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Was there sadism before de Sade?

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

I’m writing a sequel to my novel 1624 – imaginatively titled 1633.

As the titles suggest they are historical novels. I, of course, write in English from a first quarter of the 21st century perspective. To make things as difficult as I can for myself, the cast of characters come from the four corners of the known world but are predominantly Dutch.

And here we meet the first problem. In those days the English were a bit vague on geography. ‘Dutch’ in English referred to a broad swathe of territory and ethnic groups from modern Holland to, and including, Germany. And here’s the second problem Holland was just one of many small provinces that were later amalgamated into modern Holland.

The challenge is to make the writing sound authentic without allowing authenticity to interrupt the flow of narrative.

Enough of my problems.

This is the question I’m posing. In historical fiction, to what degree can you get away with using modern terms? At what point does this become anachronistic? For instance can you authentically refer to the unconscious prior to its common usage (early 20th century)? Bigger question: did the unconscious exist prior to its common usage? And can you authentically refer to a character as being a sadist prior to the common usage of the term, in the early nineteenth century?

Interested in 1624: an alternate pirate story?

Holland, historical region of the Netherlands, divided since 1840 into the provinces of Noord-Holland (North Holland) and Zuid-Holland (South Holland). It constitutes the flat, low-lying northwestern portion of the modern country. Holland originated in the early 12th century as a fief of the Holy Roman Empire and was ruled by a dynasty of counts that traced its origin to the 9th century. In 1559 William I of Orange (William the Silent) was appointed stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht by Philip II. Under William’s leadership Holland and Zeeland in 1572 became the centre of the revolt of the Netherlands against Spain. Holland, along with the six other northern Netherlands provinces, declared its independence from Spain in 1579, proclaiming the United Provinces of the Netherlands. The last vestiges of the old order disappeared at the end of 1587, when Holland became one of the sovereign provinces of the seven United Provinces.

The term "unconscious" (German: Unbewusste) was coined by the 18th-century German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling and later introduced into English by the poet and essayist Samuel Taylor Coleridge (in his Biographia Literaria). Some rare earlier instances of the term "unconsciousness" (Unbewußtseyn) can be found in the work of the 18th-century German physician and philosopher Ernst Platner. The emergence of the concept of the Unconscious in psychology and general culture was mainly due to the work of Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (French: 2 June 1740 – 2 December 1814), was a French nobleman, revolutionary politician, philosopher and writer famous for his literary depictions of a libertine sexuality as well as numerous accusations of sex crimes. His works include novels, short stories, plays, dialogues, and political tracts. In his lifetime some of these were published under his own name while others, which Sade denied having written, appeared anonymously.

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