Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Merry Wiesner-Hanks' "The Marvelous Hairy Girls"

Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks is Distinguished Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her many books include Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World and the prize-winning Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, now in its third edition.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and Their Worlds, and reported the following:
I first saw the portrait that is on the book’s cover—done by the Italian painter Lavinia Fontana, who as a woman artist in the Renaissance was herself an oddity—when I was looking for something else, and I decided I had to learn more about the hairy little girl in the pink brocade dress. The result is The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and their Worlds, which tells the story of three sixteenth-century sisters, who, along with their father and brothers, were afflicted with what doctors now call hypertrichosis universales, so that their bodies were covered with hair. Their father, Petrus Gonzales, was born on the Canary Islands, taken as a small boy to the French court of Henry II and Catherine de Medici, and educated there. He was given a minor position at court (as an assistant bearer of the king’s bread) and married a normal Parisian woman, during the time when France was being torn apart by the wars of religion. The couple had a number of children, most of them hairy. In the 1590s, the family moved to Italy, where they were part of the entourage of the Farnese family, which included dukes and cardinals who were interested in oddities and the exotic. Here the fate of the three sisters paralleled that of most women in the sixteenth century: one died young; one remained unmarried and died in middle age; and one married—to the keeper of the Farneses’ hunting dogs--and had children, one of whom was probably hairy. Their noble patrons dressed the Gonzales family in luxurious clothing, which further highlighted their double identities: human and beast, civilized and wild, courtier and monster. Their many portraits ended up on castle walls and in the “cabinets of curiosities” natural scientists were assembling with thousands of wonderful and weird objects, the roots of today’s museums.

Page 99 is in the middle of Chapter Three, “Massacring Beasts, Monstrous Women, and Educated Gentlemen: The World of the Court.” It tells the story of Petrus’ life in Paris, where:

Nobles vied with each other to carry out tasks associated with the physical needs of the monarch—bringing in breakfast, handing napkins, emptying the royal chamber pot. As Petrus carried the king’s bread, he may have walked beside, or at least close behind, some of France’s most powerful individuals.Though we may view such service activities as demeaning or even disgusting, they offered great opportunities for personal access to the ruler.

As does the rest of the book, this page uses the Gonzales family as a lens to see the larger worlds in which they lived, and finds unusual parallels. The “massacring beasts” of the chapter’s title (which is at the top of the page, so technically on p. 99!) are the Catholic “wolves” and Calvinist “beasts” who were brutally killing each other, the “monstrous women” female rulers such as Catherine de Medici, and the “educated gentlemen” courtiers who were taught—as was Petrus—to speak Latin as part of the new humanist learning. Other chapters range over many other things to which they were connected, such as ideas about hairy wild folk at home and beyond Europe, devotion to a hairy Mary Magdalene and to a God that created such wonders, and marriage patterns that made such a family possible.
Read an excerpt from The Marvelous Hairy Girls, and learn more about the book at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue