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. Although the tale of Petrus and Catherine Gonsalvus isn't the single inspiration of the tale – it has much deeper folkloric roots than that – its optics match those of the fictional couple.
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, the "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.
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 wife and mother to his heir Catherine de’ Medici became the queen regent of 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.