Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

May 25, 2007

Marie Antoinette and “Let Them Eat Cake”

Filed under: random — codesmithy @ 5:54 am

One of thing that has been sort of a thorn in my brain for a number of years is the meaning of “let them eat cake” which was supposedly uttered by Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. For starters, I don’t really care if she said it or not, which is an annoyance wading through various resources on-line since they tend to devote quite a bit to that particular topic. Al Gore didn’t claim to “invent” the Internet either. But, many people had a perception of him as a person, that he exaggerated, made audacious statements and took credit for other people’s accomplishments, which the statement seems to embody. The fact that he didn’t actually say it may make it tragic and unfair, but it doesn’t change does not change the fact that many people (possibly mistakenly) had the perception of him as an exaggerator.

The same goes for Marie Antoinette, she was executed after all, but was it because they perceived her as crass and uncaring or hopelessly out of touch? It was given that she was living an opulent and luxurious lifestyle. But that doesn’t help choose one interpretation over the other. Part of the confusion comes down to what “cake” means. “Cake,” in the sense that I usually have heard it used, is reserved for special occasions, and desert. I would expect it to be more expensive then regular bread since it takes sugar to make it. However, it still isn’t clear what the phrase meant. People are starving. The Queen knows that they are, they have no bread, she says, “let them eat cake.” Where would they get cake from if they had no bread? Was she planning on giving them cake from one of her parties? This sounds more naive than crass, but it didn’t seem to make a lot of sense, since she apparently said it jokingly, and I guess I didn’t get the joke.

But as my junior high history pointed out, there are other definitions of cake. From looking through various definitions at dictionary.com. Yes, my definition is near the top of the list: “a sweet, baked, breadlike food, made with or without shortening, and usually containing flour, sugar, baking powder or soda, eggs, and liquid flavoring.” But, it also means “a flat, thin mass of bread, esp. unleavened bread,” which from what I recall from his lecture, was what he thought Marie meant. It certainly makes more sense. You could see Marie saying “Oh you don’t have bread, well we have this cheaper stuff, “cake” that you can eat, ha ha ha, let me get back to my seven course meal.” Hence, she was crass and uncaring. All the pieces seem to fit.

But there are many definitions to choose from, how do we know the cake as cheap bread is correct? Well, what did the quote in French have her as saying? “S’ils n’ont plus de pain, qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” where brioche is “cake.”  What food do the French call brioche in the 18th century.  According to wikipedia, brioche is “is a highly enriched French bread, whose high egg and butter content give it a rich and tender crumb.”  This seems to blow the cake as “cheap” bread out of the water, since this bread sounds more expensive rather than less expensive than your typical bread.

Which leads us more firmly, back to the original interpretation: cake as a more expensive form of bread.  However, we still have to reconcile that joking part of it.  The way to fit the pieces together is to put the phrase in this context.  Oh, they don’t have bread, well they’ll just have to pony up and buy the more expensive kind.  Which would be easy for her to do, but unrealistic for the starving poor.  This quote is meant to paint her as crass and uncaring, not naive in the typical interpretation of it.

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7 Comments »

  1. Yes, but it was never quite proven that Marie Antoinette has ever utter those words. You have a very plausible opinion yet what your saying is only for something that might of happened.

    Comment by Name Witheld — July 5, 2007 @ 2:34 am

  2. You are wrong there Marie Antoinette was not pampered she had no life to live and was bored all the time. And “Let them eat cake” was her way of saying lower bread prices Marie Antoinette was a good abused person ok!!!

    Comment by Hannah — March 3, 2008 @ 3:39 am

  3. Hi Hannah,

    First of all, Marie Antoinette never said “let them eat cake.” Not even the French version of it “S’ils n’ont plus de pain, qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” The quote itself comes from Rousseau’s Confessions. Something that I was fully aware of when I wrote the post.

    Here is more information if you’d like to read about it.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Cite&page=List_of_misquotations&id=192875054

    What I was interested in was how the quote was meant to be interpreted as a piece of anti-royalist propaganda, hence the parallel I drew between Al Gore’s misquote and Marie Antoinette‘s. It isn’t even clear that the French used this incident as a reason to execute her. There are a few possible interpretations of it that I explored, it could have meant different things to different people but I stand behind my conclusion that it was meant to paint her as “crass and uncaring” person. Given that the quote was used as anti-royalist propaganda, your interpretation of “her way of saying lower bread prices” makes no sense.

    I don’t really care if she happened to have no life and was bored as you claim. The fact of the matter is we can never really know and for all practical purposes it doesn’t matter. I’m more concerned with people’s actions. To the extent that Marie Antoinette was like a bird in a gilded cage makes her all the more uninteresting to me. Our history is filled with people set on fire, enslaved, raped and thrown off the top of buildings, tortured and otherwise subjugated. I don’t feel like I would be doing justice to all the unnamed victims by focusing on the injustice of one woman of royalty who was executed via the guillotine.

    I am aware that there is a group of people that want to believe Marie Antoinette was someone to sympathize with. As far as I can tell, it is a similar phenomenon to those who sympathize with celebrities like Paris Hilton.

    Comment by codesmithy — March 3, 2008 @ 6:19 am

  4. Good food for thought, but wikipedia as your main source?

    Reliable info??

    Comment by Greg — May 2, 2008 @ 2:51 am

  5. Hi Greg. First of all, I’m not as down on Wikipedia as many others are. Mostly because I checked the sources. You can find Rousseau’s Confessions online.

    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3913/3913-h/3913-h.htm

    You’ll find the line:
    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!”

    The only real jump is whether you think people misinterpreted “a great princess” to be Marie Antoinette. I haven’t come across any direct source attribution besides this one, and I can understand, given the circumstances why people would believe Rousseau was talking about Marie Antoinette even though he probably wasn’t .

    Again, the Gutenberg translation confirms my interpretation that the “cake” was actually a high quality bread rather than a “unleavened bread.”

    So, when you ask, reliable info. Understand, I don’t believe there is any such thing as reliable info. Information needs to be evaluated on its own merits and independently checked. The best I can do is provide transparency and evidence that convinced me. Maybe I’m wrong, which is why you can challenge me on a specific point and leave a comment with the evidence or logic that brings us into some sort of conflict, and we can engage in some sort of resolution. However, I consider the very premise of your short question flawed. The premise being that you can believe anything you are told. Extraordinary claims should be subjected to intense scrutiny with positive claims resting on positive evidence. Don’t assume anything is reliable, use your brain and check it if you think something is wrong and sometimes even when nothing appears to be amiss.

    Comment by codesmithy — May 9, 2008 @ 10:34 am

  6. i was wondering, as i am currently doing a school project on Marie Antoinette, why perspectives of the queen have only been changing slowly? The cake incident has actually been attributed to a spanish princess who married Louis xiv 100yrs before Marie went to france ( see Antonia Fraser’s biography for more info)and i question why people still associate Marie to a person of crass and uncaring? Are we still influenced by the propaganda that she was subjected to? And, if she is; as you claim, an equvilent to Paris Hilton, why is she acclaimed as a ‘rock star’ in Sopphia Coppola’s movie?
    Thanks

    Comment by Merissa — November 27, 2008 @ 9:05 am

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