Napoleon’s irritability was excessive. If we believe specialists in mental illness, “irascibility constitutes the dominant characteristic of the habitual personality of epileptics. These patients are usually suspicious, quarrelsome, with a tendency for anger and acts of violence for the slightest motives, often even without any appreciable motive. These coleric dispositions are often replaced by the exact opposite disposition, and it is very important to mention the contrast with the former… This alternation constitutes the basis of the epileptic personality”.
Is this image of psychic epilepsy applicable to Napoleon? He said, himself, “My nerves are very irritable, and, in this disposition, if my blood were not beating with continual slowness, I would run the risk of going mad.”.
Several irritable characteristics have been reported about the Emperor. The following are those of which the veracity is the least contestable:
One day when Corvisart had gone, as usual, to ask after the Emperor’s health, he was told that he had withdrawn and didn’t want to see anyone. The doctor had himself announced anyway. He was allowed inside. What did he see?
Napoleon was boiling with anger, stamping his foot, swearing, furious in the highest degree. Corvisart prudently asked the cause of this irritation, and if it had anything to do with his art.
“Yes, Doctor, it has. Half an hour ago, I was cleaning my teeth when a miserable bristle from my toothbrush got stuck between two incisives, and I can’t get it out.”
The doctor looked inside his mouth, removed the cause of the problem, and Napoleon recovered all his serenity. Four days later, he left for the Russian expedition.
Another day, Napoleon had Champagny called and abruptly asked him why he had always hidden from him Austria’s war-like sentiments. Champagny replied: “I didn’t know that you would take the Italian crown!” At these words, Napoleon slapped his face.
Villemain told the story about the time when the Institute went to see the Emperor on his return from the island of Elbe. The orator given the job of speaking in the name of the delegation, dared to include a few words about peace, and the Emperor, irritated, interrupted him with a great kick in the pants.
Napoleon beat his servants more than once. In Egypt, he hit his equerry Vigogne with a riding crop. Later, he sometimes used the crop to hit Jardin, his head groom.
Another day, at Malmaison, it was also his riding crop that he used to stimulate the zeal of one of Josephine’s coachmen, who didn’t obey fast enough. Later, at Posen, another equerry was hit with the crop.
Why all this violence when, on the other hand, he was always very polite with his servants and never passed them by without greeting them?
Some people have seen in this a consequence of his childhood education. It has been written that Napoleon got these habits in his island home. As a child, he would have seen the lord, his father, hit the villain, the peasant and then talk with him almost as an equal. “It is the Corsican feudal familiarity, and Napoleon remained, on this point, as Corsican and the most Corsican of Corsicans.” This explanation is puerile and is only quoted for its originality.
When Napoleon was angry, he sometimes threw his hat on the ground, sometimes even stamping on it, like in the famous interview which he had in Dresden, in 1813, with Mr de Metternich.
We could say that this movement of anger is an indication of his temperament, his neuropathic constitution. However, it could be objected that Napoleon’s gesture was the same as that performed by an old Corsican, who threw his barretta [cap] on the ground, and stamped on it, in exactly the same way as the great man, his idol, when someone spoke irreverantly of the Emperor, in front of him.
Napoleon’s minister Chaptal, who knew him well, revealed a few particularities about his master to Dr Cabanes. They throw a surprising light on the Emperor’s psychology.
“Napoleon was destructive by habit and by character. In the Council Chamber and in the middle of a debate, he could be seen, a pocket-knife or a scraper in his hand, shredding the arm of his armchair and making deep cuts in it. This armchair was constantly being repaired, in the knowledge that he would shred it again the next day.
“To vary his pleasure at this sort of thing, he would take a pen and cover each of the sheets of paper in front of him with wide bars of ink. As soon as they were nice and black, he would screw them up and throw them on the floor.
“When he was brought some delicate sculpture work, it rarely left his hands without him having mutilated it. I remember one day showing him his portrait on horseback executed really perfectly by the Sevres factory. He placed it on a table. He broke off the stirrups, then a leg and, upon my observing that the artist would die of a broken heart if he could see him mutilating his work like that, he replied coldly: “It can all be repaired with a bit of paste.”.
“If he touched a child, he would pinch it until he made it scream. At Malmaison, he had a carabine in his study, with which he was constantly firing, through the window, on the rare birds which Josephine kept in the ponds in the park.
