I’ve read the Tammi Terrell material you quoted, and a bit more. Yes, it’s an interesting problem in hermeneutics, isn‘t it?
Looks like I’ll have to eat my brioche-at-Versailles comment, stuffed with broccoli. It was based on Antonia Fraser’s details on the life of the table at Versailles in the time of Marie Antoinette. I see now the timeline of Rousseau’s quote is way too early to be influenced by this. So, by intervention of Occam’s Razor, it’s likely Rousseau‘s use of “brioche” refers simply a high-quality pastry enjoyed regularly by aristocracy, not any particular fact of history.
This issue seems to have been kicked around for 25 years, according to the date on Cecil‘s column–I didn‘t realize it was that old–and while there is broad agreement that there is absolutely no evidence Marie Antoinette ever uttered the remark–in fact, circumstances seem to make it impossible–we lack a definitive answer on where the prototype of that remark originated.
I still think, however, that we can try to uncover a convincing vector for it–and Fraser claims she has.
Antonia Fraser‘s book (2002):
Antonia Fraser, historian and biographer of Marie Antoinette, claims in her book, “Marie Antoinette, the Journey” (2002), that Rousseau (writing in 1766, according to Cecil) was embellishing a remark made 100 years earlier by Maria-Therese, Spanish wife of Louis 14. This remark by an earlier French queen is likely the true source and archetype for Rousseau‘s famous reference to such a remark, says Fraser.
Fraser quotes this remark by Maria-Theresa, which I recall as similar to Rousseau’s, except it advises the poor to eat “crust” (not “cake” and not “brioche”). I believe the word used was “croute.” Fraser discusses the meaning of this in the context of Maria Theresa’s time. It may be that Fraser is the source for Cecil’s latest challenger (see posted column) who says “cake” refers to the crisp leftovers in ovens and pans–“crust” essentially-- as scraped out and left for the poor, an argument I think Fraser made in discussing the confusing meaning of French words here.
As Cecil remarks, it’s possible Rousseau was retroactively shoehorning into an anecdote of his own life from 1740 a remark reportedly made originally by “a certain Duchess of Tuscany” around 1760 (Alphonse Karr, 1843, see Appendix). Cecil also says a meme of such a remark was already “in common currency” when Rousseau was writing in the mid-to-late 1760‘s. Still, the term Rousseau used was “une grande princesse,” a glass slipper that would comfortably fit the wife of the French “Sun King.”
Rousseau’s ambiguous attribution could be due to an expectation that his reader would recognize the quote as originating with Maria-Theresa, without his having to commit himself to offending royalty directly. He was well known to the French Royal family (Louis 15 had offered him a lifelong pension for his accomplishments as a composer—which he turned down). He’d written a novel touching on religion that was so controversial it was banned, publicly burned, and forced him into exile to avoid arrest. A year after he wrote the words “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” he slipped illegally back into France under a false name. When, in 1771, he began private readings of “Confessions” the police ordered him to stop. So: When he coyly quoted his “grande princess,” was he making a general swipe at royalty by referencing a popular meme in the abstract, or avoiding further trouble by not naming the source he had in mind?
Among historians, Rousseau has a bad reputation for accuracy and truth. Even his friends and supporters often quarreled with him. As a point of reference: J.L. Talmon, a scholar writing a book on comparative theories of democracy, confessed that he found Rousseau had the most unattractive character of anyone he’d ever studied.
Fraser’s material on Wikipedia:
Whatever your opinion of Wikipedia as a source (I find it useful for quick fact-checks, spellings, and broad outlines), it has a good entry under “Let then eat cake.” That entry quotes Fraser, cites Fraser, and remarks on Fraser’s opinions–the contributor (who writes with BBC English spellings) disagreeing that “Let them eat cake” originated with Maria-Theresa, because Fraser’s source for this, Louis 18, was age 14 when Rousseau wrote the remark, and thus too young to remember well the family discussion on it he claims. Fraser is also cited for a paragraph saying the quote was attributed to Marie Antoinette only after she was dead, by historians sympathetic to the Revolution seeking vindication for the killing of the French royal family.
Likewise, the Wikipedia entry for “Marie Antoinette” has 106 notes, with nearly all citing Fraser and a page number from her 2002 book. Under an entry for “Maria Theresa of Spain,” there is a notation that “Let them eat cake” may be attributable to Maria Theresa, not to Marie Antoinette, Fraser‘s key claim in this debate.
In his original 1986, column, Cecil doesn’t mention Fraser‘s material, because he penned it before Fraser’s book came out. Oddly, none of the mixed material from Tammi Terrell mentions Fraser’s 2002 book either, though you say in your post the Terrell material dates from 2005.
My memory isn’t reliable enough to do much heavy lifting on Fraser. I read her book two years ago, I have no copy of the work, and I can’t get one except via interlibrary loan. Someone else needs to go to this source, read it carefully, make extensive marginal notes, and then write a definitive brief on it as it relates to this controversy. I think Fraser’s material is worth addressing.
The historical record of whether Marie Antoinette ever said “let them eat cake” turns out to be a tangle of ambiguous and contradictory claims, most impeached by their own implausibility, modern research, and a credible timeline. Given the weight of evidence against the claim, why are we still discussing it?
Tammi Terrell’s material provides a clue in reporting that a type-number is assigned today by folklorists to any claim of an infamously callous remark by someone of high privilege who is alienated from all human understanding and empathy for ordinary people in dire circumstances, and it’s cross-cultural.
“Let them eat cake” is more than an uncertain historical anecdote. It’s a proof in support of accepted prejudice: the callous indifference of people with power, status, and money towards the rest of humanity. (A collective need to vilify such people is seen in at least two “Marie Antoinette” updates in my lifetime: Imelda Marcos and New York hotelier Leona Helmsley).
It’s unlikely we will ever finally settle on a final source for this remark, no matter what evidence we uncover; it’s instructive, I think, to note how this story took on a destiny larger than any fact in life.
I’ll include as a separate post an “appendix” I made to note and keep track of the basic material on this.