Tuesday, May 18, 2021

And Marie Antoinette Said: "There is nothing new except what has been forgotten."

Marie Antoinette did not say "Let them eat cake!" 

Yet "Let them eat cake!" isn't the only dubious phrase frequently attributed to the last queen of France. A quick cursory search on Google or numerous social media platforms reveals many quotes supposedly said by Marie Antoinette. But did she really say them? Where did these quotes come from? In this post series, 'And Marie Antoinette Said...' we will be taking a closer look at some of the most famous quotes attributed to the queen to uncover their origins and hopefully, shed some light on their veracity.

"There is nothing new except what has been forgotten." 

This quote is another social media favorite; although there is often not any context given, this alleged quote is sometimes connected to Marie Antoinette's passion for fashion.

This attributed quote is particularly interesting because it is only within the past few years that it has become attributed to Marie Antoinette. Until the rise of social media and its love for bite-size quotable posts, the quote was associated not with Marie Antoinette... but with Rose Bertin, her favored marchande des modes.

This association is notable enough to have made Rose Bertin's Wikipedia page, which includes the attribution under its own heading ("Famous quote"):
Bertin is said to have remarked to Marie Antoinette in 1785, when presenting her with a remodelled dress, "Il n'y a de nouveau que ce qui est oublié" ("There is nothing new except what has been forgotten."

This association is confirmed in a varied selection of books from the 19th and 20th centuries.  Conklin's Who Said That? Being the Sources of Famous Sayings by George W. Conklin, published in 1906, echoes the basic sentiment of the quote as attributed to Bertin:

"There is nothing new but that which is forgotten (Il n'y a de nouveau que ce qui est oublie).

Attributed to Mlle. Bertin, a celebrated modiste, to Marie Antoinette (1755-93), replying to the question whether the model of a costume was quite new. The motto of the Revue Retrospective (1833) was 'Il n'y a de nouveau que ce qui a vielli' ('There is nothing new but that which has become antiquated.')"
In at least one book, Famous Sayings and Their Authors by Edward Latham, Marie Antoinette was described as having "asked whether the model of a costume was quite new, for she thought she had seen a drawing of it in some old engravings."

The biography 'Rose Bertin: The Creator of Fashion at the Court of Marie Antoinette" by Émile Langlade repeats the anecdote: 

"Indeed, nothing is new under the sun, in fashions as in other things; it is but the turn of the wheel. 'New things are only those which have been forgotten,' as Rose Bertin said very truly one day to Marie-Antoinette."

But did she actually say it?
First, let's take a closer look at the sources cited on Wikipedia. 
The earliest source cited on Rose Bertin's Wikipedia page in relation to this quote is the 1820 edition of The Edinburgh Review, Or Critical Journal.

This volume notes:
A proverb of which no nation makes such frequent application as the French, and which, as history relates, was the favourite maxim of the most inventive and academic of dressmakers, Mademoiselle Bertin, is, 'Il n'y a de nouveau que ce qui est oublié;' and we think the history of these didactic inventions affords a striking proof of its justice.
Here, the quote is associated with Mme. Bertin's profession in the fashion industry, as well as her reputation for being inventive with her work. We can determine from this text that Mme Bertin was associated with the phrase at least by 1820.

The second oldest source cited on Wikipedia, The International Encyclopedia of Prose and Poetical Quotations, was published in 1908 and contains this information:
The International Encyclopedia of Prose and Poetical Quotations, 1908

This book relates a variety of quotations and while it does not provide a historical source, it does at least further confirm the association of this phrase with Rose Bertin. This particular book also considers "There is nothing new except what has been forgotten" to be a variation of the Old Testament proverb, "There is no new thing under the sun."
The second, similar phrase ("There is nothing new except that which has become antiquated") is quoted in several volumes of the Revue Retrospective; the Revue Retrospective attributes the "antiquated" quote to Chaucer. We will return to the Chaucer further on ahead.
These particular variations are older than 1908 and can be found in earlier texts such as the the 1899 text, 'Classical And Foreign Quotations, Laws Terms and Maxims, Proverbs, Mmottoes, Phrases and Expressions...' This book also connects the quote to Rose Bertin.

Classical And Foreign Quotations, Laws Terms and Maxims, Proverbs, Mmottoes, Phrases and Expressions (1899)
The same phrases can be found in books published both before and after the 1908 book cited on Wikipedia. The fact that these variations can be found sometimes word-for-word in texts from various years suggests a cyclical effect: a book is published which associates the phrase with Rose Bertin, and similar books which collect quotes and anecdotes reuse these associations, sometimes using the exact same descriptions, later on, spreading the idea further.
The third source cited on Wikipedia is The Mirror of Laughter by Alexander Kozintsev, which notes in the preface:

'Il n'y a de nouveau que ce qui est oublié'--"There is nothing new except what has been forgotten," Marie-Antoinette's modiste Rose Bertin is said to have remarked when the queen approved an old dress Rose had refashioned for her.

'The Mirror of Laughter' is an examination of theories regarding the relationship of humor and laughter to human behavior. It is not really making a historical claim nor does it provide evidence that she said the phrase, as the preface is merely relating the anecdote.

None of the three cited sources claim that the quote was spoken in the specific year described on Wikipedia--1785. 

What are the origins of the quote?

