You know how we are about quotes, Buzzkillers. The vast majority of the famous quotes and quips from historical figures have no basis in evidence. Most of them come from hearsay, were actually said by other people, or invented and written by biographers, playwrights, and screenwriters 100 years after the original events or lifetime. Sometimes, it was originally part of a story written long before the person to whom it’s attributed was born.
Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France at the time of the 1789 Revolution, is the victim of such a misattributed quote. In fact, it may be the most famous thing “about” her. The story is that she cared very little for the welfare of the common people. When she was told, just before the Revolution in 1789, that the poor had no bread, she replied, “then let them eat cake.” It’s gone down in history as one of the great examples of royal coldness and indifference.
The problem is, she didn’t say it. At the very least, there’s no evidence that she said it. Granted, Marie spent money lavishly while the majority of the French population were suffering through hard times. Although was highly criticized for it at the time, there’s no evidence that she was callous enough to say something like “let them eat cake.” So where did we get this story?
We get it from Jean Jacques Rousseau, the famous French philosopher. In 1767, he wrote of an incident from roughly 25 years before (early 1740s – more than 10 years before Marie Antoinette was born). In this story, a “great princess” (whom he did not name) had a “stopgap solution” when she “was told that peasants had no bread.” She responded, according to this story, “Let them eat brioche.” Brioche, for you Buzzkillers who haven’t had it, is a sort of pastry-like bread, richly made with lots of eggs and butter. It’s delicious and considered a delicacy.
Rousseau’s story took place more than a decade before Marie Antoinette was born, and he wrote it down when she was an 11-year-old child in Austria, not yet married to the French king. But somehow it got tied to her, and she’s been the symbol of aristocratic arrogance and indifference ever since.
The fact she didn’t say it didn’t save her from the guillotine, however, Buzzkillers. She was executed by revolutionaries on 16 October 1793. It’s not known what her last meal was.
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David A. Bell, Shadows of Revolution: Reflections on France, Past and Present
Within a space of a dozen years, from Bastille to Bonaparte, France experimented with and experienced every form of governance, creating in the process, “the most intense political laboratory the world had ever known.” The Revolution remains the country’s defining era, delineating its sense of identity and overshadowing the events that followed it. Yet another, Bell argues, is the Vichy period and World War Two-France’s dark night of the soul-with whose legacies the country continues to contend.