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Was Napoleon really short?

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Was Napoleon really short?

Postby FBC-Elvas, Portugal » April 30th, 2016, 8:46 pm

Nearly 200 years after his death, there are only two things that almost everyone uniformly knows about Napoleon Bonaparte: He was French, and he was short. Bonaparte was indeed French, but at about 5’7”, he was taller than the average Frenchman of the time. Taller, in fact, than recent French president Nicolas Sarkozy. The only reason we think otherwise is because of one of the most successful trolling campaigns of all time. Napoleon hated being depicted as short, and that’s exactly why 19th century Brits set out to do it as much as humanly possible.

The standard explanation for Napoleon’s mistaken shortness is that French inches of the era were slightly longer than those in England, so his reported height of 5’2” was mistranslated. Nevertheless, this doesn’t explain why British cartoons from the latter years of the Napoleonic Wars have a persistent theme of the Frenchman being ridiculously small.

As is now tradition with leaders who take their countries to war with Britain, Napoleon spent years as a favourite punching bag for English caricaturists. A particularly scatological cartoon from 1798, for instance, showed Napoleon standing pantsless on the French coast and farting out a storm of balloons and guillotines aimed at the English.

But the “tiny Napoleon” trope did not start until 1803, according to Tim Clayton, a British expert on Napoleonic-era propaganda. It was that year that saw the publication of a famed cartoon known as “Maniac ravings or Little Boney in a strong fit.” In it, the famed caricaturist James Gillray portrays a diminutive Bonaparte flipping over furniture in a childish temper tantrum while raving about the “British Parliament” and “London Newspapers! Oh! Oh! Oh!”

Before the circulation of Little Boney, Napoleon “was of normal stature,” Clayton noted in an email to the National Post.
It is not known whether Gillray invented the “short Napoleon” trope, or whether he borrowed it from anti-Napoleon pamphlets. Regardless, a short-tempered, child-sized Napoleon soon became the accepted standard for caricatures of the Frenchman.

British readers could soon see a miniscule Napoleon wearing oversized boots and shaking his fist across the Channel. Or trying to talk tough beneath an enormous bicorne hat dwarfing his entire body. Or struggling to pull a sword from an unwieldy scabbard that dragged along the ground as he walked. Napoleon, like most militaristic autocrats, didn’t like any of this short-staturing one bit.

During a brief period of Franco-British peace in the early 1800s, the French leader sent a flurry of diplomatic notes across the English Channel demanding that Britain censor its press. The French leader even took it so far as to see his mocking depictions as a “deliberate provocation,” as the historian Frederick Kagan wrote in a 2007 history of Napoleon. Bonaparte had been able to order tight controls on the French press, which had previously been among the most free and liberalized in the world.

Much like today, Britons took quiet pride in their outrageous media, and ignored the French demands. By late 1803, redcoats were back to shooting at the French anyway, so the point became moot. Much like anyone else who tries to conquer Europe, Napoleon had a well-documented vision of himself as a “great man” of history. “Even when I am gone, I shall remain in people’s minds the star of their rights,” he would write. But after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, as Napoleon shuffled around in exile on the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, he seemed to harbour worries that the cartoonists might have done permanent damage to his carefully cultivated superman image. Before he died, the exiled Emperor reportedly said that Gillray “did more than all the armies of Europe to bring me down.”

It’s the highest compliment that can ever be paid to a political cartoonist — which makes its authenticity all the more suspicious. But regardless of who said it, they were absolutely right. A pissy, tiny Napoleon has now become as iconic an image as a crazy-haired Albert Einstein. Small Napoleons can be seen everywhere from Garmin commercials, a 1956 Bugs Bunny short, the 1970s cartoon Schoolhouse Rock!, the 1989 film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the short-lived Jack-of-All-Trades, in which he was played by 2’8” actor Verne Troyer.

And in 1995, exactly two hundred years after the pivotal French Revolutionary battle in which Napoleon began his rise to power, young Millennials could have tuned into an episode of the cartoon Pinky and the Brain in which Brain, an Orson Welles-esque mouse, is mistaken for the inches-tall French Emperor. As one palace onlooker whispers to another as Brain-Napoleon enters the room, “he really is tiny.”

Source: http://news.nationalpost.com/news/great ... -was-short

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Re: Was Napoleon really short?

Postby janner » April 30th, 2016, 9:40 pm

The whole thing reminds me of a certain property tycoon's obsession with portrayals of his allegedly tiny hands ;)
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Re: Was Napoleon really short?

Postby Mark » May 1st, 2016, 8:12 pm

I remember studying Gillray's cartoons for one of my history units at Oxford University - quite interesting! You can find more on him here: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-br ... caricature

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Re: Was Napoleon really short?

Postby DaveH » May 28th, 2016, 11:56 pm

This actually got a mention on a BBC2 prog about Beethoven's 5th Symphony with Ian Hislop shown this evening - it showed various artefacts in the recent British Museum exhibition about the British propaganda in the period. http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/p ... itish.aspx Apparently, it was more about depicting Napoleon as small compared with British soldiers to suggest he wasn't a real threat, rather than any direct barb about his height.

Useless fact of the day: Napoleon and Beethoven were the same height! :roll:
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Re: Was Napoleon really short?

Postby Will M » May 31st, 2016, 1:24 pm

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