Marquis de Sade

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Donatien Alphonse François, marquis de Sade (June 2, 1740 – December 2, 1814) (pronounced was a French aristocrat and writer of philosophy-laden and often violent pornography. His is a philosophy of extreme freedom (or at least licentiousness), unrestrained by ethics, religion or law, with the pursuit of personal pleasure being the highest principle. Sade was incarcerated in various prisons and an insane asylum for 29 years of his life, though he was never convicted of any crime; much of his writing was done during this time. The term "sadism" is named after him.


Early life and education

Sade was born in the Condé palace in Paris. His father was comte Jean-Bastiste François Joseph de Sade and his mother was Marie-Eléonore de Maillé de Carman, a distant cousin and lady-in-waiting of the princess of Condé. Early on he was educated by his uncle, an abbé (who would later be arrested in a brothel). Sade then attended a Jesuit lycée and went on to follow a military career. He participated in the Seven Years' War. He returned from the war in 1763 and pursued a woman who rejected him; he then married Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil, daughter of a rich magistrate, in the same year. The marriage had been arranged by his father. They would eventually have two sons and a daughter together.

His lifelong attraction to the theatre showed in 1766 when he had a private theatre constructed at his castle in Lacoste, Vaucluse. His father died in January 1767.


The generations of this family alternated use of the titles marquis and comte. His grandfather, Gaspard François de Sade, was the first of this family to bear the title of marquis. He was occasionally referred to as the marquis de Sade, but more often documents refer to him as the marquis de Mazan. But no reference has been found of Donatien de Sade's lands being erected into a marquisate for him or his ancestors, nor any act of registration of the title of marquis (or comte) by the parlement of Provence where he was domiciled. Both of these certifications would have been necessary for any legitimate title of nobility to descend legally. But the Sade family were noblesse de race, that is, members of France's oldest nobility (who claimed descent from the ancient Franks). Given the loftiness of their lineage, the assumption of a noble title, in the absence of a grant from the King, was de rigueur, well-sanctioned by custom. The family's indifferent use of marquis and count reflected the fact that the French hierarchy of titles (below the rank of duc et pair[French peerage]) was notional. The title of marquis was, in theory, accorded to noblemen who owned several countships. Its use by men of dubious lineage had caused it to fall into some disrepute. Precedence at court depended upon seniority of nobility, and royal favor, not title. Correspondence exists in which Sade is referred to as marquis prior to his marriage by his own father.

Scandals and imprisonment

Shortly after his wedding, he began living a scandalous libertine existence and repeatedly abused young prostitutes and employees of both sexes in his castle in Lacoste, a practice he would continue later with the help of his wife. His wayward behavior also included an affair with his wife's sister, who had come to live at the castle.

Beginning in 1763, Sade lived mainly in or near Paris. Several prostitutes there complained about mistreatment by Sade, and he was put under surveillance by a police inspector, who provided detailed reports on his escapades. After several short imprisonments, he was exiled to his chateau at Lacoste in 1768.

After an episode in Marseille in 1772 that involved the non-lethal poisoning of prostitutes with the supposed aphrodisiac Spanish Fly and sodomy with his male servant Latour, the two were sentenced to death in absentia for sodomy and said poisoning in the same year. They were able to flee to Italy, and Sade took the sister of his wife with him, with whom he had an affair. His mother-in-law never forgave him for this. She obtained a lettre de cachet for his arrest (a royal order by which an individual could be arrested and imprisoned without stated cause and without access to the courts). Sade and Latour were caught and imprisoned at the Fortress of Miolans in late 1772 but managed to flee four months later.

He later hid at Lacoste where he rejoined his wife who became an accomplice in his subsequent endeavors.

He kept a group of young employees at Lacoste, most of whom complained about sexual mistreatments and left quickly. Sade had to flee to Italy again. During this time, he wrote a book, Voyage d'Italie, which along with his earlier travel writings was never translated into English. In 1776 he returned to Lacoste, again hired several servant girls, most of whom fled. In 1777 the father of one of these employees came to Lacoste to claim her, shot at the Marquis and missed only barely.

