Saturday, 2 November 2013

Marie Antionette: more truth and less cake, please

"Ooh, there's no bread, let them eat cake…" The line comes from Rush’s 1975 hit Bastille Day, about the French Revolution (the 1789 one), and the phrase "let them eat cake" is a reference to Marie Antoinette’s response when she heard of the French people’s poverty not allowing them to buy bread: "qu’il mangent de la brioche" – brioche being an egg- and butter-based bread beyond the reach of said pauvres.

But was she framed?

Marie Antoinette: click to learn more
Marie Antoinette was born on 2 November 1755 and was the mistress of King Louis XVI, and here the attribution becomes shaky: there are no famines recorded during this Louis’ reign. Antonia Fraser, in her biography of Marie, states that the quote was spoken a century previously by Marie-Thérèse (Maria Teresa of Spain), wife of Louis XIV, king during la grande famine of 1693-1694. Marie-Thérèse is said to have recommended "la croûte de la pâté" during the famine. Rousseau managed to get this garbled and recollected in his Confessions that a "great princess" had recommended "let them eat pastry".

But even further back, the 3rd-century Chinese emperor Hui is said to have asked "why can’t they eat meat?" when told his famine-stricken subjects had no rice. That the question still stings is shown by The [Republic of] China Post’s comparison of Taiwan’s President President Ma Ying-jeou to Hui for saying to a student left feeling unfilled by a Bento box "perhaps you need to eat another bento box, or simply endure being hungry".

The attribution of "let them eat cake" to Marie Antoinette is a triumph of misogynistic revolutionary politics over historical fact and it’s woeful that newspapers repeat it on her birthday. Hopefully someday a journalist will interview Antonia Fraser to put the record straight. In the meantime, at least it makes for a good rock song.

Gerry Dorrian
300 words

Resources

Did Marie Antionette really say "let them eat cake"? - history.com

click for more on Antonia Fraser's biography of Marie Antoinette

1693-1694 : Les années de misère - alertes-meteo.com

Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau - the passage about "the great princess" is on p 255 of the .pdf

DPP chairman gets personal in run-up to Jan. 13 demonstration - The China Post

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