We boys and girls of the 90s are very familiar with the story of Beauty and the Beast: the tale of a prince who, condemned by a curse, lives locked up in his castle and doomed to be a Beast.
That is until Belle, a beautiful and intelligent young woman, appears in his life, and they both teach us a lesson about love and physical appearance.
The Disney movie has a happy ending, however, it’s inspired by a darker and sadder original story. The history dates back to 1740, when Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve wrote the tale within a children’s collection.
It’s likely that her story, nonetheless, was based on that of Petrus and Catherine Gonsalvus.
Petrus Gonsalvus was born with a condition called hypertrichosis, in which his face and body were covered in hair. This happened in the 16th century, so Petrus was treated like a beast: he was said to be a species of Sasquatch, a hybrid of man, and an ape.
At that time, it was common for people with power to amass large collections of oddities, including people whose appearance was out of the ordinary. When he was 10 years old, Petrus had spent a lot of time isolated from other people, locked up, and in chains.
He was gifted to King Henry II of France and studied by the scientists of the time. Although he could barely communicate with other people, he told them his name: Pedro González.
Henry II decided, withal, to call him “Petrus Gonsalvus”. At that time, the causes of hypertrichosis were unknown, and people with this and other conditions were treated as “savages”.
So they were surprised that Petrus was so clever and able to speak. As part of an experiment by the king, the little boy was brought up to behave like royalty, until he ended up being one of them.
Petrus and Catherine
Petrus grew up among the royalty. After the death of Henry II, his widow, Catherine de Medici, assumed the throne. Thus, among other things, she was in charge of finding a partner for Petrus. She interviewed dozens of women until he found Catherine, the daughter of one of her servants.
Catherine didn’t know that it was Petrus who was going to propose to her to marry. Despite the fact that he was a member of the nobility, her future husband was still considered “a beast”.
The young woman had no option to refuse or escape: she was locked in the castle, like Petrus, and forced to marry him. And, although she was there against her will, it’s said that her new husband was kind and understood exactly what it felt like to be locked up.
Petrus and Catherine may have fallen in love, judging from a portrait of both in which she places her hand on his shoulder: a gesture that was not common among couples of the time and could mean that, after all, they grew fond of each other.
They had seven children: three without hypertrichosis. The rest were born with the same condition as their father, something Catherine de Medici considered a curious rarity. Thus, she exploited them among royalty, with multiple portraits and illustrations of the family.
All were considered property of the queen, reason why they were sold to other members of the nobility and continued being used like an “experiment”.
Although their children received the best education that the offspring of a “wild” man and a lower-class woman could have, they were never truly free.
After years of being used to having babies, Petrus and Catherine retired to Italy. According to the History Collection, there are records of Catherine’s death, but not that of Petrus.
It’s likely that he didn’t have a traditional burial like that of his wife, since he was not considered a person, but an animal. And animals were not treated in the same way even in death.
Images from: Rawpixel, wiki commons
Translated by: Gaby Flores