Historical Figures

The Marquis de Sade - Biography

The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) was a writer and humanist of the Enlightenment, great lover of freedom, without taboos and without the involvement of God. His work, which is both the theory and the illustration of what will be called "sadism", forms the pathological double of the philosophers and naturalists of his time. The various regimes that rejected him made him "the most obscure of famous men or the most famous of obscure men". His name has fascinated again and again for more than two centuries, because he dared to write what no one has ever dared...

Origin of the de Sade family

The distant Sade family dates back well before 1177 in the Avignon region; Laure de Noves, sung by Petrarch, had married Hugues de Sade in 1325. This family of merchants, ennobled by the Pope in the 14th century, served the Church and the army, thus increasing the lands and seigneuries in the Luberon with Saumane and the magnificent Chateau de La Coste. While a branch called "the Sade d'Eyguières" will make a great naval officer during the American War of Independence, the marquis comes from the branch called "the Sade de Saumane".

His grandfather Gaspard was ambassador of Avignon to Pope Clement XI. His father Jean Baptiste was the first to leave the region to seek his fortune in Paris. Attached to the Bourbons-Condé, he became captain of the dragoons, lieutenant of the provinces of Bresse, married to a young Comtesse de Maille related to Richelieu. Later, main adviser and confidant of the Duke of Bourbon, his career as a diplomat ends quickly because of licentiousness and unhappy words against the mistress of Louis XV.

A permanent guest at the Hôtel de Condé, he goes from girls to boys according to his wishes, but arrested by the police, he does not understand this punishment since it was his will . He then turns to religion and watches over his son whom he loves madly, while frequenting the salons where he meets Voltaire, Montesquieu, Crébillon.

The Marquis de Sade, heir to a libertine family

Donatien Alphonse François de Sade was born on June 2, 1740 and grew up at the Hôtel de Condé with the future Duke of Bourbon, Prince of Condé, whose grandson was shot in the ditches of Vincennes in 1804, the brother of the Duke the Count of Charolais, a cruel man with the peasants and the valetaille as well as the sister Mademoiselle de Charolais, having already at fifteen years a good number of lovers.

At the age of five, he was sent to his uncle Abbot, vicar of the Archbishop of Toulouse, who supported several women in his stronghold of Saumane in Provence. Playing with the children of the village, he always imposes himself because he is the son and grandson of the lords of the place.

At the age of ten, at the Louis Le Grand college in Paris, he learned Latin and discovered a passion for the theater. In 1755, like all young nobles, he was part of the elite Chevau-légers regiment of the king's guard. An excellent subject, he became a cornet in the corps led by the future Louis XVIII.

During the Seven Years' War, he was a captain, behaving very well in the army, but not in his private life, attracted by gambling tables, brothels and theater. Marked in his youth, Donatien is indeed the son and nephew of a libertine!

A marriage to pay off debts

At twenty, he's a roué; at twenty-three he multiplies adventures and debts. The marriage, with a young girl of the nobility of dress Renée Pélagie Cordier de Montreuil, daughter of the president at the Court of Aids is the only solution. The negotiations are hard, no party wanting a libertine and indebted son! Hosted for five years with the Montreuils, provided with a dowry of 300,000 pounds, they would become the future heirs to castles in Normandy and Burgundy. But the wedding almost didn't happen:Donatien finds it difficult to leave his good friend in Provence and almost misses the presentation of his future wife at Court.

Married, he resumed his libertine habits, rented an apartment in Versailles, a small house on rue Mouffetard as well as another in Arcueil, and indulged in all his pleasures in company young girls:sodomy, flogging and blasphemy. Louis XV forgives debauchery but not insults to religion:Donatien is arrested barely four months after his marriage; locked up in Vincennes while his wife was pregnant, he was then exiled to Normandy until he was authorized to return to Paris in 1764.

Because of his position as lieutenant general, he hangs out with people, goes out a lot, finds his mistresses and starts his practices again. His father, who died in January 1767, left him the castles in Provence, but also the debts and the title of Count that Donatien refused. He will forever remain Marquis de Sade, only his son Louis Marie born in August 1767 will bear the title of Count.

Sade involved in dirty business

He spent his time between Paris and Provence in the spring of 1768, impregnating his wife, abusing two prostitutes and flogging a woman who lodged a complaint despite the 2,500 pounds in compensation; the scandal breaks out:9 months in prison in Saumur, the Conciergerie and Pierre Encize in Lyon. Released after a trip to Holland, he returned to Paris in the winter of 1769-1770 to discover his son Claude Armand, born in June 1769. He tried to occupy himself, but could not resume a post in the army because of his bad reputation. .

