It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Oct 18, 2011

Did Marie Antoinette really say "Let them eat cake"?

Original Claim

This urban myth was steadily propagated among the historical publications and is still popular among well-educated general public nowadays.  Your history teacher may tell you at school that that the late Queen of France Marie Antoinette was a very frivolous, extravagant, and ignorant woman who cared little for the sufferings of the starving French peasants, and that this indifference contributed greatly to provoking the French revolution that eventually lead to the execution of the said queen and her husband King Louis XVI. The saying that is most frequently quoted against her is that when told that the peasants were starving because they had no bread she replied "Let them eat cake".

True or False?

At the time the sentence was attributed to several French princesses including Marie Therese, wife of Louis XIV, and the daughters of Louis XV Mesdames Sophie and Victoire. The most likely explanation is that it was a fiction, invented by the political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau himself who liked to attack those in authority. It helped to increase popularity and sales of his books.

The peasants-have-no-bread story was in common currency at least since the 1760s as an illustration of the decadence of the aristocracy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau mentions it in his Confessions in connection with an incident that occurred in 1740. He stole wine while working as a tutor in Lyons and then had problems trying to scrounge up something to eat along with it. He concludes thusly: "Finally I remembered the way out suggested by a great princess when told that the peasants had no bread: 'Well, let them eat cake.'"

Rousseau may have been embroidering this yarn with a line he had really heard many years later. But even so, at the time he was writing — early 1766 — Marie Antoinette was only ten years old and still four years away from her marriage to the future Louis XVI. Writer Alphonse Karr in 1843 claimed that the line originated with a certain Duchess of Tuscany in 1760 or earlier, and that it was attributed to Marie Antoinette in 1789 by radical agitators who were trying to turn the populace against her.

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Generally speaking, Confessions was, on the whole, a very inaccurate autobiography: "The 'facts' he so frankly admits often emerge, in the light of modern scholarship, to be inaccurate, distorted or non-existent"; and his work is the oldest source for the saying.

In fact, people of France in the eighteenth century might have had many problems, but the chronic shortage of bread was not one of them. There was a shortage in 1775 around the time of the coronation of the king. That led to some rioting in several places. There was a further shortage in 1789, just prior to the outbreak of the revolution, but generally the French peasants were among the best fed in Europe at the time. The Queen herself gave generously to charity, when she was aware of the need, and she was very aware that her position meant that she needed to work hard for the betterment of her people. This is shown in this excerpt from a letter which she sent to her family in Austria.

"It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness. The King seems to understand this truth."

It was the misfortune of Marie Antoinette that her reputation was intentionally falsified by the people who would stoop to any level of falsehood in order to further their own agendas. And general people were readily accepting any lies, because that was convenient at the time.

So, it is important to understand when studying how this phrase came to be attributed to Marie Antoinette is the increasing unpopularity of the Queen in the final years before the outbreak of the French Revolution. During her marriage to Louis XVI, her perceived frivolousness and her very real extravagance were often cited as factors that only worsened France's dire financial straits. Her Austrian birth and femininity were also a major factor in a country where xenophobia and chauvinism still played major parts in national politics. In fact, many anti-monarchists were so convinced (albeit incorrectly) that it was Marie Antoinette who had single-handedly ruined France's finances that they nicknamed her Madame Déficit. In addition, anti-royalists libellists printed stories and articles that attacked the royal family and their courtiers with exaggerations, fictitious events and outright lies. Therefore, with such strong sentiments of dissatisfaction and anger towards the king and queen, it is quite possible that a discontented individual fabricated the scenario and put the words in the mouth of Marie Antoinette.

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Phrase Exact Translation

While it is not the main point in debunking the myth, I would like also point out on the exact meaning of the famous phrase. The attribution is doubly erroneous in English, because the word "cake" is a mistranslation. In the original French the alleged quote reads, "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche," which means, literally, "Let them eat rich, expensive, funny-shaped, yellow, eggy buns."

Well, well, well, the French peasants understood it literary different, and did not question the negative meaning of the words, put in the Marie Antoinette’s mouse.

Death of Marie Antoinette

While there is no direct link between false claim and death of the Queen of France, the story would not be complete without highlighting the way she died.

 Louis XIV was executed on 21 January 1793, at the age of thirty-eight. The result was that the "Widow Capet", as the former queen was called after the death of her husband, plunged into deep mourning; she refused to eat or do any exercise. Marie-Antoinette's health rapidly deteriorated in the following months. By this time she suffered from tuberculosis and possibly uterine cancer, which caused her to hemorrhage frequently.

Despite her condition, the debate as to her fate was the central question of the National Convention after Louis's death. There were those who had been advocating her death for some time, while some had the idea of exchanging her for French prisoners of war or for a ransom from the Holy Roman Emperor. On 1 August, she was taken out of the Tower and entered into the Conciergerie as Prisoner No. 280. Despite various attempts to get her out, such as the Carnation Plot in September, Marie Antoinette refused when the plots for her escape were brought to her attention.

She was finally tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal on 14 October. Unlike the king, who had been given time to prepare a defense, the queen's trial was far more of a sham, considering the time she was given (less than one day). Among the things she was accused of (most, if not all, of the accusations were untrue and probably lifted from rumors begun by libelles) were orchestrating orgies in Versailles, sending millions of livres of treasury money to Austria, plotting to kill the Duke of Orléans, incest with her son, declaring her son to be the new king of France and orchestrating the massacre of the Swiss Guards in 1792.

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She was declared guilty of treason in the early morning of 16 October, after two days of proceedings. On the same day, her hair was cut off and she was driven through Paris in an open cart, wearing a simple white dress.

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At 12:15 pm, two and a half weeks before her thirty-eighth birthday, she was executed at the Place de la Révolution. Her last words were "Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it", to Henri Sanson the executioner, whose foot she had accidentally stepped on after climbing the scaffold. Her body was thrown into an unmarked grave in the Madeleine cemetery, rue d'Anjou.

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A sad end of the story, one of many drops of blood from under the knife of Paris Commune…

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