The Other Napoleons

In 2006, the online video-streaming website Netflix launched a competition offering $1 million to anyone who could improve the accuracy of their film-selecting algorithm, Cinematch by over 10%. Cinematch was meant to respond to which films users liked and which ones they didn’t in order to suggest other things they would enjoy.

But getting 10% better at predicting what people would enjoy proved harder than it might seem. In 2008, The New York Times ran a piece on the competition which drew attention to a particularly knotty challenge with the algorithm. The issue was known as The Napoleon Dynamite Effect.

This guy.
This guy.

Put simply, viewers disagree very strongly about the 2004 indie comedy Napoleon Dynamite. But not only does the film score a lot of very high and very low ratings from viewers, crucially for the algorithm problem, it turns out to be astonishingly difficult to guess based on their previous taste whether any given viewer will love the quirky comedy, or hate it. The computer scientist profiled in the NYT article, Len Bertoni, estimated that this one film alone was responsible for 15% of the remaining errors in his algorithm.

Since a friend sent me a link to this story, I must have told this anecdote to ten or twenty people. I love the quirkiness of human behaviour it reveals, and the unquantifiability of choice and taste it suggests.

What does this have to do with French history and folklore?

The obvious, if tenuous, link is in the name of the main character in the film: what does it mean that he is named after the military leader and emperor of the French?


As if his first name was enough to identify the singular, extraordinary character of Bonaparte, the man who rose from relative obscurity and the minor Corsican nobility to become the most powerful figure in Europe, with an empire that stretched from Italy to Germany.

Napoleon was the man who remade the French political system, who ushered in and imposed a modern law code that still dominates many parts of Europe.

This guy.


Whatever you think of him, his military campaigns were a necessary catalyst for redrawing the boundaries of a set of early-modern states that would later become unified Italy and Germany.

But then I’ve never been much of a one for heroes.

Napoleon may have been a remarkable individual, but he also surfed on the crest of a remarkable period. Without 1789, and 1793, there could have been no 1801. And yet, like a black hole, Napoleon sucks everything into his own negative mass. 1799-1815 is not the ‘imperial period’ or the ‘European wars’: it is the Napoleonic period.

So when I was asked to teach a course whose title was simply ‘Napoleon’, I decided to structure it around the ‘other Napoleons’.

If the course had a motto, it would be: ‘decenter Napoleon’.


Instead of looking at Napoleon’s tactics, Napoleon’s political strategies, Napoleon’s rise to power, the course looks at a broader range of actors, emphasizing the most obvious and important backgrounds and contexts, such as the French Revolution and Corsica.

Instead of Napoleon’s military maxims, we look at the experiences and points of view of a range of soldier diarists who served in Napoleon’s armies, or his enemies’.

Rather than the Great Man’s historic vision for legal reform, we ask who was behind the new legal codes and how they were adapted and implemented across a range of countries.

The course also turns to different points of view from women’s and gender history, as well as from non-Europeans. What did the Egyptians make of Napoleon’s invasion in 1789-9? What did ordinary people, such as workers and artisans make of Napoleon?

To these different groups there were many Napoleons.

And these many Napoleons have had many posthumous careers, as the work of Sudhir Hazareesingh has shown. French parents continued to name their children for the Emperor after his defeat and even after his death. He came to mean many, contradictory things to republicans, royalists, military chauvinists, Catholics, and Protestants.

Not to mention more surprising groups, as Laure Murat has recently pointed out:

In December 1840, nearly twenty years after his death, the remains of Napoleon were returned to Paris for burial – and the next day, the director of a Paris hospital for the insane admitted fourteen men who claimed to be Napoleon.

And so what do we learn from all these Napoleons?

Well, I think we learn something a bit like what we learned from Napoleon Dynamite: there is no simple accounting for taste.

In fact, explaining and exploring the many Napoleons – I hope to persuade my students – is a project far more exciting and interesting than debating whether the man himself was really a tactical genius, enlightened despot, or closet republican.

Like the competitors for Netflix’s prize, we are unlikely to give up trying to pin down those shreds of identity, choice, culture.

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