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French history myths: Marie-Antoinette said 'Let them eat cake'

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French history myths: Marie-Antoinette said 'Let them eat cake'
People look at a portrait of Queen Marie-Antoinette by Joseph Ducreux (1769)(Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP)

It's one of history's most famous quotes, synonymous with the French revolution, but there's little evidence that any real-life royal actually said it.

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The Myth: French queen Marie-Antoinette, on being told that an ongoing famine meant that many people did not even have bread to eat, said “Let them eat cake”.

It's the perfect symbol of the out-of-touch French royalty who would shortly be deposed and executed in the French Revolution, but there are two problems with this 'fact'. 

In response to being told about the famine, the Austrian queen supposedly answered “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche'' dismissing the widespread hunger and making it obvious she did not understand the gravity of the situation. 

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However, even the English translation of ‘Let them eat cake’ on its own might merit a factcheck, as brioche is in fact a sweet bread made with butter and egg, so it is not exactly cake as we might imagine it. 

But sweet read or cake, the quote has stuck in our collective human memory for hundreds of years because it is such a stark demonstration of ruling elites being out of touch with average people’s lives. 

Marie-Antoinette did go on to lose her head, but it was not for her insensitive bread-related commentary. In fact, historians are quite certain that the phrase ‘Let them eat cake’ did not originate with Marie-Antoinette at all. 

First of all, many think it may have been out of character for the Austrian princess who was actually known for her charitable giving and sympathy with the French public…even though she lived a life of luxury while her subjects starved.

The more convincing argument is that the phrase was actually in use many years before 1789 when Marie-Antoinette supposedly said it. 

In French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiography ‘Confessions’ he references a tale of wanting to go into an ordinary bakery to buy some bread, but feeling too overdressed, he finally chooses not to. He said he remembered “the last resort of a great princess who, when told that the peasants had no bread, replied: "Then let them eat brioches."

Though Rousseau does not specify who the ‘great princess’ is, it could not have been Marie-Antoinette who was only nine years old when the book was written, and still lived in Austria.

This article is part of our August series looking at the facts behind some long-lasting myths of French history.

 

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