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.
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 – 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.
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.
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.