I received a question a few days ago wondering about the origins of Let them eat cake--or more specifically, asking if Marie Antoinette had ever been accused of saying the phrase while she was alive. I did more research and… got a little bit carried away.
But, here it is: My somewhat organized thoughts on the origins of “Let them eat cake” and why it is now associated with Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette did not say “Let them eat cake.” But the question remains: was this phrase, which is today so widely associated with the ill-fated queen, actually attributed to Marie Antoinette during her lifetime? Marie Antoinette was accused of hundreds of crimes and illicit deeds by her contemporaries—including affairs, wild orgies, and plots to massacre women and children. Her gender, Austrian heritage and status as a symbol of the ancien regime made her a prime target for an assortment of calumnies at the hands of anyone who believed her an enemy. These accusations are fairly well documented in contemporary libelles, revolutionary journals and pamphlets, as well as the written records of her trial in 1793. Véronique Campion-Vincent, co-author of a study on the origins of “Let them eat cake!” was faced with the same question: Was Marie Antoinette accused of remarking, callousness or otherwise, “Let them eat cake!” when she was told that the peasants had no bread? According to the research of Campion-Vincent, who delved into hundreds of contemporary pamphlets and newspapers and caricatures and other propaganda: no. Nowhere among printed extant revolutionary or propagandist was material the name of Marie Antoinette found attached or attributed to the now-infamous saying.
But why, then, has she become associated with the phrase? First, let’s look at the most famous source of this phrase: Jean Jacques Rousseau. In 1782, Rousseau published Confessions, a book which was partially written in 1766 and which contains the anecdote that many people interested in Marie Antoinette are certainly familiar with—that of the “great princess” who, when told that the peasants had no bread, replied “Let them eat brioche!” Although it is likely that Rousseau published the written French variant of “Let them eat cake!” or a similar phrase, it is not likely he invented this phrase from thin air. The phrase “Let them eat cake” likely has its origins in a type of urban folklore myth, which has been given its own Tale-Type—aptly named Let Them Eat Cake. This Tale-Type is associated with characteristics such as “King ignorant of condition of subjects; lifestyle of the poor and that of the rich contrasted; and apathy or indifference to the plight of others.” Stories which appear again and again throughout history share the same motif as the anecdote about Marie Antoinette. A king or princess or someone else in position of wealth and power is confronted with the reality of the poor, who are starving or in need of a certain type of food—usually the staple food that makes up most of their diets, such as rice or wheat or bread. In response, they—out of ignorance or genuine apathy to their plight—respond by suggesting that the poor eating something that only the rich could afford. One such tale was printed in 1596 and included in a Lutheran collection of tales. A noble woman asked “Why do the people complain and suffer hunger? There are rolls, bread, butter and Krosem (a type of sweet bread) for sale in the market; with that they could repress and quiet their hungers.” Tales of this type can be found almost all over the world and are not unique to French history. “Marie Antoinette said ‘Let them eat cake’” then, can be approached not as a linear line—“Rousseau to readers to Marie Antoinette”—but as a common Tale-Type which, along the way, finally persisted on sticking to Marie Antoinette.
In 1824, the memoirs of Louis XVIII, formerly known as the comte de Provence, were published posthumously. These memoirs contained the first known written record of a phrase similar to “Let them eat cake!” being attached to a member of the French royal family. Part of these memoirs recounted the flight of the comte de Provence from France, in 1791, which were written shortly after the event but corrected in the 1820s by the now-king Louis XVIII before his death. In one chapter, Louis XVIII recounted a time when the fleeing party, having eaten pie for breakfast, recalled "Queen Maria Theresa, who hearing one day the poor people pitied for being in want of bread, replied ‘But, dear me, why do they not eat pie-crust?’" Nowhere in his memoirs does he mention this quote, or the similar “Let them eat cake!” being attributed or even somewhat associated with Marie Antoinette. I think it is safe to conclude that the phrase had likely not been firmly attached to Marie Antoinette before 1791 nor had it been cemented in the popular mythology of the queen during the early 19th century. If it had, Louis XVIII would surely have written something about the quote being unfairly attributed to his sister-in-law—whether it had been attributed to her when the memoir was first written or when it was being edited in the 1820s. Antonia Fraser, who mentions Louis XVIII’s attribution to Maria Theresa in Marie Antoinette: The Journey, characterized the story as something of a “royal chestnut,” meaning a story which was probably passed around within the family but likely has no factual basis.
The same phrase pops up again in the 19th century, this time found in the memoirs of a French comtesse and associated with a different member of the French royal family. The comtesse de Boigne was the daughter of a lady to Madame Adelaide, daughter of Louis XV, who had her memoirs recounting life in France throughout various regimes published after her death in 1866. While describing the daughters of Louis XV, the comtesse recalled a story about Madame Victoire: "Madame Victoire was by no means clever, though extremely kind. It is said of her that during a famine, when the conversation turned upon the sufferings of the poor for want of bread, she said with tears in her eyes, "But why cannot they put up with pie crust?" (To explain this anecdote, the comtesse remarked that Madame Victoire was known to have an intense dislike of pie crust.)
