‘My Gunners will Burn Your Houses, My Soldiers will Pillage them’: What French People were Singing about When they Sang about Napoleon David Hopkin French History, Published: 22 May 2021
Fifty years after his death, almost the only song that French people still sung about Napoleon retold his conquest of the city of Mantua in 1797. ‘Le bombardement de Mantoue’ is an example of a popular European folk genre, the siege song. Siege songs use the metaphor of a violent wooer and a reluctant maiden to narrate the capture of cities. They circulated, in print and orally, from the mid seventeenth to the mid nineteenth centuries, updated for all conflicts by the substitution of the name of the besieger and the city. While often factually inaccurate, such songs are evidence of historical consciousness, and they could be used to express an identification with a national or political cause. They also anchored an early modern concept of war in popular culture, in which victory was measured in territory acquired, and in which a rampaging soldiery was pitted against a civilian and female population. Sieges envisaged as a violent courtship relocated military events into the language of interpersonal relationships, and thus they became relevant in many day-to-day contexts. Siege songs are akin to pastourelles, the most popular of all song genres, but whereas in the pastourelle a knight or lord pursues a shepherdess, in ‘Le bombardement de Mantoue’ socially superior women are violated by lower class men. This fantasy of social, as well as sexual, conquest helps explain the continuing popularity of this song.