When the high and mighty sneeze, millions of people can catch cold, and world history can change.
That's why medical records of generals, kings, and presidents can give tantalizing new slants on great historical events. Even banal physical problems and shreds of unmentionable health information can enlighten and explain.
Napoleon Bonaparte's hemorrhoids, for instance, may have led to his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Conventional wisdom is that heavy rain the previous night made “le Petit Caporal'' delay his attack until noon, when military conditions favored the British.
Medical records, however, suggest a particularly painful bout of hemorrhoids kept Napoleon out of the saddle.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was near death with hardening of the arteries in his brain, uncontrolled high blood pressure, and other problems during the 1945 Yalta Conference. It may have affected his judgment, leading to Communist rule in Eastern Europe.
Now, intimate medical details about the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette are putting a new slant on the causes of the French Revolution.
The French Revolution (1789-1799) was a time of violence and struggle, when government power began to pass from the king to the people. On the heels of the American Revolution, it spread ideas about democracy through Europe.
Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were king and queen when it started. Napoleon Bonaparte was the new leader when it ended. Thousands of aristocrats, including Louis and Marie, lost their heads on the guillotine.
The revolution occurred for many reasons, including a then-radical idea that ordinary citizens should share in governing a country; poverty, and unfair taxes.
Public dislike of Louis and Marie-Antoinette, however, fanned the flames.
Traditional wisdom portrayed the king, who took seven years to consummate the marriage, as weak and sexually impotent. As a result, the Queen supposedly was promiscuous.
Vicious and often-false stories about the royals hit the streets, portraying them as symbols of the aristocracy's moral corruption. It inflamed the already-angry crowds.
Now a noted French historian has used previously overlooked medical records, diplomatic exchanges, and letters to bring the French Revolution down to a matter of size.
In a new 700-page biography, (Marie-Antoinette: The Rebel), Simone Bertiere concludes that there was, indeed, sexual incompatibility between King and Queen.
But it was caused by the king's royal endowment and the queen's narrow aperture, which made both avoid sexual intercourse because it was painful.
Bertiere describes extensive medical and other records about the anatomical situation, and the couple's difficulty in consummating the marriage.
It was important for them to do so, and produce an heir, because the marriage aimed to forge a military alliance between two royal families who ruled in different countries - the Bourbons and the Hapsburgs. Marie was a Bourbon and Louis a Hapsburg.
As the fruitless years passed, doctors did intimate examinations on the couple and recorded the findings. Family members and their diplomats exchanged letters discussing the royal sexual anatomy.
Marie-Antoinette had a condition known around the court as “I'etroitesse du chemin,” a narrow vagina, and Louis was endowed with a “bracquemart assez considerable,” a somewhat large penis.
They finally did succeed, producing a daughter in 1778.
The queen's problem, now known to be rare, can be corrected with surgery.