Monday, June 6, 2011

Let Them Eat Cake...or not

Marie-Antoinette is accused of being uncaring towards the peasants of France. When someone told her about the shortage of bread across France, she allegedly responded, "Let them eat cake (brioche)!" However, problems abound with attributing this saying to Marie-Antoinette.
Firstly, the only period source for the quote is Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions. Rousseau says, "Finally I recalled the stopgap solution of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: 'Let them eat brioche.'"
Rousseau does not even cite the name of the "great princess".
Secondly, Rousseau wrote his Confessions in 1765, and they were published in 1782. In 1765, when he wrote the statement, Marie-Antoinette was nine and not even French! She was born in Austria in 1754, and married the future Louis XVI in 1770. Until 1770, the French population knew her only as the daughter of Austrian Empress Maria-Theresa. It is absurd to say that an Austrian archduchess of nine years should make a comment on the starving people of France!
Finally, a letter from Marie-Antoinette to her family in Austria,
"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."
Quite a different mindset on the peasants and their well-being than is traditionally ascribed to the last Queen of France!

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