The Marquis de Sade is a notorious figure in the history of the French Revolution. Some see him as a twisted, debauched lunatic who preyed on the bodies of women and children. Others see him as a literary genius who was a revolutionary spirit ahead of his time.
We invite you to listen to our podcast, read the transcript below or watch the YouTube video at the bottom of this post.

Marquis de Sade. Sex and Violence in the French Revolution

Imaginatory portrait of the Marquis de Sade. L’Œuvre du marquis de Sade, Guillaume Appolinaire (Edit.), Bibliothèque des Curieux, Paris, 1912. Public Domain.

Further Reading on the Marquis de Sade and the French Revolution:

*these links are affiliate links* This means that by purchasing one of the books linked below, Dig History Podcast will receive a small percentage of the sale from Amazon. This does NOT increase the price for the buyer. 

David Andress. The French Revolution and the People. Hambledon & London, 2004.

Francine Du Plessix Gray. At Home with the Marquis De Sade. Diane Publishing Company, 2004.

Stanley Kunitz, ed. European Authors, 1000-1900. The H.W. Wilson Company, 1967.

Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant T. Ragan. Homosexuality in Modern France (Studies in the History of Sexuality). Oxford University Press. 1996.

Sade, Sade, Sade, and Sade. Three by Marquis De Sade: Justine, the 120 Days of Sodom, Florville and Courval. Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2008.

Schaeffer, Neil. The Marquis De Sade: A Life. London: Picador, 2001.

Noah Shusterman. The French Revolution: Faith, Desire and Politics. Routledge, 2013.

Other episodes of interest: 


The Marquis de Sade: Sex, Violence and the French Revolution

Written and Researched by Marissa Rhodes, MLS, ABD

Produced by Marissa Rhodes, MLS, PhD Candidate and Averill Earls, PhD

AVERILL: The notorious Marquis de Sade was small. At just five foot two inches, he was more Napoleon than Napoleon. His contemporaries considered him a “dandy”—meaning he took great care of his appearance, to the point of excessive vanity. He was a Noble of the sword, coming from an old and powerful aristocratic family.

Today we refer to a particular sort of sexual appetite – when one is sexually aroused in the deliverance of pain upon others’ bodies – as Sadism because the Marquis made that particular proclivity famous. He lived a debauched life by the standards of any time.  He was arrested time and time again for sexual crimes committed.

This episode may not suitable for young ears or listeners who are sensitive to stories about sexual violence and child abuse so please use caution.

MARISSA: Today on the podcast we’re talking about the life and times and revolutions of the one, the only, Donatien Alphonse François, or the infamous Marquis de Sade.

I’m Marissa Rhodes

And I’m Averill Earls

And we’re YOUR historians for this episode of DIG.

MARISSA: The Marquis de Sade was born June 2, 1740 at Conde palace in Paris. He was a difficult child at times but had a childhood typical of aristocratic French boys. He spent his childhood as a pupil to various tudors.

At 14, he began training for the King’s Light Cavalry. Military service was typical of French aristocrats. The Sades were noblesse d’epee or, “nobles of the sword” which meant that in medieval times, they’d earned their nobility through military service. This had changed dramatically by the 18th century but the descriptor stuck around and still had some practical implications for his life.

Sade’s adolescence would have been dominated by the violence of warfare. He witnessed some horrific scenes of death and injury, but most teens involved in military service would have. This was a brutally violent time.

AVERILL: From 1759-1763 Sade fought in the Seven Years War (in ‘Murica we call this the French and Indian War). He quickly moved up in rank from a member of the infantry to Captain during the war (that’s the highest rank of junior officer attainable in the French army). He left the army once the conflict was over in February 1763, and got straight to business doing his favorite thing… lovemaking.

The Marquis de Sade seduced a young unmarried noble woman named Laure de Lauris and was caught in bed next to her by her father. Sade fled to Avignon to escape punishment for deflowering her. He continued to woo her from afar and eventually she rejected him. Angry at her rejection, he accused her of giving him venereal disease and threatened to tell her new beau. (This is some straight up Jerry Springer/Maury Povich/Montel Jordan stuff right here).

