The current minimum height required for the Swiss Guard at the Vatican is 5'8 1/2" or 174 cm (Swiss Guard requirements). Has that always been the case? I remember reading years ago that the minimum height requirement used to be about a foot (30 cm) more than that back when the Guard was formed. However, I have not been able to find anything on this one way or the other in basic information about the Swiss Guard.

[edit] Support for the possibility of a much higher height requirement. The basic argument is that adequate nutrition (and possibly living at altitude) may have provided conditions for height to be taller then.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 19 '19 at 22:34
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    This is an international site, so it would be OK if you used metric units... – RedSonja Jul 29 '19 at 11:09
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    @RedSonja Thanks! – Jonathan Cender Jul 29 '19 at 21:07
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    OK, by now this has become very confusing. Asking for clarification: Are we talking about 6'8" (original title of the question, and what sparked the whole "that is really tall!" discussion), or 5'8" (which was edited in by Mark C. Wallace, would make a lot of sense historically, but would make the whole [edit] part superfluous as 5'8" isn't something you'd have to draw on NBA records or anything? – DevSolar Jul 31 '19 at 12:23
  • It's very anecdotal but Swiss people (and other inhabitants of the Alps) did not have a reputation for being particularly tall, quite the opposite. Regarding nutrition, mountain areas in general and Switzerland in particular were generally quite poor (which contributed, in fact, to the long-standing and well documented tradition of leaving the country to earn a living as mercenaries). – Relaxed Jul 31 '19 at 22:23

This is not a definitive answer, because I haven't found a firm source to establish when the height standard came into existence, and because the history of army height requirements is turning out to be surprisingly difficult to google.

With this in mind, I'd stick my neck out and suggest that no, the standard if any was probably different when the regiment first formed, and that there probably wasn't a specific standard back in 1506 beyond being, well, tall.

The first hint is the standard itself: 174cm is oddly specific. The unit didn't exist at the time. If we allow that it might have been expressed in (of all things, British) imperial units for some reason, on the basis that measurements in Rome (or Lausanne) might have matched them, then we must also consider how 174cm and 5'8 1/2" are almost exactly the same. That seems too good to be true. Why pick 5'8 1/2" Why not a rounder 5'8" or 5'9" (both numbers turn up when googling it)? That alone suggest me that the standard, if any, wasn't the same when the unit was first put together under Pope Julius II.

(In passing, we can factor in that a typical British WW1 soldier was short enough that they wouldn't have met the criteria to become a Papal Guard. The average height seems to have been 5'5" at the onset of the war, and a 5'7" soldier was apparently rare. So demanding 5'8 1/2" in 1506, to say nothing about the laundry list of other criteria, isn't setting you up for recruitment success.)

The next hint comes from how the Swiss Guard was initially formed. Pope Julius II, a former Bishop of Lausanne, sent a letter to Swiss cantons, asking them to provide him with 200 soldiers. They only supplied 150 for one reason or another. If we assume that they were cooperative (a sensible assumption I think), this can be interpreted in two ways. It could mean they couldn't find enough soldiers (leading one to assume that any volunteer got to go). It could also mean that there weren't enough soldiers that were fit for the job. Question mark, but hold on to that thought.

The leader of this initial force was Kaspar von Silenen. And his wiki page helpfully raises that:

Under Pope Leo X, Kaspar von Silenen's company was one of six Swiss and Grisons mercenary units, totalling 1,800 men, sent to Rimini in the War of Urbino of 1517. They were supposed to help defend the city against the Duke of Urbino until reinforcements could arrive. They were quartered outside the main city walls, in Borgo San Giuliani, because the garrison commander, condottiere Guido Rangoni, was reluctant to let a large mercenary force enter the city. In the evening of 4 August, there were reports of a large enemy force approaching, and Rangoni invited the mercenaries inside, but Kaspar refused due to the late time of the evening, saying his men were already "full of wine". The enemy arrived in the early morning of 5 August and managed to enter the Borgo unnoticed, and killed many of the mercenaries in their sleep. Kaspar also died in this attack.

It unfortunately doesn't say whether this was the Swiss Guard proper, or some other mercenary troops that happened to be Swiss -- I suspect the latter. Still, I'm finding this anecdote about drunk Papal troops hard to square with the "there weren't enough soldiers that were fit for the job" hypothesis that we just looked into. Given the time period, it might be possible to reconcile the two. But seeing how the Pope was recruiting drunkards only a few years later, I'm more inclined to believe that any reasonably fit and honest young man would have worked for the initial batch, and not enough were rounded up.

The last set of hints I came across are from the following two papers on the history of weight and height standards:

They're mostly about the US army, but the two papers offer a few interesting tidbits. You'll hopefully excuse my not remembering which of the two had which bit. Somewhat conflicting hints include:

  • Roman generals liked tall soldiers, suggesting that there might have been some kinds of standards then and later, with an anecdotal caveat that they preferred muscle over sheer tallness (duh). It's unsourced but it vaguely rings a bell and kind of makes sense.

  • European monarchs liked to brag about their tall soldiers. Also unsourced, and it doesn't say at what point in time, but I don't find this hard to believe either. If your job is to stand tall next to your monarch -- which is literally part of the Swiss Guard's job description -- it stands to reason that a monarch will prefer that you're tall.

