The Marquis de Sade is one of the most infamous aristocrats the world has ever seen. Born in the lap of luxury, he eventually grew into a cruel, unhinged, and obscene man. So, who was the man who gave birth to the word "sadistic?" Was there more to him than his disturbing reputation suggests? Believe it or not, this notorious libertine and hedonist was even more deranged than people realize.
The man who would ruin the name de Sade was born in the luxurious Hotel de Condé in Paris. His parents called him Donatien Alphonse François. Since his mother was distantly related to the royal Princess de Condé, she served as her lady-in-waiting, hence the fancy digs. His father, the Count de Sade, got to enjoy the fruits of his wife's labor and live in one of the most extravagant palaces in all of France.
With origins like that, it seemed like the future Marquis de Sade was in for a life of leisure—but it all started to fall apart almost immediately.
The Marquis de Sade didn't come from one big happy family. First of all, none of his siblings lived past infancy, so he didn't have brothers and sisters to teach him how to play nice. His parents also had to endure the heartbreak of losing a child again and again. So how did they react to all this tragedy? Not well...
If you saw the full-grown psycho that the Marquis de Sade would eventually become, you'd probably think, "I bet that guy didn't have great parents." Well, you'd be right! When de Sade was just a boy, his father abandoned the family. Not long after that, his mother joined a convent, leaving the young child all alone in the Hotel de Condé. Don't worry, though, the palace had a whole legion of servants who were willing to chip in and help raise the boy!
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, this particular village did an absolutely horrible job of it.
The servants at the Hotel de Condé spoiled the young Marquis de Sade rotten. They indulged his every fantasy, never saying, "No," and you can guess what that did to the boy. It wasn't long before the little Marquis became "a rebellious and spoiled child with an ever-growing temper." He was a little terror—and one of his playmates got a chilling lesson in just how unhinged this boy was.
Young Donatien wasn't the only boy running around the halls of the Hotel de Condé. Louis Joseph de Bourbon, the Prince of Condé and a close relative of the king, was around his age. De Sade's caretakers made the two boys playmates, hoping to instill a lifelong friendship that could help de Sade later in life. They underestimated one thing, though: At any age, the Marquis de Sade did not play well with others.
Donatien Alphonse François de Sade didn't put much weight in "rank" or "station" as a young boy. Meanwhile, Louis Joseph de Bourbon, one of the most important royals in France, was used to people doing whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. As you can imagine, the two of them were like oil and water. One day, de Sade and the Prince had a disagreement.
The Prince assumed that as the more important of the two, de Sade should defer to him. De Sade's reaction was absolutely terrifying.
Prince or no, young Donatien was used to getting his way—and when he threw a tantrum, he really threw a tantrum. De Sade pounced on the Prince, and even four years younger as he was, began absolutely wailing on him. He viciously beat the royal to within an inch of his life until servants finally arrived on the scene and tore him off.
De Sade left the Prince in such a sickening state that his attendants worried he might never recover. That's the kind of figure we're dealing with here, yet this was just the tip of the iceberg. As he grew older, the Marquis de Sade only grew more and more deranged.
Donatien Alphonse François couldn't stay at the Hotel de Condé forever. With no parents in the picture, his uncle, the Abbé de Sade, did his best to educate the boy, but when he came of age, it was time for de Sade to go to a real school. His uncle sent him to the famed Lycée Louis-le-Grand, a prestigious secondary school in Paris that still exists to this day.
I can only imagine the staff at the Hotel de Condé were glad to see the little terror go. He was the school's problem now.
For maybe the first time in his life, the Marquis de Sade actually made a good impression at school. A priest, Abbé Jacques-François Amblet, took over as the boy's tutor, and de Sade impressed him. Years later, at one of the countless trials that the hedonistic Marquis would face, his old tutor came to his defense. Amblet insisted that de Sade had "a good heart," just that he had a "passionate temperament which made him eager in the pursuit of pleasure."
