Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


Irregular Childhood

The Palais de Conde
The Palais de Conde

Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade was born on June 2, 1740, to Jean Baptiste, Comte (Count) de Sade, and to Marie-Elonore de Maille de Carman, Comtesse de Sade, his mother and a distant cousin of the Prince de Conde, a junior branch of the royal Bourbon family. His mother served as a lady in waiting to the Princess de Conde, and as a governess to her child, the young prince de Conde, Donatien's senior by four years. The young Marquis' first splash into the history books came as a result of a skirmish between him and his cousin, the Prince de Conde, who had tried to retrieve one of his favorite playthings from the grasp of the four-year-old Donatien. Rather than submitting in acknowledgement of the Prince's rank, the Marquis refused to relinquish the toy, and instead proceeded to pummel his cousin with blows of increasing violence and ferocity. The two had to be separated by adult courtiers, and it was soon after this incident that the Marquis found himself remanded to the care of his extended family. It would not be the first time that the royal authorities would resort to such treatment as a means to controlling the combustible Marquis.

Portrait of Comtesse de Sade
Portrait of Comtesse de Sade

As a result of his confrontation with the prince, Donatien was sent to live with his paternal grandmother in Avignon. It was here that the Marquis would spend his early, formative years, surrounded by a gaggle of female relatives who indulged his every whim and smothered him with sensual affection:

"Her five daughters visited Grandmother Sade often. Her youngest child, Donatien's aunt Henriette-Victoire, a notoriously promiscuous beauty, was particularly fond of her turbulent little nephew and loved to indulge him. The dowager marquise's other four daughters were nuns. Convents being relatively worldly in pre-Revolutionary days, these ladies, during their frequent forays into the secular world, doted on Donatien as lavishly as the rest of his female kin. The doting grandmother and the coddling aunts lavished all manner of affection on the child. Plying him with toys, candy, and caresses, they indulged his most capricious whims, with the result that the apprentice tyrant...became more unruly than ever."

Portrait of the Prince de Conde
Portrait of the Prince de Conde

The Comte de Sade, Donatien's father, was abroad serving as an ambassador to the court of the Elector of Bavaria during this time, but received reports of his son's upbringing. He became increasingly enraged to hear of how his only son was being corrupted at the hands of his indulgent mother and sisters. Only two years after Donatien had been ordered to move in with his grandmother, his father uprooted him once again. The Comte wished to infuse his son's upbringing with the masculine presence and influence that he himself was not able to provide. Thus, Donatien was sent to live with the Comte's brother, Abbé Jacques-Francois de Sade, a noted scholar and author of his time. The abbé divided his time between his official residence in Auvergne, and the family castle of Saumane, thirty-five kilometers outside of Avignon.

Saumane, the Abbé de Sade's estate
Saumane, the Abbé de Sade's estate

Abbé de Sade was a contemporary and friend of the noted French philosopher Voltaire. Like his sisters, the abbé possessed a sensual, worldly side, which Voltaire encouraged and celebrated with poems such as the following: "However much of a priest you are, O Sir, you'll continue to love. That is your true ministry, be you a bishop or the Holy Father. You will love, you will seduce, and you'll equally succeed, in the Church and in Cythera (another name for Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, fertility, and beauty)."

And so, the Marquis found himself placed in yet another setting where adults treated sex and sexuality as recreational means to a pleasurable end, and where sensual indulgence was the expectation rather than the exception to the rule. When not looking after his official church duties, which only required his presence in Auvergne a few months out of the year, the abbé occupied his leisure time with the pursuit of a variety of French beauties, women hailing from all settings within the social strata. He was widely known as the "sybarite (one inordinately attached to pleasure and luxury) of Saumane." During the years that Sade lived with his uncle, the abbé housed a number of female companions, including a mother and daughter duo, a maid, and a local prostitute.

When no real people were available for the abbé to interact with, he had simply to turn to his voluminous library to stoke his appetite for worldly, sensual delights. While the scholarly clergyman kept some of the most learned classics of the age among his collection, he also made room for literature with titles such as the Book of Postures, Venus in the Cloister, or the Nun in Her Nightdress, and even John the Fucker Debauched. Donatien was free to read at his leisure, and, in the absence of other playmates his age, he more often than not found recreational refuge within the pages of most of the texts kept in his uncle's library, including those which, according to the French euphemism, "were meant to be read with one hand."

