It’s a tale as old as time – or, at least as old as the 1500s. But the real couple that inspired Beauty and the Beast lived a tragic life. The real life Beauty and the Beast were Catherine and Petrus Gonsalvus, and they were treated like freaks of nature by Europe’s kings and queens.
Just like P.T. Barnum collected freaks, in the 16th century, Europe’s royal courts competed to find the strangest human for their amusement. Petrus Gonsalvus, Beauty and the Beast’s “beast,” was born with a condition that covered his face in hair. The French royal court kept Petrus for years to amuse the nobility by reciting Latin, and they even decided to arrange a marriage for Petrus as a joke.
There are definitely some messed up things in the fictional story of Beauty and the Beast – especially if you start to wonder what happened after the movie ended. But nothing in the fairy tale version compares with the torments suffered by the Petrus Gonsalvus family tree. When he was just 10 years old, Petrus Gonsalvus was locked in a cage and treated like an animal. Lady Catherine Gonsalvus was tricked by an evil Queen into marrying a wild man that she didn’t even meet until their wedding day. And what Europe’s royalty did to the Gonsalvus children is even worse. In the tragic story of Catherine and Petrus Gonsalvus, there are no fairy tale endings.
The Real-Life Story Did Not Have A Fairy Tale Ending
In the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, Belle is an intelligent, strong-willed beauty who falls for a man who has been cursed to look like a beast. In spite of the curse, the Beast has caring eyes and a soft interior, plus a fierce devotion to Belle. In between all the singing with dishes, twirling through candlelit ballrooms, and impromptu snowball fights, the couple falls deeply in love.
Beauty and the Beast get a fairy tale ending when their love breaks the curse, and the two live happily ever after in a castle. The story is pretty much the same in the 1991 animated movie and the 2017 live-action remake. But the real-life couple that inspired the story did not get a fairy tale ending, and there was no curse to break – the “beast” had to live with his condition for his entire life.
The Real Beast Was Locked In A Cage And Shipped Off As A Present To A King
The real Beast – though he didn’t like to be called a beast – was a man named Petrus Gonsalvus. He was born in 1537 in the Canary Islands, and he had a hereditary condition that made him appear hairy. Instead of being treated like a person, Petrus was dismissed as a “wild man.”
Stories of wild men had flourished for centuries. They were seen as more animal than human, barbarians that lived on the edges of civilization. And unfortunately, everyone assumed that young Petrus was somehow not fully human because of his condition.
When he was only 10 years old, Petrus Gonsalvus was locked into an iron cage where he was given raw meat and animal feed. In 1547, young Petrus was shipped off to France as a gift to King Henry II of France for his coronation.
At The French Court, Petrus Was Locked In A Dungeon And Seen As A Savage
Once Petrus arrived in France, he was immediately locked in a dungeon for observation, as if he were a wild animal. The court’s doctors and academics poked and prodded Petrus and concluded that he was not a wild man – he was a 10-year-old boy with soft, thick hair growing on his face and limbs. Petrus even told them his name, which the French transformed from Pedro Gonzales to Petrus Gonsalvus.
King Henry declared that Petrus should receive an education. In the King’s eyes, Petrus was still a savage who was incapable of learning, so Henry did not expect Petrus to succeed. But young Petrus shocked the court by becoming fluent in Latin and learning noble etiquette. After disproving the stereotypes about “beasts,” Petrus became an important court guest.
Petrus Was Treated Like A Human Pet At France’s Royal Court
Once Petrus proved himself an even greater curiosity – a savage who could be educated – he became an important figure in King Henry’s court. Along with his noble education in at least three languages, Petrus was allowed to dress like a nobleman and eat cooked food. The king even reportedly took a liking to Petrus, which was considered a great honor in the 16th century.
But in spite of the improved treatment – he was no longer locked in a cage or stashed away in a dungeon – Petrus was still seen as less than human, a freak of nature meant to dazzle visitors to the court. Just as dwarfs were kept at royal courts for entertainment, Petrus was treated like a human pet.
Artist Agostino Carracci even painted a portrait of three of the members of King Henry’s court, where Petrus was shown naked, wearing only a small fur, as a symbol of his status as a wild man. The portrait was titled Hairy Harry, Mad Peter and Tiny Amon.
Petrus Had A Rare Disorder That Caused Hypertrichosis, Or Excessive Hair Growth
Petrus was the first-recorded person to suffer from hypertrichosis, a condition that caused excessive hair growth on the body. Hypertrichosis is extremely rare – there are only 50 known cases in history. Dermatologist Sarah K. Taylor reports that “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.”
But the French court didn’t care about Petrus’s condition; they just wanted to marvel at the “savage” who dressed like a nobleman.
