Just How Sadistic Was The Marquis De Sade, Really?

Published September 15, 2017
Updated December 20, 2017

Marquis de Sade is known as the father of eroticism. What many don't know is that the nobleman's life was more sadistic than his work.

Marquis De Sade Portrait

Heritage Images/ Getty ImagesPortrait of Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade, age 19

In the age of 50 Shades of Grey and millennial “hookup culture,” it’s become more and more common to hear conversations about sexual proclivities, orientations and preferences.

There’s a good chance that at some point in your life you’ve heard the term “sadism.” If you’ve heard of sadism, you’ve probably heard of its namesake, the Marquis de Sade.

The Marquis de Sade was an 18th French century nobleman, famed for his erotic novels which inspired the term sadism to describe sexual cruelty. To a select few, he was a literary libertarian, freeing the public from the shackles of prudish society by introducing them to an entirely different kind of restraint.

To most, Marquis de Sade’s work was blasphemous and unfit for polite society, even worthy of banishing the marquis. In fact, his books were banned for almost two centuries.

Think of it as a 18th-century version of 50 Shades of Grey, only if 50 Shades of Grey didn’t hold anything back– which, I can assure you it did, after reading just three pages of de Sade’s ‘Philosophy in the Bedroom.’ In comparison, 50 Shades of Grey might as well be a children’s book. After all, the man is literally the inspiration behind the idea of sadism.

For someone so well versed in sexual deviancy, it’s surprising to learn that his beginnings were that of the prudish nobles he hoped to liberate.

Born Donatien Alphonse Francois Comte de Sade in 1740, the marquis began his life in a noble family. His mother was a lady in waiting to the French royal family and intended her son to be a playmate of the royal children. However, it was evident from a young age that the young marquis had no intention of being a rule follower.

After starting one too many fights with the young royals, Marquis de Sade was sent to live with his uncle. He was well educated throughout his youth and attended a Jesuit school before joining the academy for the King’s Light Cavalry. The cavalry was well known for admitting only the finest sons of the best families.

It was only after he served in the Seven Years War that his sexual proclivities emerged. Some de Sade experts say it was due to his rigid upbringing. Some say his arranged marriage was to blame. Though, no one is certain for sure of what turned a noble army boy into one of literary history’s most deviant authors.

In 1763, the marquis married his first and only wife, Renee-Pelagie de Montreuil, after meeting her for the first time only two days before the wedding. The marriage was arranged by the newlyweds’ parents, as the Montreuil family was wealthy, yet socially inferior to the de Sade family. Yet, there were benefits for both parties to gain from the union.

However, despite moving in with the Montreuil family in Paris, Marquis de Sade kept a secret apartment. It was there that de Sade began testing the limits of human sexuality.

Shortly after his wedding, de Sade locked a young prostitute in his apartment. He then began stomping on a crucifix while screaming blasphemies before insisting that she whip him with a cat tail reed.

Within the year, numerous bordellos around Paris had been warned about de Sade and were instructed not to let him take girls back to his private apartment.

Though he continuously met with and allegedly abused prostitutes in the years between, it wasn’t until 1768 that the marquis committed his next vicious act.

On Easter Sunday, de Sade brought a prostitute to his apartment, where he repeatedly whipped her and dripped hot wax on her body. Though she was paid by the de Sade family to drop the charges, the King was forced to imprison the marquis for his crimes. Rather than imprison him, he forced de Sade into exile at his lavish chateau in Provence.

Chateau de Lacoste

Wolfgang Kaehler/ Getty ImagesWhat is left of de Sade’s home, Chateau de Lacoste, in the city of Provence.

The exile hardly worked to curb his desires, as his remote chateau simply served as a refuge for de Sade to escape persecution for the crimes he would commit while there. One of these acts would be his most disturbing by far.

Along with the help of his wife, de Sade imprisoned five young women and one young man in his chateau. For six weeks, de Sade and his servant/ occasional lover Latour would repeatedly physically abuse and sodomize the prisoners. De Sade and his accomplice would turn these acts into a theatrical production, which his wife would watch.

After the ordeal, villagers began to shy away from de Sade, keeping him at arm’s length. As soon as his wife’s mother got word of his depravities, she helped the Parisian authorities hunt him down, and made sure he was imprisoned for the next seven years.

In total, de Sade spent over 30 years behind bars. He would eventually end up in a mental institution in Paris where he spent his last days engaging in a sexual relationship with the 14-year-old daughter of one of the asylum’s nurses.

As it seems, his imprisonment’s were anything but harsh. Throughout his prison sentences, he was allowed a library of 600 books, armchairs and a desk, as well as home cooked foods made by his wife. It was here that his career as a novelist began.

Inspired by his life and sexual experimentations, he penned thousands of manuscripts with all of them as sexually explicit as his life had been, with some even more so.

His most famous works include ‘Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue,’ ‘Juliette,’ and ‘Philosophy in the Bedroom.’ His most obscene work, ‘The 120 Days of Sodom,’ never made it to print during his lifetime as the manuscript was written while he was imprisoned, and not found until after his death.

The works, though originally banned in France until 1957, have recently been coming back into play in the literary scene. Critics have been reviewing his works in recent years, claiming they may have been the first works of liberation, some even going so far as to claim him a feminist.

After all, ‘Justine’ is the story of a woman who takes her life into her own hands, exploring her sexuality and traveling the world experimenting with it. In ‘Philosophy in the Bedroom,’ two of the characters are women, seemingly free to make their own choices while the male figures are unyielding.

Marquis de Sade books

Joel Saget/ Getty ImagesThe works of the Marquis de Sade, including ‘Juliette,’ and ‘Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue’

However, not even de Sade’s biggest admirers can claim him a hero. There’s no doubt that his works were inspired by his life, and that the numerous orgies and encounters with prostitutes that he had were anything less than sexually deviant and borderline abusive. Critics for centuries have agreed that the writings are that of a deviant man, obsessed with sexual sadism and cruelty.

Until recently, his descendants had refused to use the name de Sade, effectively wiping the man from their family tree. It was only when one of his last living relatives, Count Hugues de Sade, began capitalizing on his ancestors fame by selling wine and lingerie with his name on it, that the family opened themselves up to the history.

In the end, it seems to be agreed upon that no matter one’s critical stance on the man, his name has stood the test of time, and it doesn’t look like Marquis de Sade be forgotten anytime soon.

Enjoyed this article on Marquis de Sade? Check out this story on the 21 weirdest sex facts. Then read about The French Postcard, the early 20th century equivalent of “Playboy.”

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.
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