MARISSA: Two months later, in the Spring of 1763 Sade married Renee-Pelagie Cordier de Launay de Montreuil. She was by no means his first romantic partner. He had courted and was in love with Renee’s younger sister, Anne-Prospere. And he had maintained FOR YEARS a mistress, nicknamed La Beauvoisin (French for The Good or Beautiful Neighbor – perhaps this was the beginning of the whole girl next door fetish, eh?). We know, based on his criminal record, that he frequently hired sex workers in addition to sleeping with his wife, his main mistress, and several other side women.

Marquis de Sade French Revolution

The Marquis de Sade in Prison Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

AVERILL: In November 1763 the Marquis de Sade was jailed at the Chateau de Vincennes for two weeks under the charge of “debauchery.” The OED defines debauchery in the 18th century as “vicious indulgence in sensual pleasure.” This arrest was for his being a “moral threat to prostitutes.” So basically he was abusing sex workers. Eighteenth-century Frenchmen are notoriously talented at using euphemisms to describe lude acts so the descriptors are fuzzy when you’re talking about sex crimes. As a result, we don’t know the details of what he did to these poor women, but it was probably horrifically violent if he, a noble of the sword, was punished for something he did to lowly sex workers. It may surprise you to know that 18c France was not a friendly place for women who sold sex.

MARISSA: His first stint in jail did nothing to curb his violent sexual appetites… (as jail is known to NOT ever do!) No matter what else happened in his life—the births of his children, the deaths of his parents, additional military successes, THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, he continued to commit sex crimes and get arrested for it.

In 1768, the year his son was born, a sex worker named Rose Keller accused him of flagellating her. He was imprisoned in the Chateau de Pierre-Encise but released quickly because Rose withdrew her complaint after being paid off. The Marquis de Sade’s second son was born the next year, and his daughter in 1771. During this time, Sade and his wife were living in his family seat, La Coste, with her younger sister Anne. Remember her? The one he was in love with? She had become a nun and lived with her sister and brother-in-law  (who was also her former lover?!)

AVERILL: I guess nunhood suited her?

In 1772, the Marquis de Sade was visiting Marseilles when he and his manservant Latour (I picture Gaston and Lefeu here) drugged, whipped and sodomized several women during an orgy that they’d orchestrated with the local sex workers.

Now, sodomy is a fascinating historical crime because it made homosexuality illegal, but it  was also meant to discourage hetero couples from having non-procreative sex.  A French legal definition from the 1780s is as follows: “sodomy is the crime of any man with a man, of any woman with a woman; even of a man with a woman, when, by unimaginable debauchery [the jurist is clutching his pearls here], they do not use the ordinary path of procreation.” This definition encompasses so many different kinds of sexual activity, consensual and not, that it’s hard to know what exactly the Marquis de Sade did at this orgy. But we can be sure that his activities were shocking to his peers.

MARISSA: Trials for sodomy were rare in 18c France, and even more rare among the nobility. Few instances of sodomy were tried in court. If you think about it, they were hard to prove! And the traditional punishment, burning at the stake, was rarely handed down. There were only 7 “sodomites” burned in Paris between 1714 and 1783 and 5 of them were so burned because they had committed other offenses in addition to the sodomy, like rape or murder. So sodomy was just one of a long list of offenses they’d been found to have committed.

Marquis de Sade was 32 years old at that point and his father had already died, so he was heir to his family’s fortune and legacy. He took Anne, his sister-in-law/nun whom he’d deflowered in her youth, and fled to Italy to escape execution. There, he lived incognito as the Comte de Mazan. He was found guilty of sodomy in absentia and sentenced to burning. Either his portrait, or a straw figured dressed like him, was burned in effigy on Sep 12, 1772. I feel like… why even bother? Burning an effigy of someone is nothing like burning the actual person. I mean I guess it’s similar for the people doing the burning but it’s not at all the same thing for the subject who is supposed to be executed. It makes you wonder who these punishments were actually FOR.

