The Marvelous Hairy Girls

A family suffering an unusual condition and their experience of their world intrigues Peter J. Smith

August 6, 2009

Maddalena, Francesca and Antonietta were the daughters of Petrus Gonzales (c 1537-1618). Along with their father and their brothers, Enrico and Orazio, they exhibited the symptoms of a dermatological anomaly called hypertrichosis universalis: much of their bodies, including the face and hands, were covered with hair. The condition is extremely rare with "fewer than fifty cases... documented world-wide since the sixteenth century".

Paradoxically, the inconspicuousness of such a noticeable family as the Gonzaleses in the historiography indicates the tunnel vision, according to Merry Wiesner-Hanks, of much historical method, and their "re-emergence is linked with the expansion of history itself, from a largely political and military story to one that explores every aspect of human experience and every type of person".

In restoring the hairy girls to our historical purview, Wiesner-Hanks' project is symptomatic of a shift in the practice of history itself that opens it up to its cognate and constituent branches: "art history, the history of science and medicine, the history of ideas, the history of popular culture and folklore, the history of marginalised groups, the history of human oddities". This enfranchisement of hitherto dispossessed histories both relies upon and follows consequentially the development of "feminist theory, post-colonial theory, queer theory, disability theory, and yes, even monster theory". In this way, The Marvelous Hairy Girls is at once a consideration of the Gonzales' "double identity" (since they were both "freaks of nature" and were regular residents at the court of Henry II of France) and a meta-history, concerned to reflect on the traditional priorities of the discipline while drawing hitherto marginal concerns back to the centre.

But in attempting to reconfigure conventional historical programmes, particularly where documentary evidence is thin on the ground, Wiesner-Hanks is, from time to time, forced to hypothesise: "I have tried as much as possible (and probably more than I should, as a historian and not a novelist) to include some speculations about what they themselves might have thought, how they might have understood the worlds in which they lived." As she concedes, the book is somewhere between a historical study and a creative fiction. It is thus a work of popular history rather than a scholarly or original investigation.

Much here is familiar. Wiesner-Hanks provides discussions of early modern travel and exploration; marriage and the status of women; European religious strife; the life of the courtier; medicine and childbirth and the rise of the new science. But the book's strength is that all of these topics are discussed vivaciously as contexts or (in the term used in the subtitle) "worlds" that the Gonzales family inhabited and from which their medical condition may have taken on further and unfamiliar meanings. For instance, the fact that Petrus was born on Tenerife is discussed in the light of westward exploration and contemporary encounters between Europeans and indigenous peoples so that his hairiness is another of those exotic or "monstrous" physical qualities displayed by mythical creatures described by Pliny or, in drama, by Shakespeare.

Elsewhere, monstrous births are discussed as prodigies from God in order to warn against or even punish sinful behaviour; Wiesner-Hanks notes that Augustine linked the words monstrum ("monster") and monstrare ("to point to"). What we nowadays consider to be unfortunate congenital deformities were signs of God's anger: clearly, the birth of a hairy child would have carried such a portentous significance.

In setting her discussion of the lives and afterlives of this unusual family within broader epistemic horizons, Wiesner-Hanks provides not only a tantalising glimpse into early modern philosophy, medicine and science, but also a shrewd consideration of the changing face(s) of history.

The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and their Worlds

By Merry Wiesner-Hanks

Yale University Press, 256pp, £18.99

ISBN 97803001331

Published 14 May 2009

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