Marquis de Sade

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Portrait of de Sade by Charles van Loo (1760).

Donatien Alphonse-François de Sade (June 2, 1740 – December 2, 1814), known as the Marquis de Sade (pronounced IPA: [maʁki: dəsad]) was a French aristocrat, author, politician, revolutionary, and philosopher famous for his controversial writings and libertine lifestyle. He is most famous for his erotic novels which blended extreme libertinage, sexuality unrestrained by morality or law, bizarre (often perverse and violent) sexual fetishes and kinks, and extreme blasphemy against the Catholic Church. Sade’s works overall proposed a general idea of sexual freedom, if not total freedom, unrestrained by morality, religion or law, with the pursuit of personal pleasure being the highest principle.

De Sade was incarcerated in various prisons and in an insane asylum for about 32 years of his life — eleven years in Paris (10 of which were spent in the Bastille) a month in Conciergerie, 2 years in a fortress, a year in Madelonnettes, 3 years in Bicêtre, a year in Sainte-Pélagie, 13 years in the Charenton insane asylum—indeed, much of his writing was done during his imprisonment.

De Sade is one of the first and most influential writers of BDSM fiction. His works are generally maledom/femsub (M/F). The term sadism, coined in 1886, is derived from his name.[1]


Early life and education[edit]

Sade's father, Jean-Baptiste François Joseph de Sade.

The Marquis de Sade was born in the Condé palace, Paris, to his father, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph-Francois de Sade, a Comte (count) and lieutenant general to several provinces (this latter rank would come into play later for his son), and the Comtesse (countess) Marie-Elonore Maille de Carman, a lady in waiting to the Princess of Condé. Sade was also a distant cousin of the Prince de Condé, his senior by four years. Sade’s early life at this point is mostly untraceable, however, there is one incident that says that Sade, then very willful for a young boy, attacked the prince so violently that he had to be physically separated.

At the age of four, Sade was sent to live with his grandmother and aunts in Avignon. All of the younger women spoiled Sade and were openly promiscuous, which angered Sade’s father, who quickly removed him, placing him under the wing of his uncle, the Abbe Jacques-Francois Paul-Aldonse, and in the family castle thirty five kilometers away from Avignon. This also soured, as Sade’s uncle was also deeply promiscuous and kept many erotic books around his quarters which the young Sade was prone to reading when nobody was looking.

The Comte de Sade took another turn and sent his son to study at the College Louis le Grand, a Jesuit school. The school was notoriously brutal, often flogging students in front of each other and holding worldly orgies, as well as a perverse form of ‘confession’. It was here that Sade developed his passionate hatred for God and all things connected to religion, a theme which would become prevalent in his writings.

After four years at school, Sade’s father sent him into the military, and he served time in the Seven Year War. Sade’s bravery on the battlefield coupled with his good looks and charm quickly earned him high merit. By the age of fifteen, he had made captain and had been sent to Germany (then Prussia). However, Sade’s sexual escapades had begun, and he had also begun to gamble. This only served to anger his father further.


In 1763, on returning from war, Sade was engaged to two women, Mademoiselle Renee-Palagie de Montreuil and Mademoiselle Laure de Lauris. Sade’s father fervently insisted he marry the former due to the fact that their family would secure monetary income to them, and the Sade family, primarily through the Comte’s own doing, had fallen into financial trouble. Sade, however, ignored his father’s warnings, and continued to court the woman he loved, even after she broke off the engagement. Eventually, he came around and, with permission from the royal family themselves, married Renee-Palagie. She would prove to be one of the most resourceful people in his life (see below). In fact, her own mother, a president (magistrate), was quite taken with de Sade.

Sade's marriage produced two sons and a daughter.

Sexual scandals[edit]

The castle above Lacoste, Provence, residence of the Marquis de Sade.

Sade committed various sexual scandals with various prostitutes, women (some of whom were underage), and even his valet, Latour. These scandals were long before his writing even began.

Beginning in 1763, Sade lived mainly in or near Paris. Several prostitutes there complained about mistreatment by him and he was put under surveillance by the police who made detailed reports of his escapades. After several short imprisonments, which included a brief incarceration in the Château de Saumur (then a prison), he was exiled to his chateau at Lacoste in Southern France in 1768.

The first major scandal occurred on Easter Sunday, 1768. Sade solicited a poor pastry wife’s widow, one Rose Keller, and took her to his private cottage, promising to take good care of her and offering her employment (a ploy which would become common for the libertines in his works). Upon arrival, Sade ordered the woman to undress. When she stripped to only her shirt, Sade flew into a rage and savagely beat her buttocks with a cat o’ nine tails until he came to an orgasm, all the while uttering shrieks of pleasure. Rose Keller escaped by climbing out of a second-floor window and running away. It was at this time that la Présidente, Sade's mother-in-law, obtained a lettre de cachet from the king, excluding Sade from the jurisdiction of the courts. The lettre de cachet (a royal order of arrest and imprisonment, without stated cause or access to the courts) would later prove disastrous for the Marquis.