AVERILL: Two months later, a lettre de cachet was issued for Marquis de Sade’s arrest. A lettre de cachet (hidden letter) is signed by the King and one of his ministers and closed by the royal seal. It amounted to direct orders from the King himself. Maybe like an executive order in the modern U.S.? His mother in law was instrumental in getting this lettre de cachet—she was super bitter about how he’d ruined her younger daughter, Anne, even though he was married to her elder daughter. She never got over it and ostensibly vowed to make his life hell whenever she had the chance.

So due to the lettre de cachet and his outstanding condemnation for sodomy, he was apprehended in Savoy and imprisoned in the Fortress of Miolans. At this point, he’s lived in more famous historical buildings than I’ve seen IRL! He was in Miolans for about 5 months before he escaped with the help of his dear mother. Since he was rich and important and all around fancy, he was able to live “in hiding” at LaCoste for 8 months without anyone doing anything about it. It didn’t seem like the authorities were trying all that hard to catch him since he was hiding out at HIS HOUSE.

MARISSA: In January of 1774, his mother in law secured another lettre de cachet from the King and organized a raid on LaCoste, with the goal of apprehending Sade once and for all. But he found out ahead of time (because once again, he was rich and fancy) and went into deep hiding for 5 months. We’re not sure where exactly he went during this time but we know he returned that Fall with a gaggle of teenaged servant girls and a boy that he referred to as his male “secretary.” Wink wink nudge nudge. By then, they were feeling bold enough that his wife joined him to live at LaCoste.

At the beginning of the next year (1775), the families of his gaggle of servant girls started causing him trouble. They lodged formal complaints with the local magistrates about their sexual mistreatment at the hands of the marquis. Apparently he’d been given a pass, because the complainants were pacified somehow. Some sources say that his mother in law obtained another lettre de cachet that gagged the servants families and even imprisoned one of them for several years. Why she’d render this service for her sworn enemy, I can’t say. Maybe she was playing the long game. Or maybe the sources were confused and his own mother helped him, rather than his wife’s mother/his arch nemesis.

AVERILL: Now even though the complaints against him were hushed up, he started to feel sorry for himself. He fled once again to Italy and began a writing career, focusing on his philosophical views about art, politics, sex, etc. He’s quoted as saying, “If anyone so much as whips a cat in this province, they all say, ‘It’s Monsieur de Sade who did it.'” So he basically started playing the tortured, outcast writer type.

After a year in Italy, committing all of his thoughts to paper, he  returned to LaCoste and hired more servant girls. He continued to be accused of sexual mistreatment of his servants. (Some things never change)

One such servant was Catherine Trillet. Sade had taken to calling Catherine “Justine” and when her father came in January 1777 to collect her and bring her back home, she refused. Catherine’s father shot at Sade but his gun misfired.

MARISSA: Unchastened by this close encounter with death, (and knowing him, he probably enjoyed almost dying,) the Marquis and his wife left LaCoste for Paris a couple of weeks later. They meant to visit his sick mother. They had heard of her illness from his mother-in-law. Little did he know, his mother had died earlier that month but his MIL kept this news from him so that she could execute another diabolical plot against him.

When he arrived in Paris, he was arrested again and imprisoned in the Chateau de Vincennes. Except for a brief escape to LaCoste and a re-arrest thanks to his ever-resourceful MIL, he spent the next 13 years incarcerated.

Early in his imprisonment, he successfully appealed the sodomy conviction from Marseilles, but his prison sentence was unaffected by the acquittal because the lettre de cachet that actually imprisoned him was still valid. So it essentially didn’t matter that he was found not guilty of the sodomy charges. That’s an absolutist regime for ya.

AVERILL: The next year (1779), he was granted permission to use pen and paper, so he renewed his writing career, writing plays, short stories and novels.

His wife was barred from visiting him until 1781, more than four years into his imprisonment. He was so tortured by suspicions that she was being unfaithful (kettles and pots, am i right?), that she entered a convent to appease him. (This, as much as anything else he’s done, skeeves me out about him. Like…. you can keep essentially a harem of young servant girls and boys to use for your sadistic fantasies but once you get locked up, you coerce your wife into entering a convent so you can be assured of her everlasting faithfulness? Give me a break…)

Marquis de Sade

Jim Champion Marquis de Sade Flickr CC-BY-SA

MARISSA: In 1784, that’s about 7 years into his sentence, the Chateaux Vincennes was closed down so Sade was transferred to the Bastille.