  • The first precise (or more accurately, vague) fitness for purpose test purportedly arose in July 1775, when the Continental Congress provided that "all able-bodied effective men between 16 and 50 years of age be formed into militia companies". I'm extremely suspicious about this one, and assume it is US related (likely legit) rather than the first ever (yeah right).

  • Army height (and weight) requirements have been getting refined over time since the Industrial Revolution. I suspect that this too is US related in the article, but I wouldn't be surprised if precise army height and weight requirements appeared and evolved in Europe during the same time period. It is, after all, around that time that Europe became obsessed with scientific measurements.

Put together, I'm finding the evidence somewhat conflicting. The only way to know for sure would be to access the Vatican's archives, assuming they kept a copy of the letters that Julius II sent to the Swiss Cantons. I haven't located any way to access those online.

If I were to guess, I'd suggest that there likely was some kind of standard (it's their job to stand tall at the end of the day, and using height as a recruitment criteria for soldiers wasn't unheard of), but the criteria was "tall" rather than something as specific as 174cm or 5'8 1/2", or perhaps some round number in whichever unit Rome or Lausanne was using at the time. But as already noted, this is pure speculation.

Edit: Mark Johnson chimed in with a helpful comment.

The Roman foot is not the same as the Imperial one. If we assume that there was some kind of express height before the decimal system got introduced, and that Rome still used Roman units when this express height got set (I haven't verified but would be inclined to think it did), then it's interesting to note that 5 pes 14 digitus (= 5.875 pes) is within a few whiskers of 174cm.

This leaves us with two scenarios:

  1. The height limit was introduced after the switch to the decimal system. In this case the answer is clear: the height requirement has changed since Julius II by virtue of it being introduced later.

  2. The height limit was introduced before the switch to the decimal system. In this case it probably was 5 pes 14 digitus at the time of the switch. This being within a few whiskers of 174cm, methinks we can file that under IEE 754 and call it the same.

Assuming the latter scenario, this leaves open the questions of when the height requirement was introduced exactly (was it by Julius II or someone else?) and if it changed over time.

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  • 174 cm = 5 pes 3 palmus 2 digitus. unitjuggler.com/convert-length-from-cm-to-pes.html?val=174 – Mark Johnson Aug 3 '19 at 14:25
  • This would be 5' 10.5391163 uncia (Roman Inch). To avoid decimal numbers, they may have use alternate length units. 12 uncis = 11.62 (english) inches. – Mark Johnson Aug 3 '19 at 14:35
  • @MarkJohnson: 5.875 pes (1 pes = 4 palmus = 16 digitus) is 174.1068cm. It's not clear off the bat whether Rome was still using roman measuring units though, and it could be that Julius II used the unit system from Lausanne. – Denis de Bernardy Aug 3 '19 at 14:35
  • the calculater uses 296.392 mm, instead of 296 mm commenly used. I assume they know the reason why. – Mark Johnson Aug 3 '19 at 14:39
  • 3 tilled currencies (Pound, Shilling, d as in dinare) were common place then, maybe for precise lengths also. this contains sub units for Roman Feet. Usage of english units on the continent would seem unlikly. britannica.com/science/measurement-system – Mark Johnson Aug 3 '19 at 14:53

It seems unlikely that the minimum height requirement for a Swiss guard would have been as high as 5'8.5" in earlier times, even though it might hold today.

The 5'8.5" minimum would put a man at about the 40th percentile today in the Western world (Europe and North America). The desire is for "guards" of above average height, with the shortest guard being barely below average, but having compensating qualities such as courage, speed, diligence, etc. "Collateral," modern requirements for Swiss Guards also include a high school diploma or university degree. Only a handful of people would have qualified in the 16th century. So it seems that both the "height" and the "educational" requirements are modern.

In "Mein Kampf," future Fuhrer Adolf Hitler opined that a "guards" soldier (e.g. a member of the S.S.) should be at least 5' 7" in height, which would put him at the 40th percentile for his time and place.

According to William Strauss and Neil Howe in "Generations," the average American soldier (5'7" in 1776) was two inches taller than the average Redcoat (5'5"), that he was fighting (because of better nutrition). By the Redcoat standard, 5'8.5" would be off the charts, about the 90th percentile, probably too small a pool to draw from.

As for 6'6", even today, we are talking about 0.1 or 0.2 of 1% of men, a very small pool, basically a country's potential basketball players.

There was also an experiment by King Frederick William of Prussia (father of Frederick the Great) with a Guards unit of men over 6'0". It performed less well than regular units, probably because it was hard for them to use equipment of "standard" size. This issue would probably have affected a pool of Swiss Guards of inordinate size.

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  • I feel all the height stats need to be qualified geographically. When you're talking about the “40th percentile today”, you're talking about US adult men? The entire world population? – Relaxed May 9 at 22:49
  • @Relaxed: I meant the "western world" of which the U.S. is a fair proxy. The numbers would be different in Asia, Latin America, and Africa of course. I added a line to make that clear. – Tom Au May 10 at 0:37
  • Western world is a cultural/political notion that is ill-suited for anthropometry and the US isn't a proxy for anything. Just looking at tables I have at hand (from Pheasant and Haslegrave's Bodyspace), I find a median stature between 1695 mm for Polish industrial workers and 1795 mm for Dutch adult men. I don't think your general point is necessarily wrong but the 40th percentile measurement must come from somewhere, surely it's more specific than that. Incidentally, 1740 mm is the median for adult men in Britain and Sweden so closer to the 50th than the 40th percentile in those populations. – Relaxed May 10 at 14:07

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