Let Them Eat Cake?


Today we’re going to take a little side trip from French Algeria to think about grain*, thanks to Paul Hancq, who responded to my recent attempts to convert the price of an eighteenth century grain purchase into modern American dollars with the comment, “At any rate, that is a LOT of expensive grain!”

He’s right. That is a lot of grain. The army of the French Republic was large (in theory reaching a million and a half men following the unpopular levée en masse of 1793*) and it subsisted largely on bread.**

And grain was expensive. Fluctuations in the price of grain, and consequently bread, was a regular source of unrest in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Europe. In France the price of bread and its effect on the urban poor helped trigger the French Revolution–leading to the popular story that Marie Antoinette, on learning that the peasants could not afford bread, said “Let them eat cake”*–thereby demonstrating her fundamental lack of understanding of the realities of daily life for anyone other than a queen.

* In some ways, it’s not a detour at all. North Africa was the breadbasket of the Mediterranean from the time of imperial Rome through the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962).

**A million and a half on paper probably translated to 800,000 fighting men on the field. That’s still large compared to the British army in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, which totaled 40,000 in 1793 and peaked at 250,000 in 1815. (I’d love to know the size of the army Russia fielded in the same wars, but Google has failed me. Any suggestions, Marginians?)

***There’s a reason they call it the “staff of life”.

****The source for this is Rousseau’s notoriously unreliable Confessions–in which he claimed that an unnamed “great princess” said “Let them eat brioche.” Not quite as snappy as the cake line. Not necessarily Marie Antoinette. (Antonia Fraser attributes the statement to Queen Maria Therese, 100 years earlier.) Possibly no one ever said it. In short, another example of what we’ve come to call “comic book history” here at the Margins–historical stories that are emotionally satisfying but factually untrue. They just keep coming.


  1. Ashley on January 16, 2015 at 11:49 pm

    You’re giving me PTSD flashbacks to writing a junior-year paper on medieval brewing that involved sitting in the college library for hours with a dusty set of 19th C. ledgers full of historic grain prices. Oh, the things we do because they “sound like fun projects” at first…

    More importantly, this plus some of the Charlie Hebdo coverage is reminding me once more that I really need to read up on francophone and/or mid-century MENA. Thanks!

    • pamela on January 17, 2015 at 1:57 pm

      Ashley: sorry to cause you flash backs, but medieval brewing sounds pretty interesting.

  2. Paul Hancq on January 17, 2015 at 6:38 pm

    Thanks, Pam. I feel honored and consequential now that I have inspired a blog post. This illustrates how connected everything is. A cause like the price of grain can lead to an effect like revolution.

    • pamela on January 17, 2015 at 9:55 pm

      No, thank you. I love it when a reader’s comments triggers an idea.

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