It's sweet that de Sade's old tutor stood up for him all those years later, but keep reading: I'd say, "good heart" is a bit of a stretch...
The Marquis de Sade was in for a rude awakening when he arrived at Lycée Louis-le-Grand. As a boy, sycophantic servants had succumbed to his every whim. School was a different story. When students stepped out of line—something de Sade did a lot—the punishment was severe. For serious infractions, administrators subjected students to flagellation.
As you can imagine, the Marquis de Sade was one of the school's most troublesome students, so he met the whip pretty frequently. But if his teachers hoped to whip him into line, they didn't know the Marquis de Sade.
I'm sure flagellation was a pretty good deterrent for most students at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. With the Marquis de Sade, it had the opposite effect. The young libertine became utterly obsessed with the act, and it would become a staple of his deviant behavior later in life. Little did those teachers know, when they were whipping the young de Sade, they were creating a monster.
I'll forgive you if you forgot all about the Count de Sade, young Donatien's father. He hadn't been in his son's life at all up to this point—but that didn't stop him from using his boy to try and solve his financial woes. The Count desperately wanted to find a wealthy wife for his son in order to get the de Sades rolling in dough once more.
I already feel sorry for whatever poor woman ended up with the Marquis de Sade's ring on her finger.
When it came time to find a wife, the Marquis de Sade started courting two women at the same time; we'd expect nothing less. His father much preferred the Lady Montreuil, the daughter of a rich magistrate. Meanwhile, de Sade grew obsessed with Lady Laure de Lauris. His dad was furious, but he had his heart set. But no matter how much de Sade was into Lauris, it simply wasn't meant to be.
Maybe the Lauris family didn't think de Sade was good enough for their daughter. Maybe they met de Sade himself and, you know, saw what kind of guy he was. Either way, they rejected his proposal. De Sade ended up going with plan B, marrying Lady Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil in 1763. A lady and a marquis, married at the height of French aristocratic opulence. It seems like a fairy tale—but it was really a horror story.
The Marquis de Sade's marriage produced two sons and a daughter, but his heart wasn't really in it. Even long after the wedding, he still pined after the Lady Lauris, sending her love letters frequently. Oh well, in the grand scheme of things, sending love letters to a woman who wasn't his wife is probably the least of the Marquis de Sade's offenses.
He was fast approaching adulthood—and that's when his true debauchery began.
In the years that followed his marriage, de Sade lived mostly in Paris, where he started to indulge in his deviant fantasies. He made a name for himself with his libertine lifestyle and obscene hobbies. He became so infamous that the local authorities put him under surveillance, keeping close tabs on his activities. His behavior got him imprisoned for several short stints in these years until the Parisians finally got fed up with him.
They exiled him to his castle in Lacoste and washed their hands of him. Of course, that wasn't the last they'd hear of the Marquis de Sade.
Our boy's adult life truly began in 1767, when his father passed. Not like the guy had really been around much, but now Donatien was officially the king of the castle. His dad had gone by the Count de Sade, but Donatien decided he liked the sound of "Marquis" better. The Marquis de Sade was born. He lived in his castle, the Château de Lacoste, and away from prying eyes, started to walk on the wild side—and then some.
The spoiled, quick-tempered boy was now a spoiled, sadistic man, and behind the walls of the Château de Lacoste, the Marquis de Sade began experimenting with his wildest desires. He hired only the most attractive young men and women to work in his castle and forced them into his salacious bedroom activities. Of course, he also hired a constant stream of young "bedroom" workers to supplement his twisted fantasies.
The Château de Lacoste hid the worst of de Sade's depravities—but it was only a matter of time before his secrets got out.
Eventually, the Marquis de Sade went too far. He forced one woman to include a crucifix in their bedroom games, and she was utterly horrified. She fled the castle after and went straight to the authorities. They stormed the castle, clapped de Sade in irons, and charged him with blasphemy, an extremely serious offense at the time.
