To Main Page

To The Book List

International Folktales Collection

To Next Book

To Previous Book

Book No. 3

To first story in the book press: 56

To last story in the book press: 132

Gypsy Folk Tales

Groome Francis Hindes

Gypsy Folk Tales by Francis Hindes Groome, 1899

Francis Hindes Groome was one of the small group of 19th century folklorists who immersed themselves in Roma (Gypsy) life. This was in the heroic period of the study of folklore, when devoted scholars built up the field from scratch. Even then, however, it was obvious that there were universal story motifs that spanned continents and cultures. Groome hypothesized that the nomadic Roma had been a primary conduit for the transfer of a common body of stories across a broad region of Eurasia.

Today we know that many of these themes not only span Eurasia, but are present in the folklore of people in Africa, Polynesia, Australia, and the New World, who are separated by millennia and oceans from Europe. The fairy-tale narrative of a protagonist of humble origin who goes on magical journeys of transformation, aided by animal guides, tales of tricksters, and evil step-relations are found around the world. So diffusion is less attractive as a hypothesis. These stories seem to be embedded in the deep structure of our consciousness.

This book is a treasure trove of classic 'Gypsyology', and makes fascinating reading for everyone interested in the Roma people and folklore in general. These are not watered down 'fairy tales,' but sophisticated and often earthy stories, with 'Adult situations.' Groome edited this material with a very light hand, and made no attempt to correct plot holes or inconsistencies, as in the some of the more bowdlerized 19th century folklore books. He simply lets the story teller weave their spell on us.


I AM no folklorist; I have merely dabbled in folklore as a branch of the great Egyptian Question, which includes also intricate problems of philology, ethnology, craniology, archæology, history, music, and what not besides. But for twenty years I have been trying to interest folklorists in Gypsy folk-tales. Vainly so far; and during those twenty years there have died Dr. Paspati, Dr. Barbu Constantinescu, Dr. Franz von Miklosich, Dr. Isidore Kopernicki, M. Paul Bataillard, and John Roberts, the Welsh-Gypsy harper: with them much has perished that folklorists should not have willingly let go. Meanwhile, however, a Rómani Grimm has arisen in Mr. John Sampson, the librarian of University College, Liverpool. With unparalleled generosity he has placed his collections at my free disposal--I trust I have not made too lavish use of them,--and has read, moreover, every page of the proofs of this volume, enriching it from the depths of his knowledge of 'matters of Egypt.' Another, a very old friend, to whom my debt is great, is the Rev. Thomas Davidson, author of the admirable folklore articles in Chambers's Encyclopædia; he has lent me scores of scarce works from his unrivalled folklore library. Others to whom I owe acknowledgments are: Mr. Tom Taylor, Mr. W. R. S. Ralston, Mr. W. A. Clouston, Dr. Hyde Clarke, Professor Bensly (all five also dead), Mrs. Gomme, Mr. H. Browne of Bucharest, Mr. Robert Burns, Lord Archibald Campbell, Mr. Archibald Constable, Mr. H. T. Crofton,

p. vi

[paragraph continues] Professor Dobschütz of Jena, Mr. Fitzedward Hall, Dean Kitchin, Mr. William Larminie, Mr. David MacRitchie, M. Omont of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Dr. David Patrick, Dr. Fearon Ranking, Mr. Rufus B. Richardson of Athens, Professor Sayce, and Dr. Rudolf von Sowa of Brünn. And, finally, I would thank in advance whoever may send me corrections, additions, or suggestions on the subject of Gypsy folk-tales.





Distribution of Gypsies.

No race is more widely scattered over the earth's surface than the Gypsies; the very Jews are less ubiquitous. Go where one will in Europe, one comes upon Gypsies everywhere--from Finland to Sicily, from the shores of the Bosporus to the Atlantic seaboard. Something under a million is their probable number in Europe; of these Hungary claims 275,000, Roumania 200,000, Servia 38,000, and Bulgaria 52,000. How many Gypsies there are in Great Britain I have not the vaguest notion, for there are no statistics of the slightest value to go by. 1 But I have never lived for any length of time in any place--and I have stayed in most parts of both England and Scotland--without lighting sooner or later on nomadic or house-dwelling Gypsies. London and all round London, the whole Thames valley as high at least as Oxford, the Black Country, Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, and Yarmouth, it is here I should chiefly look for settled Gypsies. Whilst from study of parish registers, local histories, and suchlike, and from my own knowledge, I doubt if there is the parish between Land's End and John o’ Groats where Gypsies have not pitched their camp some time or other in the course of the last four centuries.

Asia has untold thousands of these wanderers, in Anatolia, Syria, Armenia, Persia, Turkestan, and Siberia, perhaps also India and China; so, too, has Africa, in Egypt, Algeria, Darfûr, and Kordofan. We find them in both the Americas, from Pictou in Canada to Rio in Brazil; nor are New Zealand and Australia without at least their isolated bands.

