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"Let them eat cake" is the traditional translation of the French phrase "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche", supposedly spoken by "a great princess" upon learning that the peasants had no bread. Since brioche was made from dough enriched with butter and eggs, and those ingredients were even more scarce and more costly than dough, making brioche even more out of the reach of the peasants than bread, the quote supposedly would reflect the princess's obliviousness as to the condition of the people.
While it is commonly attributed to Queen Marie Antoinette, there is no record of this phrase ever having been uttered by her. It appears in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, his autobiography (whose first six books were written in 1765, when Marie Antoinette was nine years of age, and published in 1782). The context of Rousseau's account was his desire to have some bread to accompany some wine he had stolen; however, in feeling he was too elegantly dressed to go into an ordinary bakery, he thus recollected the words of a "great princess". As he wrote in Book 6:
Enfin je me rappelai le pis-aller d’une grande princesse à qui l’on disait que les paysans n’avaient pas de pain, et qui répondit : Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.
Finally I recalled the stopgap solution of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: "Let them eat brioche."
Zhu Muzhi, president of the China Society for Human Rights Studies, asserts that Rousseau's version is an alteration of a much older anecdote: "An ancient Chinese emperor who, being told that his subjects didn't have enough rice to eat, replied, 'Why don't they eat meat?'" The phrase was attributed to Emperor Hui of Jin in Zizhi Tongjian.
The quotation, as attributed to Marie Antoinette, was claimed to have been uttered during one of the famines that occurred in France during the reign of her husband, Louis XVI. Upon being alerted that the people were suffering due to widespread bread shortages, the Queen is said to have replied, "Then let them eat brioche." Although this anecdote was never cited by opponents of the monarchy at the time of the French Revolution, it did acquire great symbolic importance in subsequent histories when pro-revolutionary historians sought to demonstrate the obliviousness and selfishness of the French upper-classes at that time. As one biographer of the Queen notes, it was a particularly useful phrase to cite because "the staple food of the French peasantry and the working class was bread, absorbing 50 per cent of their income, as opposed to 5 per cent on fuel; the whole topic of bread was therefore the result of obsessional national interest."
However, there is no evidence that Queen Marie-Antoinette ever uttered this phrase. It was first attributed to her by Alphonse Karr in "Les Guepes" of March, 1843. Other objections to the legend of Marie-Antoinette and the cake/brioche comment centre on arguments concerning the real queen's personality, internal evidence from members of the French royal family, and the date of the saying's origin. For example, the Queen's best-selling English-language biographer, Lady Antonia Fraser, wrote in 2002:
However this attribution also has little credibility for Fraser cites as justification for the alternative attribution to the wife of Louis XIV the memoirs of Louis XVIII, who was only fourteen when Rousseau's Confessions were written and whose own memoirs were published much later. He does not mention Marie-Antoinette in his account, but states that the saying was an old legend, and that within the family it was always believed that the saying belonged to the Spanish princess who married Louis XIV in the 1660s. Thus Louis XVIII is as likely as others to have had his recollection affected by the quick spreading and distorting of Rousseau's original remark.
As Fraser points out in her biography, Marie-Antoinette was a generous patroness of charity and moved by the plight of the poor when it was brought to her attention, thus making the statement out-of-character for her. This makes it unlikely that Marie-Antoinette ever said this.
A second point is that there were no actual famines during the reign of King Louis XVI and only two incidents of serious bread shortages, which occurred, first, in April–May 1775, a few weeks before the king's coronation (11 June 1775), and again in 1788, the year before the French Revolution. The 1775 shortages led to a series of riots, known as the Flour War, la guerre des farines, a name given at the time of their occurrence, that took place in the northern, eastern and western parts of France. Letters from Marie-Antoinette to her family in Austria at this time reveal an attitude totally different to the Let them eat cake mentality:-
It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness. The King seems to understand this truth.
There is a further problem with the dates surrounding the attribution, in that Marie-Antoinette was not only too young but not even in France when it was first published. Rousseau's Confessions were finished in 1769 and, as Marie Antoinette arrived at Versailles from Austria in 1770, at the age of fourteen, the young Austrian Archduchess, unknown to him at the time of writing his work, could not be the "great princess" mentioned by Rousseau.
One factor that is important to understand when studying how this phrase came to be attributed to Marie Antoinette is the increasing unpopularity of the Queen in the final years before the outbreak of the French Revolution. During her marriage to Louis XVI, her perceived frivolousness and her very real extravagance were often cited as factors that only worsened France's dire financial straits. Her Austrian birth and femininity were also a major factor in a country where xenophobia and chauvinism still played major parts in national politics. In fact, many anti-monarchists were so convinced (albeit incorrectly) that it was Marie Antoinette who had single-handedly ruined France's finances that they nicknamed her Madame Déficit. In addition, anti-royalists libellists printed stories and articles that attacked the royal family and their courtiers with exaggerations, fictitious events and outright lies. Therefore, with such strong sentiments of dissatisfaction and anger towards the King and Queen, it is quite possible that a discontented individual fabricated the scenario and put the words in the mouth of Marie Antoinette.
An additional theory is that "let them eat cake" was an idiomatic reference to the necessary substitutions that a bakery would need to make if its bread inventory emptied out on any given day. As a result of the Flour War riots, purportedly a law was put in place that required bakeries to sell other goods at the lower standard bread price if, in fact, they ran out of the less expensive staple. This law was reasoned to guarantee lower income people access to bread (or a caloric approximate) by creating a disincentive against the underproduction or underoffering of bread for sale.
Finally, another theory is that, after the revolution, in popular myth, the phrase had been attributed to various princesses of the French royal family, and that the legend stuck on Marie-Antoinette because she was, in effect, the last "great princess" of Versailles. The myth had, for example, been previously attributed to two of Louis XV's daughters, Madame Sophie and Madame Victoire.