Queen Catherine de’ Medici Thought It Would Be Hilarious To Marry Off Petrus To A Beautiful Woman
After King Henry’s death, his mother Catherine de’ Medici ruled France. She had a reputation for devious actions, like when she invited her religious rivals to Paris for an arranged marriage and then ordered thousands of people slaughtered in the streets. Queen Catherine thought it would be hilarious to arrange a marriage for Petrus, but she decided not to tell his future bride about his condition.
Queen Catherine found her “Beauty” in a young maiden who was also named Catherine. She was the daughter of a royal court servant, and the Queen couldn’t wait to see what kind of children the Beauty might produce with the Beast. Would they be covered in hair like their father? Queen Catherine hoped to manufacture her own royal pets from the unconventional arranged marriage.
The Beauty Met Petrus On Their Wedding Day, And She Was In For A Shock
When Queen Catherine de’ Medici announced to the maiden Catherine that she would soon wed, there was no way to reject the Queen’s arranged marriage. Just as royalty were often married off without their say, kings and queens could dictate the marriages of their court followers. But Queen Catherine had a surprise for the unsuspecting bride: her husband was covered in hair.
Catherine’s reaction to her husband’s appearance was not recorded, but rumors swirled that the Beauty was initially unhappy with the union. Certainly, finding a wild man at the end of the aisle must have been quite a shock for young Catherine. But over time, she came to care for Petrus, and the two were married for 40 years.
The Couple Went On To Have Seven Children – And Four Of Them Had Hair Like Their Father
Within a handful of years after their wedding, Catherine and Petrus had two children, neither of whom were born with their father’s condition. Queen Catherine must have been disappointed that her “experiment” didn’t work. But then the next two children were born covered in hair, proving to Europe’s nobility that beauty did not necessarily always conquer beasts.
Catherine and Petrus had seven children total, and four of them were born with their father’s condition. Europe’s royal courts went crazy for the Gonsalvus family, and the family spent much of their time touring around Europe so that nobles could gawk at them.
The Gonsalvus Family Was Passed Around Europe’s Royal Families
Catherine, Petrus, and their children were sent on tour to entertain Europe’s royalty. Across Europe, people marveled at the “wild family,” and naturalists studied the children. In the 1580s, the Gonsalvus family had their portraits painted at a number of courts. In the paintings, the “wild children” were always shown in noble dress, as if to highlight the gap between their “savage” appearance and their civilized status.
In the 1590s, the famous naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi examined the eight-year-old daughter of Petrus and Catherine and commissioned a drawing of the family. Multiple authors published their descriptions of the “curiosities,” as if the children were not human beings.
The “Wild Children” Were Handed Out As Pets To Other Royal Families
The family eventually settled in Parma, Italy, where Duke Ranuccio Farnese employed them. But the Gonsalvus family was still treated like property – there was no way for them to lead a normal life. Instead, their condition was exploited by aristocrats who wanted to gawk at freaks of nature. In a tragic turn of events, the Duke sent away the four hairy Gonsalvus children as gifts to his noble friends. Just like Petrus, they were seen as pets rather than people.
There were no paintings made of the Gonsalvus children who were born without Petrus’s condition. They were not considered curiosities; thus, they were unworthy of recording.
Were Catherine and Petrus In Love? We Can Only Guess
This portrait of Catherine and Petrus hints at the mystery of their true relationship. Although they were married for 40 years and produced seven children, were they truly in love? Their marriage was arranged as a joke for European royalty, and their children were snatched away to act as court pets. Their story is so bleak that it’s difficult to imagine how it became the basis of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast.
But what about the relationship between Catherine and Petrus? Does Catherine’s hand on Petrus’s shoulder indicate warmth between the pair? Or does the steady, far-off look on her face hint at something more tragic?
Catherine and Petrus Did Not Get Their Happily Ever After
The real-life Beauty and the Beast were trapped in Europe’s royal courts, where they lived with aristocrats and wore beautiful clothes but had no control over their lives. In his biography of Petrus, Robert Zapperi describes the couple as “neither captured nor free” – and sadly, the same fate struck their children.
While the fairy tale version ends with Beauty and the Beast happily wed, in real life, no one knows what exactly happened to Catherine and Petrus. After being shuffled from one court to another, they eventually settled in the small village of Capodimonte in Italy. Catherine died in 1623, according to the town’s registrar of death, but there is no record of Petrus’s death – perhaps because only people who received last rites were recorded in the registrar. It is possible that Petrus was not considered human enough to receive last rights. Even at his death, Petrus was still seen as a curiosity rather than a man.
You can see why Disney modified the tragic but true story of Beauty and the Beast.