Unfortunately, no amount of punishment ever seemed to teach the Marquis a lesson. Pretty soon, he was back to his old tricks.
It seems hard to believe, but the Marquis de Sade must have had some strange appeal. He never struggled to find women to join in his deranged games with him—even if he was related to them. His wife's sister, Anne-Prospère, came to live with them at the castle, and soon, the two of them began a full-blown affair. For most noblemen, sleeping with your wife's sister would be the scandal of a lifetime.
For the Marquis de Sade, that was child's play. He got so, so much worse than that—and it was about to land him behind bars once again.
As the years went by, the Marquis de Sade's actions grew more and more disturbing. In 1768, he found himself in chains yet again. The reason why was truly horrific. One of his chambermaids managed to escape Lacoste and get to the authorities. The tale she told them was harrowing. The Marquis had imprisoned her and, while we won't say exactly what he did to her, we will say it involved whips, knives, and candle wax.
"Sadistic" is sounding like the right word...
De Sade's family managed to buy that chambermaid's silence, so the story of his cruelty never got out, but he knew he was on thin ice. People knew at least that he'd been apprehended, and that alone cause enough of a scandal that he decided to lay low for a while. He kept out of the public eye, and people didn't hear much of him for the next few years...
But come on, this is the Marquis de Sade we're talking about. He couldn't stay out of the headlines for long.
Up to this point, all of de Sade's run-ins with the law had pretty much ended with a slap on the wrist. This time was going to be different. In 1772, he and his manservant, Latour, were convicted of sodomy with four women. Now, if you ask me, that doesn't sound quite as bad as the thing with the knives and the wax, but this was the 18th-century. The sentence for sodomy was death.
For the first time, at least in the eyes of the law, the Marquis de Sade had truly gone too far, and now he had to flee for his life.
De Sade and Latour ran away to Italy one step ahead of the authorities. He left his wife behind in Lacoste but, awkwardly enough, he brought her sister along with him. The trio of outlaws couldn't evade the law for long, and soon enough, de Sade found himself behind bars yet again, this time at the Fortress of Miolans in French Savoy.
So, was this the end of the line for the Marquis de Sade? Come on, you've got to give him more credit than that.
The Marquis de Sade was a slippery one, and he and Latour managed to escape from Miolans after four months imprisonment. They secretly made their way back to Lacoste, where de Sade reunited with his wife...and got right back up to his twisted pastimes. Wild bacchanalia erupted at the Château de Lacoste once more. Oh, and if you thought his wife was simply a beleaguered bystander in de Sade's debauchery, think again.
The Lady de Sade was very much an active participant in her husband's endeavors—and somehow, de Sade still managed to top himself.
You'd think having capital punishment hanging over your head would make the Marquis de Sade slow down. It didn't. He and his wife's next misadventure involved imprisoning five woman and one man for six full weeks. There's hedonism, and then there's...well, this. Since kidnapping and imprisonment was, you know, definitely against the law, de Sade found himself on the run once more.
Back to Italy he went—but the Marquis de Sade just couldn't stay away from his sordid pleasure palace for long.
The Château de Lacoste was the Marquis de Sade's happy place, and not even the threat of the guillotine could keep him away for long. He returned from Italy yet again in 1776. He quickly hired several women to "work" in the castle. They soon realized they'd gotten themselves trapped in his sadistic nightmare. Most of the women fled the castle as soon as they could—and they would come back to haunt de Sade before long.
After the better part of a decade evading consequences for his actions, the Marquis de Sade probably felt invincible—but his number was about to come up. He got news that his mother was fatally ill and wished to see him one last time before the end. De Sade, who hadn't seen his mom since he was a child, packed his bags and headed to Paris. He was completely unaware that he was walking into a trap.
