What image crosses your mind when you think of Beauty and the Beast? I see a beautiful princess wearing a glittering yellow gown and a boar-like creature with tusks dancing in a splendid ballroom. It’s a fairy tale that is close to my heart. Besides being one of my favourite Disney films, Belle’s love for books encouraged my own love for the written word.
As with a lot of fairy tales adapted by Disney, the original story is a lot more darker. It’s complex and sad. It’s also one of the few fairy tales that is based on a real-life couple, and whether they lived happily ever after is something for you to decide.
The original fairy tale
Beauty and the Beast tales have been around for centuries in many cultures. Apuleius might have started this tradition with his tale ‘The Golden Ass’ in the 2nd century AD. In his story a young boy accidentally transforms himself into an ass until he’s saved by the goddess Isis. And who is to say that this is the first version of the tale? This shows that we have always been fascinated by tales in which characters are transformed into something ugly. Or stories in which a beautiful heroine falls in love with a monster, and saves him after which he becomes his true self.
The first version that leads to the invention of Belle was penned by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (pictured above). It was first published in 1740 under the catchy title of La Belle et la Bête. It’s of novel length and contains many subplots.
This first version isn’t the one that most people are familiar with. Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont thought that it was a bit too long for a fairy tale and wrote an abridged version some years after Villeneuve’s death.
There’s a lot to be said about both versions. I could bore you for hours by comparing them to the Disney version, but that’s for a later blog post. Right now, we’re going to travel even further back into time and have a look at the real life couple who inspired Villeneuve to write this fairy tale.
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The ‘wild man’ moves to Paris
Pictured you see Petrus Gonsalvus. He was born around 1537 in Tenerife, and suffered from a very rare condition which we now know to be Hypertrichosis or werewolf-syndrome. It’s anyone’s guess who his parents were, but his early life must have been hell. People who encountered the child feared him, but were fascinated by him at the same time. He soon became a ‘thing’ that was paraded through the streets while observers gazed at him and told each other stories around the fireplace about that weird wild man which they had seen earlier.
Word of the existence of a hairy boy spread throughout Europe. When he was ten years old Petrus was taken to Paris and gifted to Henri II of France. Kings loved receiving odd gifts, and henri was very fascinated by this one.
The king assembled his best doctors. They examined the boy and all came to the same conclusion (a rare thing for doctors during the time), the boy had an abnormal amount of hair growth over his entire body, but he wasn’t a savage or a wild man. And he definitely wasn’t a beast. He was just a terrified ten-year-old who had been neglected since he still couldn’t speak a language.
Henri decided to give the boy an education. He learned Latin and was even given military training. The king also wanted the boy to live at court, and to that purpose Henri ennobled him.
Petrus must have been grief-stricken when the man who had protected him all those years came to a gruesome end at the age of 40. Kings loved jousting tournaments and Henri was no exception. He was wounded in the eye by a splintered lance and died not long after of sepsis.
The king’s widow, Catherine de’ Medici acted as regent for her son after Henri’s death and she thought that Petrus should marry.
She picked a young woman who was also called Catherine. It’s uncertain where this Catherine came from which leads me to conclude that she probably wasn’t of noble birth. What is clear is that she didn’t know who she was going to marry, nor that she know about his husband’s condition until the wedding ring was slipped on her finger.
Even if she had known, she probably would still have married him, for who could refuse Catherine de’ Medici anything?
The couple’s life changed drastically when Catherine de’ Medici died in 1589. Her son, king Henri III followed her a couple of months later after being stabbed by a monk. France was in constant turmoil over religious disputes and there was no-one left to protect the Gonsalvus family.
The fact that they were still seen as a curiosity among the nobles saved them. Alexander Farnesse who was Duke of Parma took an interest in them and welcomed them into his household.
The last time Petrus Gonsalvus appears in historical records is in 1618 when he attended the christening of his grandson.
Happily ever after?
Unlike Belle’s beast, Petrus didn’t change into a handsome prince after finding true love, and whether Catherine was his true love is a riddle. How she really felt about her husband will forever remain a mystery, as will many other aspects of their lives. Nearly nothing was known about werewolf-syndrome at the time and I think that it’s safe to assume that Catherine must have been scared and distressed when she found out who her husband was.
But as you can see in the picture above, the couple did have children. In fact, they had seven children of whom four inherited their father’s condition. Perhaps this also means that Catherine learned to love Petrus for the man who he was, perhaps it means that they found happiness after all?
It’s easy to see why Villeneuve was inspired to write her fairy tale based on this true story. But it’s more than just a fairy tale. It tells about the dangers of being different.
Petrus Gonsalvus would have led a life of hard labour, poverty and hunger if it wasn’t for his condition. He would never have learned to read or write and he would never have been a noble.
But this story could also have had a more tragic ending. What if Henri II and Catherine de’ Medici hadn’t taken an interest in this boy? Would he have been paraded in a cage throughout Europe like a circus lion? Would he have been an easy target for people wanting to fill their pockets?
Catherine de’ Medici was fond of humans who were different. Dwarfs were members of her household and they were often a form of entertainment whenever she held one of her lavish court festivals. The story also reminds of the ‘human zoos’ which became popular during the 19th and 20th centuries.
In a way the nobles saved the Gonsalvus family. The question is were their intentions noble? For them, he was a curiosity. A human curiosity. It’s a story that reveals a lot about the way of thinking during this time.
Don’t hesitate to call me out if I have made any mistakes. I also would love to hear what you think about this couple, their life and their connection with Beauty and the Beast in the comments!