Let them eat cake

Straight Dope Classics “Let them Eat Cake”
The original article needs upating, as the link has been neglected on straightdope but not other services
on http://ask.yahoo.com/ask/20021122.html
“Our old pal Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope explains the quotation was first written by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Confessions. Actually, Rousseau wrote “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” which essentially means “let them eat a type of egg-based bread” (not quite cake, but still a bit extravagant). Rousseau claimed that “a great princess” told the peasants to eat cake/brioche when she heard they had no bread.”

Also, from the original article: “a flour-and-water paste that was “caked” onto the interiors of the ovens and baking pans of the professional boulangers of the era. (The modern equivalent is the oil-and-flour mixture applied to non-Teflon cake pans.)” I’m not sure of France, but this practice was common in colonial British America, (and presumeably England) and the paste was called “cake,” as was just about anything solid created with grain and heat. If it was an untruth used as propaganda at the time, it would have at least seemed more likely to contemporary English speakers than it does now.

But “brioche” is also the word supposedly used by Marie-Antoinette…

If you’re suggesting that it would be helpful to amend the Straight Dope page to include precisely what Rousseau wrote (“qu’ils mangent de la brioche”) and not just an English version of what he wrote (“well, let them eat cake”), I agree, if only to shed light on the appearance from this period of one common French form of this response. (Balzac, for example, made use of Rousseau’s “brioche” retort in at least three works written between 1823 and 1837. [1])

(By the way, a couple recent message-board discussions of that analysis can be found here and here.)

I’ll note, though, that the OED fails to provide such a special (and historical) usage of “cake” (as a paste or lining) in British English or colonial North American English with respect to the preparation of ovens and pans for baking.

More to the point, however, N.D.G., Cecil’s one-time correspondent, maintained that

French dictionaries compiled at various points in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries [2] back up Cecil’s contention that brioche “is a sort of crusty bun, typically containing milk, flour, eggs, sugar, butter, and whatnot.” None of these dictionaries hold that brioche was “a flour-and-water paste that was ‘caked’ onto the interiors of the ovens and baking pans of the professional boulangers.”
I’ll note, though, that I think that the Straight Dope analysis would also benefit from a further explanation of the significance of the following bit of information,

Because I believe that Cecil’s article fails to make clear two things of relevance with regards to Karr’s observation.

As Rousseau had done with his unnamed princess, Karr (1808-1890) also used the term “brioche” in his attribution of this phrase to Marie Antoinette (albeit as rumor). Folklorists Véronique Campion-Vincent and Christine Shojaei Kawan [3] provide a portion of Karr’s anecdote (in its original French),

Also relevant, but left unsaid in Cecil’s article (perhaps one has to read between the lines to see it), is that Karr’s attribution of “qu’il mange de la brioche” to Marie Antoinette (even as rumor) seems to be the earliest extant coupling of this infamous remark with this particular Bourbon queen.

Campion-Vincent and Shojaei Kawan report that they found no instance from around the time of the Revolution or during the Terror of the attribution of “qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (or similar) to Marie Antoinette, not

Nothing, they report, in the “lampoons and pamphlets against Marie-Antoinette” or in the Revolutionary press. Furthermore, historians specializing in the Revolutionary press whom one of the authors contacted “knew of no reference to the brioche story in their references.”

(Note, however, that Joseph Foulon’s alleged use of “let them eat hay” [or similar] had gotten mention in the American press within a couple months of his execution in the summer of 1789.)

Campion-Vincent and Shojaei Kawan consequently note that

Naturally, it’s possible that the rumor that Marie Antoinette herself had responded “qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (or similar) to the news that the people had no bread had circulated by word of mouth during the Revolution or in the years thereafter. Perhaps the rumor originated with “radical agitators,” as Cecil indicates Karr had observed, or perhaps it was set loose by members of French nobility who had their own issues with the Austrian queen.

In any event, though, since mention of this attribution (however false) doesn’t seem to have been written down in some pamphlet, diary, newspaper piece, or similar document of the period, it seems to me that we really have no contemporaneous evidence that such a rumor involving Marie Antoinette was afloat during the late 19th-century, only a contention made 50 years after the Queen’s execution that at least some of her subjects had attributed “they should eat brioche” to her.

– Tammi Terrell

[1] [La] Dernière fée (1823), Physiologie du mariage (1829); [La] Messe de l’ Athée (1837).

[2] Dictionaries from the late-17th through the mid-19th centuries describe brioche as “sorte de gasteau pestry ordinairement avec des oeufs, du lait & du beure” (1694); “sorte de gâteau” (1762 & 1787-1788); and “sorte de pâtisserie” (1798 & 1832-1835).

In those same dictionaries, “gâteau” had (as in English) many meanings, the predominant of which described various forms of "patisserie,” but none had specialized uses with regard to the linings of ovens or baking pans.

(The Dictionnaire de L’Académie française, 1st Edition [1694]; the Dictionnaire de L’Académie française, 4th Edition [1762]; Jean-François Feraud. Dictionaire critique de la langue française, Marseille, Mossy, 1787-1788; Dictionnaire de L’Académie française, 5th Edition [1798]; and Dictionnaire de L’Académie française, 6th Edition [1832-5].)

[3] Véronique Campion-Vincent and Christine Shojaei Kawan. Marie Antoinette and Her Famous Saying: Three Levels of Communication, Three Modes of Accusation and Two Troubled Centuries. Fabula 41(1/2): 13-37, 2000.

The paper was reproduced in French as, Marie-Antoinette et son célèbre dire: deux scénographies et deux siècles de désordres, trois niveaux de communication et trois modes accusatoires. Annales historiques de la Révolution française 327(1): 29-56, 2002.

This analysis of the (incorrect) attribution of “let them eat cake” to Marie Antoinette and, more generally, of the appearance of this form of tale throughout various Western and Eastern cultures since, apparently, ca. 1100, is an exhaustive catalogue of all sorts of variants (including quite a few involving named males and females from 18th-century France).

In fact, the authors point out that this sort of anecdote has its own tale type number (AT 1446), to which Stith Thompson gave the title “Let them eat cake. The queen has been told that the peasants have no bread.” Campion-Vincent and Shojaei Kawan explain that while most of the internationally known variants compiled by Thompson and others don’t necessarily involve a female member of royalty, nor do they have to involve a scarcity of bread specifically, Thompson accorded this tale type this title simply because the queen/bread/cake theme seemed the most recognizable to 20th-century readers/listeners.