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HIST2097 Napoleon and his legend

Module Overview

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) may have been a tyrant in life but he proved to be a surprisingly malleable figure after death. This module traces the emergence in France and Britain of Napoleon’s reputation, whether as tyrant, martial hero, saviour of the French nation or destroyer of French liberty. Napoleon was a superb publicist and we will see that during his life time – before and after the seizure of state power in 1799 and the coronation as emperor in 1804 – he carefully cultivated an image of himself as both authoritarian and a ‘man of the people’. In reading the memoirs of Napoleonic soldiers, and in considering British caricature and other sources published during the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, we will attempt to prise apart Napoleon’s self-presentation from the attitudes of others. Furthermore, through an encounter with Napoleon’s own correspondence and personal effects we will try to disentangle the private man from the public figure, and ask how defeat and exile at the hands of the British may have changed him. Most of all, we will examine how a cult of Napoleon was created and reshaped in subsequent contexts, focusing in particular on its instrumentalization in political and historical writings. Because Napoleon could represent the populism and liberty of the revolution without the anarchy of the Terror; reconciliation with the Catholic Church without clerical reaction; and order and hierarchy without a return to the despotism of the ‘old regime’ he was an appealing figure to a whole array of monarchists, liberals and republicans in France over the entire 19th century. That is why the liberal July Monarchy (1830-1848) did so much to make the Napoleonic cult official by completing the Arc de Triomphe in his honour (1836) and by re-interring his remains in the mausoleum at Les Invalides in 1840. In the process of tracing the Napoleonic cult through these years to the early 20th century, you will see how difficult it has been in France to disentangle the memory and status of the general from that of the revolution; and you will come to understand how Napoleon’s reputation as a ‘great man’ could survive the catastrophic defeats of 1814-15. In historicising the cult of Napoleon in this way, you will grasp the importance for historical practice of seeing the past and present in a continual dialogue where the former is mobilised in a struggle to master the latter.

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

• Introduce you to a variety of sources that portray Napoleon I, from imperial coins and human remains to ceremonies, eye-witness accounts, political tracts and historical writings; • Expand your knowledge and understanding of the specific political, military and cultural conditions in which depictions of Napoleon I were produced and circulated; • Enable you to think critically about the ways in which representations of Napoleon I functioned in France (and to a lesser extent Britain) between 1799 and c. 1940; • Equip you to develop your own appropriate methodological and critical approaches to the analysis of sources (textual, visual and material) about the cult of Napoleon and to develop and pursue your own research interests; • Develop your capabilities in research with on-line and microfilmed primary source collections.

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • The political and military history of France between 1799 and c. 1940 as well as the various quests to forge a political culture over that period;
  • The role played by different kinds of author and different forms of media in shaping the cult of Napoleon after 1799;
  • The different ways in which scholars have interpreted the significance of Napoleon I;
  • The contemporary resonance of the themes of the module.
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Identify (through the use of electronic bibliographical searches) and read primary and secondary materials in a range of formats including microfilm and online;
  • Communicate effectively in group discussions, including in the role of presenter;
  • Work independently and as part of a team to identify and solve problems;
  • Develop your time management skills in planning and completing tasks set.
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Identify the political stakes involved in any given representation of Napoleon I during our period;
  • Analyse critically a variety of textual, visual and material sources and comment upon their relevance to the historical study of Napoleon I and his reputation;
  • Engage with seminal and recent historiographical texts on Napoleonic memory;
  • Participate constructively in group discussion, presenting your case by drawing on your reading, knowledge and understanding.


Topics are likely to include: 1. What can we learn from studying ‘great men’? 2. The making of Napoleon Bonaparte: private man and public figure 3. Creating an imperial image: art, ceremony and military culture 4. Napoleon the General: the view from the troops and afar 5. The Fall of Napoleon: understanding defeat, capture and exile 6. Local and global Napoleons: from Hampshire to the Fondation Napoléon 7. Turning Napoleon into history: early accounts 8. Memorialising Napoleon: monuments, anniversaries and the problem of the Revolution 9. Napoleon and politics: the invention of ‘Bonapartism’ 10. Napoleon in popular culture: from silent film to Eurovision

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching activities include: • Introductory lectures which may include some group work/participation; • Seminars focusing on the detailed reading and analysis of primary sources, whether texts, images or objects. Learning activities include: • In depth analysis of primary sources; • Preparatory reading and individual study; • Individual participation in seminars, group work and short presentations on seminar themes.

Completion of assessment task50
Preparation for scheduled sessions50
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

Forrest, A., et al (eds.) (2012). War memories: the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars in modern European culture. 

Porterfield, T. B (2006). Staging Empire: Napoleon, Ingres, and David. 

Geyl, Pieter (1982). Napoleon: for and against. 

Dwyer, P.G (2010). Public remembering, private reminiscing: French military memoirs and the revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. French Historical Studies. ,33 , pp. 231-58.

Hazareesingh, S (2005). Napoleonic Memory in Nineteenth-Century France: the Making of a Liberal Legend. MLN. ,120 , pp. 747–773.

Hughes, Michael J (2012). Forging Napoleon's Grande Armée: motivation, military culture, and masculinity in the French army, 1800-1808. 

Hazareesingh, S (2004). The Legend of Napoleon. 

Broers, M (2012). The Napoleonic regimes. The Oxford Handbook of the Ancien Régime. , pp. 489-505.

Jordan, David (2012). Napoleon and the Revolution. 

Gildea, R (1994). The Past in French history (chapter 1, ‘Revolution’, and chapter 2, ‘Bonapartism’). 

Roberts, A (2014). Napoleon the Great. 


Assessment Strategy

The links between assessment methods and learning outcome are as follows: The weekly seminars will provide you with a forum to discuss the primary sources and relate them to the historical context and the historiography. They will also allow for the development of interpersonal skills; through the use of class presentations you will be able to develop your knowledge and understanding of particular subject areas and to enhance your oral communication skills. The essay tests your engagement with the themes of the module pursued through deeper and more independent research than involved in preparing for seminars, as well as your skills of effective argumentation. The exam asks you to present cogent analysis in time-pressured conditions of sources seen in lectures and seminars, and to show your deeper understanding of the themes of the module by constructing an argument-led essay. In addition, the source-based focus of the essay and the exam will prepare you for the Special Subject and Dissertation in the third year.


MethodPercentage contribution
Essay  (2000 words) 50%
Examination  (2 hours) 50%


MethodPercentage contribution
Analytical essay 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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