In another incident, Sade solicited a prostitute, one Mlle. Testard, and demanded to know if she adhered to the church. When she replied in the affirmative, Sade once again became enraged, beginning to violently curse her and committing blasphemous acts, including masturbating into a holy chalice and referring to God as ‘motherfucker’. After that, he forcibly inserted communion wafers into the woman while screaming, ‘If thou art God, avenge thyself!’. He then proceeded to heat a cat o’ nine tails over a fire and instructed Testard that she was to beat him with it, then select one of her choice and let him do the same to her. When she refused, Sade masturbated with a pair of crucifixes, and forced her at sword point to blaspheme God.

Through all of this, Pelagie’s mother, the Presidente, chided Sade’s behavior, but kept it carefully under the rug. However, she was prepared to reveal this to her daughter, should it come to that, and after Rose Keller reported the incident to the police, Sade was arrested for his crimes. Even more shameless, he openly told his wife about what he had done. However, Pelagie was not distressed by this information. Instead, she began to willingly create legal loopholes for Sade to escape the system early, even methods to procure him women to act out his fantasies (although this second part would come later). Due to her influence and position with her mother, Sade only served four months in prison.

The next incident happened in Marseille in 1772. Sade arranged for four prostitutes — aged eighteen to twenty three — to hold a six week orgy that would also include Latour. In addition to sodomy (which could earn a death sentence at the time) and whipping, Sade also encouraged the women to eat Spanish Fly candies in an attempt to give them gas so he could ‘take in their wind’. This was too much, and the women begged to let go, but soon after, the duo found another woman, one Marguerite Coste. She too refused Sade’s request for sodomy, but she also ate all of his candies. This resulted in her becoming violently ill and hospitalized. Sade and Latour were sentenced to death in absentia for sodomy and said poisoning and hunted by the police, but escaped, along with Sade’s sister in law, Anne Prospere, whom people suspect he had been having an affair with.

Prospere returned to France to stay with her family, but Sade and Latour would stay on the run for months. He was eventually captured and incarcerated in the Fortress of Miolans in late 1772, but this did not last long. Sade acted charming and penitent, gaining the trust of the guards and getting them to believe he had changed to get them to drop their guard. After that year, he escaped through in the night, leaving an over dramatic letter behind for the staff.

Sade 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 mistreatment and quickly left his service. In 1777 the father of one of those employees came to Lacoste, to claim his daughter, and attempted to shoot the Marquis at point-blank range. Fortunately for Sade, the gun misfired.

Toward the end of his freedom, Sade, with cover-up from his wife, Pelagie, hired six teenage girls to work for him at Lacoste. What ensued was a sadistic orgy that became known as The Little Girls Affair. The Presidente, already fed up with Sade, was through with him and went to extreme lengths to punish him. Although Pelagie arranged for the girls to be sent to convents where they would go ignored, the police raided his home and searched his home. Sade was barely able to escape and fled to Italy, but this time, he would not be safe. Now, he would be travelling back and forth between France and Italy, avoiding police until he came back home to make amends.

Later that year, Sade was tricked into visiting his supposedly ill mother, who in fact had recently died, in Paris. He was arrested there and imprisoned in the Château de Vincennes. He successfully appealed his death sentence in 1778 but remained imprisoned under the lettre de cachet.

Imprisonment and writings[edit]

Illustration from a de Sade novel (1789).

In 1784, Vincennes closed and Sade was transferred to the Bastille, where he remained for thirteen years. Sade was far from the ideal prisoner this time, swearing at guards, defying them, and at one point shouting to people outside that inmates were being ritualistically killed, starting a riot. He also began to write The 120 Days of Sodom, which would be his magnum opus, along with Justine, which would prove to be the most troubling book of all. Due to his lack of writing tools, he wrote the entire story down on a single twelve meter long piece of paper, working tirelessly to complete it. Unfortunately, before he could complete it, the Bastille was stormed (14 July 1789), and it was lost in the ruckus. Sade was deeply upset by this loss, but he continued to write.

He was released from Charenton in 1790 after the new Constituent Assembly abolished the instrument of lettre de cachet. His wife obtained a divorce soon after. Sade gained an excessive amount of weight, gradually becoming obese.

Return to freedom and brief political career[edit]

During Sade's time of freedom, beginning in 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.

He initially ingratiated himself with the new political situation after the revolution, supported the Republic, called himself "Citizen Sade" and managed to obtain several official positions despite his aristocratic background. Due to the damage done to his estate in Lacoste which was sacked in 1789 by an angry mob, he moved to Paris. In 1790 he was elected to the National Convention where he represented the far left. He was a member of the Piques section, a section notorious for its radical views. He wrote several political pamphlets, in which he called for the implementation of direct vote. However there is much to suggest that he suffered abuse from his fellow revolutionaries due to his aristocratic background. This was made even worse by the desertion of his son, the Colonel Marquis de Toulengeon. To save himself, Sade had to disavow his son, but this still did not sit well with the other members. Toward the end of the Reign of Terror in 1793, Sade had lost his position yet again.

