Marie Antoinette, one of the most well-remembered queens in history, is remembered most for a callous statement attributed to her. When the French people were starving, and bread was scarce, she is said to have replied: “If they have no bread, then let them eat cake.” She is often blamed for being the spark that ignited the French Revolution.
The daughter of German Emperor Francis I and Maria Theresa of Austria, she was married to future King Louis XVI in 1770. She was, by all reports, quite a silly, frivolous, and extravagant queen, and was immensely unpopular. To say she was the sole reason for the French Revolution is far from the truth, but did she really utter those famous words, let them eat cake?
Let’s Suppose She Did Say Let Them Eat Cake
While the French people were suffering through a huge economic depression, and food was scarce, Marie Antoinette lived a life of pleasure and luxury. She spent a lot of the royal dough, and speaking of dough, she enjoyed fancy Brioche while the French people couldn’t even eat plain bread.
Brioche may have something to do with the story. A many layered bread which was more expensive than common bread, the name could be said to translate to “cake.”
Let Them Eat Cake in French
In 1789, while a mob of nearly 7,000 French working women were demonstrating, quite forcefully, in Versailles, the queen supposedly asked why the crowd was so angry. She was told it was because they had no bread to eat and were hungry. It was then she made her famous quote. However, she didn’t say let them eat cake, she said let them eat brioche or “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.”
If she had said let them eat cake, it would have been “Qu’ils mangent du gâteau.” This is actually close to the same thing since brioche is quite a rich bread full of butter, eggs, and milk.
Either way, it doesn’t make her look good. Since those who couldn’t afford to buy plain bread could scarcely be expected to be able to afford the more expensive brioche, this would seem a cruel taunt. However, if she said it, it could have been ignorance of the situation, and her naive nature, that prompted the comment. When French bakers ran out of bread, by law, they were required to sell the more expensive brioche at the same price. To Marie, then, perhaps it was a simple problem! She may not have understood there was a wheat shortage, or even that wheat was required to make bread.
She Did Not Say It
Regardless, it is almost certain that Marie never said it. This comment being attributed to her is more of a French quip than a true demonstration of cruelty on her part. It is quite clear that the incident never occurred and the whole episode was just a silly story.
To be clear, the French people did not appreciate foreigners very much, and they had even more disdain for foreign princesses. The same story was told of Maria Theresa, a Spanish princess who married Louis XIV in 1660. The story was then repeated about several other foreign princesses. Jacques Rousseau wrote in his book Confessions that he remembered a great princess, in response to being informed that the people had no bread to eat, thoughtlessly replied: “Then let them eat cake.” The book was published 23 years before Marie supposedly said it.
Despite her childishness, Marie Antoinette did step up to the plate, briefly, when the king was having trouble quashing the revolution. She tried to rally support from other countries, especially Austria, where her brother Leopold II ruled. She did not succeed and she and King Louis tried to flee Paris in 1791. They were captured and sent to prison. Louis XVI was put to the guillotine on January 21, 1793, and Marie followed on October 16, 1793.