Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette. Image: Flickr
“Let them eat cake” is a phrase mistakenly attributed to Marie Antoinette, France’s most notorious Queen who tragically lost her throne, her family, and, sadly, her head at the height of the French Revolution.
The story goes that when the Queen was told that Paris was running out of bread, she told her courtiers “Let them eat cake.” Since only the nobility and the wealthy could afford cake, this tale was often cited as a proof of Marie-Antoinette’s ignorance about the plight of the ordinary Frenchmen.
But did she ever really utter “Let them eat cake?”
“Let them eat cake,” in French, is translated as “Qu'ils mangent de la brioche” and is believed to have been spoken by "a great princess" when she learned that the peasants were dying of hunger. Brioche was a luxury bread made of butter and eggs. Just like Marie Antoinette, the princess had little knowledge of what was going on outside the comforts of her palace.
No document exists that could support the claim that Marie Antoinette ever said that. However, in the book six of his autobiography Confessions, Jean-Jacques Rousseau mentioned a princess who told the peasants to eat cake. Rousseau wrote that he wanted to eat bread while drinking the wine he had stolen, but because he thought he was too well-dressed to go into an ordinary bakery, he recalled a "great princess":
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."
Who was the princess Rousseau was referring? Nobody knows. He might have even made up the whole story since Confessions is not considered entirely factual. But one thing is for sure, when he wrote the first of the six volumes, Marie Antoinette was barely a lady. When it was published in 1782, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were only about six years on the throne.
If not Marie Antoinette, who uttered the famous phrase?
Antonia Fraser, the Queen’s biographer, claimed that it was Marie-Thérèse, Louis XIV’s pious wife, who said it. “It was a callous and ignorant statement and she, Marie Antoinette, was neither,” she wrote. However, Fraser based her claim on Louis XVIII’s memoirs, who admitted that the saying was an old family legend believed to have been mentioned by a Spanish princess who married into the family.
Some fifty years after the French Revolution, French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr reported in the journal Les Guêpes that he found out that the book containing the quote was dated in 1760, proving the rumor about Marie-Antoinette was a total hoax.
Again, Karr must have only retold what he had just heard.
In 3rd century China, it was told that Emperor Hui (259–307) of Western Jin was informed of the famine afflicting his people because there was no rice. Incompetent and oblivious he replied: "Why don't they eat (ground) meat?" And the story goes on.