One Of The Most Quoted Phrases From History Is Made Up And Mistranslated
And wrongly attributed to boot
One of the most quoted phrases from the French Revolution is the infamous saying “let them eat cake”. This phrase is deeply associated with the outbreak of the revolution and highlights how deeply disconnected and wealthy the rulers of France were at the time. The problem is, this phrase is not only poorly translated, it is also misattributed.
Most people will tell you that Marie Antoinette uttered those fateful words and lost her head for her troubles but this has never been established. In fact, it is very unlikely that Marie Antoinette could have said these words at all.
Bread Shortages, Cake and Poor Translation
Bread shortages in Europe were fairly common and occurred on a cyclical basis, especially in France. Bread shortages coincided with times of severe famine or times of economic troubles. Famine caused by crop loss or war depleted the bread supplies by destroying the grain used to make the bread. Economic hardship would slow bread production but left many poor people in the cities without the means to buy it.
In some cases there was no bread available in the city at all and in others, there was bread but it was so prohibitively expensive that no one could afford it.
The saying “let them eat cake” infers a shortage of bread due to famine.
So what’s the big deal? Cake isn’t very nutritious but it is hardly the worst thing to eat during a famine. In fact, many people today love eating cakes of all times so why is this quote seen so horribly?
The problem stems from a poor translation which was probably make ubiquitous for American English at some point during the late 19th century.
The original quote in French from Rousseau reads:
Qu’ils mangent de la brioche (emphasis mine)
Note the word brioche. Have you ever eaten something on a brioche bun? This is the same concept. Brioche is not cake but rather an artisan or luxury bread that uses a large amount of eggs and butter to make it light and savory. Even in places today brioche is seen as niche and expensive. It was exponentially more so in Revolutionary France.
The French have always had a strong bread and pastry industry that puts American bakeries to shame. I can only imagine someone trying to explain the concept of brioche to a group of English speaking people in middle America.
“It’s a fancy kind of bread. Really expensive bread. Don’t you guys have expensive bread in Indiana?”
“Not really. So it’s kind of like cake?”
“Sure… it’s like cake.”
At the time, especially in a famine or times of economic hardship, brioche would only have been affordable by the upper class elites of society. This quote shows the reader that the person who uttered it a) does not shop at normal bakeries and b) has no concept as to how much a loaf of bread or a loaf of brioche actually costs.
So the words “let them eat cake” were not uttered at all.
And, Marie Antoinette most likely never said them.
Attached To Antoinette Long After Her Death
On this day in history, the 16th of October, 1793, Marie Antoinette was famously executed by a revolutionary mob after a trial in which she was found guilty of depleting the national treasury, conspiracy against the state and high treason. This famous scene is often tied, inexplicably, to the quote “let them eat cake” though there is no record of Antoinette ever uttering those words.
The quote reliably appears only once in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions which was allegedly completed in 1769 and was not published until 1782. This means that the quote was most likely written down in the 1760s, long before Marie Antoinette would ever witness a bread shortage.
In fact, the first attribution of this quote to Antoinette came in 1843, nearly fifty years after her execution. While she had been known to be a frivolous spender who loved lavishness and luxury she was also someone who was shown time and again to be courteous and kind.
Antonia Frasier said of this quote in connection to Marie Antoinette:
“[Let them eat cake] was a callous and ignorant statement and she, Marie Antoinette, was neither.”
Antoinette’s last words were reliably recorded as an apology. She profusely apologized to the executioner when she stepped on his shoe and made sure to make it known that she had not done so on purpose.
Not only was this quote recorded long before Marie Antoinette could have said them, they don’t sound like words she would have said at all.
In the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, French contemporaries quietly and wisely tried to justify the actions of the time. Attributing this quote to Marie Antoinette was a part of the revisionist history which was frantically being done under Napoleon.
Some have speculated that Rousseau, a potent writer and thinker, made up the quote as he only attributed it to “a great princess” and no one specifically by name. It could have simply been a literary device.
And what a literary device it was.
It is still a phrase that crops up today in association with out of touch leaders. It still is widely attributed to Marie Antoinette, who already has the pleasure of having being beheaded and labelled disconnected to the point of death.
The words were probably made up by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his memoir. There is a chance they were never uttered at all.
This is a good time to remember the wise words of Abraham Lincoln.
“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet just because there is a picture with a quote next to it.”