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.