It’s a tale as old as time. An enchanted, secluded mansion in the French countryside. A girl in a yellow dress, swinging around a ballroom with her hairy courter-captor. A sassy candelabra with a French accent, an plump and overprotective teapot, an uptight British clock.
Yes, I’m talking about Beauty and the Beast, the classic Disney animated film that challenged our ideas of Prince Charming long before Shrek came along. The studio's highly anticipated live-action remake is finally out March 17.
While the Disney cartoon made the story famous, the fairy tale has actually been in rotation for quite some time. In 1740, French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve wrote La Belle et la Běte, her version of a folktale that has actually been around for about 4,000 years. Bearing only nominal resemblance to the Disney flick, the original French tale is a dark metaphor instructing women to learn to love whomever they’re betrothed to, whether he’s a beast or guy who acts beastly.
But do you know what’s more astonishing than a fairy tale with roots in the patriarchy? A fairy tale that’s based on a true story. And, believe it or not, Beauty and the Beast stems from real-life events dating back to the 1500s.
The boy’s name was Petrus Gonsalvus, and he never wanted to be called a beast. But it was the year 1537, and in that time, people with interesting “peculiarities” were a hot commodity in royal courts. As a result, at the age of 10, Gonsalvus and his own personal peculiarity were sent to King Henry II’s court.
So, why was this boy shipped from his home in Spain to court jester in France? Because Gonsalvus’ body was covered in long, thick hair.
Likened to being a real-life wolf-man, Gonsalvus the “monster” was a monster hit amongst curious noblemen and women. People awaited the reputed "man of the woods” to bare his teeth and reveal his savage side. But that day never came. Gonsalvus’s even-keeled temperament persisted.
Today, we know that this wolf-man was no beast — just a kid who suffered from an extremely rare condition called hypertrichosis, a disease that results in hair growing all over a person's body.
The king took a liking to the boy, situated at an odd juncture between perception and reality. In a ploy right out of My Fair Lady, King Henry decided to take on Gonsalvus as his little pet project. Giving him a wardrobe makeover and a quality education, the king groomed Gonsalvus to be a nobleman.
The only ingredient missing? A wife. Catherine de’Medici, King Henry II’s wife who took over the throne after he died, made finding Gonsalvus a wife her personal mission. She had ulterior motives, though — in marrying Gonsalvus off, she also hoped to reproduce his genetic condition in his offspring.
Acting as the Tinder of the 16 century, she kept Gonsalvus' condition a secret. She was seeking a strong woman who wouldn’t be put off by someone unconventional. After a thorough search, Catherine settled on a woman who shared her name — Catherine.
It’s rumored that, at first, this arranged marriage was a bitter pill for the young beauty. Clearly, Catherine hadn’t been expecting a nobleman in a hairy wolf’s package. Yet in a series of events straight out of Beauty and the Beast, Catherine was eventually won over by her “beast’s” personality.
We don’t know what happens after the wedding in Beauty and the Beast, but we do know what happened to Catherine and Pedro Gonsalvus. The pair was married for 40 years and they produced seven children, three of whom were born with hypertrichosis, the same condition their father had. Sadly, Europe’s traveling sideshow fever snatched those three children up and sent them as gifts to royal families, a fate that mimicked Gonsalvus’ own.
The Gonsalvus girls were well educated, well respected members of court, but doomed to be separated from their parents. One daughter, Antonietta, was famously memorialized in a series of portraits.
After these tragedies, the fairy-tale couple settled in a secluded estate in Italy, where they lived a life that wasn’t written down.