Marie Antoinette and feeding the peasants cake
According to one of the myths of history, when Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, was informed that the starving citizens of Paris had no bread with which to feed themselves and their families, she shrugged it off by declaring, “Let them eat cake”. It has been repeated through history as a sign of the complete disregard held by the French King and Queen as they reveled in the luxury of their palaces and estates, eating and drinking to the point of gluttony at times, while the people starved. The indifference of the Queen is cited as one of the justifications for the revolution and for the subsequent execution of the nobles who incited the hatred of the bourgeoises.
The problem with the story is that Marie Antoinette never made the statement. It was not one of the accusations thrown at her during her trial. There was a similar statement made in a European House of Royalty, and it was duly recorded by a diarist at the time, though it wasn’t published for another 16 years. The diarist was Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the document in which he recorded the statement was published in 1783. But its manuscript was written in 1767, when Marie Antoinette was but 13 years of age, living in Austria, and not to meet her future husband for another three years.
Rousseau published the content of his diaries and other writings as his Confessions, in the form of an autobiography with the first six volumes being completed by 1767, though not published until the 1780s. In one of those volumes, he referred to “une grande princesse” (a great princess) being advised of the peasants starving on account of insufficient bread responding by telling her advisers, “S’il n’ont plus de pain, qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” (If they have no bread, let them eat cake). One reason for the lack of bread was the shortage of yeast, brioche – cake – rises through the use of eggs rather than yeast. In other words, cake was available while bread was not.
Regardless, the reference to a great princess was not to Marie Antoinette, but to Maria Theresa of Spain. Whether the utterance as recorded by Rousseau was made out of callousness, stupidity, or a genuine recommendation to consider an alternative, it was not made by Marie Antoinette, who was not yet a great princess and was years from becoming the Queen of France. In addition, Rousseau’s Confessions is far from being a factual transcription of the life of Rousseau and his experiences in Europe to that time. Rousseau was not present to hear Maria Theresa make the remark, and was instead reporting an event of which he had heard secondhand, it had occurred a century earlier.
Marie Antoinette was initially popular with the French people, particularly in Paris, but as the country began to be roiled with revolutionary turmoil her popularity waned quickly. One of the main reasons for this was her Austrian birth and her membership in the Austrian Imperial Family, seen as a threat to the emerging French Republic. It was this rather than her perceived callousness which led to her arrest and execution, though stories such as the one connected with the “Let them eat bread” quote were useful in vilifying her in the eyes of the people and made her execution easier to justify to the French peasantry.