Literary anthropologies and Pedro González, the “Wild Man” of Tenerife

Katritzky, M. A. (2014). Literary anthropologies and Pedro González, the “Wild Man” of Tenerife. In: Slater, John; Pardo-Tomás, José and López-Terrada, Maríaluz eds. Medical Cultures of the Early Modern Spanish Empire. New Hispanisms: Cultural and Literary Studies. Farnham: Ashgate, pp. 107–128.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315594651

Abstract

Presents two previously unconsidered German print culture documents relating to Pedro González, born in the 1530s on Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands, who passed the medical condition hypertrichosis on to several children and grandchildren. The defining physical symptom of hypertrichosis is permanently or temporarily growing long hair over most of the face and body. Despite its numerous cultural representations in mythology, folklore, and literature, hypertrichosis occurs in human physiology only as a permanent, inherited trait, as in the case of the Gonzalez family, or as a temporary pathological symptom. HLA (hypertrichosis lanuginosa acquisita), a form of non-congenital hypertrichosis, is a significant indicative symptom for certain medical conditions, notably some cancers, and for severe malnutrition, starvation, or anorexia. Extensively recorded in this latter context by physicians, and by historians of disasters such as the nineteenth-century Irish Potato Famine, but previously overlooked in connection with the medieval Wild Man tradition, this article suggests that HLA may underlie the Wild Man’s acquisition, during the famine-ridden twelfth century, of his defining hirsuteness. The two documents under consideration are an account occurring in writings attributed to Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560) first published in 1563, and an image in a work by Eberhard Werner Happel (1647-1690) published in 1685. As well as expanding our knowledge of the González family, these two documents raise wider implications for the early modern classification, representation and reception of hypertrichosis sufferers. Melanchthon’s text illuminates connections between hypertrichosis and the demonic, and Happel’s image situates the González family within the medical context of similar cases. Both Melanchthon and Happel make strong connections between hypertrichosis and hairy-bodied peoples and creatures of classical mythology and fable, the medieval traditions of the hairy anchorite and the Wild Man, and non-European indigenous peoples. Conceptually, the González family stands at the intersection of mythological, folkloric, religious, anthropological, and medical discourses; their story suggests ways in which classification systems, theology, and medical cultures engaged these seemingly disparate fields. As monstrous humans, they fell within the legal category “persona miserabilis.” Developed by medieval legislation to address certain female, old, disabled, or otherwise politically disadvantaged Old World groups, this was extended in the mid-sixteenth century to entire indigenous New World populations of the expanding Spanish empire. Contextualized within the known historical record, the newly identified documents of the Wild Man of Tenerife presented here illuminate early modern ideas about definitions and borders of the human—with respect to the supernatural, the zoological natural world, and indigenous peoples brought within the jurisdiction of Spain’s civil and canon law by the long reach of its cultural and military influence.

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