In the end, it took a cruel trick to catch the Marquis de Sade, though it's hard to say he didn't deserve it. The letter from his mother had been a ruse; in reality, she had passed on much earlier, without a single word sent to her delinquent son. As soon as de Sade arrived in Paris, the authorities captured him once again. Now, sure, he'd been imprisoned lots of times before—but this was different.
There'd be no quick escape this time around. De Sade was going to pay for his offenses, one way or another.
At the very least, de Sade managed to successfully appeal his execution order in 1778. However, while that should have meant he was free to return to Lacoste and get back to his disturbing hobbies, this wasn't the case. When she heard news of his appeal, de Sade's mother-in-law, Madame de Montreuil, personally wrote to King Louis XVI, asking that de Sade stay imprisoned.
It didn't take much explanation for the king to agree, and the Marquis de Sade remained behind bars under a lettre de cachet from the King.
Always the slippery one, the Marquis did manage to briefly escape his predicament, but he wouldn't make it to Italy this time. The authorities quickly recaptured him and threw him behind bars once more. Oh well, even if he'd succeeded, I'm sure he would have just ended up back at Lacoste, tormenting servants until the law caught up with him yet again.
De Sade might have earned his freedom if he'd simply expressed remorse for his actions, but that was the one thing the hedonistic Marquis simply refused to do. He wrote, "Either kill me or take me like this, for I will not change," to his wife in 1783, right in the middle of what would end up being an 11-year imprisonment. After being passed around various fortresses, de Sade ended up at Paris's infamous Bastille.
Unsurprisingly, the unhinged Marquis didn't react well to being kept in a cage. He grew bitter and cruel as his imprisonment wore on, and his letters to his wife reflected that. Despite the fact that she'd been an active participant in his twisted games, he turned on her. He insulted her status and expressed his regret at ever marrying her.
I'm sorry, Donatien, but if that woman was willing to put up with her for even a second, she deserves a lot more respect than that!
With 11 years behind bars, de Sade had a lot of time to kill, so he spent it writing books and poetry whose content would put HBO to shame. He also met fellow inmate the Count de Mirabeau, who wrote similarly obscene material. You'd think it was a match made in heaven, but the two of them actually despised one another. Apparently, there was only room for one salacious writer in the Bastille.
This is when the Marquis de Sade wrote his magnum opus: The 120 Days of Sodom. The content of the book is so disturbing, we're just going to skip right past it, but if you really feel like it, you can look it up. Let's just say, it's exactly what you'd expect from a guy like the Marquis de Sade. Obviously, if one of his guards found what he was writing, de Sade would be in serious trouble.
But as always, de Sade was quite resourceful. He found a devious way to keep his shocking novel hidden.
From his imprisonment, de Sade managed to procure an extremely long, continuous roll of paper, on which he wrote The 120 Days of Sodom. He wrote in tiny handwriting on the long scroll to fit the entire book on the single page. Whenever guards were around, he tightly rolled up the paper and hid it in a crack in the wall. This scheme worked for a time—but then, in 1789, disaster struck.
You can read most of The 120 Days of Sodom today, but de Sade never got to actually finish the work. In 1789, he finally got himself out of his cell—but not in the way he'd planned. He incited unrest outside of the fortress by shouting "They are killing the prisoners here!" to a crowd below his window. Fed up, the guards dragged an unclothed de Sade out of his cell and hauled him off to the insane asylum at Charenton.
They took him so quickly, he couldn't get his manuscript out of the walls. I'm sure de Sade mourned for his lost masterpiece—but if he'd known what was coming mere days later, he'd have considered himself lucky.
Does the year 1789 sound familiar to anyone? A mere 10 days after de Sade left, the storming of the Bastille occurred, and the French Revolution kicked off in earnest. Seeing how the Revolutionaries felt about aristocrats, it's probably a good thing the Marquis wasn't around anymore.