He had just enough time to see his daughter born in April 1771 before being imprisoned again, this time for gambling debts. To get out of prison in November, he sold his position as captain and left Paris with all his family for the Château de La Coste, ending his Parisian life. It does not bother him, he has never liked the Court, he can live alone in another region. You might think he's calmed down...no, his obsessions will resurface.

In the spring of 1772, the Marquis invited local nobles to his castle for a theatrical performance. Remember that this passion will not leave him, he will write seventeen pieces that he will sign DAF, acting as director, manager, costume designer, prompter, actor. He will like to be applauded as an author and actor. In this room, in front of the nobles, he plays accompanied by a lovely young lady (his sister-in-law). Love at first sight happened three years ago. His wife doesn't say a word, she loves her husband deeply.

In June, while he is in Marseilles to settle money matters, he has a good time with prostitutes to whom he gives "lozenges à la Richelieu". They are simple aphrodisiacs, but the girls get sick and complain. Barely returned to the castle, he is warned of his imminent arrest. He rushes off to nearby Italy, with his valet and his young sister-in-law who, moreover, is a canoness:the scandal is immense! Although his in-laws were outraged, his wife never stopped defending him, since in September the Marquis and his valet were accused of "the crime of poisoning and sodomy", tried and sentenced to death in absentia, taken to the scaffold where the marquis will be put to death by beheading and his valet by hanging, their bodies burned and their ashes scattered. The girls will retract their confessions, but the damage is done and the dishonor is real.

The Marquis and his sister-in-law lead a high life in Italy, but their love story soon ends. Sade takes advantage of courtesans and can satisfy his fantasies...especially after learning that Vivaldi, the great musician, is a priest and a girl chaser! The young sister-in-law leaves him, Sade and his valet go to Chambéry, then an Italian province, but are arrested at the beginning of December 1772 on denunciation by the beautiful family. Taken to the Château de Miolans "the Bastille of the Alps", he is comfortably installed (bedroom, bathroom, table, commode, armchairs, meals delivered...), can walk around and chat with the other prisoners (barons, lieutenants).

His wife tries to reach him and comes up with an escape plan. On April 30, 1773, in the middle of the night, three people fled on horses. The marquis passed through Bordeaux, then Spain, Cadiz, Zaragoza, Catalonia, Languedoc and found himself at the end of 1773 in Provence. But locked up, not daring to go out, he is bored... until he goes back to Italy in disguise. He returned to Lyon in autumn 1774 to find his wife there.

With all her love, she tries to keep him close...but he has the demon in him, he has sex in his blood...and now he's involved in a dirty business again. The marquis has just hired a secretary and five young girls whose parents are going to file a complaint for “kidnapping done without their knowledge and by seduction”. The rumor speaks of mutilated teenagers, hidden in La Coste, sums of money are paid by the Montreuils. But no document is found, all the documents in the file have been destroyed. The marquis then went in July 1775 to Gap, then Florence under the name of Comte de Mazan. First received by Cardinal de Bernis in Rome, he was introduced to Marie Antoinette's brother-in-law in Naples in early 1776, who offered him various jobs at Court.

Back in France, he wrote his "trip to Italy" in which he recounted his discovery of castrati, which deeply shocked him; he becomes studious but still prey to his fantasies which he still satisfies, which causes him trouble. Thinking that in Paris, he can go unnoticed, he goes straight into the mouth of the wolf! He was arrested in February 1777 to be imprisoned in Vincennes. His wife struggles so well that she manages to have her trial reviewed; transferred to Aix en Provence at the beginning of 1778, he was retried on the Marseille affair.

The judgment is overturned, he is only accused of "admonishment for debauchery and licentiousness with a fine of 50 pounds and a ban on staying in Marseille for three years". He thinks he is free! Nope ! Louis XV's letter of cachet is still effective; Louis XVI horrified by the behavior of the marquis will not expand it. Under good escort, he returns to Paris, but manages to escape. Taken back a month later, he was tied up, taken to Vincennes and locked up in September 1778. Thirteen years of detention awaited him, which would make him a completely different man!

The Marquis de Sade's stay in prison

Incarcerated in Vincennes, he occupies his time reading (he will have no less than 500 books) and s stuffed with pastries. Nicknamed "Monsieur le 6" in reference to the number of his cell, he wrote many letters claiming his innocence or inveighing against his mother-in-law, the police lieutenant or the governor of the prison. He becomes lucid and realizes that confinement is of little use, except to degrade the man, embitter him and make him even more angry.

His wife was finally able to visit him in July 1781, but he got things into his head, became jealous and furious, becoming more and more aggressive until he hit everyone; she has to justify her movements, becoming her painkiller. Tired of the reproaches, exhausted by the blows received, she retired to the convent near the current Pantheon, entrusting the children to her mother.

