Everyone has heard that Marie Antoinette was said to utter the now-infamous line, “Let them eat cake!” But did she really say that?
In October 1789 the poor people of Paris stormed the royal palace of Versailles in an attempt to force Louis XVI to create a new, fairer government. According to legend, when Queen Marie Antoinette was told that the crowd outside was hungry and didn’t even have bread, she said, “Ou’ils mangent de la brioche.” This became misconstrued at “Let them eat cake,” to show her either as stupid or callously indifferent to the plight of the poor. The story was told far and wide during and after the Queen’s execution, and has since become an iconic moment in the history of the French Revolution.
The trouble is, there is no evidence that she ever made this remark.
The first reference to the phrase was almost thirty years earlier, when Marie Antoinette was only a young girl. It appeared in the 1760s, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions. Rousseau tells a story about a “great princess” who, when told that the peasants had no bread, replied: “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” Brioche, a gourmet type of bread, was the only kind the princess knew, so in fact the princess meant it as a kind remark. It’s possible that a revolutionary had read Rousseau’s book and decided to ascribe the comment to Marie Antoinette.