Tracing Hypertrichosis: Disability In Early Modern Europe

Bethan Davis | 29 November 2021

Colonialism / Disability / Early Modern / Gender / Italy

Antonietta Gonzales by Lavina Fontana, c.1580. In this oil portrait, the Italian painter shows Antonietta in an elaborate embroidered dress and holding a piece of paper giving biographical details about her life: “Don Pietro, a wild man, discovered in the Canary Islands was conveyed to his most serene highness Henry the King of France, and from there came to his excellency the Duke of Parma. From whom [came] I, Antonietta, and now I can be found nearby at the court of Lady Isabella Pallavicina, the honourable Marchesa of Soragna.”  Source: Wikicommons

On a trip to Bologna in 1594, Italian collector, physician and scientist Ulisse Aldrovandi inspected Antonietta Gonzales, a young girl with an unusual condition and brought to him by the Marchesa of Soragna. After studying her extensively, Aldrovandi reported: “The girl’s face was entirely hairy on the front, except for the nostrils and her lips around the mouth.”[1]

Like her father Petrus Gonzales and most of her siblings, Antonietta suffered from the genetic condition hypertrichosis, or Ambras Syndrome, which leads to abnormal hair growth all over the body. This condition is extremely rare, with less than fifty cases documented since the sixteenth century.[2] However the early modern period saw another excessively hairy, or hirsute, figure that appears in the historical records around twenty years after the Gonzales Family. Barbra van Beck was born in Germany, 1629.[3] From the age of ten her parents exhibited her as some kind of ‘oddity’ as she travelled across Europe performing on the harpsichord.

Because of their appearance, many contemporaries believed that those with hypertrichosis could be animals, referring to them as ‘dog haired ladies’ or ‘lion men’. As we reflect on disability history month, studying hypertrichosis in the early modern era illuminates how pre-existing ideas on race and gender helped to construe disabilities in the past.

In her influential article ‘Disability History: Why We Need Another’ Catherine Kudulick calls to view disability not as an individual’s diagnosis, but as a ‘social category’ that is equal to gender and race.[4] Highlighting disability as another social force which strengthened European empires and patriarchy paints a better picture of how the disabled were oppressed. While there is little historiography approaching the Gonzales family and Beck through the lens of disability, tracing their lives allows us to see how they were contextualized as wild and animalistic, and how this affected race and gender. 

The Gonzales family, as painted in courtier clothing, entered royal circles via the pater familias, Petrus Gonzales. He was a Guanche, a native of Tenerife, who was taken from his home as a young boy and raised in the French court by order of Henry II. In most sources documenting his existence, he was referred to as a ‘wild man from the Canary Islands’. However, whether he was seen as wild due to his ethnicity or disability, or both, is hard to gage. 

A biographical account of Petrus describes his life:

“Tenerife brought me forth’ hairy all over my body… [my] second mother France nourished me from boyhood to man/ hood’ and taught me to give up my wild manners,/ And the liberal arts, and to speak Latin.”[5]

Here, the imposition that Catherine de Medici, Queen of France, taught Petrus to ‘give up his wild manners’, and regulated his education through ‘liberal arts and Latin’ to civilise him may not only reflect prejudice towards his disability, but also towards his identity as a Guanche. 

In an anonymous portrait of Petrus, he wears a ruff and a black scholar’s robe edged in red, alluding to his courtier role, yet he’s situated in a cave. Through the juxtaposition between the background and his hirsute condition, and his clothing, the artist may have wanted to emphasize his provenance, as a ‘wild man from the Canary Islands’ rather than his social status.

Portrait of Petrus Gonzales, by unknown artist, 1580s, held currently at: Ambras Castle, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna. Source: Wikicommons

Hypertrichosis is also fascinating in connection to gender, as in the early modern period, hairiness was more accepted in the case of men than that of women. Contemporary scientists considered female facial hair to be ‘monstrous’ and ‘unnatural’ because it was not compatible with the humoural system, as facial hair was considered excrement from the heat created by male sperm.[6]

Beck was referred to a number of times as ‘monstrous’ by those who saw her, and it was only through her role as a mother that Mark Albert Johnston argues Beck was accepted by society.[7] Very little is known about her family, apart from the fact that her daughter was not born with hypertrichosis and that her husband continued to exploit her disability for money, just like her parents had done before him. 

Before pregnancy, depictions of Beck often draw her as child-like, playing the virginal which served to make her hirsuteness seem less threatening to society. . Yet after her pregnancy, Barbra van Beck became more of a ‘natural wonder’ than a monstrous threat to the patriarchy as she was able to carry out her reproductive function in society. This trajectory is illustrated when we compare the artwork depicting Barbra after the 1650s, as historians infer she gave birth around this time.[8]

Republished etching of Barbra Urselin (maiden name) referenced from 1928. Johnston demonstrates the original was made around 1653 Credit: Wellcome Collection.
‘Barbra van Beck, A hirsute woman’, etching by R.Gaywood, 1656, Credit: Wellcome Collection.

The Gonzales family and Beck were exploited for their disability throughout their lives. Their hirsute condition, in the minds of contemporaries, allowed them to be seen and treated as animals. It is interesting how early modern assumptions about Petrus’ race and gender permeated these ideals, while there might have been more acceptance of Beck and her condition due to her ability as a mother. Using disability as a social category is one way of bringing the narratives of disabled people back into history, as it sheds light on the way disabilities were contextualised but also on how they were used to uphold able-bodied, patriarchal and colonial hierarchies.

Bethan Davis is an undergraduate history student at the University of Sheffield. She is currently writing her dissertation on Facial Hair and Gender Identity in Early Modern Europe.

[1] Merry Weisner-Hanks, The Marvelous Gonzales Sisters and Their Words (Cornwall, 2009) p.3

[2] Ibid., p.6.

[3] Mark Albert Johnston, Beard Fetish in Early Modern England: Sex, Gender, and Registers of Value,  (London, 2011) p.190

[4] Catherine J. Kudlick, “Disability History: Why We Need Another ‘Other,’” American Historical Review 108:3 (2003), p. 763.

[5] Joris Hoefnagel,  Animalia Rationala et Insecta (ignis), c.1575-80

[6] Alun Whitney, Concerning Beards: Facial Hair, Health and Practice in England 1650-1900,. (London, 2020) p.4

[7] Mark Albert Johnston, p. 190.

[8]Ibid., p.190.