Whether you’re most familiar with the animated Disney musical, the Jean Cocteau film, or the late ‘80s TV show starring Linda Hamilton and a prosthetic-wearing Ron Perlman, there’s no denying that Beauty and the Beast is a tale that defies time. A recent live-action Disney musical starring Harry Potter’s Emma Watson as Belle and Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens as the Beast also dominated the box office— in other words, it’s clear that the story continues to capture our collective imagination.
To better understand the fairy tale’s significance, it’s worth examining the real-life history thought by some to have influenced the titular characters in Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 1740 Beauty and the Beast.
The story-behind-a-story begins in mid-16th-century France, on the night of King Henry II’s coronation. According to research conducted by the Smithsonian Channel for their documentary “The Real Beauty and the Beast,” King Henry was presented with a highly unusual gift during that night’s revelry: a ‘wildman’ imprisoned in a cage.
Wild men, or woodwose, were half-men, half-animal creatures in European medieval mythology. They were often depicted as very hairy (Disney’s Gaston had nothing on them), and were believed to become ferocious at night, even stealing and eating children alive. The presence of an alleged actual wildman at King Henry’s court was cause for considerable excitement, and the newcomer was brought to a dungeon for observation.
After investigation, court doctors and academics determined that the strange figure wasn’t a wildman or even a man at all, but a small boy, his face and limbs covered in thick hair “soft as sable.” The boy had been taken from his home in the Canary Islands, and told them his name was Pedro Gonzalez. The doctors observed Pedro throughout the night to see if he demonstrated any signs of tell-tale wildman savagery, but he appeared—aside from his hairy countenance—to be a typical 10-year-old.
Today, it is believed that Pedro had congenital hypertrichosis (Latin for ‘too much hair’), a rare inherited genetic condition. Although hypertrichosis is better understood now in 2016 than it was in Petrus’ day, the condition is so rare that finding subjects for doctors to study presents a challenge. According to dermatologist Sarah K. Taylor’s Medscape coverage of the condition, “Since the Middle Ages, approximately 50 individuals with congenital hypertrichosis have been described, and, according to the most recent estimates, approximately 34 cases are documented adequately and definitively in the literature.”
In the 16th century, giants, little people, and others who differed physically from the norm were viewed more as curiosities to be traded as status symbols between the wealthy than as humans. The rarity of Pedro’s condition made him a particularly prized ‘gift’ for the king. Pedro was given a new, Latin name—Petrus Gonsalvus—and, as an experiment, Henry II ensured Petrus had the education of a nobleman. In time, Petrus even came to hold a position at court.
Henry II died in 1559 following a jousting injury, and his widow, Catherine de Medici, eventually became regent. Catherine de Medici decided that Petrus should marry, to see if more ‘wildmen’ could be produced. She chose as his wife another woman called Catherine, whose last name is unknown. Catherine supposedly did not see her groom and wasn’t aware who her future husband would be until the actual wedding ceremony. Petrus is believed to have been in his mid-20s at the time.
A year after the wedding, Catherine had her first child—a boy, with none of Petrus’ hairiness. Their second child also didn’t inherit his father’s condition. However, the couples’ third and fourth children were hairy. Catherine went on to have more little Gonsalvuses; in total, it was believed that four out of the couples’ seven children and at least one of their grandchildren had hypertrichosis.
Catherine and Petrus toured Europe with their hairy offspring, and were a source of extreme fascination for nobles. Paintings of the Gonsalvus family—in formal wear designed to contrast their ‘wild’ appearance—were often given as gifts in high society. The Gonsalvuses settled for a time in Parma, Italy, under the financial care of Duke Ranuccio Farnese.
Although in some ways Petrus was able to live the life of a typical nobleman, he and his family were still considered, by the Duke of Farnese and others, to be less than human. Author Roberto Zapperi, who wrote a biography of Petrus, told the Smithsonian that the Gonsalvuses’ situation was unique because “they were neither captured nor free.” Catherine and Petrus’ four children were given as gifts by Farnese to noblemen not content with owning mere portraits of the unusual children. The Duke of Farnese even gave young Antoinetta Gonsalvus to his mistress Lady Isabella Pallavicina as a token of affection.
Records indicate that Petrus and Catherine eventually moved to Capodimonte. From there, the rest of their life together is shrouded in mystery. Catherine is believed to have passed away in 1623, after approximately 40 years of marriage. Petrus is thought to have died in 1618, although his death is not mentioned in Capodimonte’s regristrar of death. Only people who were given last rites were entered in the registrar of death, so there is some speculation that even in his final hours Petrus was still treated as an oddity rather than a human, and was not given last rites.
The location of Catherine and Petrus’ graves is unknown, but their memory lives on in multiple portraits of the unconventional couple. Paintings of Petrus and the rest of the Gonsalvus family can still be found in Ambras Castle’s Chamber of Art and Curiosities, a collection of ‘oddities’ created by Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria in the 16th century.
Although Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast and most of its adaptations feature the Beast transforming into a handsome prince by the power of love, Catherine and Petrus’ union didn’t have the same convenient conclusion. Still, representations of the couple depict them as loving—one miniature portrait currently hanging in D.C.’s National Gallery of Art features Catherine and Petrus, with her hand placed affectionately on his shoulder.
It’s not known definitively that Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast was inspired by Petrus and Catherine, but many scholars point to the real-life French couple as a possible influence. Villeneuve’s tale also reflects the 2nd-century Cupid and Psyche, as well as various animal bridegroom stories from folklore.
As we continue to enjoy modern adaptations of Beauty and the Beast, we should also recognize an uncomfortable truth. Although our understanding of medical conditions has expanded since the 16th century, ever as before, ever just as sure, our societal definitions of what makes a beauty and what makes a beast continue to be painfully narrow.