Friday, July 13, 2012

The Cake is a Lie

Gary Larson, how do I love thee. Let me count the ways…

It’s probably one of the most famous phrases in history: “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.

Or, as it’s more usually heard in English, “Let them eat cake.” Everyone knows that Queen Marie Antoinette said this famous phrase when she was informed that the population of France had no bread.


Well, no, not exactly.

The more correct translation isn’t “let them eat cake” but “let them eat brioche.”

This is Brioche: 

It’s a type of bread, but with lots of buttery and eggy goodness. If you’ve never gotten a chance to try it, see if a local bakery carries it. If you don’t live near a bakery that makes it, it’s kind of like a fine quality croissant in taste, but a bit denser. It’s delicious.

This is important, because in France at the time the law was that if a bakery sold out of the cheaper bread, they had to sell the more expensive breads like brioche at the cheaper bread’s price. Brioche was basically the rich people’s bread, you see, and a lot of bakers would deliberately not bake enough of the cheap bread. The plan was so they would run out of the cheap stuff and people would be forced to either buy the more expensive bread or go hungry. Thus the law that put a stop to it by forcing the bakers to sell the more expensive bread at the cheap bread’s price if they ran out.

So, if someone was told that there was no bread to eat, then “let them eat brioche” is a perfectly logical response. The bakeries are out of bread? Then they’ll sell their brioche to the masses. That’s the problem with this quote, there’s no context.

The “let them eat brioche” line itself first appeared in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, specifically in the 6th volume (he apparently had a lot to confess). This was written in 1765, when Marie Antoinette was 9 – and still living in her birth country of Austria The young Marie Antoinette didn’t move to France until May of 1770.

Marie-Antoinette playing the spinet: by F.X. Wagenschoen, 1768
So if she didn’t say it, who did? According to Rousseau’s Confessions, “a great princess,” which doesn’t help at all. Truth is, we don’t know. Some people say it was Queen Marie-Thérèse, Louis XIV’s wife (Marie Antoinette was married to Louis XVI – just in case all the Louises and Maries were confusing), but there’s no real evidence she said it either. It was just one of those things that “everybody” knew that “some princess” had said.

So how did it get ascribed to Marie Antoinette?

There are a couple of reasons:

1) Marie Antoinette was Austrian. Austria and France didn’t get along very well. At all, really. To make matters worse, Marie Antoinette had a really thick Austrian accent, which didn’t help with her integrating within the court and getting any support there. Even her own husband was worried about her spying on France for Austria.

2) Marie Antoinette was the French Queen at the time of the Revolution. All of the nobility was being vilified, and she was not only a noble, but a noble from a foreign country that had traditionally been the enemy of France.

3) Although Rousseau wrote the famous line in 1765, he didn’t bother getting it published until 1785, after Marie Antoinette had become the Queen (he apparently wasn’t in a rush to confess his Confessions to the world). So when people were reading it, she was the most obvious “princess” to the readers.

Yep, it was basically because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time – and she’s still getting slammed for it over 200 years later. 

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