Monday, April 15, 2013

Origins of the Cake Myth

Here is an informative discussion from the Tea at Trianon forum about the most enduring myth about Marie-Antoinette. To quote:
According to legend, when Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, was told that her subjects had no bread to eat she replied, “Let them eat cake!” If individuals could not afford or obtain bread, obtaining a more luxurious item was a flat impossibility and so her response was evidence of her naiveté at best and frigid apathy at worst.

The twist is she never said that, as we well know. But I got curious as to how that legend got spread around and did some digging. I thought I'd share my theory here to test its validity.

Some scholars trace this legend to Rousseau’s Confessions, where an anonymous French princess responds “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” upon learning of the starvation of her people. Brioche, a luxury bread enriched with eggs and butter, is not precisely synonymous with the English idea of cake but the translation was likely modified to appeal to Anglophone minds.

In any case, bastardized translation or no, Marie Antoinette was not likely the French princess Rousseau was referring to in his autobiography, considering it was not completed until 1769 – making Antoinette approximately fourteen years old and not someone whose opinion on the status of the French people would be sought. This is of course, assuming that Rousseau really did have a tangible princess in mind and was not instead making a story up for poignancy’s sake.

Marie Antoinette being, essentially, exonerated from this calumny the question remains: where did it come from? I have seen some insist that it was invented by the scheming courtiers at Versailles, led by Madame du Barry, while others insist that it was a form of Revolutionary propaganda printed in order to discredit Antoinette in the eyes of the masses.

In reality, while Madame du Barry was fond of deriding Antoinette’s Austrian heritage and some Revolutionaries were fond of the caricatures of the L’Autrichienne, the reality is that there is no evidence that Antoinette was ever accused of uttering her most famous phrase during her lifetime. (Read entire discussion thread.)

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