At the Bastille, he finished what would be the final draft of 120 Days of Sodom, perhaps his most famous work. It was unfinished but he’d outlined the remainder of the novel so we know how it was meant to end. It’s worth describing briefly the content of this novel.

In high school I watched a film adaptation of this book because I was into very avant-garde films. I almost regretted it. It was pretty upsetting.

It tells the story of 4 wealthy men who kidnap 36 teenaged children and hold them in a remote castle. They also bring in 4 female brothel keepers who tell stories about their lurid and abusive sex lives. They are there to give the men ideas about what they can do with and to the children. Over the course of 120 days, inspired by the stories of the brothel keepers, the men rape, torture, and eventually murder their teen captives.

The details are just horrific and not really necessary to get into here but to give you an idea, I can tell you that one of the LEAST upsetting things the children were made to do was eat their own feces as some sort of sick foreplay. These children experienced immeasurable abuse and horror and ultimately death for the purpose of sexual pleasure for these wealthy men. The novel demonstrates the depths of depravity reached by Sade’s fantasies; very violent, pedophilic, and taboo. We’re talking super messed up, predatory behavior here, not just a guy who was into some kinky shit.

AVERILL: Sade wrote 120 Days of Sodom on a narrow swath of paper that was 65 feet long and rolled it into a small scroll that he hid in his cell.

He began suffering from hallucinations during this time. As rioting began taking place outside of the Bastille, the beginnings of what would be the French Revolution, Sade noted the crowds and used a “pissing tube” to call out to them. One day in early June, he used the tube to tell the crowds that the prisoners were being strangled inside and that they needed to storm the Bastille to set them free.  

One month later he was transferred to Charenton, an insane asylum about 4.5 miles away. He left most of his manuscripts behind, hidden in his cell. Meanwhile, the riots outside the Bastille continued and security measures were increased.

MARISSA: Ten days after Sade’s transfer to Charenton, the Bastille was sacked and the conflict began that we now know as the French Revolution. All of his manuscripts were destroyed in the chaos and violence EXCEPT 120 Days of Sodom, which was rescued from Sade’s former cell by a prison guard. A man named Arnoux de Saint-Maximin was in possession of the manuscript during the revolution. He eventually sold it to the Marquis de Villeneuve-Trans and it was guarded carefully by his family until the 20th century when it hit the presses and all hell broke loose. More on that later.

Anyway back to 1789. The Marquis de Sade spent about 8 months in the Charenton asylum while the revolution gained momentum. On April 2, 1790, the National Assembly abolished lettres de cachet and Sade was set free. So this gives us some insight into the impact the revolution had on every-day life during the revolution. Political elites slowly dismantled the French monarchy, so the elements of every-day life that were held in place by the monarch’s authority (prisoners arrested by lettres de cachet for example) were entirely changed by these high falutin political events. This was especially true for the former nobility and the wealthy, who were targeted by revolutionary factions. Eventually the National Assembly abolished the Catholic Church, the Gregorian calendar, feudalism, military ranks, elite privileges, and soooo much more.

AVERILL: Sade’s personal life changed quite a bit. Once he was released, his wife sued for marital separation (good choice!). Sade had affairs with various women (ok maybe they didn’t change that much) until he met former actress Marie Constance Renelle/Quesnet, who remained his mistress until his death.

But the violent, unpredictable events of the French Revolution attracted Sade to public life. In fact, he fit right in despite his noble family.

Upon his release from prison, the Marquis started to go by Citizen Louis Sade and joined the Section des Piques, a radical revolutionary faction in Paris. His past military experience was put to use organizing their cavalry, and in 1793 (the year of The Terror) he became president of the section. He even addressed the National Convention in 1792 and published several political pamphlets. (8 out of 9 of these survive today)

At the same time, the public began to take notice of Sade’s writing. His erotic novel Justine was published the same year he was released from prison. His dramas were performed in revolutionary Paris. The Comedie Francaise accepted Sophie and Desfrancs in 1790 and the next year, The Misfortunes of Libertinage (with a sado-sexual plot) met with enthusiastic acclaim.