“The mania of destruction possessed him to the point that he never entered the hothouse at Malmaison, without cutting or ripping out one of the precious plants cultivated there.”
Among other destructive habits, he arranged the fire with his foot, therefore burning his shoes and boots, particularly when he was angry. While talking and getting angry, he would violently kick at the burning wood in the fireplace.
He terrorised, literally, those who, because of their jobs, had to approach him or serve him. Even his ministers – we have already seen an example through Chaptal – only approached him with apprehension.
His Grand Keeper of the Silver, Maret, Duke of Bassano, became troubled to the point that he lost his appetite and his sleep for a while. The old Portal, his doctor, who took a long time to find out what was wrong with him, having found out, told him paternally: “My dear friend, you are a dead man if you do not use a sovereign remedy, of which I give you the recipe: every time that you have to have an interview with the Emperor, you must say these cabalistic words: “I don’t give a damn!” It is said that the Duke did this, and recovered his health.
When Napoleon had made up his mind about something, the slightest obstacle irritated him, the least remark put him in a temper, and if the contradiction became too strong, he stamped his foot, hit his head with his fist, and sometimes even finished up rolling on the ground. At other times, anger gave him nervous crispations, leading, when they were pushed to paroxysm, to violent convulsions.
Were they real epilepsy attacks? The description given to us is too incomplete to be able to give a verdict on this sign alone.
Napoleon was convinced that a “sour humour”, spread throughout his blood, was the real cause of his irascibility. This sour humour was, in all probability, not scabies, as has been said, but an eczema consecutive to scabies, an eczema which had defied all the science of Napoleon’s doctors. Already, at the time of the Consulate, Corvisart had been called to treat him for this diathesic manifestation, which gave birth to the strangest rumours.
The secret agents of the future Louis XVIII did not forget to repeat these rumours in their daily report of the events, drawn up for their sovereign.
“Some say that he was spitting up blood; others recall the story of a certain scurf which he had the imprudence to have internalised, which obliged him to have a cautery opened. They add that following a gallop on horseback, on boggy ground, into which Bonaparte sank and from which it was very difficult to extract him, the cautery closed up and the humour travelled to the chest, or to the brain; for, at this point, we have to choose between two different versions. Those who favour the last one, pretend that the First Consul is really in a state close to folly, that he even has attacks of madness. We believe that very strong and extremely evident proofs are needed to adopt this opinion, as, if it were founded, it would be difficult to hide the truth for very long. It appears certain, however, according to people who approach him, that his blood is boiling so to speak, and that, to calm it somewhat, our great man is obliged to be bathed and held almost continually in water, and it is added that it is only then that one can talk reason with him and obtain from him calm and reasonable decisions. This already approaches close to insanity. But it must be admitted that all these rumours being spread do not seem to be confirmed by the bulletin of his trip.”
Without going into any discussion on the veracity of these rumours, we need to mention one fact. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, when humourism reigned supreme, it was believed that the sudden disappearance of a skin rash, such as tinea or scabies, could provoke the appearance of epilepsy; so people rushed to bring back the rash, when an internal illness arrived to take the place of the skin infection.
Mme de Remusat recounted in her Memoires, that Louis, King of Holland, was made to sleep beside a person suffering from scabies, to cure him of a blood vice. During the Russian campaign, Napoleon suffered from gastric problems, he was covered, it is said, with clothes worn by a scabies sufferer.
This doctrine of scabies innoculation as a preventative and sometimes curative measure for certain illnesses, was believed for a long time in scientific circles. Valle, army doctor in Italy, taking up the theories of a Norman doctor of great renown, Lepecq de La Cloture, asserted that the innoculation of scabies was a sovereign remedy for epilepsy; and, around 1817, Archambault, who was then an authority on these matters, did not hesitate to recommend this hasardous process.
If such a treatment was given to Napoleon, could it be an indication of the probability, if not the certitude, of an opinion which now appears to be plausible? If we no longer believe that skin diseases, ulcers, cauteries etc. make epilepsy disappear completely, it has been observed that they can sometimes suspend the illness for a time. On this point at least, our ancestors appear to have been right; and the treatments followed by Napoleon are at least an indication that the doctors were worried about an attack of this nature by their august client, possibly because they had already seen one, or because the Emperor, himself, had told them about it.
Fifth part tomorrow