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French history myths: Napoleon Bonaparte was short

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French history myths: Napoleon Bonaparte was short
A memorial to French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is pictured at the Casone Square in his birth city of Ajaccio, Corsica, on March 15, 2021. (Photo by PASCAL POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP)

Think of the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and you'll likely picture a short man with his hand tucked into his jacket - but only one of these things is true.

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Myth: Napoleon Bonaparte was unusually small in stature

You are probably accustomed to seeing Napoleon represented in a specific way: always wearing military garb with his hand tucked inside his jacket.

Napoleon was quite concerned with portraying himself as a gentleman - which is also why he is frequently shown in paintings or statues with his hand inside his coat - the gesture is meant to demonstrate "gentlemanly restraint" and was associated with nobility

But probably the first thing that really likely comes to mind is that Napoleon was very small.

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Legend has it that Napoleon was irritable and power-hungry, plagued from having been bullied as a child for his lacklustre French, Corsican origins, and of course small stature.

This theory is so widely accepted in in popular culture that we even use his name to describe short man syndrome: the 'Napoleon complex,' which involves a person over-compensating for their physical or social shortcomings by seeking power.

But the nickname the General would go on to earn: Le Petit Caporal, translated as “The Little Corporal,” did not have anything to do with the man's height. 

In reality, Napoleon was likely of average height for the time period. The nickname actually was simply intended as a term of affection by his soldiers.

Napoleon was reportedly 5 foot 2 inches, but it is important to consider that the inch at the time was equivalent to roughly 2.7 centimetres. Thus, Napoleon was likely around 1.69 metres in height (a bit above 5 foot 5 inches nowadays).

This would have made him around an average adult male's height at the time. 

But we know of Napoleon as short because of English cartoonists who spread the trope of a "Little Boney" - a small, childish version of the Emperor of the French.

The below image was published in 1803 when the two countries were at war, so essentially what we're seeing here is one country's wartime propaganda.

The English cartoonist James Gillray's caricature shows: “The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State epicures taking un petit souper.” It shows the tall, British Prime Minister at the time eating half of a carved Earth, while a young looking Napoleon, sporting oversized boots and clothing takes a bite out of Europe.

Napoleon eventually even complained about the cartoons, asking for them to be censored, but to no avail. 

Before his death, Napoleon reportedly said that Gillray “did more than all the armies of Europe to bring me down.” 

Much of the world went on to remember him as the petty, short man depicted by the British press - which just goes to show that history is written - or at least drawn - by the victors.

This article is part of our August series on myths and misconceptions about French history.

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matthew.preston80 2022/08/04 17:58
I'm 168cm tall, so I'm partly relieved to discover that used to be average, I always claim it is 5'6" though 😹 At Fontainebleau, they have one of Napoleon's dress tunics, and while it wasn't tiny it looked too small for me - surprisingly they didn't let me try it on though!

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