How Petrus Gonsalvus made it into the French royal court and married Lady Catherine to live out the real Beauty and the Beast story.
Everyone knows the story of Beauty and the Beast. Historians have collected 23 variations from around the world, along with an astonishing 162 versions of the archetypal “Animal Bridegroom Story.”
However, the modern version of the classic tale — written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740 and made famous by the 1991 Disney film — may actually be based on a real man and his family. His name was Petrus Gonsalvus and he might just be the man behind the real Beauty and the Beast story. He toured European aristocracy, married a beautiful woman and sired a brood of children. And he really was covered in hair.
Petrus Gonsalvus: The “Wild Man” At Court
Born circa 1537 (details of his story remain sketchy throughout), Petrus Gonsalvus was reportedly a native of the Canary Islands. He began his life as a slave, but he was no ordinary slave. Petrus Gonsalvus had hypertrichosis, or “Werewolf Syndrome.” Long, luxurious hair covered his body, and so “Wild Man” became his name.
At just ten years old, Gonsalvus was given as a gift to the new King of France, Henri II. He would stay there for more than 40 years, under the protection of the king and his wife, Catherine de Medici de Valois.
Henri II took a special interest in Gonsalvus. Rather than lock him in a cage, he gave him a classical gentleman’s education. From military tactics to Latin, Gonsalvus learned everything a young nobleman should. In fact, he was more educated than some of the aristocracy themselves.
During his time at court, Gonsalvus also met, romanced, and married a young woman named Catherine, with whom he would eventually have many children
In 1589, following an aristocratic coup, the Gonsalvus family found themselves without a benefactor. During the turmoil, they caught the attention of the Duke of Parma, who sent Gonsalvus, his wife, their son, and four daughters to his home city. The Duke died before he could join them, but his wife, Margaret, the Duchess of Parma, immediately took the family under her wing.
In Italy, in 1594, the scientist and physician Ulisse Aldrovandi was visiting a wealthy friend in Bologna, where he met Petrus Gonsalvus’ daughter, Antoinetta, who also had hypertrichosis. Aldrovandi was fascinated by Antoinetta and ended up including woodcuts and a description of the little girl in his tome about human deformity.
Antoinetta would also be painted by Lavinia Fontana. In fact, the whole Gonsalvus family had their portraits painted many, many times. But instead of being treated as monstrous, they were widely portrayed in paintings just like every other aristocratic family was — only covered in hair.
And from the courts of France to the villas of Italy, the family saw more of the world than any typical peasant. They stood tall next to royalty and were studied by famous physicians. Eventually, they would retire to a small Italian village and vanish from history, leaving only their portraits and behind.
The Real Beauty And The Beast
But Petrus Gonsalvus didn’t vanish from history entirely, for his story just might be the real Beauty and the Beast tale.
Now, the tale originated far before Petrus Gonsalvus. The most likely origin is the story of Psyche and Cupid. But in that story, Cupid is certainly no beast and isn’t hairy.
So, were Petrus Gonsalvus’ appearance and life really the basis of the beast in the fairy tale? Well, the stories themselves don’t really describe the beast. But all the illustrations show him covered in hair.
Even though Beauty and the Beast is similar to Psyche and Cupid, the biggest difference is in the appearance of the Beast. And illustrators at the time of Beauty and the Beast almost certainly would have seen one of the many portraits of the Gonsalvus family.
So while we can’t be sure that Petrus Gonsalvus was the real Beauty and the Beast inspiration, it’s very possible that he’s at least responsible for the image of the classic tale that we have today.
After this look at Petrus Gonsalvus and the real Beauty and the Beast, read up on the French wolf-beast who terrorized a village. Then, discover the true story of Hua Mulan, the woman behind the Disney classic.