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The title of this book, and the endearing portrait on its cover, are enough in themselves to draw in readers. The 'marvelous hairy girls' were the daughters of Petrus and Catherine Gonzales, and they had inherited hypertrichosis universalis from their father, who was brought to the French court of Henry II and Catherine de Medici in 1547 from his birthplace, the Canary Islands. The condition is extremely rare, with fewer than fifty documented cases worldwide since the sixteenth century. It involves the person being covered with excessive amounts of hair over their entire body, with no other apparent abnormalities.
Apart from the obvious impact upon the individuals so afflicted, why write a book around such an obscure condition? Merry Wiesner-Hanks is a historian, and she does not detail the medical or scientific significance of hypertrichosis universalis, but rather the historical, social, political and religious contexts in which the Gonzales family were regarded. Not much information is known about them, particularly the women, but the author manages to weave a tale of some interest nevertheless.
This is a book for the general reader rather than academics, and is well illustrated with black and white reproductions of paintings and drawings. She begins with an account of the appearance of Antonietta Gonzales as a child by the scientist Ulisse Aldrovandi, which was later included in his Monstrorum historia. This was a catalogue of human and animal abnormalities published after his death in 1642. Antonietta and others of her family were painted by various artists, and one set of huge portraits was kept in a gallery at Schloss Ambras, the summer palace of Ferdinand II, uncle of William V of Bavaria. Throughout the book, Wiesner-Hanks concentrates on the females of the family, because it 'brings the world of all women in the sixteenth century into sharper focus, for even among marvels the lives of women and men were very different' (11).
But before she shows the reader these differences, the author builds the picture of Petrus' origins, the Canary Islands, and the beliefs about monsters existing in distant lands, distinctions between animals and humans, hirsuteness, wild folk and the like. Stories from the ancients about hairy folk in far away places prepared educated people for the appearance of someone like Petrus. The Canary Islands were settled and its people conquered by the Spanish, and some were shipped back to European countries as slaves. When Petrus arrived in Paris, he was presented at court, and 'given' to the king.
Wiesner-Hanks points out that at this time Protestants and Catholics were calling each other 'monsters', beasts and fiends, and religious hatred led to horrific violence. Catherine de Medici was regarded by Protestants as the 'monster of monsters'. Into these terrible times came Petrus, completely covered in hair and looking just a little like a 'monster' himself. However, as she details, Henry 'treated him much like the other children at court' and gave him an education in the humanist tradition, including Latin.
There is a chapter on marriage, childbirth and parenting which gives a clear picture of what people believed about the origins of abnormalities in humans, as well as the practices of the time. A chapter on religion shows quite beautiful miniatures of the Gonzales family done by Joris Hoefnagel; they are part of God's 'creative powers' and sign of His magnificence. However, she also notes the difference between 'marvelous species' as Hoefnagel regarded the Gonzales, and 'monstrous individuals', who were viewed with fear rather than wonder by the majority in the sixteenth century.
Women, particularly married women, generally left little of themselves in records from the times as they were dependant on their husbands in financial and legal matters. The author describes the attitudes towards women in general, which developed from Aristotle (women were monstrous because imperfect) and the Bible (inferior because of Eve's sin etc). In conclusion she reinforces the point about who makes it into the historical records, and who does not: their gender and status determined this, and so great men and great leaders dominate.
What Wiesner-Hanks could not do in her book, therefore, was give the reader a feeling for what the Gonzales women were like as people, or what they thought, even though she states she tried to do this through the text. They left no diaries or letters or written material of any kind. Mind you, there weren't many personal records of the men either, but more than for the women. What she has done is to give us a reasonably well-rounded picture of the sixteenth century from the point of view of a medical abnormality, which also manages to illuminate our own attitudes towards difference and how those attitudes are shaped.
© 2010 Sue Bond
Sue Bond is a writer, reviewer and editor with degrees in literature, creative writing and medicine. She lives in Queensland, Australia.