It’s Easy to Forget, but People Used to be a Lot Smaller


Well, Europeans, at least.

We’ve all heard of Napoleon Syndrome, also called Short Man’s Disease, where a shorter guy acts tough to make up for feeling inadequate. While people may debate the seriousness of this condition, we should at least agree that it’s terribly named: Napoleon wasn’t short!

Not for his time, anyway.

Sure, to us, his stature seems a little on the short side, but at five-foot-seven, Napoleon rose taller than the average nineteenth-century Frenchman. He stood as tall as Tom Cruise, who happens to be taller than the current French president. (So, if you were never big enough to get picked for a basketball team, all you really needed was a time machine.)

Recently, I was lucky enough to visit the Royal Ontario Museum, one of the few North American museums boasting a vast collection of medieval European armor. While the armor was impressive, I couldn’t stop thinking about how small people would have to be to squeeze into these suits.

See what I mean?


So much for my modeling career, but you get the idea. Now, my being six-foot-six might make for an unfair comparison, but you can see this suit looks like it belongs on a child, or a someone whose front door opens to a yellow brick road.

Of course, there were plenty of exceptions. While browsing the museum, I came face-to-face with a tall set of Turkish armor; it wasn’t quite tall enough for me, but its wearer stood at least a foot taller than whoever wore that breastplate in my picture.

Also, William Wallace seems to have stood over six feet tall, a stature that feels a lot more impressive when compared to his contemporaries. In a crowded room, Wallace would have resembled Bill Murray getting into that elevator in Lost in Translation.

But why should people have gotten taller? That’s the sort of question that leaves historians scratching their heads. It is generally agreed that nutrition has improved significantly in the last century (yes, even with our love of junk food), and there’s no doubt that good eating plays a role in body development. Having access to more than a bowl of gruel twice a day appears to have been good for our bodies, but human growth is a complex matter and there are plenty of other factors influencing our newfound height.

You might be wondering how Napoleon earned his belittling reputation if he wasn’t short. Fake news (and fragile masculinity) strikes again, I’m afraid, as we can blame this misconception on media propaganda. British newspapers, hoping to tarnish his reputation, printed stories insulting Napoleon’s height, complete with belittling drawings.

It’s easy to forget how little we knew about each other in the old days. Since photographs were not well-circulated in Napoleon’s time, British readers had no way of knowing their newspapers were lying to them. The propaganda about his height was readily accepted, and still is.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever correct the popular misconception about Napoleon’s height, but there’s a lesson there, too. The next time your friend brags they would never fall for fake news, see if they’re still falling for this two hundred-year-old lie about a man’s height.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s