The phrase “Let them eat cake” has, for many years, for centuries in fact, been commonly attributed the last queen of France before the French Revolution in 1789, Marie-Antoinette.
However, there is simply absolutely no record of her ever saying this. So how did it then happen that whenever we hear this phrase we inevitably think of her? The influential 18th-century liberal French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a book in 1767 entitled, Les Confessions, in which he recounts the story of him seeking some bread to accompany wine he had stolen. He then recalls what he called the “last resort of a great princess, who, when told that the peasants had no bread, replied: ‘let them eat cake!’”. Rousseau does not specify whom he refers to and it is almost certain that he himself coined the phrase when writing the book. Les Confessions was only published in 1782, however, when the fire of the liberal revolution had already been properly lit, and the phrase was falsely attributed to Marie-Antoinette, who was eschewed as the embodiment of the old order of Europe.
Contrary to the propaganda against her, however, the verifiable historical record teaches us that Marie-Antoinette was actually, for the most part, a very kind-hearted and elegant lady. For example, in addition to her own, she adopted a number of children for whom she cared, at least one of whom reportedly starved to death on the street after she was imprisoned by the Revolutionaries and could no longer care for him. The Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke, who personally encountered the queen, aptly described her as “glittering like the morning star full of life and splendour and joy”.
But her image was distorted by the wave of propaganda against her, especially in the decade prior to the French Revolution. Of course, Marie-Antoinette wasn’t innocent in all this and she was most certainly out of touch with public sentiment, but historical sincerity demands painting a clear and accurate picture of this truly intriguing historical figure.
Interestingly, the French word used in Rosseau’s phrase, and which is commonly translated as “cake”, is “brioche”, which actually refers to a French bread or a bun with a rich and tender crumb due to its high egg and butter content.
So at the end of the day there are two myths associated with the phrase “let them eat cake”. Firstly, Marie-Antoinette never said it, and secondly, the man who coined the phrase didn’t even use the word cake. But still, this popular myth does at least serve a good purpose in terms of continually reminding us of queen Marie Antoinette, one of the most fascinating figures in all of French and European history.