Drawing of young Marquis de Sade, by Van Loo
Drawing of young Marquis
de Sade, by Van Loo

While a more unseemly setting could scarcely be conceived for the upbringing of an impressionable young child, Abbé de Sade was hardly a renegade clergyman. Indeed, for centuries, throughout France and other European countries, the men and women of the cloth availed themselves to the pleasures of the flesh to no less extent, and probably more so, than the lay worshippers to whom they were responsible for providing moral guidance. It was not unheard of for orgies to be held within the walls of convents and abbéys, wherein priest, nuns, prostitutes and nobles commingled to partake of the most scandalous and debauched activities.

Increasingly concerned that his son's upbringing was no less corrupted by his brother's influence than that of his mother and sisters', the Comte de Sade decided to once again uproot Donatien and transplant him into seemingly more appropriate environs for a boy of his age. At the age of ten he moved from Saumane to Paris, where he was enrolled at the College Louis-le-Grand, a Jesuit prep school for young men of noble lineage. While their reputation as educators was unsurpassed anywhere in Europe, the Jesuits were no less worldly than the Abbé de Sade. Sodomy and corporal punishment were equally noteworthy trademarks as scholarship and statesmanship at the College:

"As practiced by the Jesuits, who held their whippings in front of the assembled student body and had a notoriously heavy hand, the experience was particularly humiliating. Moreover, floggings can be sexually arousing and often generate what came to be called sadomasochistic behavior. As an adult, Sade would seldom be satisfied by 'normal' sex, and in many ways his carnal preferences seemed arrested at an infantile anal level."

Another important hallmark of the Jesuit regimen was that of confessing one's sins as a means to analyzing and ultimately eradicating one's imperfections. To gain the full benefit of confession requires the confessor to reflect upon some of the more unpleasant and murky aspects of his character, and then bring these very private aspects of the self to the surface where they are to be painfully scrutinized by the peering eyes of another. It was this aspect that seemed to have the most profound impact on Sade in regard to his perception of human nature and the lengths he was willing to go in order to not only fully understand, but also fully live the shadow life hidden in the deepest recesses of the human heart. As an adult he once wrote,

"The profound study of man's heart- nature's labyrinth- alone can inspire the novelist, whose work must make us see man not only as he is, or as he purports to be- which is the duty of the historian- but as he is capable of being when subjected to the modifying influences of vice and the full impact of passion. Therefore, we must know them all, we must employ every passion and vice, if we labor in this field."

After four unremarkable years at the College, his father transferred Donatien to a military academy. In 1755, at the age of 15, Sade entered the King's light cavalry regiment as a sub lieutenant. He was soon called to action through the outbreak of the Seven Year's War. He established himself as a fearless and decisive leader during the battle for the British fortress at Port Mahon. With hundreds of French casualties lying about the battlefield, Sade and a fellow comrade in arms led an assault that ultimately resulted in the French taking of Port Mahon. Not content to see Donatien succeed with the cavalry, Comte de Sade used his few remaining connections to have his son placed with the Carabiniers de Monsieur, which was commanded by a member of the royal family. He prevailed, and Donatien was made the standard bearer for an entire cavalry company with the Carabiniers.

The bravery he demonstrated in battle coupled with his good looks and budding social charm, made for a successful career as a soldier for the young Marquis. He received glowing reviews from his superiors, and was promoted to the rank of captain by the age of eighteen, and was stationed in Germany where he began to unleash his increasing sexual appetite. Yet, despite his success, he received stern rebukes from his father with increasing frequency. Upon hearing that Donatien had been gambling some of his wages, the Comte wrote a furious missive to the abbé, stating in part, "As if that scoundrel had a louis a day to lose! He promised me not to risk a cent. But you can't trust him to keep his word."

Such words had serious ramifications on the young Marquis, who dreaded the prospect of losing the love of the only parent he knew. The relationship he shared with his father took precedence over other friendships, as demonstrated by a letter he wrote was still a soldier: "Friends are like women: when put to the test, the goods often prove defective. I open my heart to you, not as to a father whom one often fears and does not love, but to the most honest of friends, the most tender friend I deem to have in the world."

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