MARISSA: The Reign of Terror ramped up in the beginning of 1793, with the beheading of Louis XVI in January and the beheading of Marie Antoinette later that October. Sade was in his glory, as President of his radical section.

His interests aligned well with the tone the revolution was taking. Most people have heard of the Reign of Terror, and when they hear that phrase they imagine noblemen guillotined in the streets of Paris. But it might interest our listeners to know that only 1/6 of the deaths in the Great Terror occurred in Paris. Half of them, by far the largest share, were of French men and women in the Vendée.

The Vendee is a rural province in the southwest of France. Angry at the revolutionaries’ abolition of the Catholic Church, the Vendeeans revolted against the radical government in Paris, and a bloody civil war ensued.

The war in the Vendee was particularly atrocious; the Vendeeans decimated the troops sent to quell the revolt with unspeakable savagery. Seething with frustration at the insolence of these peasants and vengeful anger at the butchering of Parisian troops, the republicans continued to fight in the Vendee, raping and murdering women and children.

AVERILL: Jean-Baptiste Carrier, a Jacobin, was charged with restoring order. Instead, he encouraged his troops to kill and rape indiscriminately regardless of sex, age, or even loyalty. He’s quoted as saying, “I know there may be some patriots in this country; no matter, we must sacrifice them all.” Carrier was a proponent of what he called “total extermination.”

After the war, Carrier was indicted for war crimes, the indictment reading, “In all the pages of history, even in the centuries of barbarism, one can hardly find deeds with which to compare the horrors committed by the accused.”

The frequent rapes in the Vendee were evidence of a sexual undercurrent to the violence. One historian calls the war in the Vendee an “explosion of deadly rivalries between different revolutionary currents, against the backdrop of an affirmation of masculine power… that left the path open to a regression in the relations between men and women.” Violence in the Vendee led to the loss of 250,000 lives in the countryside. Historians still debate whether the event meets the qualifications to be labeled a genocide.

MARISSA: The Vendee is not the only example of revolutionary fervor turning sexually violent. In the Fall of 1792, angry Parisian mobs stormed the nine prisons in the city limits. Their initial goal was to release prisoners they deemed worthy. But the crowd quickly formed makeshift tribunals and “tried” the prisoners there.

These mock trials ended for many with death sentences. Rather than opting for humane executions (as humane as an unlawful execution can be), the mob sent the bewildered prisoners outside of the prison where the rest of the mob cruelly molested and beat them to death with their own hands. Firearms were in short supply as they were needed at the fronts, and the guillotines were reserved for only the fanciest of the condemned.

The fates of the prisoners varied depending on which prison they were released from. In some prisons, most if not all of its prisoners were murdered that day. Salpetriere, a prison for prostitutes escaped that level of annihilation. Of the 270 inmates at Salpetriere, *only* 37 (25 of whom were prostitutes) were murdered at the hands of the angry mob that descended upon it.

The crowd’s bloodlust was insatiable. It was becoming clear to onlookers, domestic and international,  how fine was the line between anger and lust, violence and sexuality. The death of the Princesse de Lamballe illustrates this point well.

Madame de Lamballe was Marie Antoinette’s confidante and a well-liked woman at the French court. On the night of the September massacres, she was accosted by a mob which demanded she renounce the King and Queen. She refused to betray her loyalty to them, and, like hundreds of prisoners that night, was passed around the angry crowd. She was stabbed and bludgeoned to death. Her head was placed on a spike and paraded past Marie Antoinette’s dining room window. Louis XVI’s valet wrote afterward:

“We were hardly seated before a head at the end of a pike was presented at the window. Tison’s wife screamed loudly; the murderers thought it was the queen’s voice, and we heard the frantic laughs of those barbarians. Thinking that Her Majesty was still at table, they had raised the victim’s head so that it could not escape her sight; it was that of the Princesse de Lamballe. Though bloody, it was not disfigured; her blond hair, still curling, floated around the pike.”

This much we know to be fact. And if this is where the violence stopped, then it was typical of revolutionary executions. But many sources claimed that Lamballe’s body was raped and sexually mutilated after her death. Most scholars think these sadistic stories are apocryphal (meaning they didn’t really happen) but plenty of history books still report the sexual elements of her murder.

