Let Them Eat Brioche

Thinking about how good brioche is? Wait until you see what it sparked in the late 1700s!

How Bread, or Lack of It, Led to the Start of the French Revolution

Think about the famous phrase attributed to one of France's most infamous queens, Marie Antoinette of France, “Let them eat cake!” She reportedly said it on hearing that her people were suffering so much under high taxes and poor harvests that they could no longer afford bread.

Historians cannot accurately confirm whether this was her attitude towards the impoverished populace of her country, but that seemingly heartless admonition is widely acknowledged to have inflamed the masses in ways contributing to their uprising to start the French Revolution in 1789. 

What is “Brioche”?

The actual French phrase that Marie Antoinette reportedly uttered— “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”—means “Let them eat brioche.” Brioche is more of a French delicacy, like cake, in other cultures. Its light, flaky texture and buttery taste is definitely delectable—and worthy of a queen.

But a staple for the people? Not so much. And how could the queen's cavalier attitude lead to a revolution?

Credit: The Brioche, by Edouard Manet, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Creative Commons 

Factors leading to the French Revolution can be attributed to three main obstacles that impacted the peasant class (and everyone, back in the day, who was not of the nobility or the clergy, was considered a peasant!: war debt, famines caused by weathering droughts, and horrific taxes. France’s involvement with the American Revolution, and excessive spending on more local wars by King Louis XVI, led the country into a pit of debt. Along with the war debt, two decades of poor harvests, drought, cattle disease meant the king needed to keep raising taxes to keep his reign solvent. 

But bread is a staple of everyday life, especially in France. And no grain, no bread. In what little survived the poor harvests, rye and wheat showed traces of fungi like ergot, suspected to be a cause of diseases that spread throughout the French countryside. 

According to historian Mary Kilburne Mattossian, in 1789, a scare known as the “Great Fear,” hallucinogens from a fungus on rye wheat gave way to peoples' mass hysteria and unleashed the revolutionary fervor. Other historians speculate that the Great Fear was a result of farmers storming the Bastille, and fear that aristocrats were going to wage a counter-revolution by setting loose brigands into the countryside.

Whatever the cause, it’s kind of crazy to think about bread at the heart of a revolution.

Bread Uprisings from the late 17th Century

It wasn't the first time that bread was scarce. Periodic harvest failures over two-and-a-half centuries made the people of France angry and caused multiple bread uprisings dating back to 1529, in Lyon, France. It seems that the problem only got compounded over time. In a Paris newspaper story from 1789, this time of bread uprisings was described as a time where, “Fears were redoubled by the complaints of people who had spent the whole day waiting at the baker’s door without receiving anything.” People were out for bread—and blood, too.