You know those moments when you have something you’ve always “known” – really, just assumed – blown away by actual fact? I had one of those today. If I’d been reading Jonah Goldberg earlier, I might have had this one happen ten years ago.
If you’ve got any sort of comfort with European history (or are just a Kirsten Dunst fan), you’ve probably heard the phrase “Let them eat cake!” thrown around as an example of how far removed the aristocracy was from the peasantry during the French Revolution, and attributed to Marie Antoinette.
However, that’s not actually how it went down. Rousseau is the one who gave us that quote, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” and it was attributed to an unnamed “great princess” who had famously made the statement in the past – Marie Antoinette was only a child at the time of Rousseau’s writing, and had not yet moved to France, so it’s impossible that it had anything to do with her.
Additionally, the quote was supposed to have taken place during a bread shortage, of which there was only one during King Louis XVI’s reign, the Flour War Riots, and during which Marie wrote letters back home to Austria that showed a very sympathetic viewpoint, saying “It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness.”
In short, leave Marie alone!
So what got her beheaded during the French Revolution, if not her sharp wit and love of sweets?
Well, it seems that during the years leading up the French Revolution, she was the victim of some exceptionally nasty PR, receiving the nickname Madame Déficit as the result of a popular perception that she was solely to blame for France’s failing economy, largely due to her extreme expenditures on her personal wardrobe. In reality, she was far less of an offender than her predecessors and competitors in that regard, and had quite a large amount of charitable works to her name.
But when was the last time you heard of a mob that listened to reason?