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Why do we hold on to things of the past?

Kasper Risbjerg Eskildsen

Roskilde University, Denmark

On July 14, 1807, during the battle of Friedland, southeast of Königsberg, where the French army defeated the Russian, Napoleon’s bicorne hat was hit by a bullet. The emperor later discarded it. He may have owned more than 120 of such hats and probably did not give it a thought. However, the hat was not thrown in the trash. In 2015, it reemerged at an auction at Christies in London and sold for almost 400.000 pounds. In 2021, it was sold again at Sotheby’s in Paris for over 1.2 million euros. Why do we hold on to things of the past?

It did not start with Napoleon. Maybe it started in the fifteenth century with the rise of the antiquary, the collector and lover of all things Roman? When Michelangelo was young and lacked money, he once disguised a statue as if it had been buried and sold it in Rome as an antiquity. Someone, the cardinal Raffaele Riario, was willing to pay more because it was dirty and old. When he discovered the fraud, he returned it. He did not want to settle for a new statue by Michelangelo. The case of Napoleon’s hat, however, is different. The hat did not need to be buried. It turned old the moment it was hit by the bullet at Friedland or, maybe, when Napoleon decided to wear it. Otherwise, it would not have been saved.

Napoleon’s valet salvaged the hat and stored it with the keeper of the palace of Dresden. Here, the Scottish nobleman Michael Stewart Nicolson of Carnock, later Shaw Stewart 6th baronet of Ardgowan, bought it for 10 thalers. After Waterloo, the nobleman traveled across Europe, hunting for memorabilia. On Elba, he acquired an orange from the garden as well as a portrait by Lefevre, with a lock of hair embedded in the picture frame. The hair, he noted, of “the man who had made all Europe tremble.” In Dresden, he found the hat. We know the story about the hat from a plaque, put on the glass and rosewood cabinet, in the Ardgowan estate, where it rested on a green velvet pillow for centuries. The plaque assured: “There is no doubt of its Authenticity.”

Napoleon 's hat. © Christies (2015)

There is an even more reputable witness. On his way to Friedland, Napoleon, in October 1806, invaded the Saxon university town of Jena. The young philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who at the time was finishing Phänomenologie des Geistes, witnessed him on horseback. On October 13, he wrote enthusiastically to a friend that he had seen the emperor, "this soul of the world", ride through town, most likely wearing the hat. It was, Hegel added, "a fantastic experience, to see such an individual, here concentrated in one point, sitting on a horse, who grabs the world and rules it". History was right in front of him, somehow, mysteriously, gathered in one place. The following day, Napoleon defeated the Prussian and Saxon armies.


Unlike cardinal Raffaele Riario, who refused the Michelangelo statue, Hegel and Nicolson of Carnock knew that history was happening now. They also knew that history was leaving traces, grasping for the sight of a man on horseback or his hat. They wanted to hold on to the present as it was passing by. This holding on to the present is a modern ritual. It is no longer reserved for emperors. We reenact it when we take photos at family gatherings or bring souvenirs home from holiday as well as when governments store documents in archives and objects in museums. We, moderns, are surrounded by ruins of our own making.

About the author

Kasper Risbjerg Eskildsen is a historian of science and scholarship and teaches at Roskilde University in Denmark. His work focuses on the history of the human sciences as well as the history of higher education in the modern era, from the seventeenth century to today. He is the author of, most recently, Modern Historiography in the Making: The German Sense of the Past, 1700-1900 (Bloomsbury, 2022). He is currently working on a book about why we like old things. You can reach him at

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