Did Marie Antoinette Say, “Let them Eat Cake?”
Marie Antoinette never said “let them eat cake.” The idea of royalty suggesting peasants eat cake is an old myth that can be traced to Rousseau’s Confessions, a Spanish Princess, and even a Chinese emperor.
To know that Antoinette never suggested her subjects eat cake, we have to understand a few points about the times.
First, let’s discuss some background on the cake myth, then we’ll talk about why people think she said the line in the first place.
The Truth About Marie Antoinette and “Let Them Eat Cake”.
The Background of the “Let Them Eat Cake” Quote
To summarize the story, the actual quote is “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” or “let them eat brioche.” Brioche is a type of eggy bread that is slightly fancier than normal bread.
The quote in this form comes from Rousseau’s Confessions. He almost certainly referenced the Spanish Princess Maria Theresa of Spain who married to the French King Louis XIV “the Sun King.” She lived a hundred years earlier and was said to suggest the citizens eat pastry when she was informed they had no bread. There is no historical record of either the Queen or Princess saying this.
Bread was a staple food of the average citizen, and when there was a grain shortage, people liked to blame the Royal Family. Sometimes this was justified, sometimes not.
The mythological elements of the story can be deduced by realizing that a similar tale is told in China about an early Chinese emperor who suggested that the people eat meat when the Kingdom had a rice shortage.
Now that we have covered that, let’s look at why the quote is attributed to Marie Antoinette specifically and discuss some other aspects of the cake myth.
Why Do People Think Marie Antoinette said, “Let them Eat Cake?”
France had experienced bread shortages in Antoinette’s time, including a major one right before the French Revolution (much like earlier flour shortages which sparked earlier versions of the story and a rice shortage in China).
The inflated bread prices caused peasants to go hungry, or spend the majority of their incomes on bread. The social unrest led to a class divide as dramatic as Les Misérables (which is set slightly later) and events like the Women’s March on Versailles, Réveillon Riots , and the Great fear.
This divide also led to the radical liberal French Revolution and ensuing Reign of Terror in which Antoinette and Louis XVI lost their heads. See: Prelude to the Revolution: Scandals and the failure of Reforms (1786–89) and Trial and execution (14–16 October 1793).
It is hard to know who started the rumor, and it was almost certainly started long after the Revolution. In general, anger was high, and the printing press produced a lot of libelous propaganda in these difficult times, and no target was riper than the French Aristocracy who the revolutionaries sought to overthrow.
FACT: The bread shortages and the corresponding Flour War were ironically a result of poor harvests from the summers of 1773 and 1774 combined with people hoarding flour to drive up prices. This is ironic because this is largely a result of classical liberal economics where the invisible hand is supposed to correct the markets instead of theKing or Queen doing it. The royalty were targeted by the classical liberals for allowing the classically liberal Turgot, Louis XVI’s Controller-General of Finances, to implement classically liberal economic policies that we today refer to as “libertarian.”
TIP: Today we try not to confuse radical classical liberalism, moderate classical liberalism, and social liberalism because of how vastly different these forms of liberalism are. Learn more about the types of liberalism.
The French Revolution: Crash Course World History #29.
In Rousseau’s partly fabricated Confessions, written while Marie Antoinette was 14 and not a Princess or a Queen in 1767, he says:
“Enfin je me rappelai le pis-aller d’une grande princesse à qui l’on disait que les paysans n’avaient pas de pain, et qui répondit: Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” This translates as, “At length I recollected the thoughtless saying [or stop gap solution] of a great princess, who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, “Then let them eat pastry!” [or let them eat cake, or let them eat brioche] – Rousseau’s Confessions describe that when he had nothing to eat, he stole a “dear little cake” from a pastry shop upon “recalling the stopgap solution of a great princess.” He was referencing old folklore.
The problem is Rousseau never mentions “the Princess” by name, and without a magic time machine would have never known about Antoinette’s future Flour War. Furthermore, the quote doesn’t get recorded by historians until later.
As Antoinette’s English-language biographer Antonia Fraser‘s account of the memoirs of Louis XVIII concludes that the saying was an old legend within the family and it was always believed that it was uttered by the Spanish princess who married Louis XIV in the 1660s. She is not to be confused with Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette’s Husband.
Even in retrospect, its hard to communicate the difference between the two Louis and their princesses. Still, it’s likely that none of the Royal Family were crude enough to suggest the restless and sometimes rebellious peasants eat cake. In fact, Marie Antoinette was as famous for her kindness as she was for her extravagance.
POLITICAL THEORY – Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
FACT: Zhu Muzhi, president of the China Society for Human Rights Studies, asserts that Rousseau’s version is an alteration of a much older anecdote. “An ancient Chinese emperor who, being told that his subjects didn’t have enough rice to eat, replied, ‘Why don’t they eat meat?’ (「何不食肉糜？」)” The phrase was attributed to Emperor Hui of Jin in Zizhi Tongjian.
Marie Antoinette’s Character
If the argument above is not proof enough, then an examination of Marie Antoinette’s character may be.
Although she lived in the fashion of French Royalty and had plenty of cake, pastry, brioche, and other items of envy even at the height of the Flour War, she prided herself on her relationship with the people. The slogan of the French Revolution was “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (“liberty, equality, and brotherhood“). According to Mary Wollstonecraft, they really did mean BROTHERhood. She was unfairly picked on for being a woman.
The French Revolution was fuelled by enlightened ideas, but the beheadings stand as a testament to the need for moderation. Many of Rousseau’s ideas were misunderstood including “the General Will” and, the “let them eat cake” line is one of them.
This only becomes sadder when you realize that Rousseau was an early feminist or at least, less chauvinist than was common at the time who discussed the merits of mixed governments at length alongside the impracticalities of pure democracy and the benefits of benevolent monarchs and aristocrats.
ASMR – History of Marie Antoinette (featuring DonnaASMR). Sometimes the best way to learn about something is to have it whispered at you for 37 minutes. Ok, well that is probably a myth like the cake myth, but anyway, this video provides good information.
FACT: This following excerpt from Wikipedia sums this all up well: After Louis’ execution, Marie Antoinette’s fate became a central question of the National Convention (like our Congress). While some advocated for her death, others proposed exchanging her for French prisoners of war or for a ransom from the Holy Roman Emperor. Thomas Paine advocated exile to America. In April 1793, during the Reign of Terror, a Committee of Public Safety dominated by Robespierre was formed, and men such as Jacques Hébert began to call for Antoinette’s trial. By the end of May, the Girondins had been chased from power. Finally, on October 16, 1793 Marie Antoinette was executed by guillotine after a hasty trail. Thus, with a simple question about cake, we have learned much of what we needed to know about the start of the French Revolution in which Marie and some 40,000 others were beheaded. A stop-gap solution indeed.