AVERILL: Contemporaries also reported that during the Terror, headless corpses were arranged in sexually suggestive poses. There are various other associations between the political violence of the revolution and the slaking of sexual pleasure. They’re easy to find.

In fact, it has become a trend for religious conservative bloggers to graphically detail the sexual excesses of the French Revolution in an effort to discredit the Enlightenment and the liberal political agendas which grew from it. We’ll provide an example of this in our show notes.

It’s worth pointing out that even as conservative critics denounce the debauchery of the revolution, they’re also revelling in it. Sharing the stories of sexual sadism which litter the landscape of the revolution, even to criticize them, keeps them alive and further cements the association between political violence and deviant sexuality.

So even if it didn’t happen, the sexual fantasies that contemporaries held about the murder of Lamballe are evidence that for many, the violence of the revolution was arousing. And for many, it still is. It’s no surprise, then, that Sade’s dramas resonated with the French public at the time, and that they still do today. French revolutionaries probably found his deviance to be exhilarating, like something that would normally offend God and propriety. They were into stuff like that.

Despite his successes, and the fact that sadism was the order of the day, Sade’s noble lineage managed to haunt him. In 1792, LaCoste was sacked by rioters and one of his dramas was booed off stage by the Jacobites because of the former nobility of its author. He used his position as President of the Section des Piques to protect his in-laws (yes, that included the MIL who secured all of those lettres de cachet to imprison him) and he colluded in the escape of an officer accused of helping the nobility. By the end of 1793, his radical peers took notice.

Marquis de Sade French Revolution

First page from Justine (Justine ou les malheurs de la vertu, Paris)

MARISSA: On Dec 8, 1793, Sade was arrested for “moderatism” and sentenced to death. He awaited his beheading, behind a long line of condemned Frenchmen, for 10 long months. In July 1794, just before Sade’s execution, Maximilien Robespierre, the engine behind the Great Terror, was overthrown and guillotined himself. The Reign of Terror ended and the Marquis de Sade miraculously still had his head.

Despite unrelenting poverty and ill-health, Sade continued to publish sado-sexual erotica anonymously. Napoleon’s police surveilled his every move and, in 1801, the police raided his publishing house, found manuscripts of Justine written in his hand, and arrested him for being the author of what contemporaries called “the most frightfully obscene work of its kind.”

He spent a few years in the Prison Saint-Pélagie and then was transferred back to the Charenton Asylum in 1803 where he remained until his death from pulmonary disease in 1814.

His last decade at Charenton was somewhat happier than his first stay had been. His mistress, Marie, lived alongside him. (It takes a special kind of woman to commit to living with her elderly boyfriend in an 18c French insane asylum for a decade.)

AVERILL: At Charenton he was also permitted to put on theatrical performances. But his children, now adults who had reached maturity during the conservative decades following the revolution, were humiliated by his works. His son Armand arranged for the police to raid his lodgings and burn a ten-volume work that Sade had written called Journée de Florbelle.

The Marquis de Sade’s legacy is complicated. In some ways we see his influence borne out positively (yet controversially) in today’s culture, with consensual BDSM and swing communities, a more open and accepting attitude toward queer sexuality, the decriminalization of consensual sex acts, better protection for sex workers, and mainstream blockbusters like 50 Shades of Grey.

He also left a considerable body of literary work behind. 18 of the 48 literary works known to be written by Sade were lost or destroyed, many by the hands of his descendants, who, until recently, were humiliated by his deviant sexuality. These include:

16 plays: 4 destroyed or missing

2 essays

6 short stories: all missing or lost

24 novels (many of them several volumes): 8 of them are destroyed or lost

MARISSA: Sade was an acclaimed playwright, and president of a powerful and radical political sect in Paris during the revolution. He had many loyal friends and successful ventures in life but his sexual deviance, violent sex crimes, and mental illness made him a pariah and a prisoner. His children and other descendants disowned him, embarrassed by his lude exploits and shocking manuscripts.

It has become fashionable in scholarly circles to appreciate his work for its transgressive qualities. In some ways the Marquis can be cast as a victim of censorship and a proponent of free speech and frank sexuality. And he is portrayed as such by many scholars today.

