"Let Them Eat Cake": The Mythical Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution

By Barker, Nancy N. | The Historian, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

"Let Them Eat Cake": The Mythical Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution


Barker, Nancy N., The Historian


One of the most universally believed facts" about the French Revolution is the famous line attributed to Marie Antoinette: If the people have no bread, then let them eat cake." No reputable biographer has traced the remark to her, nor has any historian identified anyone who heard her say it. it seems to have been something of an old chestnut among Bourbons, who attributed it to several queens and princesses, most often to the queen of Louis XV, Maria Theresa, in the seventeenth century.(1)

Why, then, has this "fact" endured? Wherein lies its power? Why is it conventional knowledge among those whose acquaintance, with the French Revolution is otherwise slight to nonexistent that the queen mocked the people when they were2 suffering, caused them to rise in righteous revolt, and brought down on herself their justifiable wrath? Josephe Jeanne Marie Antoinette of the house of Habsburg-Lorraine was a somewhat ordinary, though attractive, woman with no egregious qualities. She would have lived out her days in obscurity-like the countless Marie

Adelaides, Catherine Annes, and Anne Maries known only to genealogists-had not her mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, married her to the future king of France at a critical juncture in French history.

These questions are not new. Recent research in Revolutionary studies, however, provides historians with new ways to approach these issues. With the disintegration Of the Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution as a class conflict reflecting changes in the modes of production, historians have become more keenly aware of the importance of individuals as historical forces And of the significance of ideas that motivated or perhaps victimized them. A biographical approach has often replaced class analysis. At the same time, the media, both verbal (books, newspapers, pamphlets, and posters) and non-verbal (caricatures, Paintings, and festivals) have been subjected to dose scrutiny Research has demon.strated that words were power and that ideas and images, however expressed, packed potent messages.(2)

In addition, women's studies, probing the role of women in the late ancien regime and the French Revolution, have provided a better understanding of gender politics. It has become clearer why the Jacobins were hostile to women in the public sphere and why the republic excluded women from the citizenship and the civil liberties claimed by men. This new evidence helps explain the vulnerability of Marie Antoinette, in the political culture of her day.(3)

This essay traces the images Marie Antoinette projected to the public, officially and unofficially, from the time of her arrival in France until her death. Only then can the psychodynamics of the black legend of the queen be understood, as well as why it, instead of official adulation, work public acceptance and defined her image for posterity. A review Of the radical press coverage of events, in which she figured prominently during the French Revolution can Also help ascertain to what degree the virulent images of the queen pervaded the political culture of these crises arid were present in the minds of tile people and their leaders.(4)

When fourteen-year-old Marie Antoinette first arrived in France in May 1770 as the bride of the dauphin, she was presented to the Public as a youthful goddess of beauty and virtue. In a burst of pageantry orchestrated by the government and reported in the official press she was, if only briefly, the object of a kind of cult in which she was worshipped as a deity.

The young girl may well have thought she was entering an enchanted world. She, so recently berated by her stem mother and her censorious older brother, Joseph, for her feckless conduct and shameful scholarship, found herself hailed as a model of perfection. Arrayed in finery, surrounded by guards of honor, she was greeted by cheering crowds, artinery salvos, church bells, and fireworks. …

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