There are two consistent themes that show up time and time again in the various books which published the "There is nothing new except what has been forgotten" quote during the 19th and early 20th centuries. 
One, the fact that the phrase is frequently associated with a similar quote attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer and two, the fact that both of these quotes are frequently lumped together as variations on the proverb, "There is nothing new under the sun," which is derived from this passage in Ecclesiastes. As written in the King James version of the text, which was collected in 1611:
"The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done, is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things which are to come, with those that shall come over."

 While researching the origins for the phrase "There is nothing new under the sun," I came across a website which suggested that its first known English variation use was found in Chaucer's 'A Knightes Tale,' but that they were unable to find a reference confirming that claim.

Could A Knightes Tale (A Knight's Tale) be the origin of the Chaucer quote?

In turns out: yes--with a language related caveat that because the original work was written in Middle English, the variations of it

The quote, as written in the original Middle English text of A Knight's Tale:
With hym ther wenten knyghtes many on;
Som wol ben armed in an haubergeoun
And in a brestplate and a light gypoun
And som wol have a paire plates large
And som wol have a Pruce sheeld or a targe
Som wol ben armed on his legges weel
And have an ax, and som a mace of steel
Ther is no newe gyse that it nas old.
Armed were they, as I have yow told,
Everych after his opinioun.

The Harvard University Geoffrey Chaucer website provides this modern translation for the passage:
With him there went knights many a one
One of them will be armed in a coat of mail,
And in a breastplate and a light tunic
And one of them will have a set of plate armor
And one of them will have a Prussian shield or a buckler;
One of them will be well armed on his legs,
And have an axe, and one a mace of steel --
There is no new fashion that has not been old.
They were armed, as I have told you,
Every one according to his preference.
While the Chaucer quote is not an exact match for the passage derived from Ecclesiastes, it is easy to see how they can be viewed with a similar sentiment. In fact, an English 1877 edition of The Knight's Tale, published this telling citation for the bolded line: "This line seems to mean that there is nothing new under the sun."

So how did we get from Ecclesiastes to Chaucer to Bertin? The presumed connection from the Bertin quote to Chaucer's quote is compactly described in the preface for Le vieux-neuf  by Edouard Fournier, published in 1859:
"There is nothing new except what has become antiquated," said the old English poet Chaucer; "Nothing is new but what has been forgotten," said Marie-Antoinette's marchande de modes 500 years later, rejuvenating indescribable ancient frills. The old word of the poet, refurbished by the milliner, could serve as the epigraph to the work of M. Fournier...
Here, Rose Bertin is described as using the words of Chaucer for inspiration, refurbishing them for her own needs. Once again, the context of the phrase is Rose Bertin reworking old fashion to make it new. Since the original Chaucer quote was distinctly related to fashion--more specifically, practical military attire and equipment--this may reflect an additional underlying connection between these two similar phrases that goes beyond expressing the same sentiment. 

My attempts to find a French translation of Chaucer's work with the exact phrase ("Il n'ya a de nouveau que ce qui a vieilli") were fruitless. Considering that the original work was written in Middle English and was frequently translated into varying forms of modern language over the years, it soon became clear that finding a copy with that exact phrasing would be improbable and turned towards reading the various editions to find out how they had interpreted the line.
A French translation from 1857 even omits Chaucer's line regarding "new and old" entirely.
A ses côtés l'on vit maint Chevalier fidèle;
Les uns portaient plastrons, ou cuirasses de fer,
D'autres étaient munis d'une cotte de mailles,
D'écus, de boucliers, ou bien d'un tranche-entrailles,
D'une hache ou d'un gâte-chair ;
Tous instruments de mort, dont sans discourtoisie
Un Chevalier se fert felon sa fantaisie.

At his side were seen many a faithful knight;
Some wore breastplates, or iron breastplates,
Others were provided with a coat of mail,
Of shields, shields, or even a slice of entrails,
An ax or a gâte-chair
All instruments of death, with no discourtesy
A Knight is born according to his fancy. 
This is not an isolated incident, as some other translations (including a 1795 English "Modern Version") also omit the notion of "Ther is no newe gyse that it nas old."

A later 1908 French translation, on the other hand, translates Chaucer's words with additional phrasing that provide context about what the text is referencing when it refers to "new" old things. Namely, equipment.

Il n’y a point d’équipement nouveau qui n’ait été anciennement.
Ils étaient armés, comme vous ai conté,
chacun selon son idée.

There is no new equipment that was not in the past.
They were armed, as you have told,
each according to his own idea.


It is safe to say that Marie Antoinette did not say this quote. It was not associated with Marie Antoinette until the social media era of the 21st century, in which online posts made an incorrect attribution which connected Marie Antoinette, rather than Rose Bertin, with this particular phrase.

It is uncertain but unlikely that Rose Bertin said this quote. I personally believe that she did not say it based on the lack of a contemporary connection. There is no known contemporary evidence to suggest she did, such as letters or individual memoirs, anecdotal or otherwise, which claim she said it from some sort of contemporary source. All we have are third-party, later anecdotal connections between Bertin and the phrase. It was associated with her by1820 and continued to be passed on afterwards as an anecdote.

The phrase "There is nothing new except what has been forgotten" should be viewed as an anecdotal, apocryphal phrase that appears to be spun from similar sayings, such as "There is nothing new under the sun" and Chaucer's "Ther is no newe gyse that it nas old." Chaucer's words were translated into a strikingly similar phrase in both English and France during the 19th century and were frequently connected to the quote attributed to Rose Bertin during this time period.

Sources and Further Reading

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