14. 4. 2022

English Version | “Let them eat cake” - attributed to Marie Antoinette

by Ana Murcho


It is almost easy to imagine Marie Antoinette, that callous spender, suggesting that, in the absence of bread, her subjects should eat brioche — yes, brioche, not cake. After all that's what the original advice said, “Qu'ils mangent de la brioche.” Unfortunately for her, the phrase belonged to another monarch: a princess from a book by Rousseau, written when Marie Antoinette was still a child. A headache that only ended at the guillotine. Albert Einstein would understand her. He is one of the most quoted personalities in the world. Correction: most misquoted.

© Getty Images

He who tells a tale adds a tail. Even if it means that, along the way, someone will be headless — literally. “Let them eat cake” (which gives the text its title and has been replicated on mugs, T-shirts and other souvenirs for dozens of years) is the most famous phrase attributed to Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), Queen of France during the French Revolution (1788/99). History has it that this was the monarch's answer when she learned that her subjects, mostly starving peasants, had nothing to eat. Since brioche is a bread made with eggs and butter (a kind of cake), and therefore more expensive than bread, the joke was spread as an example of Marie Antoinette's alienation from the conditions and daily life of common people. But did she even utter those words? Probably not. First of all, because the phrase she would have said would be “Qu'ils mangent de la brioche”, and there is no (zero, rien) evidence that ever happened. Marie Antoinette was extravagant and daring, sure, but there are also historians who point out her innocence and sensitivity. On the other hand, there are dozens of similar folklore stories, only coming from other centuries, and some from other parts of the world — it is suspected, for example, that it may have been Marie-Thérèse (who was born almost a century before Marie Antoinette), wife of Louis XIV of France, who was the first to say something similar, but it is impossible to confirm this, it only serves as a metaphor for the decadence of the French aristocracy.   And then there is Jean-Jacques Rousseau's biography, Confessions, published posthumously in 1782. Written between 1765 and 1769, it was divided into six parts. One of them, written in 1767, reads: “Finally, I remembered the palliative solution of a great princess who was informed that the peasants had no bread and who replied, 'Let them eat brioche.’" At this time, Marie Antoinette was just a child. How does the ruthless suggestion of Rousseau's character end up in the Queen's mouth? No one knows. And that is also what fuels the myth.

Something similar — albeit with less catastrophic consequences — happened with the phrase that Maya Angelou (1928-2014) never said and which ended up printed on a US Postal Service stamp in 2015: “A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” Beautiful and profound. So beautiful and profound that we would be tempted to mention the writer, teacher, former dancer, filmmaker and civil rights activist had we not, by chance, stumbled upon a BBC article entitled, appropriately enough, “Let's save Maya Angelou from fake quotes.” According to the piece, the quote belongs to a children's author named Joan Walsh Anglund and her book of A Cup of Sun (1967). Confronted with the question, she said she was a great admirer of Angelou, so she understood that certain things ended up being part of the common subconscious without anyone noticing. That must have been the justification found by the US Postal Service, which defended its error by arguing that the quote was “associated” with Angelou, and that she had used it in an interview in 2013. Unlike that service, which seems to live well with inaccuracies, some people are fighting to restore the truth and nothing but the truth. Gregory F. Sullivan, administrator of the Quote Investigator website, is one such person. As he assured BCC, “some of the big online quote sites are full of misinformation.” A scourge that tends to increase with each less well-intentioned Google Search — or target of little investigation. “These sites aggravate the problem because many people incorrectly assume that large, professional-looking sites must contain valid data.” He is the author of the book Hemingway Didn't Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, written by Garson O'Toole (no, this is not a mistake, it's exactly what it sounds like), which corrects several beliefs, such as that Carl Sagan is said to have said, in an ultra-sensorial tone, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” He didn't, although many pages of mysticism and “best of quotes” shove those words down the astronomer's throat.

Of course, both Maya Angelou and Carl Sagan are too far out of orbit to defend themselves. This is, by the way, one of the characteristics that unites all eminently quotable men and women — they must be dead and buried so that they can never come out and say that they didn't say this or that. The other is that they are geniuses. Or tyrants — because there are also a few misquoted tyrants, but we will leave those for the encyclopedia of fake news. One of the most popular memes on social networks is a picture of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) with the warning “Don't believe everything you read on the Internet just because there's a picture with a quote next to it.” Nevertheless, Abe, as he continues to be affectionately called by his compatriots, is still misquoted. The most striking case of this is “You cannot fool all the people all the time”, which even appears on tablecloths in American living rooms. It is not, however, unique. In 2017, at the United States Independence Day celebrations, CNN shared on its Twitter account a series of phrases by notable Americans. One of them was mis-attributed to the President who was assassinated in 1865. Another was associated with Benjamin Franklin, while the real authors were John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. In both cases, the error was quickly detected by several internet users. The same is not true for war cries like “Imagine there is a war, and nobody goes”, which someone decided to associate with Bertolt Brecht — so much so that the German playwright seems to be the champion of some kind of revolution — even though the expression originated in the US. Or with lessons like "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, which Albert Einstein did not proclaim, even though the world is not ready to accept such a fact — and this does not mean that the phrase is less true, but it is incorrect to assume that it was the physicist and mathematician who suggested it, instead of the writer Rita Mae Brown. It wasn't us who discovered it, it was the editor of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, a newspaper in Montana (USA) who decided to research it, at his own risk, after misquoting Einstein. And of realizing that Mark Twain could also be the “father” of the quote. Or Benjamin Franklin. Or any author and/or notable who was seven feet under. But Alfred Einstein is the most visible victim of this black plague of Internet fakes. As one can read in one of the many comments to this “parallel life” he never had, the Nobel Prize winner is a kind of Chuck Norris of the scientific world. If it is true that he has said a lot of clever things (perhaps “attention–grabbing” is more appropriate in the twilight of modern times), half of those he is accused of probably never even crossed his mind. You know the one about “Creativity is intelligence having fun?” Well, he didn't do it either. If you have a mouse pad with this maxim, ask someone to print the name George Scialabba, the academic who invented it. 

There are hundreds, thousands of examples like the ones above. Oscar Wilde is not the man behind the hymn “Be Yourself. Everyone Else Is Already Taken.” Marilyn Monroe did not say “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” This brilliant conclusion is by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, an American author, guarantees The New York Times. Mark Twain, Muhammad Ali and a few other icons of popular culture are not the geniuses behind the mantra “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.” Nobody knows who did it either, stresses Quote Investigator, who is bombarded with the question every time a psychology student tries to impress the professor on the first test of the semester. To finish, Fernando Pessoa. It is difficult to control the urge to put the following sentence in caps lock: the greatest Portuguese poet ever did not write that sinister thing that has been circulating for years on the Internet, involving stones and castles. It’s the final verses of an equally dreadful poem, verging on the cliché, which some enthusiasts of dubious taste applaud as being an “inspirational text” — tastes are not up for discussion, of course, and if those lines inspire anyone, fantastic. Let’s just not mix things. Pessoa could never have written something as odd as “Stones in the way? / I keep them all, one day I'll build / A castle…” And if there are still those who insist on blaming him for this faux-pas of our literature, then may their sentence be read: let them eat brioche.

Translated from the original on The Quote Issue, published in April 2022. 
For full credits and stories, check the print version.