While the fairytale Beauty and the Beast has a happy ending, the tragic true story on which it was based most certainly did not. Published in France as La Belle et la Bête , it seems that the 1740 children’s story was partly inspired by the gut-wrenching life of a so-called wild man known as ‘Petrus Gonsalvus’ and his marriage to a beautiful young woman named Catherine.
Born in Tenerife in 1537 and given as a gift to King Henry II of France in 1547, Pedro González suffered from an unknown condition now known as hypertrichosis, or Werewolf Syndrome, which caused his face and body to be covered in excess hair. To date there have been less than 50 cases documented, many of them freak show attractions.
At Henry’s court, Pedro was seen as an exotic curiosity, much like dwarves, giants and jesters. Nevertheless, on recognizing his intellect King Henry decided to rename the beast Petrus Gonsalvus and to give him an education. Over time, he learned three languages, as well as the minutiae of court etiquette.
While there is little archival evidence of his life, in 2021 Revista de Historia Canaria disclosed that recently discovered documents had revealed that Petrus Gonsalvus actually managed to integrate himself into court life. On reaching his twenties, he had become a waiter at the royal table. He then went on to study law, was a storyteller to the young Charles IX , and by 1582 he was even teaching law at the Sorbonne University.
Nevertheless, several accounts relate that after Henry’s death, his ruthless wife Catherine de Medici decided to conduct an experiment to discover what kind of children her wild man would produce. In 1570 Petrus was married to Catherine Raffelin, the beautiful daughter of a French merchant. Before the wedding the regent queen failed to warn her of the appearance of her husband-to-be. One can only imagine her reaction. However, during their long marriage, four of their seven children were born with hypertrichosis.
Portrait of Antonietta González (1583), the daughter of Pedro González (“The Hairy Man”), by Lavinia Fontana. The contrast between their hair-covered bodies and their elegant garb made the Gonsalvus family a popular subject for artists of their time. ( Public domain )
Unlike the fairytale ending of the Disney film, Pedro continued to be seen as a rare oddity. After distinguishing himself at the French court, Pedro and his family were sent abroad so Europe’s royalty could gawk at them. The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and Their Worlds describes how the González children were gifted to other nobles and treated like court pets.
The couple ended their days in Italy. According to the Smithsonian Channel ’s documentary “The Real Beauty and the Beast,” the fact that there is no record of Pedro’s death could be because he was tragically not considered fully human and thus not befitting a Christian burial.
Top image: Pedro González and his wife Catherine (c. 1575) by Joris Hoefnagel. Source: Public domain
By Cecilia Bogaard