Did Marie Antoinette really say “Let them eat cake”?

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Podcast Transcript

Marie-Antoinette was the last queen of France before the French Revolution. She and her husband Louis XVI were executed by guillotine during the Reign of Terror, which soon followed.

Over the years she was vilified as a woman who was out of touch with the common people and was said to have said that if the French couldn’t eat bread, then “let them eat cake”.

But was she really that bad, and did she really tell her subjects to eat cake?

Learn more about Marie Antoinette and if, in fact, she recommended eating cake in this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I don’t think Marie Antoinette can be neatly classified as victim or villain. There are things she did that definitely can’t be justified, but at the time she was almost certainly treated unfairly.

Originally named Maria Antonia, she was born into an extremely privileged life as the youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis I of Austria in 1755.

She grew up in the Hofburg and Schönbrunn palaces with her three-year-old older sister, Carolina.

She was educated in all the subjects expected of a young duchess. Apparently she wasn’t very good at writing and couldn’t converse well in Italian or French.

However, she excelled in music. She knew how to play the harp, harpsichord and flute and was also considered an excellent singer and dancer.

She had a very strained relationship with her mother, who never showed her any affection. She always claimed that she feared her mother more than she loved her.

As for Empress Maria Theresa, her daughters were there to be married off and used as political pawns with other royal houses in Europe.

…and that’s exactly what happened to the young Marie in 1779, when at the age of 14 she was placed in an arranged marriage with the French dauphin, Louis-Auguste. FYI, dauphin was just the French term for the crown prince or next in line to the French throne.

Her marriage wasn’t even a real marriage. She married by proxy. If you are unfamiliar with a proxy marriage, it is when one or both parties are not present at the wedding ceremony. If both parties are not present, it is a double proxy marriage…and just like another FYI, proxy marriages are still legal in some US states, and a double proxy marriage is legal in the Montana.

Four years later, King Louis XV of France died and young Louis ascended the throne of France as Louis XVI…and the 18-year-old girl, now known in French as Marie-Antoinette, became queen.

While queen, she was not held in very high regard by the royal court because she failed to do the one thing queens are supposed to do: produce an heir.

She finally had a daughter, Marie-Thérèse, after eight years of marriage. They then had three more children, two of them boys.

At first, Mary was popular with ordinary people. She succeeded in influencing the French people with her first public appearance in Paris in 1773.

However, she was not as popular with the French court and elite. The fact that she is Austrian has offended a lot of people the wrong way. She was also the victim of rumors and petty jealousies with several women at court.

Eventually, his popularity among the French waned. As France was in the midst of an economic crisis, it continued to spend lavishly on clothes, parties and gambling, even as ordinary people suffered.

In 1775, riots broke out across the country in an event known as the Flour War due to soaring prices for wheat, flour and bread. People began to blame him personally for France’s problems. France could not pay its debts because of its extravagant spending.

She was perceived as supporting Austria rather than France.

To be fair, her spending was out of control and her mother commented on this in private letters sent to her.

Over time, she became more involved in politics. She was eventually embroiled in a scandal known as the Diamond Necklace Affair. She was accused of defrauding royal jewelers for a diamond necklace she ordered.

This is yet another thing that has led to the French people’s disillusionment with the monarchy.

I really go ahead and leave a lot here, but in 1791 she and her husband were arrested and the monarchy was abolished in 1792. On January 15, 1793, the king was executed by guillotine.

In October of that year, Marie was put on trial. Most of the things she was accused of were pretty outrageous, and it was mostly a show trial with the outcome predetermined before it started. She only had one day to prepare her defense.

She’s been charged with a host of crimes, including some rather ridiculous crimes like incest with her son.

Unsurprisingly, she was found guilty of depleting the national treasury by giving money to Austria, conspiracy against state security, and high treason.

She was sentenced to death.

On October 16, 1793, she was beheaded in a public execution, wearing a plain white dress with her hair cut.

Marie Antoinette is a fascinating character and probably deserves a fuller treatment at some point in the future.

In this episode, I want to focus on the famous words attributed to him: “Let them eat cake.”

Supposedly in 1789, during a famine that ravaged France, he was told that the poor could not afford to eat bread. In response, she said, “then let them eat cake.”

It’s a story that shows how out of touch she supposedly was.

But is it true? Did she really say that?

The short answer is no. There’s no evidence that she ever said it or anything like that.

Admittedly, the reason she is credited with saying this is because it sounds like something she would say.

Nonetheless, there was nothing during Marie Antoinette’s entire life where she was even accused of saying that.

The first recorded instance where she was attributed for saying this was by novelist Alphonse Karr in 1843, nearly 50 years after her execution.

So if she didn’t say it, who did?

The earliest version of “let them eat cake” actually comes from the 7th century Jin dynasty in China. Supposedly, Emperor Hui learned that there was no rice for the peasants to eat. In response, he said, “Why don’t they eat porridge with (minced) meat?

This complete lack of empathy and understanding made him unfit to be emperor.

It is highly unlikely that a statement from a 7th century Chinese emperor made it to France in the 18th century.

The origin of the quote almost certainly comes from an 18th century book by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1782, he published his book Confessions. There is a passage that surprisingly resembles what is attributed to Marie-Antoinette.

He wrote about a time when he felt too well dressed to walk into a regular neighborhood bakery. He wrote, “Finally, I remembered the palliative solution of a great princess who had been told that the peasants had no bread, and who had replied: “Let them eat brioche.”

There are several things about this quote that need to be unpacked. The first is that, although published in 1782, it was written in 1765, when Marie was only nine years old and had not even been to France or met her future husband.

The “great princess” he was talking about could therefore not be Marie-Antoinette.

Moreover, the famine of 1789, which prompted her to make this declaration, never happened. The closest thing would have been the riots during the Flour War, which was more about rising prices than mass starvation.

Second, he said brioche, not cake. This may seem like a minor point, but it adds some subtlety to the quote. Cake has nothing to do with bread. Although they are both made from wheat and flour, they are very different things.

Brioche is very similar to bread. It is made much the same way as bread, except it contains more eggs and butter. This makes it much richer and more flaky than regular bread.

The difference between bread and bun is much smaller than the difference between bread and cake. On the contrary, it would make whoever originally said it even more detached from ordinary people.

That said, if Marie-Antoinette didn’t say it, who did? Who was the “great princess” Rousseau referred to?

One possibility was Maria Theresa of Spain, who was Queen of France about 100 years before Marie Antoinette.

Other possibilities include the daughters of Louix XV, who could be Princess Sophie or Princess Victoire.

There is also another possibility. There was no “high princess”. It’s something that Rousseau invented just to embellish his story.

It doesn’t matter who actually said it, it’s something that will probably stick with Marie Antoinette for the rest of time. Was she the greatest queen? No. Was she unjustly executed? I would say yes.

Regardless of Marie Antoinette, however, you can be sure that she never told her subjects to eat cake.

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