Later that year, Sade was tricked into visiting his supposedly sick mother (who had recently died) in Paris. There he was finally arrested and imprisoned in the dungeons of the Château de Vincennes. He successfully appealed his death sentence in 1778, but remained imprisoned under the lettre de cachet. He escaped but was recaptured soon after. In prison, he resumed writing. At Vincennes he met the fellow prisoner Comte de Mirabeau who also wrote erotic works, but the two disliked each other immensely.

In 1784, Vincennes was closed and Sade was transferred to the Bastille in Paris. On July 2, 1789, he reportedly shouted out of his cell to the crowd outside, "They are killing the prisoners here!", causing somewhat of a riot. Two days later, he was transferred to the insane asylum at Charenton near Paris. (The storming of the Bastille, marking the beginning of the French Revolution, occurred on July 14.) He had been working on his magnum opus, (The 120 Days of Sodom), despairing when the manuscript was lost during his transferral; but he continued to write.

He was released from Charenton in 1790, after the new National Constituent Assembly had abolished the instrument of lettre de cachet. His wife obtained a divorce soon after.

Return to freedom, and imprisoned for "moderatism"

During his time of freedom (beginning 1790), he published several of his books anonymously. He met Marie-Constance Quesnet, a former actress and mother of a six year old son who had been abandoned by her husband; Constance and Sade would stay together for the rest of his life. Sade was by now extremely obese.

He initially arranged himself with the new political situation after the revolution, called himself "Citizen Sade", and managed to obtain several official positions despite his aristocratic background. He wrote several political pamphlets. Sitting in court, when the family of his former wife came before him, he treated them favorably, even though they had schemed to have him imprisoned years earlier. He was even elected to the National Convention, where he represented the far left.

Appalled by the Reign of Terror in 1793, he nevertheless wrote an admiring eulogy for Jean-Paul Marat to secure his position. Then he resigned his posts, was accused of "moderatism" and imprisoned for over a year. He barely escaped the guillotine (probably due to an administrative error) and was released after the overthrow and execution of Maximilien Robespierre had effectively ended the Reign of Terror. This experience presumably confirmed his life-long detestation of state tyranny and especially of the death penalty.

Now all but destitute, in 1796 he had to sell his castle in Lacoste, Vaucluse, France that had been sacked in 1792. (The ruins were acquired in the 1990s by fashion designer Pierre Cardin, who now holds regular theatre festivals there.)

Imprisoned for his writings, return to Charenton, and death

In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the arrest of the anonymous author of Justine and Juliette. Sade was arrested at his publisher's office and imprisoned without trial, first in the Sainte-Pélagie prison and then, following allegations that he had tried to seduce young fellow prisoners there, in the harsh fortress of Bicêtre. After intervention by his family, he was declared insane in 1803 and transferred once more to the asylum at Charenton; his ex-wife and children had agreed to pay for his pension there.

Constance was allowed to live with him at Charenton. The liberal director of the institution, Abbé de Coulmier, allowed and encouraged him to stage several of his plays with the inmates as actors, to be viewed by the Parisian public. Coulmier's novel approaches to psychotherapy attracted much opposition.

Sade began an affair with thirteen-year-old Madeleine Leclerc, an employee at Charenton. This affair lasted some 4 years, until Sade's death in 1814. One year earlier, a new director had taken over the asylum, and Sade had lost some of his privileges. He had left instructions in his will to be cremated and his ashes scattered, but instead he was buried in Charenton; his skull was later removed from the grave for phrenological examination. His son had all his remaining unpublished manuscripts burned; this included the immense multi-volume work Les Journées de Florbelle.


"Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the like of which has never been seen, atheistic to the point of fanaticism, there you have me in a nutshell.... Kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change." - Last Will and Testament

"Sex without pain is like food without taste".

"To kill a man in a paroxysm of passion is understandable, but to have him killed by someone else after calm and serious meditation and on the pretext of duty honourably discharged is incomprehensible" - on the death penalty.


Timeline of Sade's life by Neil Schaeffer.

See also
The Live of Marquis de Sade
Works of de Sade
Books about de Sade
de Sade xref


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