True Story Marie Antoinette Never Said, "Let Them Eat Cake."

About the true story behind the legend that Marie Antoinette said, "Let them eat cake."


Marie Antoinette Never Said, "Let Them Eat Cake."

In 1766 Marie Antoinette was but a child of 11 in the court of Maria Theresa of Austria; her future husband, Louis XVI of France, was likewise a child, and his father, Louis XV, was king. The Revolution was still two decades off.

That year, Jean Jacques Rousseau was writing his Confessions and in them recounted an incident that may have transpired in Grenoble 25 years before. "At length," wrote Rousseau, "I remembered the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, 'Then let them eat cake.'" If Rousseau's "great princess" did not actually speak those words, they can, perhaps, be attributed instead to an unnamed duchess of Tuscany, who spoke them in the 1750s, according to the 19th-century writer Alphonse Karr. Whoever spoke them, it obviously wasn't Marie Antoinette.

Marie's utterance of those heartless sentiments in October, 1789, is unquestionably a fiction contrived after her execution in 1793 by revolutionary propagandists who had read their Rousseau and were intent on underscoring her stonyhearted indifference to the plight of the masses. In the autumn of 1789 bread was scarce throughout an economically depressed France, and what little could be found was priced at 13 1/2 sous for 4 lb.-far beyond the reach of the poor. On Oct. 5 and 6, hordes of hungry French mothers marched through the rain to Versailles to demand "bread and speech with the king." While Louis XVI attempted to placate a representative committee of women and the rest milled menacingly outside, Marie took refuge in the inner recesses of the palace. Safely ensconced, she is said to have reacted to the demands of the peasants by exclaiming disdainfully, "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" ("Let them eat cake"). In reality, there is no basis for believing she said any such thing.

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