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  • The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Girls and their World
  • Mary E. Fissell
The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Girls and their World. By Merry Wiesner-Hanks (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2009) 250 pp. $30.00

In 1547, Petrus Gonzales, a young boy, was brought from the Canary Islands to the French court of Henry II, where he was educated in Latin and grew up to be one of hundreds of courtiers. He was remarkable because he had hair over much of his body. Weisner-Hanks traces his story as he grew up, married a beautiful woman, and had a family with a number of hairy children, including the “hairy girls” of the title. From our perspective, this family may have been afflicted with a specific very rare syndrome (hypertrichosis universalis); only about fifty cases are known. But in their own day, these individuals were significant far beyond any medical diagnosis. Over the past decade, historians of early modern Europe have begun to reckon with the meanings of monstrosity. Works such as Lorraine Daston and Katharine Parks’ Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150–1750 (New York, 1998) have shown us that the exceptions, marginal to our own scientific endeavors, were quite the opposite in the early modern period. Natural philosophers were entranced by monstrosity, convinced that close examination of nature’s most bizarre productions would illuminate the workings of nature overall.

Weisner-Hanks’ book builds upon these insights, showing us that [End Page 442] the Gonzales family pop up all over early modern Europe. Felix Platter, noted Basle physician, examined one of the girls; Ulisse Aldrovandi, renowned natural philosopher, devoted a number of pages in his encyclopedia of monstrosity to the family. Portraits of them circulated widely among the courts of Europe.

The book’s method is to take aspects of the Gonzales family’s story and place them in a larger context to reconstruct how their contemporaries might have interpreted them. At times, the method is revelatory. For example, Petrus came from the Canary Islands, a place associated with the very rich set of European legends and beliefs about wild men; he was understood through the lens of such legends and, in turn, his existence confirmed their truth. Other connections feel more tenuous. For example, Wiesner’s link between John Knox’s 1558 polemic against female rulers, the so-called “monstrous regiment of women,” and the meanings that contemporaries drew from the Gonzales family seems like a stretch. But while Petrus was being educated at the court of Henry II, so too was Mary Stuart, later to become the impetus for Knox’s book. Such contextual suggestions may be the only way to recover the extensive web of associations that early modern Europeans, both learned and unlearned, had as their interpretive repertoire when they encountered the anomalous, the monstrous, or the bizarre.

Chapters explore heresy and monstrosity, medical knowledge about monsters, cabinets of curiosities and the cultures of collecting, and ideas about reproduction and birth. The book is written in an engaging style that will appeal to the general reader as it excavates layers of meaning associated with this unique family.

Mary E. Fissell
Johns Hopkins University


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pp. 442-443
Launched on MUSE
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