Let Them Eat Cake

 

“Let Them Eat Cake”

 

It is rather well known that the origins of many English phrases are completely unknown. Nevertheless, many people would claim, and with some conviction, that the above stated quote is attributed to none other than the high priestess of opulence, Marie-Antoinette (1755-93), the Queen consort of Louis XVI. She is supposed to have said this when she was told that the French populace had no bread to eat.

The original French is ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’, i.e. ‘Let them eat brioche’ (brioche is a form of cake made of flour, butter and eggs). The usual interpretation of the phrase is that Marie-Antoinette understood little about the plight of the poor and cared even less.

There are two problems with that interpretation: 1. There’s no evidence of any kind that Marie-Antoinette ever uttered those word or anything like them and 2. The phrase, in as much as it can be shown to be associated with the French nobility, can be interpreted in other ways, for example, it could have either ironic or even a genuine attempt to offer cake to the poor as an alternative to the bread that they couldn’t afford.

As to the origin of the expression, two notable contemporaries of Marie-Antoinette – Louis XVIII and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, attribute the phrase to source other than her. In Louis XVIII’s memoir Relation d’un voyage a Bruxelles et d Coblentz, 1791, he states that the phrase ‘Que ne mangent-ils de la croûte de pâté?’ (Why don’t they eat pastry?) was used by Marie-Thérèse (1638-83), the wife of Louis XIV. That account was published almost a century after Marie-Thérèse’s death though, so it must be treated with some caution.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 12-volume autobiographical work Confessions, was written in 1770. In Book 6, which was written around 1767, he recalls:

At length I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, “Then let them eat pastry!”

Marie-Antoinette arrived at Versailles from her native Austria in 1770, two or three years after Rousseau had written the above passage. Whoever the ‘great princess’ was – possibly Marie-Thérèse, it wasn’t Marie-Antoinette.

Her reputation as an indulgent socialite is difficult to shake, but it appears to be unwarranted and is a reminder that history is written by the victors. She was known to have said “It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness”.

Nevertheless, the French revolutionaries thought even less of her than we do today and she was guillotined to death in 1793 for the crime of treason.

 

In honor of the famed Queen of France and this, the annual day of love for hearts small and large everywhere, a sampling of Red Velvet Cupcakes from Magnolia to Chocolate Dulce de Leche Bars to Raspberry Chocolate French Macaroons to the above featured Top Tier Devil’s Food Cake to a virtual bake book of limitless cake recipes culled from the kitchens of the world, Celebrate with Cake

 

Photo: Marie Antoinette, Queen of France
Historical Research: Gary Martin, 1996 – 2010

 

 

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~ by eaesthete on 02/13/10.

4 Responses to “Let Them Eat Cake”

  1. Next time….Put the title in french! PLease ” S’il n’ont plus de pain, donnez leur des brioches” Bonne Saint Valentin ! Emmanuel

    • Like the lady herself who could barely read or write in her native tongue (German) by the age of 12, my French is woefully inadequate. I mistrust internet translations (laissez-les manger le gâteau) and thus, have little recourse other than to bow, sir, to the versatility of your skill and bid you a warm merci.

  2. I think of this tipping point in history where less and less became the impetus for ENOUGH! as I look at America today where never have so few had so much. I look at the long lines of these free health clinics in AMERICA and it brings tears to my eyes. On this day when we think with love in our hearts, I think not of cake or brioche but of fairness and compassion. In our hearts we are better than we have been behaving, and it’s time to act on that.

    • Home,

      Your comments always go right to the heart of the matter revealing what my own subconscious, oftentimes, fails to consider. I think my choice of the inequity between the bread and the brioche was an unmistakable metaphor for the times. Thank you for pointing that out.

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