The phrase lives in infamy as the privileged retort from Marie Antoinette, King Louis XVI’s wife and the Queen of France during the French Revolution, when she was informed the peasant populace was starving with no bread to eat. With the insensitive remark, the Queen became a hated symbol of the decadent monarchy and fueled the revolution that would cause her to (literally) lose her head in 1793. But did the Queen really make so insensitive a statement, or was it just 18th-century fake news? A summation and a rhetorical piece of false logic, the phrase is used to highlight the obliviousness of the rich and powerful to the lives and plight of the common people.
Marie Antoinette was indeed rich and spent lavishly on dresses and jewels, but she probably wasn’t the air-head she’s made out to be. For one, when she was asked to buy a set of jewels meant for the previous Queen, she refused and suggested her husband instead spend the money on France’s navy. For two, she wrote coded messages to other countries asking for help restoring the monarchy to France after she and her husband were imprisoned during the French Revolution.
The latter feat would eventually earn her an appointment with the guillotine, but she had at least some understanding of her political situation.
Despite her supposed disconnect from her subjects, she did exhibit a less-than-popular curiosity with peasant life. Facing growing stress in the palace, Antoinette had an entire Austrian village built on palace grounds where she and her ladies in waiting would dress as peasants and cavort around to feel “normal.”
She also got in trouble with that diamond necklace we mentioned before. Believe it or not, an imposter on the French court impersonated letters from the Queen and coerced money from a Catholic priest to buy the jewels. The Queen’s name was dragged into the mess, and she received most of the blame in a scandal that angered the Pope and even involved the nefarious occultist Count Alessandro di Cagliostro.
These continuing missteps, combined with an increasingly upset French populace, made Antoinette the target of French Revolution rhetoric. As they suffered a crumbling economy, and labor and debt relations became violent, the Queen was made out to be a foreigner and spendthrift with no concern for her subjects.
As the Queen of France, she wouldn’t have used English in a casual conversation. The line she’s quoted using is actually:
“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.”
One word you might recognize in the original French is brioche. While brioche isn’t sweet like cake, it is still a butter and egg-rich confection that would have had a similar, albeit less fanciful, implication. Despite the slight difference in semantics, there is no historical record of Antoinette ever uttering the phrase.
French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote the line in one of his books, attributing it to a “great princess.” Rousseau’s writings became incredibly popular during the Revolution, and it’s believed this is what led people to think he was talking about Marie Antoinette. Rousseau’s work was actually written in 1766 while Antoinette was just 11 or 12 years old. He recounted an incident that may have transpired in Grenoble 25 years before. “At length,” wrote Rousseau, “I remembered the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, ‘Then let them eat cake.‘” If Rousseau’s “great princess” did not actually speak those words, they can, perhaps, be attributed instead to an unnamed duchess of Tuscany, who spoke them in the 1750s, according to the 19th-century writer Alphonse Karr. Whoever spoke them, it obviously wasn’t Marie Antoinette.
Folklore experts have also found a similar phrase used in German stories from the 1600s, only this time cake and brioche are replaced with krosem—German sweet bread. Nonetheless, the monarchy was executed and Marie-Antoinette’s name remains stained to this day.
Marie’s utterance of those heartless sentiments in October, 1789, is unquestionably a fiction contrived after her execution in 1793 by revolutionary propagandists who had read their Rousseau and were intent on underscoring her stonyhearted indifference to the plight of the masses. In the autumn of 1789 bread was scarce throughout an economically depressed France, and what little could be found was priced at 13 1/2 sous for 4 lb.-far beyond the reach of the poor. On Oct. 5 and 6, hordes of hungry French mothers marched through the rain to Versailles to demand “bread and speech with the king.” While Louis XVI attempted to placate a representative committee of women and the rest milled menacingly outside, Marie took refuge in the inner recesses of the palace. Safely ensconced, she is said to have reacted to the demands of the peasants by exclaiming disdainfully, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (“Let them eat cake”). In reality, there is no basis for believing she said any such thing.