eMarch 23, 2021
Marie Antoinette, France’s ill-fated last queen before the French Revolution, is remembered for her extravagant royal lifestyle that stood in stark contrast to the lives of her subjects, who suffered from an economic depression during her 18th-century reign. It’s a reputation that has only been reinforced by modern retellings of her life — director Sofia Coppola’s 2006 cult film Marie Antoinette, for example, depicts the young queen in pastel frills, surrounded by pastries and rococo luxury.
It would make sense, then, that the lavish monarch’s most famously quoted words would concern a fine dessert: Allegedly, when told that her subjects were starving from bread shortages, Marie Antoinette replied, “Then let them eat cake.”
The callous quip has become almost synonymous with Marie Antoinette’s name. But did the exchange actually take place? The truth is, there are no direct sources that can tie the line to the queen. Instead, it’s likely that a historical game of telephone, with some politics mixed in, has resulted in one of the most famous misquotes of all time.
Our most solid clue to the origin of the quote lies in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a philosopher who was instrumental to French revolutionary politics. In Rousseau’s autobiographical book Confessions, he recalls a “great princess who, when told that the peasants had no bread, replied: ‘Then let them eat brioche.’” (While the translation is different, the sentiment remains, brioche being more luxurious than regular bread.)
However, at the time of Rousseau’s writing (around 1765), Marie Antoinette was only 10 years old and wasn’t yet the queen of France. Some biographers alternatively attribute the quote to Queen Maria Teresa, the wife of the French “Sun King” Louis XIV, a century earlier — but there’s little evidence to support that claim, either.
Another theory is that the misattributed quote was born out of political convenience. Since many revolutionaries wanted to abolish the monarchy, it would suit their needs to paint the queen as ignorant or coldhearted. For years before the revolution, the French press accused her of adultery, ruining the country’s finances, and callousness toward her subjects. Many saw her as too young to be on the throne, a naive hedonist who spent her subjects’ tax money on frivolities while they starved. The sentiment ultimately led to her execution by guillotine at age 37 in 1793, shortly after the execution of her husband, King Louis XVI.
There was some truth to these grievances: Marie Antoinette was only 14 years old when she married Louis-Auguste, and became queen of France just four years later at age 18. She was undoubtedly extravagant: She had her own chocolatier, an expensive signature perfume, and a private estate that cost a fortune. And yet, for her to cruelly declare her starving subjects should “eat cake” doesn’t quite fit with other aspects of her time at court.
Marie Antoinette’s life was not only pastries and parties. During her reign, she established a home for unwed mothers and patronized a charity for the elderly, the blind, and widows. She adopted numerous children, personally tended to injured peasants, and frequently visited families in need to hand out food and supplies. During France’s 1787 famine, she even sold the royal family’s flatware to buy grain for poorer families. She also became involved in French politics over the course of her reign, attending finance and war meetings and convincing the king to be inoculated against smallpox, which made the practice more accepted. None of this suggests a queen who was ignorant of her subjects’ troubles or would mock them for starving.
Whether or not Marie Antoinette actually did brush off the need for bread, it’s no wonder the French people would have been infuriated by such a remark. The average 18th-century worker spent half their wages on bread alone. And according to France’s “Observatoire du Pain” (Bread Observatory), bread remains a crucial staple of the French diet today. In fact, in large part due to the shortages that happened during Marie Antoinette’s reign, the cost of bread in France has been either fixed or heavily regulated for centuries.
History is a matter of perspective, so it’s easy for events and words to get distorted as years pass. We may never know who proclaimed “Let them eat cake,” or whether the phrase is just a myth. Still, the quote has endured for what it represents: It remains a symbol of how too much of a good thing can distance us from reality. And it encourages us, even now, to question the systems that create such deep inequalities in the first place.