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Rob Hardy: Human wonders and specimens


Rob Hardy



On the cover of the new book by historian Merry Wiesner-Hanks is the portrait of a young girl dressed in Renaissance finery, an elaborate and lacy dress. She smiles slightly and looks directly at the viewer with big brown eyes. She has flowers in her hair. But she has hair not only at the top of her head, but all over her forehead, cheeks and chin. 


She is Antonietta Gonzales, and she is one of the main characters in “The Marvelous Hairy Girls” (Yale University Press), the story of a family from the 16th century that had what doctors would now call “hypertrichosis universalis,” a rare mutation that causes excessive hairiness. 


What the doctors of her own time made of her, and courtiers, philosophers, priests and the public besides, is the story here. There are many portraits of Antonietta and her family, but they didn’t leave us written records, and there are only a few written accounts by others. Wiesner-Hanks’s book, therefore, is not even close to a biography, but is rather a good excuse to look at the superstitions, religious beliefs, court procedures and medical thinking of that distant age. 


The Gonzales family represent a sizable chunk of the fewer than 50 documented cases of their genetic condition. 


The father was Petrus, born in the 1530s in the Canary Islands. He was taken as a boy from the islands, probably as a slave, and because of his curiosity value, he wound up in Paris. Courts at the time were fond of oddities; everyone knows that they liked their dwarves, for instance. Henry II and Catherine de Medici took the boy and educated him. 


He became a court figure because Henry did not treat him as an exotic savage or a member of the royal zoo. In fact, Henry gave him an education in a new form of learning called humanism, concentrating on the classics. He also made Petrus “an assistant bearer of the King’s bread,” one of those innumerable positions that royalty of the time could not do without. We don’t know exactly what Henry’s motives were, nor what other courtiers thought of Petrus. Perhaps they found it funny that a beast could be dressed up in fancy clothing and spout Latin.  


This brings the author to one of the themes found in all the chapters here: How did people differentiate between animals and beasts? 


This was a complicated issue, especially when even women were regarded by many (following Aristotle) as less than human. Ancient Greek legends featured half-human, half-animal beasts like centaurs, but centaurs were often wise creatures. It was easy to think of Petrus as something between human and wolf, and a half-and-half monster was regarded in his time as an outcome of an unnatural intercourse between a human and an animal. It wasn’t necessarily bestiality that produced such monsters, although that was worrisome enough. Demons might show up in the form of seductive animals, and this would do the trick. 


People of that time would have had the worry about werewolves, too, and in the many pictures shown here, Petrus looks like nothing so much as Lon Chaney in makeup for his werewolf role. His appearance, however, contrasted with his personality. Duke William V of Bavaria wrote his sister, “... he is not wild, as one would think. The man is actually a refined and courteous fellow, but just shaggy.” 


When Petrus grew up, he married. His bride was a Parisian woman who had no physical abnormality, and was beautiful. His Catherine would have had to consent to the marriage, but quite possibly the king arranged it; it was not at all unusual for royalty to designate marriages for the court. Why she agreed, we cannot know. 


The author speculates that the marriage, with financial support, might have been arranged by the queen, or perhaps the prospective bride was of an elevated frame of mind “better than most people of her day to ignore standard ideas about monsters, beasts, and wild men, and to see the person in the animal-like exterior.” Perhaps it was a love match. 


Whatever the case, the paintings show a contented couple, along with the eventual progeny. One son had normal hair, and three other sons had their father’s hair, as did daughters Maddalena, Francesca and Antonietta. 


The family moved to Parma around 1590, under the protection of dukes and cardinals there, but were still living curiosities. Maddalena married the man in charge of the Duke of Parma’s hunting dogs, and got a house as a dowry from the Duke thereby. Again, perhaps (and we have many occurrences of “perhaps“ in this story because even the author’s thorough research has turned up little direct biographical information about the main characters) this was an arranged match because the Duke thought it would be funny to have his dog man marry a dog woman. 


There is no indication that the family was different from anyone else except for hair, and it seems that they may have been curiosities but they were not outcasts. They would have been regarded as monsters by many, at least initially, and Wiesner-Hanks gives a wonderful history of how people regarded monsters through the family’s time. 


Monsters had been confidently described by Pliny the Elder, who told of a tribe, each of whose members had only one leg, but the leg was equipped with a huge foot that could be held aloft as an umbrella. Many Renaissance scholars deferred to the truths of such classical learning. The church added to the legends, with stories like that of St. Wilgefortis, first described in the 14th century, a Christian daughter of a pagan king, she prayed for a miraculous escape from an upcoming arranged pagan marriage. God answered the prayer by making hair grow all over her face, and her pagan fiancé backed out. Not only was this an ambiguous answer to the poor woman’s prayers, her father thereupon had her crucified. 


The saint was popular with women, especially those with abusive husbands, and some clerics worried that women were praying to her not just to stop abuse but to get rid of any husband who was merely an annoyance. This was the sort of tale that Martin Luther would have thought was Catholic nonsense, but in her chapter on marriage and births, the author gives Luther’s report to his students about a pregnant woman who had been frightened by a dormouse and because of it, she gave birth to a dormouse. (This sort of superstition still persists, of course, as do many others reported here.)  


The church was forever trying to impose a moral meaning on such oddities and monsters, and in the 16th century there was an opinion that monstrosities were increasing. A monstrous child might be just the punishment its sinful unwedded parents deserved, but was also a warning to all sinners to knock off all that sinning. Catholics tended to interpret monsters as being warnings of how heretical those Protestants were, and Protestants thought the monsters were warnings of how rapidly the end of the world was approaching. 


It is refreshing to read the words of the physician Felix Platter, one of the doctors who examined the Gonzales children. Unlike other physicians and learned men, he described what he saw, and he did not try to explain why the children had so much hair (indeed, he brings up other peoples’ explanations only to dismiss them). For him, everyone had hair and these children simply had an excess; it was not a matter in which one could search for an instructive moral. 


Relatively little of this book is specifically about the Gonzales family. Wiesner-Hanks has used them to take a look at a huge number of related subjects, and she always has another surprising fact to tell us about the court protocols, midwifery, gender politics, secret marriages, the history of the people of the Canary Islands, the popular interpretation of wonders and monsters and much more. It was a strange time, but the story of this hirsute family is an optimistic one. 


They seem to have been well-treated, even if they were specimens. Those who valued them were collectors of curiosities, the forerunners of the museum curators


Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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