Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (2 June 1740 – 2 December 1814) was a French aristocrat, revolutionary politician, philosopher, and writer famous for his libertine sexuality and lifestyle. His works include novels, short stories, plays, dialogues, and political tracts; in his lifetime some were published under his own name, while others appeared anonymously and Sade denied being their author. He is best known for his erotic works, which combined philosophical discourse with pornography, depicting sexual fantasies with an emphasis on violence, criminality, and blasphemy against the Catholic Church. He was a proponent of extreme freedom, unrestrained by morality, religion or law.
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, two years in a fortress, a year in Madelonnettes, three years in Bicêtre, a year in Sainte-Pélagie, and 13 years in the Charenton asylum. During the French Revolution he was an elected delegate to the National Convention. Many of his works were written in prison.
Title and heirs
The Sade men alternated using the marquis and comte (count) titles. His grandfather, Gaspard François de Sade, was the first to use marquis; occasionally, he was the Marquis de Sade, but is documentarily identified as the Marquis de Mazan. The Sade family were Noblesse d’épée, claiming at the time the oldest, Frank-descended nobility, so, assuming a noble title without a King’s grant, was customarily de rigueur. Alternating title usage indicates that titular hierarchy (below duc et pair) was notional; theoretically, the marquis title was granted to noblemen owning several countships, but its use by men of dubious lineage caused its disrepute. At Court, precedence was by seniority and royal favour, not title. There is father-and-son correspondence, wherein father addresses son as marquis.
Twentieth-century descendant, the Comte Xavier de Sade, was the first to defend the family name, use the marquis title (he had alternative visiting cards printed), and be interested in the Marquis’s work. Because of family shame, he only learned of his ancestor in the late 1940s when approached by a journalist. He subsequently discovered a store of the Marquis de Sade’s papers in the family château at Condé-en-Brie, and worked with scholars for decades to enable their publication. His youngest son, the Marquis Thibault de Sade, has continued such collaboration. The family have also claimed copyright of the name. The Château de Condé was sold by the family in 1983. As well as the manuscripts they retain, others are held in universities and libraries, or were destroyed in the eighteenth century.
Scandals and imprisonment
Sade lived a scandalous libertine existence and repeatedly procured young prostitutes as well as employees of both sexes in his castle in Lacoste. He was also accused of blasphemy, a serious offense at that time. His behavior included an affair with his wife’s sister, Anne-Prospère, 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 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 1768.
The first major scandal occurred on Easter Sunday in 1768, in which Sade procured the sexual services of a woman, Rose Keller; whether she was a prostitute or not is widely disputed. He was accused of taking her to his chateau at Arcueil, imprisoning her there and sexually and physically abusing her. She escaped by climbing out of a second-floor window and running away. At this time, 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.
An episode in Marseille, in 1772, involved the non-lethal poisoning of prostitutes with the supposed aphrodisiac Spanish fly and sodomy with his manservant Latour. That year the two men were sentenced to death in absentia for sodomy and said poisoning. They fled to Italy, and Sade took his wife’s sister with him. Sade and Latour were caught and imprisoned at the Fortress of Miolans in late 1772, but escaped four months later.
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. Sade was forced to flee to Italy once again. It was during this time he wrote Voyage d’Italie, which, along with his earlier travel writings, has never been 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 those employees came to Lacoste, to claim his daughter, and attempted to shoot the Marquis at point-blank range but the gun misfired.
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. He escaped but was soon recaptured. He resumed writing and met fellow prisoner Comte de Mirabeau who also wrote erotic works. Despite this common interest, the two came to dislike each other immensely.
In 1784, Vincennes was closed and Sade was transferred to the Bastille. On 2 July 1789, he reportedly shouted out from his cell, to the crowd outside, “They are killing the prisoners here!” causing something of a riot. Two days later, he was transferred to the insane asylum at Charenton near Paris (the storming of the Bastille, a major event of the French Revolution, occurred on 14 July). He had been working on his magnum opus Les 120 Journées de Sodome (The 120 Days of Sodom). To his despair, he believed that the manuscript was lost during his transfer; 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.
Imprisonment for his writings 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-Pélagieprison and, 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 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. Coulmier’s novel approaches to psychotherapy attracted much opposition. 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.
Sade began a sexual relationship with 13-year-old Madeleine Leclerc, daughter of an employee at Charenton. This affair lasted some 4 years, until Sade’s death in 1814. He had left instructions in his will forbidding that his body be opened upon any pretext whatsoever, and that it remain untouched for 48 hours in the chamber in which he died, and then placed in a coffin and 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.