I don’t know about you, but whenever the topics of brioche and headlessness come up, I can’t help but think of Marie Antoinette. Few people know that when Marie Antoinette uttered the line above, what she really said was “Let them eat brioche” (“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”). Fewer people still know that she never even uttered those words at all. The line was falsely attributed to Marie later on in her life…just about the time she was beheaded, right at the height of the French Revolution.
The day she was supposed to have declared “let them eat cake”, on her marriage to the Dauphin Louis-Auguste, the world-class competitive eater and future King of France, the line had already been written down by Rousseau in his Confessions, attributed to some other princes of some other country. When were the Confessions published? Four years prior to Marie’s wedding, when she was 10 years old and still living in Vienna.
Most modern historians agree that Marie Antoinette was the victim of a smear campaign through much of her life. Easy to understand when you consider she wasn’t French, didn’t care to speak the French language, and was a royal at a time when people hated royals. Even so, most of the instigators of the negative PR are thought to have been members of the French royal court, who never considered Marie a “team player” as it were. Unlike the king, Marie kept a very small court of just a few close friends, and that deprived many an aspiring socialite of opportunities to mix and mingle. She didn’t talk politics or philosophy and she never liked engaging in little day-to-day niceties like oh say, giving birth in public, which was the custom of French royalty at the time.
In fact it seems that Marie Antoinette wasn’t the superficial brat she’s been made out to be. Less the Paris Hilton of pre-revolutionary France than its Britney Spears (the old one at any rate), she was by all accounts pretty, charming and polite, though with probably not a whole lot else on the ball. That made her an easy target for her enemies, and there were plenty of those. People who think our modern American politics are vulgar have clearly never been exposed to the work of 18th century French pamphleteers, who routinely circulated obscenity-covered one-sheets depicting Marie in flagrante delicto with everything from servants to furniture to household pets. Compared to all that the “let them eat cake” line would have been small potatoes indeed.
But then I confess I never really understood “let them eat cake” as the callous remark it’s been made out to be. To me it always sounded like permission. And in fact some historians have argued that the line is in fact a sort of permission. French bakers, so it’s been said, were required to sell expensive breads like brioche to the poor at regular bread prices when the cheap stuff ran out. “Let them eat cake”, some historians say, was sort of like shouting, “open the national strategic oil reserve”, a sort of stop-gap measure to head off crisis. I’ve never actually read anything authoritative on that, so I don’t have an opinion…though I must say the story gives off the strong odor of fable.