To Hairiness!

Cathy Gere

  • The Marvellous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and Their Worlds by Merry Wiesner-Hanks
    Yale, 248 pp, £18.99, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 300 12733 1

The first culture to be extinguished as a result of European imperialism was that of the Guanches, the light-skinned indigenous population of the Canary Islands. In 1402, the Kingdom of Castile sent a small band of mercenaries to the island of Lanzarote. They built a fortress, captured the ruler of one of the smaller islands and forced a military surrender, followed by Christian baptism for the subjugated population. After this smooth beginning, things became more difficult for the Spanish, and it took them more than 90 years to conquer all seven islands. Despite being armed only with javelins and rocks, the Guanches’ knowledge of the mountainous terrain and their determination to hang onto their land and way of life made them formidable opponents. Eventually the plague achieved what horses, cannon, armour and muskets could not, and on Christmas Day 1495 the last of the Guanches surrendered on Tenerife, where resistance had been fiercest. The remaining insurgents were hunted down from the hills, their traditional dress was outlawed and they were sold as slaves or put to work on one of the new sugar plantations. In the slave markets of Cadiz and Seville the Guanches were prized for their strength and agility, and reports of their doomed courage in battles against the Europeans made them ideal candidates for the part of the first savages to be ennobled by their defeat.

In 1547, a young boy from Tenerife was shipped to Paris by the Spanish and given to the French court as a present. His name was Petrus Gonzales, and to the exoticism of his place of origin was added a hereditary condition that made him a natural curiosity. Gonzales was hairy. Not just his body, but his face too was covered in hair, leaving only his eyes, mouth and nostrils visible. Here was a wild boy from the conquered islands who really looked the part. Crucially for his career at court, Gonzales’s facial hair was the wildest thing about him. Attractive, blond, Spanish-speaking and sweet-smelling, he was a luxury item presented to Henri II as a favour-currying gift. He was given a minor position in the elaborate hierarchy of servants who supplied the king with his every need. Later on he married a woman who was reputed to be a soft-skinned beauty, and the couple had a number of children, most of them hairy like their father. Among the hirsute offspring were three girls: Maddalena, Francesca and Antonietta.

As Merry Wiesner-Hanks admits in the preface of The Marvellous Hairy Girls, everything that is known about the Gonzales family can be told in a few pages, and so most of her book consists of lengthy disquisitions on such matters as Spanish conquests, the world of the court, marriage, childbirth, family life, religion and early modern science. The material is fascinating, but the Gonzaleses tend to get lost in the mix, their story told out of chronological order in fragments that serve only to introduce Wiesner-Hanks’s themes. Given the amount of detective work involved in locating all the evidence about the family, it seems a pity to leave it to the reader to assemble the jigsaw puzzle.

Fascination with the unclipped and untamed had a long history in early modern Europe. A shaggy, club-wielding wild man clothed in animal skins was a stock figure at village festivals and city carnivals; a source of titillation and fear. Bearded witches might be cooking up their brews in the next village, while werewolves haunted the woods and monkey women roamed distant lands. After the conquest of the Canaries, the connotations of hairiness became more positive, as near-naked, hairy muscle men came to represent strength, naturalness and freedom, and were incorporated into the coat of arms of more than 200 families. In Basel, a men’s club called Zur Haaren – ‘To Hairiness!’ – commissioned a hairy man emblem from Holbein the Younger.

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