In February 1784, Vincennes will close its doors for lack of occupants. The three remaining nobles are transferred to the Bastille. Installed on the sixth floor of the Tour de la Liberté, he can arrange his cell with furniture of his choice and his library of 600 volumes. Taken by hallucinations, seeing erotic scenes, he begins to write and describe all his repressed desires. This is how “Aline and Valcour”, “Justine or the Misfortunes of Virtue” are written, where one reads “everything must be sacrificed to voluptuousness; it is much less fun to be virtuous than vicious; vice amuses and virtue tires”.

He no longer supports the Bastille after five years, but is unaware of the upheavals in Paris. He howls, calls the people; the governor had him evacuated in the middle of the night to the Charenton hospital, without clothes, without furniture, especially without his books. He was nearly freed...because twelve days later, the people took the Bastille and freed the prisoners!

In his new prison, he feels lost; all his writings remained in the Bastille. When he learns that the people took this prison, he thinks of his masterpiece "120 Days of Sodom" certainly destroyed... however, this document passing from hand to hand, sold, resold, will be published between 1931 and 1935. The original will go from France to Switzerland, to be soon recovered by the BNF and exhibited at the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts! If the Marquis knew...

Finally free!

According to the will of the Nation, he is free and leaves Charenton surrounded by his two sons in April 1790. He is 50 years old, can no longer see well, has gained weight and walks poorly . He wants to see his wife who refuses, she who loved him so much during the twenty-seven years of fidelity and who did everything for him. Worse in June, she asks for and obtains the separation of body and property! His sons prefer Normandy, his daughter is a nun! He won't see them again, he doesn't understand! He finds himself alone, has no friends, has not frequented any circle... only valets and prostitutes. He settled near Saint Sulpice, occupied himself only with literature and staged plays, but the success was not there, he lost his money. His first book "Justine or the Misfortunes of Virtue" published in 1791 was a hit, because however indecent and disgusting it was, everyone wanted it:six editions in ten years!

His “Sensitive” muse

Having been alone for so long, he moved in with a young woman of thirty-three, Marie Constance Quesnet, whom he called “Sensitive”. They will no longer separate... He moved to the current location of Galeries Lafayette, under the name of Louis Sade, abandoning the particle and the title of marquis. They will live happily, calmly, without intimate relationships, only platonic. He observes himself that he has changed “all that disgusts me now, as much as it infuriated me in the past. Thank God, think of something else and I find myself four times happier”. He is metamorphosed, she has become his muse.

Attracted by the Revolution when his sons emigrated, he enrolled in the Piques section, attended the Fête de la Fédération and wrote a very relevant text for the return of the King of Varennes; Quickly secretary of the section in 1792, he was appointed Commissioner of the Paris sections in the hospitals and thanks to him, the patients will be able to benefit from a bed each whereas previously they slept there at three.

Favorable to the democratic evolution of institutions, he is nevertheless against violence such as that of August 10 and does not hesitate to write it "the violence of my writings is very little compared to the current massacres”. Elected Vice President of the Piques section in the spring of 1793, he was happy and satisfied with this official recognition; he does no harm to his in-laws dependent on this section, he is content to criticize them by saying "they are beggars and recognized scoundrels that I could lose by a word... but I have pity on them and I pay them contempt and indifference". He does better, he puts them on a purifying list. Sade is a moderate, except in religion!

Robespierre, who advocated the institutionalization of the cult of the Supreme Being, had him imprisoned at the beginning of December at Les Madelonnettes in the Marais. Nobody helps him, it is the beginning of the Terror. In January 1794, transferred to the Carmelites then to Saint Lazare, he was afraid of being guillotined because the report on his conduct served him badly. Sensible is still there and his friends hide him in Doctor Coignard's nursing home, rue de Picpus "an earthly paradise, a beautiful house with a superb garden", but he is not reassured for all that.

On July 26, the Revolutionary Court condemned him to death for the second time in absentia for “conspiracy against the Republic”. Curiously, we don't pick it up that same day but only the next day; he has already slipped away and escaped the guillotine. On July 27, Robespierre was overthrown by the Convention; the Terror ceased, Sade was saved and cleared of all charges in October 1794.

Free, he takes Sensible to Provence, to the Château de La Coste; the property is a ruin, the roof no longer exists, the windows and doors are broken and torn off. Disgusted, he sells the castle and some goods then returns to Clichy.

His writing career

Disgusted, he no longer wants to hear about politics and devotes himself to his career as a man of letters. He published eight volumes of “Aline et Valcour” in 1795 and ten volumes of “la Nouvelle Justine ou les Malheurs de la Vertu” in 1797 which were very successful, but the money was still lacking. To survive, he moved to Versailles and accepted a job as a prompter at the city's theatre. He battles with the administration so that it lifts the sequestration of his property and rents in Provence. To crown it all, he learns from the Gazette of his death on August 29, 1799!

