EP 010: LET THEM EAT CAKE – Historycal: Words that Shaped the World
In the late 1700’s, the French were (understandably) very cross. The old feudal regime had left a handful of people quite powerful, and very wealthy, and left pretty much everyone else out in the cold. Over the course of a handful of years, the French embarked on a Revolution, changed their constitution, chopped off a lot of heads, and adopted a new style of very adorable hats. If you think that’s a bit of a flippant oversimplification, may I remind you that most people’s understanding of this immensely complex political upheaval is based around a single sentence and a highly stylized film starring Kirsten Dunst and approximately every wig ever made. Unbelievably, as it turns out, the famous phrase has even less historical accuracy than the movie.
The popular story goes that Marie Antoinette was an entitled, spendthrift brat, who singlehandedly bankrupted France, colluded with its enemies, and started some pretty ridiculous fashion trends to boot. So out of touch was she, that when someone informed her that there were, in fact, people who could not afford triple marinated quail’s eggs laid in the light of the new moon every afternoon for tea, she was utterly bemused and thought they were making a joke. Upon being told that a devastating famine had hit France’s lower classes, leaving the peasants with no bread, she giggled, said Well then, let them eat cake! And then toddled off to have another affair and buy a ludicrously expensive hat.
Of course, this never happened. For a start, it was, “Well, let them eat brioche!” which isn’t so much a cake, as a sort of pastry-bread combo. Of course, the lower classes could hardly get their hands on brioche either, so that may be a bit of a moot point. More importantly, there are quite a number of very excellent reasons why Marie Antoinette probably definitely never said any such thing. In no particular order: the first time this phrase appears is in book 6 of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, where it is attributed to an unnamed ‘great princess.’ At the time this was written, Marie Antoinette was a whole whopping nine years old, and not even French yet – she hadn’t been married off and was still happily growing up in her native Austria. It’s also a little unclear who much of Roussau’s Confessions are confessions of actual facts, and how much is just made up for a good story. Not faulting that, by the way, we’ve got many an episode here that would be non-existent if people didn’t love an old-fashioned, highly unrealistic story. Something else worth mentioning is that the phrase wasn’t actually widely used by the anti-monarchists at the time, if at all. In fact, it may have only been attributed Marie Antoinette after the French Revolution had ended. If Twitter has taught us anything, its that if there’s absolutely any way to stick someone with something they once said, especially something as pithy and quotable as “let them eat cake,” people will do it. Given that the masses literally removed Marie Antoinette’s head from her shoulders, and believed a number of other wild stories about the demon queen, I personally doubt that they’d have been above really rolling her in this one if it had been even faintly possible.
And on top of all this, many historians and biographers have pointed out that Marie Antoinette was quite involved in a number of outreach projects, in a spirit that rather flies in the face of the “Let them eat Brioche” sentiment. She established a home for unmarried mothers, visited poor families, gave financially to several charities, and adopted a bunch of children. In a letter during one of France’s bread shortages (in fact, the only one really like to have been ‘famine’ during which she had made the infamous statement – which she didn’t). Anyway, in a letter written to her mother at the time, Marie Antoinette comes across as a little more in-touch and sympathetic than the cartoons of her may have led us to believe:
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.
What you might be thinking now is, Marie Antoinette, villain or victim? The truth is, probably neither. Queen or no queen, women had very little agency at this time – in fact, one might go so far as to suggest that the wealthier and more powerful you were, the less agency you had, but lets park that for another day. A number of sources seem to agree that the young queen’s ridiculous spending was largely the result of boredom and sadness, although of course, that didn’t make the poor and starving feel any better about it. She was also widely hated simply for being Austrian, and for then colluding with the Austrian monarchy. Of course that monarchy was her own family, and she had been sent to France with the express purpose of smoothing over the rather volatile relationship between the two countries, so this one seems a little offsides too. France’s economic problems also went far beyond the spending of the monarchy, although that was certainly one of them, and certainly surpassed the spending habits of a single woman. On the hand, she did spend exorbitant amounts of money, and wear some very frivolous outfits, and, according to a few of her tutors, she may have been a little lazy and perhaps not the sharpest knife at the picnic. She didn’t approve of the French Revolution, but of course, nobody in her position at the time really did. The Revolution set off a domino chain of democracies, but its quite hard to project ourselves back to a time when killing the queen seemed like the only way to get there. On the other hand, its equally difficult to project ourselves back to a time when equality (between men) wasn’t considered the natural order of the world. Really, we can’t quite get into the right mindsight for either side, so its hard to take one. And its not really necessary either – two things can be true at once. Marie Antoinette can be both a symbol of the excesses of an old class, and she can be a tragic product of the times as well.
Her last words are almost as famous as Let them Eat Cake, but actually true. She had to change her dress in front of prison guards, and had her head shaved, her hands bound behind her back, and a rope leash tied around her. She was put in an open cart for the hour long trip to the guillotine, and quite amazingly seems to have maintained composure the whole way. As she walked towards the guillotine, she accidently trod her executioner’s shoe, and so her last words before having her head removed from the rest of her were:
‘Pardon me Sir. I did not do it on purpose.’