Both these anecdotes give credence to the idea that “Let them eat cake” should be understood as an urban myth—or urban legend, if you like—rather than a specific quote from a specific source. It has had many variants (I highly recommend the additional reading on the subject that I’ll list below, for more information on the variants of “Let them eat cake” throughout history and various cultures!) and, in this case, has been passed around from French royal to French royal at least through the Bourbon family.
The first existing written record that actually connects Marie Antoinette and “Let them eat cake” is found in Alphonse Karr’s "Les Guepes," which was published in 1843. Karr attributes the phrase “Oh well! Let them eat cake!” to a duchess from Tuscany in 1760, or possibly earlier, who was told that the peasants in her area were in need of bread. Karr goes on to say that “radical agitators” during the revolution attributed the remark to Marie Antoinette in an attempt to discredit her in the eyes of the French. Although Karr’s assertion that the phrase was used to slander Marie Antoinette during her lifetime is not backed up by contemporary evidence, it does give us an indication that the phrase was connected to Marie Antoinette by the mid-19th century, at least—if not abundantly so in print, at least through word of mouth.
But even Karr’s assertion does not explain why the phrase has become stuck on Marie Antoinette rather than on, say, Maria Theresa or Madame Victoire. After all, the comtesse de Boigne’s memoirs were published well after Karr’s work and the phrase is not found in any of the “big” Marie Antoinette biographies of the 19th century. The earliest mention I found of the phrase in an English biography was found in a book by Lady Younghusband, published in 1907, who believed that the anecdote given by de Boigne (although Younghusband attributes the phrase to Madame Sophie, not Madame Victoire) had been distorted over the years into a story about Marie Antoinette saying “Let them eat cake,” rather than connecting Marie Antoinette to “Let them eat cake” through Rousseau.
I was unable to find any existing records connecting Marie Antoinette to “Let them eat cake” in between 1907 and the date of the next known publication to connect the two, a German children’s history novel called Pünktchen und Anton, published by Erich Kaestner in 1931. This book included the story thus:
"… Poor people lined up in front of the chateau and shouted: "We have no bread! We have no bread!" They were so poor. Queen Marie Antoinette looked out the window and asked an officer: "What do these people want?" "Majesty," replied the officer, "They want bread, they do not have enough bread, they are very hungry." The Queen shook her head in amazement. "They do not have enough bread?" she asked. "But then, let them eat cake!" You may think she said it to mock the poor. No, she did not know what poverty was!"
Erich Kaestner’s books were translated into numerous languages, although I was unable to find out of this particular book was translated into English, and it is possible that by including the story in his book, Kaestner helped to cement the connection between Marie Antoinette and “Let them eat cake!” in the eyes of readers and eventually, in popular culture. I hesitate to say that Kaestner was the catalyst of the cemented connection between Marie Antoinette and “Let them eat cake,” … however, most of the early newspaper records which connect Marie Antoinette to the phrase began in the 1930s. It is possible that by including the story in his popular book, it was spread to more children’s books and from there into the minds of parent—teachers, editors and journalists, and from there into newspaper articles to newspaper reader, etc etc, until it became a larger part of popular culture as a whole. What was once an anecdote sometimes associated with Madame Victoire, sometimes Maria Theresa, sometimes Marie Antoinette became associated with just Marie Antoinette. Countless newspaper articles, ad campaigns and other popular culture pieces from the mid-1930s until modern day include the phrase “Let them eat cake” being attributed or associated with Marie Antoinette, although once in a while they do add the caveat “She may have never said it, but…”
But why Marie Antoinette? Why don’t we, for example, read “Is This Female Politician the New Madame Victoire?” in our headlines? Interestingly enough, the reasons for the insistence of “Let them eat cake!” sticking to Marie Antoinette may be those same reasons that calumnies against Marie Antoinette made during the revolution stuck to her so hard that they were considered evidence at her trial. In the 20th century—and in particular, in the 1930s—Marie Antoinette was once again being transformed in the eyes of the public. But instead of a transformation into a harpy-like she-beast or a hated bloodthirsty Austrian by caricatures and satirical pamphlets, Marie Antoinette was transformed into a glittering, dazzling queen who was capable of capturing public attention in a big, big way. She was not just a queen who was executed during the French Revolution, the constant subject of romantic 19th century biographies. She became the tragic but oh-so-frivolous queen who wore gauzy ball gowns on book covers, whose memory sold replica earrings to housewives and who engaged in a dramatic, love-torn affair with a dashing count in a major MGM motion picture. She became the French queen, the queen associated with French history, with the downfall of the monarchy. How could Madame Victoire, Maria Theresa, Madame Sophie or any other royalty to whom the phrase has been latched compare? Marie Antoinette was, in some ways, thrust back into the limelight through the slew of biographies and films and novels that came or were inspired by the ‘rush’ of Marie Antoinette that occurred in the 1930s. But the limelight does not come without its downsides: the phrase, perhaps innocently included in children’s novel due to its presence as a verbal urban myth and spread from there, now came to rest with the most famous person that it had ever, thus far, been associated with—Marie Antoinette.
And Marie Antoinette Said… by Archer Taylor (from Comparative Studies in Folklore: Asia—Europe—America)
Marie Antoinette and Her Famous Saying: Three Levels of Communication, Three Modes of Accusation and Two Troubled Centuries by Véronique Campion-Vincent and Christine Shojaei Kawan.