In 1800, he signed his name "the crimes of love" written at the Bastille. He thinks of ending his life quietly by writing. Well no ! Bonaparte calls him a monster, he hates this atheistic libertine; in August, the police burned a complete edition of the Nouvelle Justine while preparing for his arrest. She took advantage of Sade's visit to his printer to seize the manuscripts awaiting publication and put him incommunicado at the police headquarters in early March 1801.

A month later, he was taken to Sainte Pélagie where he remained for two years. To occupy his time, he created a Literary Society with a few prisoners, but his behavior provoked complaints. Transferred in April 1803 to Bicêtre "the Bastille of the rabble" where one finds the worst of the incarcerated (rapists, thieves, madmen, murderers), his in-laws finally react:in agreement for the incarceration, but more with dignity . He was transferred to the Charenton hospice...he never left.

Theater manager in Charenton

Charenton, founded in 1641 and attached to the Ministry of the Interior in 1797, is a kind of prison to care for "insane, dangerous people" whose crimes had to be hidden in the name official morality. The pension is very high there and Sade can properly spend his end of life there thanks to the income from his farms in Provence; being a marquis, he does not suffer the same treatment as the indigents considered criminals.

Staff don't know exactly who "that old gentleman in old-fashioned clothes" is, who speaks well and looks of good birth. He walks freely in the park thanks to the director Coulmiers, who has almost become his friend; having both the same ideas:curing madness through theatre, he organizes performances, once a month, in front of more than 200 people. Moreover, with his kindness, Sensible was able to join him in the summer of 1804.

The performances go wonderfully, the actors play their roles perfectly, without shouting, without outbursts of violence. Sade regulates the staging, directs the rehearsals, supervises the whole. It's a great success, followed by a little dinner with the actors and a few hand-picked guests. When certain guests discover that the main actor, a man of wit and warm verve, is none other than the Marquis de Sade, they are either surprised, or fascinated, or terrified, but never indifferent.

Psychoanalysis was born, but few understood this new medicine, many would denigrate it, like the new doctor appointed in 1806 totally refusing these new ideas. He asks Minister Fouché to have Sade transferred to another place, on the grounds of bad behavior and too much freedom (he does not appreciate the small meals that follow the theater performances, even less the applause). Sade is still not quiet and searches take place in June 1807 where manuscripts are seized. The Emperor does not leave him alone, will dismiss the director Coulmiers and replace him with a new one who will ban theater performances. It's the end, Sade feels it...

On December 2, 1814, the Marquis de Sade bowed out shortly before noon; Sensible leaves him with tears in his eyes, but will remain at the hospice until his own death in July 1832. A discreet funeral takes place the next day, the remains of the Marquis are installed in the cemetery of the hospice, without name or date on the slab when he wanted to be buried in Beauce, under a copse, covered with acorns to disappear from this land.

Notoriety and descendants of the Marquis de Sade

But the name of the Marquis will never disappear. For about 80 years, it will be forgotten then will come back to life thanks to the Surrealists; painters are inspired by it like Man Ray, Dali, Magritte; Paul Eluard wrote “three men helped my thought to free itself, the Marquis de Sade, the Count of Lautréamont and André Breton”. Authors salute him in their own way, some big names are influenced by his writings, such as Victor Hugo and his Notre Dame de Paris; Georges Sand, Eugène Sue, Lamartine, Baudelaire whose bedside book is "Justine", Simone de Beauvoir. Theater plays are dedicated to him, a Sade Prize is created, films are released, places of residence regain their splendor and some belong to heritage.

The descendants will be discreet, and through the game of alliances, we note big names:Pierre de Chevigné, resistant , Deputy, Minister of War under the Fourth Republic; Henri de Raincourt President of the General Council of Yonne; Henri de Castries, promotion companion of François Hollande at the ENA, CEO of Axa; Philippes Lannes de Montebello former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

But those born between 1947 and 1956 will bring out the work saying “you have to dare to talk about Sade; the marquis is above all the symbol of freedom. Free Man Beyond Prisons. Free spirit beyond the centuries! »

Finally, why did this man make such an impression? Simply, even if his private life was certainly questionable, he really was not very discreet; his sex life was more dreamed of than lived because during his thirty years of imprisonment, he had to content himself with writing fantasies for lack of being able to satisfy them. Sade is not rehabilitated for all that, he remains "this eternal Spanish inn, in which everyone finds what he brings, sees what he wants to see, understands what he wants to understand".


- Marquis de Sade, Angel of the Shadow, by Gonzague Saint Bris. Editions Telemaque, 2013.

- Should Sade be burned? by Simone de Beauvoir. NRF, 2011.

- The Work of the Marquis de Sade, by Guillaume Apollinaire, Curious Library, 1909.