Petrus and Catherine Gonsalvus

When I was growing up, my mother told me that true stories inspired fairytales. My imagination went wild, ecstatic that my beloved Cinderella, Ariel, and best of all, Bellel existed. That the magical world of Disney was our reality, and everyone received their happily ever after. When I was a little older, I understood her meaning. The magic Disney incorporated into our favorite animated movies wasn’t real, but in the past there probably was a poor servant girl who fell in love with a “prince.” There are various retellings of Aladdin. If you research other cultures, there are many folktales of “animal brides and grooms.” Ordinary girls who fall for cursed creatures and break their spells. Sometimes in the stories, the cursed creatures themselves, the “beasts,” fall for the “beauty” and become a better person. They were tales as old as time.

A few years ago, I was watching an episode of “Mysteries at the Museum,” featuring a segment with a portrait of a man and woman from the Renaissance period. Though dressed as nobles, the man had a unique feature: long hair covered his face and body. The host introduced the audience to him as Petrus Gonsalvus, known throughout Europe as the “man of the woods.” On hearing Petrus and his wife Catherine, the lady featured in the portrait, perhaps inspired one of our most beautiful fairytales, my heart skipped a beat. Could it be? My Belle and Beast?!?!?! The program transfixed me. I found it bittersweet.

Born on the Canary Islands in 1537, Petrus suffered from what they called “Werewolf Syndrome,” now known as hypertrichosis, a genetic disorder. People in those days viewed the child as a beast, for being fully covered in hair. When he was ten years old, Petrus was sold (possibly by his own parents) and brought to the French king, Henry II, who received him as a gift. The king believed him to be a talking monkey, and for a time, kept him in a cage and fed him raw meat and animal feed… until the king realized Petrus was intelligent. This could be an experiment, to turn a beast into a man! Petrus grew into a man, polished, articulate, and educated. He possessed a gentle soul. The court appreciated his talents, but looked upon him as a beast and a social attraction for their amusement.

Did this tragic tale inspire Beauty & the Beast?

When King Henry II died, his wife Queen Catherine de Medici—a woman infamous for her cruelty and coldness—inherited Petrus and decided it was time for Petrus to marry and to have children. The idea was to produce further “beasts” for the court. In keeping with tradition among the nobility, she arranged a marriage. The bride-to-be was Catherine Raffelin. We know little about her except for her rare beauty, and that she didn’t meet Petrus until the wedding day. Rumor had it, on their wedding night, Catherine fainted from fear. Catherine overcame her terror when she soon discovered Petrus’ gentle nature, and a friendship developed between the two.

It pleased the queen when Petrus and Catherine had children, and four of them with hypertrichosis. After the death of Queen Catherine, the French court shunned Petrus and Catherine and their children. They traveled through Europe, presenting themselves as entertainment for various kingdoms. Considered “beasts,” Petrus and Catherine’s children were taken away from their parents and given to other royals as pets. Throughout the years, through all their trials and tribulations, Petrus and Catherine remained together. They made their home in Italy. The last mention of Petrus was in 1617, when he attended a grandchild’s christening. It’s believed he died in 1618, denied a Christian burial since no one considered him human. Catherine died in 1623. Their graves are unknown.

Petrus and Catherine might be forgotten by contemporary audiences, but they left a lasting impression on the world. In the 18th century, two versions of the French fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, complete with magic, curses, and true love breaking spells, got published. They later became the inspiration for the famous animated Disney classic and other renditions.

The short segment showed on “Mysteries at the Museum” piqued my interest in Petrus and Catherine, and I had to know more about if they loved each other. There is no way to know for certain what Petrus and Catherine felt. However, the portrait of the couple shows Petrus and Catherine standing side by side. Catherine’s hand is resting on Petrus’ shoulder. From my research, such a gesture shown in artwork was a sign of affection in those days, suggesting Catherine cared about Petrus. And she may have been the only one in the world able to see him for the good man he was.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Veronica Leigh has been published in several anthologies and her work has appeared on and the Artist Unleashed, and she has published a couple of fictional stories. She makes her home in Indiana with her family and her furbabies. To learn more about her, visit her blog.

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