This post will start off with a bit of a lesson in etymology in order to properly understand the reach and impact the Marquis’ actions had. Sade is the root word for sadism or sadist. “Sadism, n. The condition in which sexual gratification depends on causing pain or degradation to others.” While de Sade is certainly not the first person in the history of the world who performed acts of sadism, he most definitely made his mark that a new word was added to our vocabulary because of him.
Born Donatien Alphonse Francois, Comte de Sade into French aristocracy on June 2, 1740 where he enjoyed a childhood that would befit any noble child of birth. During his childhood, de Sade was left by his father when he abandoned the family and then by his mother when she joined a convent in response to her husband leaving. The result of both parents leaving him was the tutelage of de Sade’s uncle, the Abbe de Sade, who had royal blood running through his veins as this family were related to the House of Conde, a branch of the House of Bourbon.
Once his formal schooling was complete, de Sade decided to join the military in 1754, as his noble birth presented him with more options within the regiments. Once the math is done, you will realize that he was 14 upon joining the French military and continued with that career path for the next 9 years, in which time he fought in the Seven Years’ War. The war was over in 1763 and de Sade left the military shortly after the war concluded only to meet the woman he would marry later in the same year, Renee-Pelagie de Montreuil. Renee would give birth to two sons and one daughter during her marriage to de Sade.
An upstanding citizen, a man of noble birth, a veteran, a husband, a father, a writer and even a philosopher. Yes, de Sade was all of these things but he was also a criminal, a lunatic, a sadist, a revolutionary and an adulterer.
Not long after his marriage to de Monteuil, de Sade began an affair with a mistress, but worse was that he was inviting prostitutes to his home. The encounters with these prostitutes was not of a normal transaction, there were reports of sexual abuse of which the women complained. De Sade was subsequently found guilty when one of the prostitutes came forward about how he wanted to use crosses during their sexual encounter, a very serious infraction in 18th century France. He was imprisoned when found guilty of blasphemy by orders of King Louis XV but was released after only a few weeks.
The short stay in prison did not prevent de Sade from his sexual exploits since when he returned home his life started in a downward spiral. The prostitutes continued but even worse was that de Sade had put himself into debt while trying to take care of his wife and children at the time. But 1768 was the pivotal year as it was on Easter Sunday that de Sade would commit an act that would define the rest of his life. It is known as the Rose Keller Scandal. De Sade picked up Keller and brought her to his home (she may or may not have been a prostitute depending on who you speak with) where he held her against her will, bound, gagged, flogged, raped, and dripped hot wax onto fresh cuts in her flesh that he created. She escaped and fled to the safety of the police.
Keller was paid off by the family to drop the charges against de Sade but due to the amount of talk and rumors about the incident, police took a second look into the case and decided that he was guilty after all and sentenced to prison on April 23, 1768 in Saumer castle. One week later, on April 30, 1768, de Sade was transferred to Pierre-Encise prison until November of 1768 when he was released.
Returning to his home, the chateau of La Coste, he led a relatively quiet existence except a weeks’ stay at a debtors prison. It was the Marseilles incident in 1772 that brought him back into his old ways. Obviously de Sade was having financial difficulty, so in June of 1772 he left for Marseille to obtain money to help him but became distracted on his journey.
His companions on the trip included a man servant by the name of Armand Latour (who, by the way, was also committing acts of sodomy with de Sade) who was tasked by de Sade to locate prostitutes. While at his residence, the prostitutes were offered candy but was in fact Spanish Fly, an aphrodisiac. The women ingested the substance, which is really just dried bugs and began getting sick and fearing that de Sade had poisoned them, they went to the police. Quickly, de Sade and Latour fled to Italy after an arrest warrant was issued in July of 1772. In September, de Sade and Latour were sentenced to death for the acts of poisoning and sodomy but since they were on the run, the sentence was in absentia.
The two men were captured and arrested in Italy in late 1772 but they would only stay a short while; de Sade and Latour both escaped 4 months after their arrival at the Fortress of Miolans and returned to de Sade’s home at La Coste.
When returning home, de Sade hid from authorities while reuniting with his wife who became an accomplish in his escapades. He did not remain quiet though, de Sade hired boys and girls to work at his home but couldn’t resist the sexual desires that flooded his thoughts. The families of these workers came forward to police about the undesirable activity occurring at La Coste so once again de Sade fled to Italy, this time with his sister-in-law and mistress but again returned home in 1776.
After staying at his home, authorities were notified and de Sade was finally arrested on February 13, 1777 and brought to the dungeon of Vincennes. One year later de Sade pled for insanity but was found guilty by the High Court of debauchery and excessive libertinage. On his way back to prison, de Sade managed once again to escape and, again, fled to his home but this time a mob broke down his door and he was taken back to prison in September of 1778.
De Sade remained in prison until 1789 when he was released from the Bastille and sent to Charenton, an insane asylum until 1790. Surprisingly, de Sade made it through the French Revolution unscathed and out of prison. Then in 1801, de Sade was once again arrested and brought back to Charenton and continued there until the day of his death, December 2, 1814.
Over 30 years of de Sade’s life was spent in either prison or insane asylums where he spent his time wisely; he wrote. He wrote many books, including “120 Days of Sodom”, that have inspired writers, painters, and artists of all kinds ever since. During his life he may have been shunned but after his death he became an inspiration of revolution, philosophy, and a voice of truth.