Let Them Eat Cake

“Eat the Rich!” is certainly a common refrain these days. Pandemics and economic recessions aside, the chasm between the haves and have-nots has only seemed to widen for decades. The anger of people tired of the way things keep going is starting to seem palatable, riots and protests a weekly occurrence, and with the recent tone deaf renovation of the White House’s Rose Garden on the taxpayers dime–the resemblance to the 18th century French Revolution is starting to feel a little uncanny. That comparison also brings up the inevitable article headlines shameless in their failure of quick fact checking–Let Them Eat Cake! and Marie Antoinette are once again dragged through the street and scorned in the name of reform. But it’s time to put this misattribution to the guillotine. 

If you’ve heard the name Marie Antoinette, there’s a strong chance you might know her only as the queen who supposedly said ‘Let them eat cake’ in response to her citizens being unable to afford bread and who was later decapitated for it. Though the latter is an unfortunate reality, there is no record, witness, or biographical assertion that traces this phrase to her. In fact, the first time Marie Antoinette became associated with the phrase is in Alphonse Karr’s satirical magazine Les Guepes in 1843. 50 years after she was killed by revolutionaries. [1]

So how in the world did a queen who had written, “It is at the same time amazing and wonderful to be so well received two months after the riots and in spite of the high price of bread which unfortunately continues. It is certain that when people who are suffering treat us so well, we are even more obligated to work for their happiness.” instead get associated with a flagrant disregard for her people and unwillingness to humble herself to the plight of the common folk? [6]

“She is an amiable and honourable woman, rather young and unreflecting; but she has a core of honour and virtue which has often surprised me.”

Emperor Joseph II in 1777 upon visiting the queen. [4]

First, let’s trace the origin of the phrase. Let Them Eat Cake isn’t even the original words. The French version is explicitly, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”. Brioche is eggy and delicious but not cake or gâteau. This sentence makes its first appearance on record in the autobiography of famed philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his Confessions, Rousseau recalls a time when he had stolen some wine and had been looking for some bread to go along with it, because what kind of insane person wouldn’t. Apparently, while dressing up a little too fancy for the bakery, he recalled these words–”At length I remembered the last resort of a great princess who, when told that the peasants had no bread, replied: ‘Then let them eat brioches.’”. Jean-Jacques Rousseau started writing in 1765, when Marie Antoinette was 9-years old and the 15th child of Empress Maria Theresa. To say she was an inconsequential princess at the time would be a hilarious understatement. No one would have thought those words could have been hers. There were likely candidates, however, ranging from various French elite to The Sun King Louis XIV’s wife. [1]

So why was the phrase given to Marie Antoinette almost 100-years later? A lot of that has to do with how Marie was perceived and later scapegoated as a harbinger of disenfranchisement to France during her reign.

When Marie Antoinette first arrived to the Palace of Versailles, she was a 14-year old Austrian princess who was to be married off to the grandson and heir of King Louis XV of France in an attempt to solidify an alliance between the two rival nations. At first, the people of France were taken by Marie–her innocence and beauty celebrated. [4]

“I cannot tell you, dear Mother, the transports of joy and affection they displayed. What happiness in our station to win the friendship of a whole people at so small a price! Nothing is so precious, and I shall never forget it.”

Marie Antoinette in a letter to her mother describing her first visit to Paris. [4]

But opinions soured over time. The Palace of Versailles was a viper’s nest of political intrigue and an unassuming teenager without any care for the obfuscated etiquette at court led Marie to unintentionally snub and offend many. Of the elite among the court were also those who were critical of the alliance between Austria/France, potential rivals for the throne, and other threatened influences like the King’s mistress Madame du Barry. These rumormongers were the first to leak stories and scandalous accusations against Marie to the smut-peddling pamphlet publications that were like today’s version of tabloids. One of the more disastrous claims was the lack of consummation in her marriage with Louis XIV–of which was true. It took the couple 7 years to finally get busy–but during that time, all of the blame was placed squarely on Marie Antoinette. [2]

Without motherhood and an heir of France to keep her position secure, Marie Antoinette spent most of her time in Versailles in a constant battle against neverending boredom. If she wasn’t sleeping with her husband, these gossipers reasoned, then she must be getting around somewhere else. Accusations of promiscuity were leveled against her, attendance of masked balls questioned, her close friendships with duchesses presumed sexual–even when she did give birth to Louis XIV’s first child in 1778, the pamphlets guessed it was the product of an illicit affair. The people of France started to think of their new King as a weak, infantile man–impotent and worthless. But as much derision as was foisted his way, came the misogynistic characterization of Marie Antoinette as a controlling, deceitful wife who could move her husband to her will. Who was ruling? Recall the tenuous at best relations between Austria and France, was an embedded Austrian spy running the show? With France becoming embroiled into disastrous wars at the behest of Austria, it certainly started to seem that way. [2]

“Sire, I speak to you in friendship; believe me, we never let ourselves be led around by our wives. I have one who is sweet as a lamb, because, foutre, I always showed her the fist when she wanted to play the mistress. It’s even more deadly if a king lets himself be governed by women. Women have caused throughout time the misfortunes of France…Remember the hideous reigns of the abominable Medicis; recall Henry IV always ready to do some stupidity for his mistresses…tell your wife that you took her to breed your children, not to mix in affairs of state and turn your kingdom upside down. Among your people, these people who adore you, you will find your security.”

