Was Bonaparte short? And other related issues…

My prior post on Bonaparte’s physical appeareance in 1800 sparked very interesting comments, some of which call for their own post.

Napoleon Bonaparte Boilly

Napoleon Bonaparte by Boilly

One of the commenters was Carlyn Beccia, author of The Raucous Royals and the very entertaining blog of the same name. As for the specific issue of Bonaparte’s height compared to his contemporaries, Carlyn kindly referred me to the work of Richard Steckel, a professor of economics and anthropology at Ohio State University. See also this.

Carlyn remarked that Professor Steckel has determined that the average height of Frenchmen at the time, based on military statistics, would be 5 foot 4 and a half inches in the English system. That would indeed make Bonaparte, at over five foot six, taller than average. Unfortunately, I was unable to find Professor Steckel’s study on French soldiers on the internet. If you have a link handy, Carlyn, please send it.

Also I wonder whether the recent discoveries of mass graves of Grande Armée soldiers in Vilnius, Lithania, confirm Professor Steckel’s statistics. But then one could argue that the Grande Armée comprised many non-French troops. All very complicated.

Now, about the fact that Bonaparte had been nicknamed le Petit Caporal (“The Little Corporal”) by some of his soldiers, I don’t think if proves anything one way of the other.  In French petit is an all-purpose term of endearment,
devoid of any implication of height. For
instance, a Frenchwoman’s petit ami (literally “little friend”) is her boyfriend, even
if the young man in question is a seven-footer. In this case, Bonaparte’s nickname simply reflected his popularity with the troops.

Some of his contemporaries, for instance Madame Vigée-Lebrun in her Memoirs, or the great Chouan leader Georges Cadoudal in his reported statements to some of his associates, did remark on Bonaparte’s short stature. Were these politically-tainted misperceptions? The mystery persists…

Napoleon David detail

Napoleon David detail

Also El Jefe Maximo wondered in his comment whether the weight gained by Bonaparte by the time he crowned himself Emperor, only four years later, came in part from enjoying a much better and richer diet than when he had been a junior officer. I don’t believe so. Bonaparte had become a Brigadier General as early as 1793. He had become affluent enough to afford any diet he liked long before he seized power in 1799. So what is the explanation?

Maybe it was the natural slowing of metabolism we all experience as we age, but Bonaparte was only in his early to mid-thirties. It is a surprisingly rapid change in someone who, as El Jefe notes, had little interest in food. Bonaparte also retained an active lifestyle until 1815.

I will risk a wild and admittedly unsupported guess here: was this weight gain a symptom of some endocrine disorder? And would this be related to his relatively early death at the age of 51?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email