In 1796, now all but destitute, he had to sell his ruined castle in Lacoste. The ruins of the castle were acquired in 2001 by fashion designer Pierre Cardin who now holds music festivals there.

Final imprisonment and death[edit]

Portrait of the elder Sade.

In 1801, when Napoleon Bonaparte read Justine, he was enraged at the novel, arrested Sade and imprisoned him without trial, first in Saint-Pelagie (which, at the time, was the most violent prison in all of Paris), and then at Bicetre. 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 his pension there. Constance was allowed to live with him at Charenton. The benign 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. In 1809 new police orders put Sade into solitary confinement and deprived him of pens and paper, though Coulmier succeeded in ameliorating this harsh treatment. In 1813, the government ordered Coulmier to suspend all theatrical performances.

In 1814 Sade died in Charenton. His body was buried on his property located in Malmaison near Épernon. His skull was later removed from the grave for phrenological examination. His son had all his remaining unpublished manuscripts burned, including the immense multi-volume work Les Journées de Florbelle.

Sade's influence[edit]

Sade’s work, although criticized by many, has also heavily influenced many people. Modern critics, and even some feminists, have complimented Sade’s writing style, sometimes referring to him as a ‘moral pornographer’, praising his libertine philosophy and use of sexuality as a form of enlightenment. Artists have portrayed him to the best of their abilities (there exists only one true portrait of him). Some of the greatest thinkers of our time have been influenced by him, such as Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kant, Swinburne, and Baudelaire. Sade also heavily influenced Sigmund Freud’s theories of sexual drive as the basis for human behavior, as countless characters in his work are motivated by savage desire and the Id (from a Freudian standpoint).

Important works[edit]

  • The 120 Days of Sodom (Les 120 journées de Sodome, ou l'École du libertinage — written 1785; first published 1904)
  • Justine, which exists in three versions:
    • Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue (Justine, ou les Malheurs de la vertu — 1st version written 1787, first published 1930)
    • Justine, or Good Conduct Well Chastised (Justine ou les Malheurs de la vertu — 2nd version written 1788, first published 1791)
    • The New Justine (La Nouvelle Justine, ou les Malheurs de la vertu — 3rd version, first published 1797-1801 with Juliette)
  • Aline and Valcour (Aline et Valcour, ou le Roman philosophique — written 1788, first published 1795)
  • Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded (Histoire de Juliette, ou les Prospérités du vice — first published 1797–1801)
  • Philosophy in the Bedroom (La Philosophie dans le boudoir — first published 1795)

Films inspired de Sade[edit]

Edited for television version of scene from De Sade (1969).
  • Marquis de Sade: Justine (1968), directed by Jesus Franco. Klaus Kinski appears as Sade, writing the tale in his prison cell.
  • De Sade (1969), an artistic and critical flop loosely based on the life of the Marquis de Sade, has an appropriately sadistic CP scene. The Marquis (played by Keir Dullea) vigorously spanks a wench with the flat side of his sabre until it draws blood.
  • Eugenie de Sade aka Eugenie…The Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1970) directed by Jess Franco, set in the 20th century. Contains scenes of erotic flagellation.
  • Beyond Love and Evil, original title La philosophie dans le boudoir (1971), a French film loosely adapted from de Sade's play "Philosophy in the Bedroom". A cult of depraved hedonists cavort at a remote, elegant mansion. There are several floggings of men and women, a riding crop beating, and branding.
  • Justine De Sade (1972) directed by Claude Pierson stands out in terms of fetishistic corporal punishment scenes.
  • Poor Cecily (1973), sexploitation film loosely based on de Sade's Justine was controversial for its graphic depiction of suspected witches being tortured in a dungeon. Directed by Lee Frost using an alias, it boasts an extended (often edited) scene of brutal full-body floggings, branding, and sexual assaults.
  • Femmes de Sade (1976); pornographic film directed by Alex DeRenzy
  • Cruel Passion aka Marquis de Sade's Justine (1977), directed by Chris Boger, starring Koo Stark as Justine.
  • House of de Sade (1977); X-rated pornographic film with BDSM scenes set in a house haunted by the spirit of de Sade.
  • Marquis de Sade's Prosperities of Vice aka Akutoku no sakae (1988), Japanese exploitation film.
  • Dark Prince: Intimate Tales of Marquis de Sade, aka Marquis de Sade (1996), mainstream biographical drama.
  • Quills (2000), a mainstream biopic directed by Philip Kaufman.
  • The Recognition of The Great Marquis (Lupus Pictures, 2004); spanking video set in the 18th century that pays homage to de Sade. Three servant girls receive harsh switchings (photos)


See also[edit]


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