Friday, October 21, 2016

The Problem with Internet Revisionism

In the past, I wrote about the spread of the absurd myth that Roman legions played hopscotch, and a number of other internet myths (eg, the origins of "gallic")* that seem to have gained currency, spread far and wide thanks to the ubiquity of the internet and the obsession with posting "surprising revelations".

Well, I found another bit of information that seems to be making the rounds, and one which I am greeting again with skepticism. This is the rebuttal of the belief Napoleon was short.

Now, the theory is that Napoleon was "normal height for a French man of his age" and that the "myth" of his shortness was the result of British propaganda. Unfortunately, he was also described as short by French and others unlikely to be subject to British propaganda, so the other excuse is that his guards were tall, making him "look short" or that his nickname "the little corporal" misled people.

Pardon me, but this strikes me as a bit suspect.

Well, I put a little effort into looking for the source of this "conventional wisdom" that Napoleon was "not really short". And it turns out that the source is the testimony of his valet and personal doctor given on his death that he was 5 foot, 2 inches and 4 lines. According to those pushing this line, the pre-revolution foot and inch were larger than imperial measures (why they did not use revolutionary metric measures, I do not know...), so he was "really" 5 foot 6 inches.

Well, it is possible. But then again, why did EVERYONE imagine he was short until suddenly in the 21st century, some genius discovered he was not? It would seem, had he not been short, someone would have mentioned it in writing somewhere, as it is such a pervasive impression. Yet, until a few revisionist historians stumbled on this one quote, and the internet picked it up, everyone seemed content to imagine he was short.

So, let us try another thought. Maybe Napoleon was truly short. Maybe he was 5 foot in old measures. But, upon his death, rather than confirm this, his valet and doctor released a measurement with a few added inches, bringing him up to average. Perhaps, just perhaps, the reason there is no recorded objection to descriptions of him as short, is because he was short, and the single measure upon which this story rests was not entirely accurate.

It is not certain, but given the fact that no one noticed he was average height until two centuries later, it seems to fit historical records better.

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* See "The Power of Myth on the Internet", "Why People Don't Take Academics Seriously", "Grind Those Axes, Wiki Editors!", "Backwards Thinking and the Number of the Beast" and "Amusing 'Truths'".

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POSTSCRIPT

Portraits are not the best evidence, I grant, but since important figures are usually depicted larger than they truly were, it is interesting in at least two portraits I found depicting Napoleon with others, he seems to be shorter than those around him. Not tremendously so, but certainly enough to be noticeable.


UPDATE (2016/11/2): I have discovered there IS a lot of dispute of this conventional wisdom on the internet. Apparently, once again, a single position is being treated as true since it produces supposedly "surprising" outcomes. Even Wikipedia (hardly a good source for real unbiased information) only presents the alternate view in a note. The argument often used, and quite a sound one, is, since St Helena was under British control, the autopsy would have used imperial measures, so he was 5 foot 2 inches British, not French. But the counter argument is his physician despised the British and wold not have "polluted" his emperor using a British measure. But, I find that pretty implausible given (1) the incredible prevalence of the short image throughout history until now and (2) the fact the British had total control over both the body and doctor and could easily have insisted on imperial measures. So, apparently once more the internet is presenting a single view as if it were the only view. So much for "all the world's information in one place".

By the way, there is a simple solution. I discovered a number of Napoleon's uniforms are preserved in various museums. It would be relatively easy to measure them and determine if they were more consistent with a man 5 foot 2 inches of five foot six or seven inches. But all we hear is that there is "confusion" over units and British propaganda and this single autopsy. That makes me skeptical about this revisionism, as it would be a much stronger case to simply give sleeve length and anthropometric data and have done with it. I suspect doing so would tend to result in something much closer to the old conventional view. I am going to see if I can find some measurements for his existing uniforms and if so, will be presenting them here, whether for or against my conclusions.

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