regions and integrated into their culture. From this the culture of the Plains Indians developed .

At the same time , indigenous equestrian cultures emerged in various cultural areas of South America , especially in the southern cone of the continent ( Patagonia ) and in the savannah areas of Colombia , which expanded strongly in the 17th and 18th centuries. Among other things, this also influenced the Argentinean gaucho culture.

In many cases, the native American ethnic groups (as known from Eurasian history) initially valued the horses as hunting prey and food and only later kept them as riding horses and status symbols. The capture and domestication of feral horses (see also: Mustang and Cimarrón ) , but also the theft and capture of horses in war, gave the Indians advantages in terms of food production, be it through slaughter and consumption of the protein-rich horse meat, be it through the Keeping it as a farm animal and using it for hunting and military campaigns.

Those groups that integrated the horse into their culture became more mobile and were able to spread into previously inaccessible areas. A large part of the barren steppe and savannah landscapes of North and South America was only settled after the introduction of the horse. Horses simplified the previously tedious hunt for bison, which lived in the millions in North America . The same applies to the hunt for guanacos and rheas in southern South America. There, however, the massive increase in feral cattle, which also served as a new source of food, and the use of horses in the fight against the Spanish invaders played an even more prominent role.

Formerly small or weaker tribes such as the Comanche , Lakota or Cheyenne in the north or the Charrúa , Toba or Tehuelche in the south developed a completely new war culture. In particular, SC Gwynne describes the Comanches' increase in power between around 1625 and 1750 as one of the greatest social and military transformations in history. In addition to the military, more recent research also focuses on other cultural and economic consequences of the use of the horse. Different and very diverse strategies for development and survival can be observed, which the indigenous groups linked to the keeping of horses: The possibilities of existence as a horse owner ranged from the dreaded robber to the cattle breeder to the successful trader.


  • Bodo Anke: Studies on the equestrian nomadic culture of the 4th to 5th century. (= Contributions to the prehistory and early history of Central Europe. Volume 8.). 2 parts. Beier & Beran, Wilkau-Haßlau 1998, ISBN 3-930036-11-8 .
  • Bodo Anke, László Révész, Tivadar Vida: Equestrian Peoples in the Early Middle Ages. Huns - Avars - Hungary. Stuttgart 2008.
  • Christoph Baumer : The History of Central Asia. 4 volumes. IB Tauris, London 2012–2018. [comprehensive, up-to-date and richly illustrated presentation taking into account the numerous equestrian peoples in Central Asia]
  • Thomas Barfield: Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China. Blackwell, Cambridge (MA) / Oxford 1989 (ND 1992).
  • Nicola Di Cosmo, Michael Maas (Eds.): Empires and Exchanges in Eurasian Late Antiquity. Rome, China, Iran, and the Steppe, ca. 250–750. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2018.
  • Nicola Di Cosmo: Ancient China and its Enemies. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2002.
  • René Grousset : The steppe peoples. Munich 1970. [depiction outdated in details, but rich in material]
  • Hyun Jin Kim: The Huns. Routledge, New York 2016. [current, in individual conclusions on the origin and role of the Huns, but not unproblematic introduction]
  • Elçin Kürşat-Ahlers : On the early formation of states by steppe peoples - On the socio- and psychogenesis of the Eurasian nomadic empires using the example of the Xiongnu and Gök Turks with an excursus on the Scythians (= social science writings. Issue 28). Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1994, ISBN 3-428-07761-X , ISSN 0935-4808.
  • Peter Mitchell: Horse Nations. The Worldwide Impact of the Horse on Indigenous Societies Post-1492. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2015, ISBN 978-0-19-870383-9 .
  • Walter Pohl : The Avars. 2nd Edition. Beck, Munich 2002. [important presentation going beyond the topic of Avars]
  • Walter Pohl, Carola Metzner-Nebelsick , Falko Daim : equestrian nomads. In: Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde . Volume 24. de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2003, pp. 395ff.
  • St. John Simpson, Svetlana Pankova (Ed.): Scythians. Warriors of ancient Siberia. Thames & Hudson, London 2017.
  • Michael Schmauder: The Huns. An equestrian people in Europe. WBG, Darmstadt 2009. [richly illustrated introduction]
  • Timo Stickler : The Huns. CH Beck, Munich 2007.

