If you were enthralled with Disney’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, then you should read about the inspiration and history behind the story of the real beauty and the beast that lived in the 15th century and whose life wasn’t quite like the fairy tale with a happy ending.
The world over children and grownup alike are well acquainted with world-famous European fairy tales with magical lives and happy endings. These stories in truth were sometimes inspired by the lives of pretty ordinary and sometimes downtrodden people! These tales date back to the 15-16th century Europe where real life was not always about swashbuckling princes or damsels in distress who live happily ever after. Many stories were a slice of real life and in reality; circumstances were neither pretty nor magical but rather downright grim and tragic in some case.
Did you know the reality behind the Beauty and the Beast?
The subject case this time is the time-honored tale of “The Beauty and The beast”. Based on the real life of Petrus Gonsalvus and his wife Catherine. They were nothing more than just freaks for entertaining the royal aristocracy and were treated like such.
Petrus was suffering from a rare medical condition with abnormal growth of facial hair for which he was tormented from the age of 10! Catherine a beautiful girl was tricked into marrying him by the real-life evil queen. Their miseries did not end there as their children faced a far worse fate in the hands of the brutal royalty. Here is the life of the true beauty and the beast.
There was no fairy-tale ending
We have been always been subjected to sugar sweet version of the story of Petrus and Catherine Gonsalvus through fairy tales. Even more famous are the cartoon renditions by Disney of which the latest was the live action version movie starring Emma Watson as Belle the, pretty and intelligent heroine who traded her life to live with the beast in captivity to secure the freedom of her father. The beast, of course, falls in love with her and she too sees through his terrifying looks to find the gentle eyes and a kind heart of a being who has protective instincts towards her.
Unfortunately, for the real Gonsalvus couple the story does not end very well as Peter is never cured of his medical conditions and lived his entire life with his proverbial “curse”.
The real beast shipped off in a cage as a present to a king
Petrus Gonsalvus was born in 1537 in the Canary Islands with his rare medical condition which made him a target. Instead of giving him a chance to live and learn like a normal person he was tagged as a “wild man” or a “beast”-a name which he so rightfully abhorred.
Lack of scientific enlightenment and education made him a specimen to be jeered at. He was locked up in a cage and was fed raw meat and animal feed as people considered him a savage. At 10 he was unceremoniously shipped to France as a gift to Henry II as a coronation gift!
Petrus was locked in a dungeon like a savage
Petrus arrival in France could not be less welcoming as he was immediately put into a dungeon. He was humiliated by all including court scientists, doctors, and academics who viewed him as a weird specimen. They poked and prodded him but were disappointed to realize he was no beast but a normal human boy who could even communicate! He revealed his name as Pedro Gonzales which they translated to Petrus Gonsalvus.
Although King Henry never saw him as anything more than a savage, he ordered for his education. Later Petrus shocked the world when he mastered Latin as well as French etiquette thus shattering his image of wild “beast” and became a court guest!
Petrus was treated like a human pet by French royalty
Even after mastering 3 languages, and courtly etiquette he was never treated as a proper human being. Granted after his education he was not locked in cages anymore and given proper cooked meals and dressed like a nobleman, but his acceptance in real world was no more than a kings pet! He was meant for royal entertainment, an exhibit to shock their royal guests and no more.
The royal court painter Agostino Carracci accurately painted his situation in the court in his work called “Hairy Harry, Mad Peter and Tiny Amon.” In the painting, Petrus is depicted naked wearing negligible fur as if to substantiate the claims of his being a wild man.
Petrus was afflicted with a rare disorder that caused hypertrichosis
Hypertrichosis is a medical condition that causes excessive hair growth on the body. Apparently, Petrus was the first recorded patient of this condition. It’s a rare genetic disorder which has so far 50 registered cases since the middle ages! But the French were least bothered about his medical condition or his cure rather they just wanted him to remain the way he was so that they could marvel at a “savage who could dress and speak like a nobleman.”
Queen Catherine de’ Medici concocted a scheme to marry off Petrus to a beautiful woman
After King Henry’s demise, his deranged mother Cathrine de Medici ascended the throne. She was famous for her sadistic nature as she derived pleasure out of human miseries and pain. A sadistic woman, she devised an arranged marriage between Petrus and a beautiful unsuspecting court maiden named Catherine. She found the arrangement “hilarious”.
The queen really meant to breed royal pets as she wondered what sort of children they would produce. Would they be hairy like their father or normal like their mother?
When beauty met Petrus on their wedding day, she was shocked
In those times the royals could dictate marriages as they themselves were often tied in arranged marriages without their own consent themselves. Moreover, this wedding was an order from the queen which could not be negated anyways.
The young damsel was in for surprise when she saw her husband was covered in hair! Much to the queen’s delight, the bride was very unhappy and miserable with the connection at first, but as in the fairy tale, love ultimately did conquer all, she actually fell in love with Petrus and remained married for 40 years! At least something remained true to the romantic notion of the story.
The couple had seven children and four acquired the same condition as their father
Much to the queen’s chagrin and irritation, the first 2 births of the couple were normal and beautiful. But the next 2 children were born with their father’s condition and were hairy which delighted the nobility in a sadistic way. Catherine and Petrus had 7 children with 4 of them having their father’s genes. The entire European aristocracy went bananas over this odd family as they were made to travel all across Europe just to be stared and gawked at.
The Gonsalvus family was passed around Europe’s royal families
Across Europe and its nobility, the Gonsalvus family was called the “wild family” and naturalists from all over Europe came to study them. In fact, in 1580 the Gonsalvus family’s portrait was painted at a number of royal courts, in which the children were always wearing the noblest of dresses to reflect the difference between their physical appearances and their “acquired civilized status”. The children were considered curiosities by many authors who later wrote about them and never considered them as normal human beings.
The “wild children” were handed out as pets to other royal families
The Gonsalvus family was employed under the Duke Ranuccio Farnese of Parma, Italy where the family settled down under his ownership. Unfortunately, even here they were treated as freaks and not normal people. The most heart-wrenching fact of this story was when four of the hairy Gonsalvus children were gifted away to the Duke’s friends as pets and snatched away from their family.
Were Catherine and Petrus really in love? We can only guess
This portrait is the only remaining document of the actual couple and a reminder of their true selves. Although their marriage was nothing more than a cruel joke by royalty and the fact that their children were snatched away as just mere pets from them forever makes their lives really dark and abysmal to be an inspiration for a romantic story such as “The Beauty and The Beast”. Catherine’s arm on Petrus’s shoulder could mean real love but the faraway look in her eyes might have meant something much more painful.
Catherine and Petrus did not get their happily ever after
The real life “Beauty and the beast” were no more than royal pets where they were dressed, fed and kept in their finest surroundings. But, they were never treated as real humans. They did not even have control over their own lives. According to the biography of Petrus by Robert Zapperi, the couple lived controlled lives where they were technically not captives but neither were they free and independent.
Not much is known about the later lives of the couple barring a small fact which came out in 1623 from the town registrar’s records of demises listing that of Catherine’s in the town of Capodimonte in Italy. There were no records of Petrus passing which is logical as he was never considered a true human even till his end. As for the real beauty and the beast?? If you watched the movie, you know what happened in the end.