When the Marquis de Sade heard about the storming of the Bastille, he despaired, assuming that his manuscript would be destroyed. What he didn't know was that, for unknown reasons, a man named Arnoux de Saint-Maximin had discovered the scroll in the wall of de Sade's cell and spirited it away from the fortress two days before the Revolutionaries took over.
And that wasn't the only good news. The changing tides in France meant that the Marquis de Sade was about to get a second chance at life.
Remember, de Sade was no longer being imprisoned for any specific offenses. He remained behind bars because of a lettre de cachet, which only held weight because of the king. And, with the French Revolution, guess whose power was quickly slipping away? In 1790, the National Constituent Assembly abolished all lettres de cachet, and just like that, the Marquis de Sade was free. So...what now?
The world had changed in the 11 years de Sade had been gone. For one thing, his wife finally got fed up and divorced him. Good on her. Revolutionaries had also sacked his beloved Château de Lacoste, so he had to move to Paris once more. But the biggest change, obviously, was the Revolution. Noblemen like de Sade had a target on their backs—and the Marquis had to play his cards very carefully if he didn't want to end up underneath the blade of a guillotine.
Like many paranoid aristocrats, de Sade decided he needed a rebrand: Goodbye Marquis de Sade, hello "Citizen Sade." He supported the Republic and actually managed to land several official positions in the new government, even with his noble roots. I guess anyone who spent any time with him quickly realized that this was no normal aristocrat.
All things considered, "Citizen Sade" adapted quite well to the new regime—but it wasn't all good news.
De Sade kept his head, which is more than we can say for a lot of French noblemen, but his fellow Revolutionaries never let him forget about his background. Other officials tormented him because of his aristocratic roots, and there was nothing de Sade could do to fight back, else risk the guillotine. He was a long way from his years terrorizing servants at his secluded castle. Yet after all that, he still had further to fall.
For a time, it seemed like the Marquis de Sade was becoming downright boring. He worked as a government official, he shacked up with Marie-Constance Quesnet, a one-time actress with a six-year-old son, and he mostly laid low. But while his most unhinged days were behind him, this is the Marquis de Sade we're talking about. He couldn't completely give up his vulgarity. He kept writing his depraved novels and began publishing them anonymously.
It was those novels that would come back to bite him in the end.
The Marquis de Sade was walking a tightrope with the new government, and it was only a matter of time before he fell off. As the Reign of Terror began, de Sade became more and more critical of the new regime, specifically of the ruthless Maximilien Robespierre. As a result, the authorities removed him from his posts and threw him back behind bars for almost a year.
He likely would have met the guillotine had Robespierre himself not gone too far and gotten executed soon after. The Reign of Terror ended, and de Sade was free to go—but his life was in utter shambles.
By 1796, de Sade was completely destitute. He even had to sell his beloved Château de Lacoste, now a ruined shell of its former glory. Moving back to Paris, de Sade eked out a humble existence, continuing to write his obscene novels and publishing them anonymously. He released two of his most widely-read books, Justine and Juliette, and like all his other works, they utterly shocked readers.
Unfortunately for de Sade, one of those readers was Napoleon Bonaparte, and he wasn't about to let the author of such scandalous books roam free.
In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte demanded that the authorities track down whoever had written Justine and Juliette and lock them up. The Marquis de Sade, despite his best efforts, was already plenty infamous for his activities and his writing, so it didn't take long to track him down. Bonaparte had him imprisoned without a trial, but he didn't last long in lockup.
Following reports that de Sade was seducing young prisoners—because of course he was—Napoleon had him transferred to the nightmarish Bicêtre Asylum.
De Sade's family managed to get him declared insane and transferred to the Charenton Asylum, where he'd been imprisoned many years earlier. Here, he received much more lenient treatment than at Bicêtre. He even managed to convince the authorities that his lover, Constance, was his "relative," so they allowed her to live there with him.
After what he'd been through, this was basically a vacation for the Marquis de Sade—though he couldn't help but get in trouble anyway.
