‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’ or ‘Let them eat cake’, is a famous quite generally attributed to Marie Antoinette in popular culture and she is said to have uttered it after being told that the people of France had no bread. However, there is no evidence that Marie Antoinette ever said this. In fact, there is every proof that she never said it.
So when was it first attributed to Marie Antoinette? 1843- 50 years after her death and in the Victorian Era, notorious for historical inaccuracies. The Victorians were also the ones who decided that all rumours concerning the Tudors were true and laid the basis for the majority of widely believed historical inaccuracy today. Most modern historians would ever trust the things that Victorian historians made fact. Also, considering all of the gossip and pamphlets against her at the time of her reign and downfall I think if she did ever say it there would be an almost certain public outcry and much propaganda attacking her for the quote.
When was the phrase first introduced? It was written in book six of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, written in 1765 (when Marie Antoinette was 9) and finished in 1769, before she was even in France. Rousseau doesn’t specify who said the quote, merely saying ‘some great princess’. As there are many inaccuracies in the Confessions anyway, it could be said that the quote never existed at all.
Does the quote fit Marie Antoinette’s character? Certainly not. We have much evidence that Marie Antoinette was a very charitable person. When some people were crushed to death at a display during her wedding celebrations, she visited the relatives of the victims and offered support. She very often gave food and money to the poor and if any particular cases in which she could help in were bought to her attention she’d be more than willing to help and would offer much support. She devoted much time to charity and this makes the quote very unlikely for her to have said.
Concerning the bread shortages which occurred during her reign (1775 and 1788), she wrote in a letter to her family (where she could have been entirely honest about events) that ‘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’, which certainly doesn’t support the ‘let them eat cake’ thoughts of things.
There is no evidence that the quote belongs to Marie Antoinette and it would be lovely if popular culture stopped attributing it to her. It’s become part of her identity today and really darkens her character. As Antonia Fraser states in her biography of Marie, ‘It was a callous and ignorant statement and she, Marie Antoinette, was neither.’