Did Marie Antoinette Really Say, “Let Them Eat Cake”?

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Podcast Transcript

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

Over the years, she has been vilified as a woman who was out of touch with the common folk and was famously reported to have said that if the French people 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 cake eating on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I don’t think that Marie Antoinette can be neatly put into the box of either victim or villain. There were things she did that certainly cannot be justified, but at the time, she was almost certainly treated unjustly. 

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

She was raised in the Hofburg and Schönbrunn Palaces along with her older sister of three years, Carolina.

She was tutored in all of the subjects expected of a young dutchess. Reportedly, she was not very good at writing and couldn’t converse well in Italian or French.

However, she excelled at music.  She could 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 loved her. 

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

…and that is exactly what happened to young Marie in 1779, when at the age of 14 when she was placed into 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 wedding wasn’t even a real wedding. She was married by proxy. If you aren’t familiar with a marriage by proxy, it is when one or both of the parties isn’t present for the wedding ceremony. If both parties aren’t present, it is known as a double proxy wedding….and just as another FYI, proxy marriages are actually still legal in some US states, and a double proxy marriage is legal in Montana. 

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

While she was queen, she wasn’t held in very high esteem by the royal court because she hadn’t done the one thing that queens are supposed to do: produce an heir. 

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

At first, Marie was popular with the common people. She managed to sway the French people with her first public appearance in Paris in 1773. 

However, she wasn’t nearly as popular with the court and the French elite. The fact that she was Austrian rubbed many people the wrong way. She also became the victim of rumors and petty jealousies with several women at court. 

Eventually, her popularity amongst the French people waned. While France was in the middle of an economic crisis, she continued to spend lavishly on clothing, parties, and gambling even though the common people were suffering. 

In 1775, riots broke out around the country in an event known as the Flour War over the sharp rise in wheat, flour, and bread prices. People began to put the blame for the problems of France on her personally. France couldn’t pay its debts because of her extravagant spending. 

She was perceived to support Austria over France. 

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

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

It was yet another thing that led to the disillusionment of the French people with the monarchy. 

I’m really jumping ahead and leaving a lot out 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 that she was charged with were rather outrageous, and it was mostly a show trial with the outcome predetermined before it began. She was given only a day to put together a defense. 

She was accused of a host of crimes, including rather ridiculous ones such as engaging in incest with her son. 

Unsurprisingly, she was found guilty of depleting the national treasury by giving money to Austria, conspiracy against the state’s 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 shorn.

Marie Antoinette is a fascinating character and probably worth a more full treatment at some point in the future. 

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

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

It is a story that demonstrates just how out of touch she supposedly was. 

But is it true? Did she actually say that?

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

To be sure, the reason why she is attributed to having said it is because it seems like something she would say.

Nonetheless, there was nothing during the entire life of Marie Antoinette where she was even accused of having said this. 

The first recorded case of her being attributed with having said this was by the novelist Alphonse Karr in 1843, almost 50 years after she was executed.

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 the Emperor Hui was told that there was no rice for the peasants to eat. In response, he said, “Why don’t they eat porridge with (ground) meat?” 

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

It is highly unlikely that a statement by a 7th-century Chinese emperor made its way to 18th-century France. 

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

He wrote about a time when he felt he was too well dressed to go into an ordinary neighborhood bakery. He wrote, “Finally I recalled the stopgap solution of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: “Let them eat brioche.”

There are several things about this quote that need to be unpacked. The first of which is that while this was published in 1782, it was written in 1765, when ??Marie was only nine years old and hadn’t even been to France or met her future husband. 

So the “great princess” he was referring to couldn’t have been Marie Antoinette. 

Moreover, the famine in 1789, which sparked her making the statement, never occurred. The closest thing would have been the riots during the Flour War, which was more about rising prices than mass starvation. 

Second, he referred to brioche, not cake. This might sound like a minor point, but it does add some subtlety to the quote. Cake is nothing like bread. While they are both made of wheat and flour, they are very different things.

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

The difference between bread and brioche is much smaller than the difference between bread and cake. If anything, it would make whoever originally said it even more detached from regular people. 

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

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

Other possibilities include Louix XV’s daughters, who could be Princess Sophie or Princess Victoire.

There is another possibility as well. There was no “great princess.” It was something Rousseau made up just to embellish his story. 

Regardless of who actually said it, it is something that is probably going to be stuck to Marie Antoinette for the rest of time  Was she the greatest queen? No. Was she unjustly executed? I’d say yes. 

Regardless of Marie Antoinette, though, you can be certain she never told her subjects to eat cake.