Jacques-Rene Hebert 1790 in his newspaper Le Pere Duchesne. Like Rupert Murdoch of the day, 14% of his published headlines between 1791-1794 were spent disparaging Marie Antoinette and trying to rally the people against her. [3]

France at the time was no simpering fawn. Revolution has no single defining moment, and for the 18th century there’s decades of falling dominoes that will eventually lead to the end of the monarchy of which Marie Antoinette was precariously sitting, giggling at the card tables and ignoring the gossip as she gambled away with her friends. Why should she pay any mind to rumors that she knew were hilariously untrue? They drew her as a salacious bestial monster, half woman half tiger. They wrote of her and her friends throwing lesbian parties in the Petit Trianon, the epitome of depravity. And there was the Diamond Necklace Affair–something Marie herself had nothing to do with–in where Comtesse de La Motte attempted to get a necklace worth around $2 million by pretending it was requested by the queen. After forging letters and dressing up a prostitute as the Queen, La Motte’s plan failed and yet she still blamed Marie Antoinette. Considering the state of the economy in France at the time, people were pretty upset to hear that their queen supposedly had her eye on millions worth in jewelry rather than their inability to afford bread. Needless to say, the hatred for Marie Antoinette escalated. [2 & 3]

This is supposed to be Marie Antoinette. How lovely!

“Women! Women! Especially princesses, and worst of all queens.”

Madame La Motte [2]

When a series of revolutionary events ignited in quick succession–Storming of the Bastille in 1789 followed by the Women’s March on Versailles, the royal family attempting to flee to Austria in 1791, and the Storming of the Tuileries in 1792–the writing was already on the wall. It was too late to sway public opinion, the people wanted Marie’s head. She knew it too. There is the story of the march on Versailles where revolutionaries had sieged the palace and the Queen, humbled, came to them on the balcony. Prostrating herself on the railing after 10 minutes of silence, while the crowd leveled muskets, the revolutionaries were momentarily warmed by her act of courage. Cries of “Vive la Reine!” reached her ear but this sentiment was temporary and spoken in vain. Death would come to her soon. [5]

“Kill! Kill! We want to cut off her head, cut out her heart, and fry her liver. There she is, the filthy whore! We don’t want her body, what we want is to carry her head to Paris.”

– An unnamed participant in the Women’s March. [2]

Eventually captured by revolutionaries and kept in abusive confinement for weeks, Marie awaited the same fate her husband had met only nine months before. There was little hope for her on trial, despite insisting that every treasonous action she was accused of was in the interest of protecting her children and husband. When the libelous newspaper publisher Hebert testified against her, claiming that she had committed incest with her son, Marie’s response seems tired and even subdued. “If I have not responded it is because nature refuses to respond to such a charge made to a mother. I call upon every mother here.” But reason didn’t matter. [3]

Marie Antoinette was sentenced to face the guillotine on October 16th, 1793. 

“More bloodthirsty than Jezabel, more conniving than Agrippina…her life was a calamity for France…her fall a triumph for liberty…the widow Capet…died under the guillotine. The globe is purified! Long live the Republic!”

[2]

So, an attempt to answer the question of how Marie Antoinette came to be associated with a phrase that there is no evidence of her ever having uttered seems more or less a tragic realization of how someone can be destroyed by the trial of public opinion. A constant victim of lies and malice, Marie’s crime was perhaps not paying enough heed to the words spoken of her. Perhaps if she had come to her own defense sooner, she would be remembered more today for her lavish acts of giving to numerous charities like founding Maison Philanthropique with Louis XVI or how she sold royal objects to support families struggling during the famine of 1787. Maybe she’d be remembered for the simple white dress she requested to be depicted in for modesty which later became a fashion symbol for revolutionary women. Or she could be thought of fondly for how many children she adopted and supported financially when their parents passed away. Or perhaps she would be given more due credit for helping to secure France’s aid in the American Revolutionary War which helped lead the colonists to victory against the British Crown. [7]

Instead, we have the life and memory of a queen who, persistent through time, continues to be lambasted by those who don’t know her at all. The image of a rich, unsympathetic queen who is out of touch with reality was created over 200 years ago by people meant to do her harm and was peddled by those who needed an idol to rally revolutionary fervor against. [2 & 3]

I suppose the continued pattern into modern day of Marie Antoinette being accused of saying something she didn’t is just the icing on the cake of her tragic story.

Fact Check it, Yo!

[1] Temerson, Catherine (2000). Marie-Antoinette: The Last Queen of France. St. Martin’s Griffin. pp. 63–65

[2] Barker, N. (1993). “Let Them Eat Cake”: The Mythical Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution. The Historian, 55(4), 709-724. Retrieved August 22, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24448793

[3] Colwill, E. (1989). Just Another “Citoyenne?” Marie-Antoinette on Trial, 1790-1793. History Workshop, (28), 63-87. Retrieved August 26, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4288925

[4] Gooch, G. (1949). MARIE ANTOINETTE. History, 34(122), new series, 221-234. Retrieved August 26, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24404219

[5] Schama, Simon (1989). Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Vintage Books/Random House. ISBN 0-679-72610-1.

[6] Lettres De Marie-Antoinette (in French). 1. Nabu Press. 2012. p. 91. ISBN 978-1278509648

[7] Vidal, E. M. (2012, February 18). A Reputation in Shreds. Retrieved August 30, 2020, from http://www.marie-antoinette.org/articles/reputation/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s