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Was Napoleon Bonaparte Short?

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Napoleon Bonaparte is chiefly remembered for two things in the English speaking world: being a conqueror of no small ability and for being short. He’s sometimes cited as the chief example of supposed short man syndrome, whereby short people act more aggressively than their larger counterparts to make up for their lack of height. Napoleon is sometimes described as being 5 foot 2 inches tall, which would make him short for his era. However, there is a strong argument that this is wrong, and that Napoleon was actually 5 foot 5-7 inches tall, no shorter than the average Frenchman.

English or French Measurements?

Why is there such a discrepancy? This may have been due to a difference in measurements. The French inch was actually longer than the British inch, leading to any height appearing shorter to the English speaking world. In 1802 a doctor called Corvisart said Napoleon was 5 foot 2 inches by the French measurement, which equates to about 5 foot 6 in British. Intriguingly, in the same statement Corvisart said that Napoleon was of short stature, so it may be that people already assumed Napoleon was small by 1802, or that people assumed the average Frenchmen was much taller in height.

Matters are confused by the autopsy, which was carried out by Napoleon’s doctor, Frenchman Francesco Antommarchi, and gave 5 foot 2 as his height. But was the autopsy, which was signed off by a number of British doctors and in a British owned area, in British or French measures? We don’t know for sure, with some people adamant the height was in British units and others French. When other sources are factored in, including another measurement after the autopsy in British measurements, people generally conclude with the height of 5 foot 5-7 inches British, or 5 foot 2 in French, but there is still some doubt.

"Le Petit Caporal"

If this is a myth, it may have been perpetuated by Napoleon’s army, because the emperor was often surrounded by much larger bodyguards and soldiers, giving the impression of him being smaller. This was especially true of the Imperial Guard units which had height requirements, leading to them all being taller than him. Napoleon was even named the ‘le petit caporal’, often translated as ‘little corporal’, even though it was a term of affection rather than a description of his height, further leading to people assuming he was short. The ‘myth’ was certainly perpetuated by the propaganda of his enemies, who portrayed him as short as a way of attacking and undermining him. The fact that Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine, was around 5 foot 4/5 and apparently asked not to wear heels so as not to appear taller probably didn’t help.
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