I’ve always had a feeling that Marie Antoinette’s famous words, “Let them eat cake,” didn’t mean what everyone else thought. Traditionally, the story goes that when she heard the French peasants were starving because of lack of bread, her response was “Let them eat cake.” Most people take this with a distinctly callous meaning, but according to Wikipedia it was actually quite an economic breakthrough.

Marie Antoinette did not actually use the phrase "let them eat cake" when she heard that the French peasantry was starving due to a dearth of bread. The phrase was first published in Rousseau’s "Confessions" when Marie was only 10 years old and most scholars believe that Rousseau coined it himself, or that it was said by Maria-Theresa, the wife of Louis XIV. Furthermore, although the proclamation may sound callous, it was actually made out of generosity and economic logic. What Rousseau or Marie-Theresa actually said was, "Qu’ils mangent de la brioche," essentially meaning that the peasants should be able to eat brioche, a sweeter egg-based bread instead of their normal fare. In fact, French law mandated that bakers sell their brioche at the same price as their cheap bread if their cheap bread ran out. Marie Antoinette was a very unpopular ruler and many people therefore attribute the phrase "let them eat cake" to her, in keeping with her reputation as being hard-hearted and disconnected with her subjects.

So, what she actually meant was if a baker ran out of bread, they had to sell their more expensive ‘cake’ for the same price so that the peasants could afford it.

Wikipedia Article