Charenton's director, Abbé de Coulmier, was remarkably progressive for the time. He encouraged de Sade's writing as a form of therapy, and even allowed him to stage several of his plays for the Parisian public, using other patients as the actors. How do you think that went over?
De Sade's plays were exactly as obscene as you'd think, and it was only a matter of time before the authorities nipped them in the bud. They demanded that Coulmier place de Sade in solitary confinement and deprived him of pen and paper. Yet even still, the Marquis de Sade managed to get up to no good.
In his final years, while still with Constance, the Marquis de Sade began an intimate relationship with the 14-year-old Madeleine LeClerc, the daughter of a Charenton employee. Their tryst lasted for four years—but finally, after seven decades of sadism, debauchery, and deviance, the Marquis de Sade's number was finally coming up.
The Marquis de Sade passed on December 2, 1814. He was 74 years old. In his will, he strictly forbade anyone from examining his body, and that it should remain untouched in his deathbed for two days, before attendants were to place it in a coffin and bury it in his property in Malmaison. Yeah, none of that happened. As soon as he croaked, they buried him on the grounds at Charenton.
When all was said and done, the Marquis de Sade spent almost 29 years imprisoned in various fortresses and insane asylums across France. Honestly, compared to his infractions, I'd say he got off pretty lucky.
Though many of his works survive, there are entire troves of de Sade's writing that are lost to history, all thanks to his son's cruel betrayal. As you can imagine, the Marquis wasn't a great father, and his son deeply resented him. As soon as de Sade was gone, his son burned all of his remaining unpublished manuscripts to avoid further embarrassment to the family name.
And with that, the Marquis de Sade was gone. His family did everything in their power to erase him from history and move on as if he had never existed—and they nearly succeeded.
Say what you will about the Marquis de Sade, but no one can deny the man was memorable. However, he remained almost completely unknown for over a century thanks to his family's suppression efforts. The few works of his that remained were all locked up in the infamous section of the National Library in Paris known as Enfer, or "hell."
A few delinquent artists such as Flaubert and Baudelaire gained access to the Enfer and discovered his works, but outside these circles, de Sade was a ghost. Until one of his ancestors started to do some digging.
The Marquis de Sade was like a family boogeyman, never to be named, for many years. However, in the mid-20th century, one of his descendants, Xavier de Sade, took an interest in his disgraced ancestor. Xavier had never even heard of the Marquis until the 1940s, when a journalist approached him. Time heals all wounds, evidently, and the legend of the Marquis quickly enthralled Xavier de Sade.
Xavier de Sade started researching his ancestor and uncovered a store of de Sade's papers at the family château. He worked with scholars to have these papers published, and he worked tirelessly for the rest of his life to ensure that the world knew the Marquis de Sade.
Thanks largely to the efforts of his family, the Marquis de Sade is well-known today. The family continues to capitalize on his legend, owning a trademark on his name, a line of luxury goods called Maison de Sade, and even a Sade winery, with the Marquis' signature on their bottles. As Hugues de Sade put it, “It is quite natural. The Marquis de Sade was a great gourmand."
Hey, if that's how you want to remember him, good on you, but I have a feeling the countless servants who fled the Château de Lacoste in terror might remember him a little differently.
For the horrors he committed on his unconsenting servants, the Marquis de Sade got off pretty easy—but he very nearly met a painful end years earlier. One of the servants who fled his castle in his heyday ran to her family and told them what the Marquis did to her. Her father, understandably, was horrified and furious. The authorities had proved incapable of stopping de Sade thus far, so he decided to take matters into his own hands. He traveled to Lacoste with one thing on his mind: Vengeance.
The Marquis de Sade was a lot of things: Cruel, sadistic, depraved, and...lucky. When his employee's father came to Lacoste, he brought a loaded pistol and a bullet for de Sade's heart. The man got within arm's reach of the Marquis, drew his weapon, and fired—but it misfired, saving de Sade's life.
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