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?

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14 Comments to “Was Bonaparte short? And other related issues…”

  1. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks for stopping by and for the link, Bob! And congratulations on your ownership of such priceless historical pieces.

  2. Bob says:

    My family actually owns a shield and two swords that were owned by Napoleon Bonaparte himself. I posted some close up photos and a short video on my blog in case you’re interested.
    http://www.napoleonshield.com Take care – Bob

  3. Catherine Delors says:

    Stay tuned, Penny, I am working on a post on the cause of Bonaparte’s death!

  4. Penny Klein says:

    Thank you for this post. I still do not know why he invaded Russia, given all the logistical problems, or am i over estimating his intelligence and command capabilities? if he did not die of cancer, what did he die of and i am surprised that they won’t test the dna of the body. assuming there is a way to determine definitively.

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    Richard – I did take several day trips to the Invalides (a great place to visit anyway, with the amazing collections of the Musee de l’Armee in the former hospital) but the French Army, which is in charge of the monument, refuses to allow any scientific testing of the remains.

    I believe any controversy as to the cause of death has been laid to rest (non-metastatic carcinoma of the stomach) but the identity of the body is still hotly debated.

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you for the great historical detail, Jefe! You obviously know far more than I about Napoleon’s campaigns.

    I agree with you about the political calculus. His regime, even at the height of his reign, was extremely fragile and remained contingent on either peace or an endless string of victories. I think it is Fouche in his Memoirs who says that Bonaparte would not survive his first defeat.

  7. Richard says:

    The Ogre being buried in the “Invalids”
    is it not possible to take a day trip and get the information from a source there?


  8. You might be on the right track with the endocrine disorder…Napoleon really seems to have slowed down from about 1808 forward. In his 1812, 1813 campaigns he oversleeps a lot (very unlike him in 1796, 1800 and 1805-07), and there are specific periods in which he is just well — out of it — a famous example from the Waterloo campaign: the morning of 17 June 1815, (after Ligny), when he should be up early and about figuring where the Prussians went and what to do about the English over towards Quatre Bras. As it was, he didn’t give poor Grouchy his instructions till very late in the morning.

    It’s almost like he’s in this fugue state. Then he shakes it off and goes manic for a time, then the process repeats.

    However, the very nature of his position had, to some degree, to be itself debilitating. This emerges particularly in Russia, from about Smolensk on. The Emperor was too intelligent not to know that he was losing the campaign; that, quite probably, he was already beaten. He had not been able to bring the Russian armies to battle, so far, and the logistical problems were already nightmarish. He had to be uncomfortably aware that he had entered into a contest that he literally could not afford to lose — that every enterprise, from the moment he took the crown onward, had to be an uninterrupted succession of triumphs. When it started to go bad, the psychological strain of holding all that up just had to be quite a burden. He was amazing, but he was a just a man. I think that this accounts for his hesitency at Smolensk through Moscow, which possibly definitively lost him the campaign — but he recovered his balance in the retreat….but the same issue re-appeared in 1813, when the political calculus just got beyond him.

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    Well, Elizabeth, your guess was correct about the height. Probably in 1800 Bonaparte was no bulkier than Nelson, if that.

  10. Very interesting post Catherine. I had always assumed that Napoleon was around 5 foot 6, just a little bit taller than Nelson who was also pretty short. His uniform displayed at Greenwich is positivly tiny.

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you for the links, Carlyn! Most interesting, especially how Steckel study mentions the spread of infectious disease fostered by the urbanization of Europe, and how the other link (to Bonaparte’s cause of death) points to an infectious agent (Helicobacter Pylori) as the cause of his stomach cancer. If anyone still wants to add to my unscientific endocrine-disorder theory, please feel free…

    Frankly, I had to study in detail Bonaparte’s life around 1800 for my second novel, but I am no expert on the circumstances of his death. I happened on several French and English-speaking websites that discuss a related question: whether the body buried in the Invalides in Paris is his. Some serious controversy going on, and the French military, in charge of the site, refuses to allow scientific testing.

    Finally, your tight-pant theory (or rather tight-breeches, because at the time pants, a working-class garment, were always loose) is not so far fetched. It was indeed an unbecoming fashion, and one that left, shall we say, little to the imagination. But then people would also have noted Bonaparte’s bulging stomach in 1800, while in fact everyone remarked on how thin he was.

  12. Hi Catherine,

    Oh, I thought I posted the link. Here’s a link to the Steckel’s most recent research

    I think you need a subscription to access so here is an older link:
    (I am not sure if it has the most up to date research)

    It’s interesting research not only in this debate of average heights in the early 19th century, but also in the larger context of why Americans are starting to get shorter again. The obvious conclusion is to blame it on our diet of processed food. But so many factors affect height.

    I think you hit on one the big reasons why Napoleon’s contemporaries viewed him a short. Nick names can be powerful image makers. Also, Napoleon was thin (in his younger days) and like you said, petite has nothing to do with height.

    Another powerful nick name was the “Little Boney” cartoons by those always sarcastic British. That nickname surely hurt Napoleon’s reputation as a dominating figure in history.

    The endocrine disorder is an interesting theory. And I think El Jefe Maximo hit on an interesting aspect of weight too – Napoleon did see food as a fuel. He seems too disciplined to get fat from food. Also, during this time the pamphleteers were attacking gluttony as one of the worst vices, especially in an age where so many people could not afford to be fat.

    I also have a far fetched theory, but one I will throw out there to ponder – his pants made him look fat. Seriously… those tight pants and short jackets had to be the most unflattering dress in history. Anyone would look 10 pounds heavier in that costume.:)

    You should blog about his death (in your spare time ha ha )! Although scientists seem to close the subject, (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/61089.php), I still think the murder conspiracy plots are fascinating.

  13. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Sophia!

  14. Sophia says:

    Very interesting, as usual.
    Thank you Catherine.

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