Web links

Wiktionary: Reitervolk  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. Cf. briefly summarized Timo Stickler : The Huns. Munich 2007, p. 12ff.
  2. Olaf Kaltmeier: In the Controversy of Orders: Cultural Identity, Subsistence and Ecology in Bolivia. Wiesbaden 2013, p. 2; Angela Sendlinger: New universal encyclopedia in color: over 50,000 keywords. Munich 2008, p. 35; Herbert Wilhelmy, Gerd Kohlhepp: Geographical research in South America. Selected contributions. Berlin 1980, p. 26; Günther Hartmann: Araucans silver jewelry. Chile. Berlin 1974. p. 9.
  3. Comprehensive overview (in terms of individual questions and interpretations, but partly clearly outdated) in René Grousset: Die Steppevölker. Munich 1970.
  4. Walter Pohl: The Avars. Munich 2002, p. 21ff.
  5. For a summary, see Hyun Jin Kim: The Huns. New York 2016, p. 4ff.
  6. ^ Equestrian nomads. In: Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde . Volume 24. Berlin / New York 2003, p. 396 f.
  7. Ammianus 31.2.
  8. Priskos, Fragment 8 (in the edition by Pia Carolla).
  9. See the first three articles from Michael Bittl: Reflexbogen. History and origin. Ludwigshafen 2009, pp. 26–67 about Scythian arches, possible Neolithic, Assyrian and Egyptian precursors and an arch from the Taklamakan desert as well as Greco-Roman and Persian examples.
  10. Location of the Present , Vol. 1, 1950.
  11. Nicola Di Cosmo: Ancient China and its Enemies. Cambridge 2002, pp. 161ff.
  12. ^ Equestrian nomads. In: Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde . Volume 24. Berlin / New York 2003, p. 396.
  13. For the research there see Burkart Dähne: Karabalgasun - city of nomads. The archaeological excavations of the Uyghur capital Karabalgasun in the context of the settlement research of late nomadic tribes in eastern Central Asia. Reichert, Wiesbaden 2017, ISBN 978-3-95490-126-5 .
  14. See also Thomas Barfield: Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China. Cambridge (MA) / Oxford 1989, pp. 20ff.
  15. See Wolfgang-Ekkehard Scharlipp: The early Turks in Central Asia. Darmstadt 1992, p. 7.
  16. ^ Thomas Barfield: Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China. Cambridge (MA) / Oxford 1989, pp. 24-28.
  17. See Rudi Paul Lindner: What was a nomadic tribe? In: Comparative Studies in Society and History 24, 1982, pp. 689–711, here p. 701.
  18. See Timo Stickler: The Huns. Munich 2007, p. 14ff .; Rene Pfeilschifter: Late Antiquity. The one God and the many rulers. Munich 2014, p. 161f.
  19. See Thomas Barfield: Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China. Cambridge (MA) / Oxford 1989, p. 8ff.
  20. ^ Thomas Barfield: Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China. Cambridge (MA) / Oxford 1989, pp. 187ff.
  21. Klaus Rosen : Attila. Munich 2016.
  22. See Jürgen Paul: Zentralasien. Frankfurt am Main 2012, p. 62ff.
  23. ^ Thomas Barfield: Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China. Cambridge (MA) / Oxford 1989, p. 32ff.
  24. Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer: Small history of China. Munich 2008, p. 48; Kai Vogelsang : History of China. 3rd revised and updated edition, Stuttgart 2013, p. 145.
  25. See also Thomas Barfield: Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China. Cambridge (MA) / Oxford 1989, pp. 45ff.
  26. Nicola Di Cosmo: Ancient China and its Enemies. Cambridge 2002, pp. 206ff.
  27. See introductory Timo Stickler: The Huns. Munich 2007, p. 10ff.
  28. For the phases of Chinese history, see the current overview at Kai Vogelsang: Geschichte Chinas. 3rd revised and updated edition, Stuttgart 2013.
  29. ^ SC Gwynne: Empire of the Summer Moon. New York 2010, p. 33
  30. Jürgen Döring: Cultural change among the North American Plains Indians: On the role of the horse among the Comanches and the Cheyenne. Reimer, Berlin 1984, pp. 23, 102-104.
  31. ^ Helmut Schindler: Equestrian and Non-Equestrian Indians of the Gran Chaco during the Colonial Period. In: Indiana. No. 10, Gebr. Mann 1985. ISSN  0341-8642 . Pp. 451-464; Ludwig Kersten: The Indian tribes of the Gran Chaco up to the end of the 18th century. A contribution to the historical ethnography of South America. International Archives for Ethnography, Volume XVII, Leiden (NL) 1905. pp. 17–19; Uruguay - From pre-Columbian times to the conquest. Retrieved January 26, 2016, from countrystudies.us, US Library of Congress.
  32. ^ SC Gwynne: Empire of the Summer Moon. New York 2010, p. 35.
  33. ^ Peter Mitchell: Horse Nations. The Worldwide Impact of the Horse on Indigenous Societies Post-1492. Oxford 2015, p. 19 f.