A set of lies agreed upon

My French grandmother said everything with an air of authority I’ve never quite encountered in Americans so that when she told me at a young age that Napoleon Bonaparte was a very short man, I believed this to be highly significant.

She went on to explain that Emperor Napoleon liked to be surrounded by tall men, and thus, due to the height requirements of the Imperial Guard, a large proportion of France’s tall men were killed in battle, thus forever changing France’s genetic makeup. That’s why the French people are short! she said, again with such authority that I never questioned it.

Napoleon probably didn't say "A picture is worth a thousand words" either.

This generally accepted piece of information about “le petit caporal” has even led to the (usually considered derogatory) term “Napoleon complex” that refers to the phenomenon in which shorter people (usually men) tend to be overly aggressive in order to compensate for their lack of stature.

Except, like most oft-repeated stories of historical figures, probably none of this is true.

It’s true that Napoleon was often surrounded by bodyguards and soldiers who were above average height, but this may have only made him look smaller than he was. Was he really only 5 foot 2? It depends on who you ask.

In the old French measurement system 5 foot 2 would actually be the equivalent of something close to 5 foot 7 in Imperial (British) inches (exactly my height!), which would be considered “average” for a French man of his time. In 1821, Napoleon’s autopsy was performed by his own doctor (the story of his death alone is worthy of about a hundred other essays), and it is from this report that his height was determined to be 5 foot 2. But was the number in French units or British units? No one is entirely certain, though it is now generally thought to be the former.

And what of the Napoleon complex? Is there something evolutionarily relevant about the psychological makeup of shorter men? Is it true, as many concede, that short men have a much harder time attracting mates (Wrong! Pablo Picasso was only 5 foot 3 and girls could not resist his stare) or that they tend to be more domineering?

This too is likely to be a myth. In one 2007 study at the University of Central Lancashire, which I have to admit totally fascinates me, men fought each other with sticks, “with one subject deliberately rapping the other’s knuckles.” The use of heart monitors showed that taller men (those over 5 foot 5) were more likely to lose their tempers and hit back.

What this study found (and this seems too obvious to mention) is that “when people see a short man being aggressive, they are likely to think it is due to his size, simply because that attribute is obvious and grabs their attention.” Which isn’t to say that you won’t find instances of shorter men being overly aggressive. It’s just that the conclusions you draw may be based on your own preconceived notions.

So what does all of this prove? Perhaps the fact that you can make fabulous fruit tortes and souffles and speak with authority about historical figures, but that you won’t always be right. The French have taught me this much.


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