120 Days of Sodom, for example, remained unpublished until 1904 and underwent several censorship campaigns but as of last year became a Penguin Classic. A German psychiatrist took interest in the manuscript and felt that its publication would be useful to doctors and anthropologists studying the human mind and behavior.

It remained a very rare and elusive text for decades until the 1950s when it was banned in Britain and the government of France proposed to burn several of Sade’s works.

Feminist Simone de Beauvoir objected, arguing that the Marquis de Sade was writing in opposition to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other Enlightenment philosophes who described human nature as essentially good. Beauvoir commended Sade for his honesty and appeal to absolute freedom but lamented his failure to differentiate between absolute power and absolute freedom. She objected to the censorship and destruction of his works on these grounds.

AVERILL: Maybe he was a literary genius, and perhaps he is a symbol of everything transgressive. His legacy may turn out to be a positive one.

And the Marquis himself had several endearing qualities to be sure: his loyalty to his in-laws despite their mistreatment of him, his struggle with mental illness, his undying love for his sister-in-law, his reliance on his mother. People are complicated.

Sade was also a misogynist (he dominated the women in his life, accosting them with jealous rages and selfish demands). He was a rapist and a violent predator.

120 Days of Sodom aside, we know that many of his sex partners were consenting but we also know that several definitely were NOT. He groomed young girls and boys to be his sexual playmates. At the time, pedophilia was a fluid category so it would be anachronistic to judge him by today’s standards. But there’s no denying he kidnapped and abused young teens who were unable to consent to the sex acts he committed with them.

He was especially harsh toward the sex workers he patronized. He beat them and experimented on their bodies, inflicting pain and humiliation. Perhaps he thought that compensation should buy their compliance, however cruel the act.

MARISSA: Sex workers today are often victims of sexual assault, committed by people who think that their money cancels out any objections that the sex worker may have to cruel or demeaning treatment. To me, the Marquis was, above all, a patriarch, using sexual violence as a tool to control the women, servants, and children in his life.

Marquis de Sade French Revolution

Statue at Chateau La Coste, former home of the Marquis de Sade Flickr CC-BY-ND

This behavior is similar to the political and sexual violence wrought on the Vendee and onto aristocratic women in the capital during the French Revolution. Perhaps it was this capacity to control that attracted the French public to sexual violence during the revolution’s most intense conflicts.

Just as people are complicated, not all good and not all bad, so is history; often ugly, sometimes righteous, funny or perplexing, but always fascinating.

Thanks for joining us for this episode of Dig. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram

Show Notes:

*Some of these links are affiliate links* This means that by purchasing one of the books linked below, Dig History Podcast will receive a small percentage of the sale from Amazon. This does NOT increase the price for the buyer. 

Gray, Francine Du Plessix. At Home with the Marquis De Sade. Diane Publishing Company, 2004.

Schaeffer, Neil. The Marquis De Sade: A Life. London: Picador, 2001.

Sade, Sade, Sade, and Sade. Three by Marquis De Sade: Justine, the 120 Days of Sodom, Florville and Courval. Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2008.

Sade, and Richard Seaver. Letters From Prison. Arcade Publishing, 2012.

David Andress. The French Revolution and the PeopleHambledon & London, 2004.

Stanley Kunitz, ed. European Authors, 1000-1900. The H.W. Wilson Company, 1967.

Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant T. Ragan. Homosexuality in Modern France (Studies in the History of Sexuality). Oxford University Press. 1996.

Noah Shusterman. The French Revolution: Faith, Desire and Politics. Routledge, 2013.

Elena Maria Vidal, “Murder of the Princess de Lambelle,” Tea at Trianon

Sade, Donatien Alphonse Francois, Comte, called Marquis de.” European Authors, 1000-1900 (January 1, 1967): Biography Reference Bank (H.W. Wilson). 

Neil Schaeffer. The Marquis de Sade: A Life.

Learn more about the Marquis de Sade and sex and violence during the French Revolution. listen to our history podcast or read the transcript to learn more about this fascination subject in history. #frenchrevolution #history #marquisdesade #sex


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