July 14, 2017
It is widely believed that Marie-Antoinette once said, “Let them eat cake,” when told how many people in France had nothing to eat.
July 14 is Bastille Day in France. It marks the anniversary of when the Bastille, a fortress, armory, and political prison, was stormed by revolutionaries on July 14, 1789 (“Storming”). That action was a flashpoint of the French Revolution.
Every year, the national holiday is marked by military parades, feasts, and fireworks. This year, U.S. President Donald Trump joined new French President Emmanuel Macron in order to mark the 100-year anniversary of the United States’ entrance into World War I.
Since it is Bastille Day I thought I’d look at a phrase with a historical connection.
Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793), the wife of King Louis XVI, is often cited as the source of the phrase, “Let them eat cake.” And there were a few myths to explain this attribution.
One version myth had her saying that to a mob of French peasants on her way to the guillotine. Another version has her saying the phrase when told that much of the French populace was starving (and lacked bread). Yet another version of the myth has an Englishmen overhearing Antoinette saying, “Le theme est quete” (The theme is quest), which is gibberish (Hiskey).
As many of us know, Marie-Antoinette was Queen when the French Revolution of 1787-1799 broke out. Since a driving force of the revolution was the animus toward the French aristocracy, Antoinette quickly emerged as symbol of decadence. Thus this quote was attributed to her, among other things.
From my findings, Marie-Antoinette may have been grossly mischaracterized. The above myths are just that and there is evidence Marie-Antoinette was not the source of this quote, nor was she the type of person to utter it. Yet given the competing forces of her day, there was reason for slander.
If Marie Antoinette was being slandered who would stand to benefit?
Was Marie-Antoinette the First Person to Utter the Phrase ‘Let Them Eat Cake’?
And did she say these words at all? In a word: no.
The French words “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (Let them eat brioche) were first written by political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who put those words in his autobiographical work, entitled Confessions. The work had 12 volumes and it was finished in 1770. The phrase in question appeared in Book 6, which was written about 3 years before Antoinette arrived in Versailles, as Rousseau referred to a “great princess” (Hiskey).
Rousseau, who used the term to refer to a time when he was trying to find food. The “great princess” he referred to uttered the words “Let them eat pastry” in a cold manner (Wilde).
Rousseau had also used the phrase in a letter 18 years before Marie-Antoinette was even born.
The phrase might have existed around 100 years before. According to Louis XVIII, the phrase may have been spoken by Maria-Thérèse, the wife of King Louis XIV.
In addition, the phrase was used to slander a nobleman sometime before it was used to the same effect on Marie-Antoinette. By the time she and her husband were arrested, she was charged with many crazy charges, including one of incest.
Why Was Marie-Antoinette Attributed with This Quote?
Regardless of the source, the phrase was well-known in French circles by the time of the French Revolution. At the time, there was growing discord among the classes and the monarchy became a symbol of aristocratic excess.
The phrase “Let them eat cake” was thus “used to illustrate the disconnect between the aristocracy in France and the plight of the people.” Marie-Antoinette soon became “an easy and very visible target to vent their rage against the French aristocracy on” (Hiskey). And she was the favorite object of scorn for a few reasons, most of which were beyond her control.
1. Marie-Antoinette Was Austrian.
She was arranged to marry Louis XVI (by proxy), yet she came from Austria. The French had long learned to mistrust the Austrians and the marriage did little to quell the hatred.
2. She Purchased a Home, Château de Saint-Cloud.
This was one of Marie-Antoinette’s first things that drew ire. The home was meant to be passed on to her younger children, who were not heirs. This decision angered the French because a woman owned property and a queen owned property which did not belong to the king.
3. The Queen Was a Big Spender.
Marie-Antoinette, although not as big a spender as other aristocrats or queens, was a lavish spender. Although the queen donated to charity, her spending angered many because at the time, France was on the brink of bankruptcy.
4. The Queen Eventually Engaged in French Politics.
After her husband fell into depression and withdrew from most of politics, she acted as an intermediary between the king and the assembly. This angered countryman who distrusted her because she was Austrian and who sneered at the sight of a woman taking part in politics.
There was another curious aspect to French anger here. While many spread rumors before that Marie-Antoinette was really “the power behind the throne” (for which she was nicknamed “Madame Veto”), and siphoning off funds to help Austria they simultaneously blamed her for doing nothing to improve matters in France. And when she finally took part in French politics — to secure her children’s inheritance — she was accused of weakening France in order to help her native Austria (Hiskey).
5. France’s Population Growth Fueled Class Wars.
The population of France had considerably increased since 1715. During the 1700’s, the people of France lived longer due to improved standards of living, from nobleman to peasants, and people in the third estate (peasants; members of the clergy were first-class citizens and members of the nobility made up the second estate) wanted full rights as property owners, the ability to acquire more property, and political power. In addition, the peasants were angry because they paid taxes while those in the upper classes were generally tax-exempt (“Marie-Antoinette”).
6. Some of King Louis XVI’s Choices Destroyed France’s Economy.
King Louis XVI instituted some liberal reforms and at first it appeared he was willing to work with the peasants to relieve their tax burden. Three decisions in particular helped to doom King Louis and his family:
He deregulated the grain market. This led to an increase in bread prices. This was exacerbated by bad harvests.
He decided to intervene during the American Revolution. This contributed to France’s deficits.
In 1791, he tried to escape France while the National Assembly was working to establish a constitutional monarchy. According to the plan, he and his family would leave the country and later recapture France with and “armed congress.” However, the plan was hampered by his indecision and misunderstanding of the developing revolution.
When Louis XVI and his family were captured, they were seen as traitors. And it was ultimately this plot which led to the king’s conviction of high treason (“Louis XVI”).
7. Some Members of the Nobility Fed Into This Discord.
Eventually, King Louis XVI had asked the nobility and the clergy to pay taxes. This people in these classes were loath to do so and thus began turning against the king.
And after Marie-Antoinette chided the noble class for spending so extravagantly, she began to make enemies, as well. Some of them began giving bread and money to peasants in order to turn them against the queen (Hiskey).
By the Way, What Is Brioche?
Brioche is a type of foodstuff that looks like a pound cake, but the definition of what it is varies (Wilde). Gary Martin at The Phrase Finder described it as sort of a cake (made with egg, flour, and butter). Daven Hiskey at Today, I Found Out called brioche “highly-enriched bread.”
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