WSJ Historically Speaking: A Few Great Historical Myths

Photo: UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Posterity is a curious thing. To some, it accords unmerited glory; to others, it bequeaths lasting shame.

Marie-Antoinette, whose execution took place on Oct. 16, 1793, is one of many who have suffered more than their fair share from posterity. As every schoolchild loves to repeat: When told that the French people had no bread to eat, the thoughtless queen uttered the immortal words, “Let them eat cake,” thereby meriting her dreadful fate at the guillotine.

Marie-Antoinette had many faults, including an unerring ability to choose the wrong friends. But crassness was not among them. She probably never said the phrase, according to Antonia Fraser’s sympathetic, revisionist biography. Judging by the number of women (and it’s only women, for some reason) who have been accused of making the “cake” comment, it’s highly likely that the incident never happened.

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