Did Marie Antoinette say "Let Them Eat Cake"?

Historical Myths

Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette. Wikimedia Commons

The Myth
Upon being informed that the citizens of France had no bread to eat, Marie Antoinette, Queen-consort of Louis XVI of France, exclaimed "let them eat cake", or "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche". This cemented her position as a vain, airheaded woman who didn't care for the common people of France, or understand their position, and is why she was executed in the French Revolution.

The Truth
She didn't utter the words; critics of the Queen claimed she had in order to make her look insensitive and undermine her position.

The words had actually been used, if not actually said, a few decades earlier to also attack the character of a noble.

The History of the Phrase
If you search the web for Marie Antoinette and her alleged words, you'll find quite a bit of discussion about how "brioche" doesn't translate exactly to cake, but was a different foodstuff (quite what is also disputed), and how Marie has simply been misinterpreted, that she meant brioche one way and people took it for another. Unfortunately, this is a side track, because most historians don’t believe Marie uttered the phrase at all.

Why don't we think she did? One reason is because variations of the phrase had been in use for decades before she is said to have uttered it, supposed examples of precisely the callousness and detachment of the aristocracy to the needs of the peasants that people claimed Marie had shown by supposedly uttering it. Jean-Jacques Rousseau mentions a variation in his autobiographical 'Confessions', where he relates the story of how he, on trying to find food, remembered the words of a great princess who, upon hearing that the country peasants had no bread, coldly said "let them eat cake/pastry".

He was writing in 1766-7, before Marie came to France. Furthermore, in a 1791 memoir Louis XVIII claims that Marie-Thérèse of Austria, wife of Louis XIV, used a variation of the phrase ("let them eat pastry") a hundred years before.

While some historians are also unsure if Marie- Thérèse really did say it – Antonio Fraser, a biographer of Marie Antoinette, believes she did - I don't find the evidence convincing, and both examples given above illustrate how the phrase was in use around the time and could have been easily attributed to Marie Antoinette.

There was certainly a huge industry devoted to attacking and slandering the Queen, making all sorts of even pornographic attacks on her to sully her reputation. The 'cake' claim was simply one assault among many, albeit the one which has survived most clearly throughout history. The true origin of the phrase is unknown.

Of course, discussing this in the twenty first century is of little help to Marie herself. The French Revolution broke out in 1789, and at first it seemed possible for the king and queen to remain in a ceremonial position with their power checked. But a series of missteps and an increasingly angry and hateful atmosphere, coupled with the start of war, meant the French legislators and the mob turned against the king and queen, executing both. Marie died, everyone believing she was the decadent snob of the gutter press.