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Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations. 1989.

NUMBER: 1347
AUTHOR: Author unknown
QUOTATION: Let them eat cake.
ATTRIBUTION: Author unknown. Commonly attributed to Marie Antoinette. There is a good deal of conflicting evidence, however.

“At length I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, ‘Then let them eat cake.’”—Jean Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, book 6, as cited by The Home Book of Quotations, ed. Burton Stevenson, 9th ed., p. 1571, which adds this note: “Usually attributed to Marie Antoinette, after her arrival in France in 1770, but the sixth book of the Confessions was written two or three years before that date. It is difficult to translate ‘brioche,’ which is not exactly cake, but a bun or fancy bread something like Scotch scones.”

Rousseau wrote the first six books of his Confessions in 1766–1767, though the work was not published until 1782–1789. Marie Antoinette lived 1755–1793.

In the London Sunday Telegraph of January 23, 1983, p. 6, an unidentified columnist responded to a reader’s inquiry about this remark: “[You] may be surprised to learn that it was not attributed to her until more than half a century after her death. However, 15 years before Marie Antoinette’s birth, Rousseau, in his ‘Confessions,’ pinned the yarn on an Italian noblewoman. King Louis XVIII of France in the 1820’s wrote that the culprit was the wife of his predecessor, Louis XIV, who had reigned a couple of centuries before him: the only slight difference is that she is supposed to have said pastry instead of cake. And in 1959 one of those numerous know-alls who write to the Times said that John Peckham, a thirteenth century Archbishop of Canterbury, tells the same story in a letter written in Latin.”

A similar remark was attributed to Joseph François Foullon, appointed minister of the king’s household in 1789, “who was reported, probably quite without foundation to have said, ‘If the people cannot get bread, let them eat hay.’”—Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed., vol. 10, p. 738 (1910).