Miss Cuddlywumps examines the evidence for Napoleonic ailurophobia
|Was this man...|
|afraid of these?|
Legend has it that Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), who brought Europe the devastation of the Napoleonic Wars and brought pop psychology the so-called “Napoleon complex,” hated and was terrified of cats. Reportedly, just one cute little kitty could reduce the emperor to a mass of sweating, quivering jelly.
The evidence for ailurophobia
Carl Van Vechten in A Tiger in the House (1920) related what has become a rather famous tale of Napoleon. The story is prefaced with the phrase “according to popular legend,” which hardly indicates a solid historical source. Nevertheless, the story goes like this:
In 1809, during the second French occupation of Vienna, Napoleon was staying in the Palace of Schönbrunn. One night, an aide-de-camp on his way to bed passed by Napoleon’s room, from which he heard some unusual sounds and the emperor himself crying out for help. The aide rushed into the room, for surely his fearless leader was being subjected to some horrid sort of attack. What he found, though, was Napoleon, somewhat undressed, with sweat on his brow and a look of terror on his face as he repeatedly thrust his sword through the tapestry lining the walls.
What dangerous beast or assassin was Napoleon trying to skewer? Well, it was basically a domestic cat that was hiding rather innocently behind the tapestry.
|Scary beast or innocent kitty?|
I know, it’s hard not to snicker (a short, fearsome general afraid of a kitty cat?), but She of Little Talent tells me that this particular terror is a real condition called ailurophobia. Symptoms include feelings of panic, terror, or dread in the presence of—or sometimes even when thinking of—cats. Treatment can include behavior therapy and anti-anxiety medication.
But is it true?
That’s the reality. Now the question is, was Napoleon really an ailurophobe?
The two little stories we have seem to indicate that yes, indeed, Napoleon suffered from a deathly fear of felines. However, author Katharine MacDonogh has written that “no record exists of Napoleon either liking or hating cats” (p. 125). A “popular legend” is not a historical record.
We do know that Napoleon disliked dogs, or at least he wasn’t crazy about the beloved pugs belonging to Josephine, whom he married in 1796. The emperor would not let the pugs ride in the same carriage with them and would not let the dogs into the room he shared with Josephine. The pugs did have their very own maid, though, and when a journey was necessary, the “favorite pug of the day” rode in a second carriage with a servant to look after him (MacDonogh, p. 141). After Josephine’s most favorite pug, Fortuné, was killed by a cook’s dog, the lady’s lover (not Napoleon) gave her another pug as a replacement. Napoleon is said to have wished that the cook’s dog could repeat the favor it had done him with Fortuné (Williams, p. 105–6.).
I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to think that, if Napoleon didn’t like little pugs, he probably wasn’t crazy about cats either. Whether he was deathly afraid of cats remains unanswered. Stories about his supposed fear may have been fabricated by enemies simply trying to poke fun at him. The popular association of the feline with the feminine may have played a role here as well. The joke would have gone something like this:
Here we see the great emperor Napoleon, cowering before a mere womanly creature! Ha! Ha! Ha!
So was Napoleon actually an ailurophobe?
I want to say yes, but based on what we know, I have to rule that there is insufficient evidence, and the claim is therefore unproven.
MacDonogh, Katharine. Reigning Cats and Dogs: A History of Pets at Court since the Renaissance. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
Van Vechten, Carl. Cats! The Cultural History. Kindle edition. Burslem Books, 2010. Originally published as The Tiger in the House, 1920.
Williams, Kate. Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte. New York: Ballantine Books, 2014.