Mental Floss

‘Let Them Eat Cake’ and More French Revolution Misconceptions

Ellen Gutoskey
The Storming of the Bastille, by Jean-Pierre Houël.
The Storming of the Bastille, by Jean-Pierre Houël. / National Library of France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

With all its talk of bread and barricades—and the very unsubtle rich-versus-poor theme throughout—the Broadway musical Les Misérables captures the French Revolution in all its insurgent glory.

Or so many viewers think.

In fact, the production, based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, takes place years after the French Revolution and recounts an entirely different citizen uprising: the June Rebellion of 1832. (Though the two conflicts do share many of the same elements.)

Considering that the French Revolution ended up involving pretty much all of Europe’s major powers and has been covered in countless works of fiction, it’s to be expected that certain details have gotten a little muddled over the last 230 years. In this episode of Misconceptions, Mental Floss’s Justin Dodd is making things clearer. Was the Bastille really a torture fortress? Did a guy named “Guillotine” actually invent the guillotine? And, most importantly, did Marie Antoinette ever utter anything about letting peasants eat cake?

Find out those answers and more below, and subscribe to the Mental Floss YouTube channel for future fascinating videos.