To-day at any rate the sedentary Gypsies must greatly outnumber the nomadic: in Hungary only 9000, or less than one-thirtieth of the entire number, are returned as 'constantly on the move.' Still the race has always been largely a migratory race; its wide distribution is due to bygone migrations. Of these the most important known to us is that of the first half of the fifteenth century, whose movements have been so lovingly and laboriously traced by the late

p. x

[paragraph continues] M. Paul Bataillard in his Dè l’Apparition et de la Dispersion des Bohémiens en Europe (1844), Nouvelles Recherches (1849), and 'Immigration of the Gypsies into Western Europe in the Fifteenth Century' (Gypsy Lore Journal, April 1889 to January 1890, for pages 1).



ix:1 According to the Spectator (24th December 1897) ten thousand Gypsies wintered in Surrey in 1896-97!

x:1 I shall have frequent occasion to refer to the Gypsy Lore Journal (3 vols. 1888-92), which should in time be one of the libri rarissimi, as the issue was limited to 150 copies, many of which are sure to have perished. There are complete sets, however, at the British Museum, the Bodleian, the Edinburgh Advocates' Library, Leyden, Berlin, Munich, Cracow, Rome, Madrid, Harvard, and twelve other public libraries.


Folk-tales are scarcely literature, but a question affecting the world's literature arises out of these Gypsy folk-tales. Was the author of The Pilgrim's Progress an English peasant or a Gypsy half-breed? The Rev. J. Brown, in John Bunyan . his Life, Times, and Work (1885), shows that the family of Bunyan--a name spelt in thirty-four different ways--was established in Bedfordshire as early at least as 1199, and that in 1327 a William Bownon was living at Elstow on the very spot where John Bunyan was born in 1628. There is a gap in the Bunyan annals between 1327 and 1542, when one finds a William Bonyon of Elstow, as in 1548 a Thomas Bonyon, aged forty-six or more. Next come a Thomas Bunyon, 'Pettie Chapman,' who died in 1641, and his son, also Thomas Bunyon (1603-76), who, says Mr. Brown, is 'usually spoken of as a tinker, but describes himself as a "braseyer."' This second Thomas took for his second wife in 1627 an Elstow woman, Margaret Bentley (1603-44), and John was the first child of that marriage. He, as every one knows, was an itinerant though house-dwelling tinker (Brown, pp. 64, 119, 158, etc.); and his eldest son, John, 'was brought up to the ancestral trade of a brazier, and carried on business in Bedford till his death in 1728' (id. pp. 201-2). That is all of the essential to he gleaned about Bunyan's pedigree; we know nothing as to his grandmother or great-grandmother.

With this evidence, then, before him, Canon Venables pronounced, in the Dictionary of National Biography (vii., 1886, p. 276), that 'the antiquity of the family in Bunyan's native county effectually disposes of the strange hallucination, which even Sir Walter Scott was disposed to favour, that the Bunyans, "though reclaimed and settled," may have sprung from the Gipsy tribe.' By no means necessarily, as may be seen from a single example. During 1870-75 I often came across members of the Bunce family in Oxfordshire, Wilts, Herts, and Somerset. Stephen Bunce, of Wiltshire yeoman ancestry, had thirty years earlier married Phoebe Buckland, a thorough-bred Gypsy woman, had himself turned tent-dweller, and 'travelled' the southern counties till his death. They had a largish family; and many, perhaps most, of their sons and daughters have married Gypsies of more or less purity. One son was (and maybe is still) a small farmer and horse-dealer,

p. 294

living in a house of his own at Pewsey. Now, if a son or a grandson of his rose to eminence, he could not by Canon Venables' argument be a Gypsy, because, forsooth! the Bunces are an old Wiltshire family.

The chief upholder of Bunyan's Gypsy ancestry was Mr. James Simson, a Scoto-American of New York, the editor of Walter Simson's History of the Gipsies (1865); and author of John Bunyan and the Gipsies (1882) and a whole host of similar pamphlets. He pointed out that Bunyan writes in his Grace Abounding: 'For my descent, it was, as is well known to many, of a low and inconsiderable generation; my father's house being of that rank that is meanest and most despised of all the families of the land.' And again: 'After I had been thus for some considerable time, another thought came into my mind, and that was, whether we were of the Israelites or no. For, finding in the Scriptures that they were once the peculiar people of God, thought I, if I were one of this race, my soul must needs be happy. Now, again, I found within me a great longing to be resolved about this question, but could not tell how I should. At last, I asked my father, who told me, No, we were not.' And yet again: 'I often, when these temptations had been with force upon me, did compare myself to the case of such a child whom some Gipsy hath by force took up in her arms, and is carrying from friend and country.'

Kidnapping has never been a Gypsy practice (In Gypsy Tents, pp. 244-46), nor, though it were, would a Gypsy, even a converted Gypsy, be likely to use it as an illustration. But Mr. Simson's two first passages are really pertinent. The Anglo-Israelite craze was not devised till 1793; and it is hard to conceive why about 1645 an English peasant-boy should have speculated on a Jewish origin for himself and his kindred. But with a Gypsy it would not the least surprise me. I hardly ever see Frampton Boswell, an English Gypsy of fifty, but he returns to the question, 'And there's one thing, Mr. Groome, I've been wanting to ask you about, and that is where you think our people originated.' Hindoos, Jews, and Egyptians are regularly passed in review, but Frampton cannot make up his mind, as neither can he about Rómani, except that 'for certain ’tisn't one of the Seven Languages.'

Tinker in Bunyan's day indubitably carried a suggestion at least of Gypsydom. I have not been able to see The Tinker of Turvey, 1 or Canterbury Tales (Lond. 1630, ed. by J. O. Halliwell), to which Mr. Brown refers, but from his few quotations on p. 34 it seems evident that that 'strolling Tincker and brave mettle-man' regarded himself as something widely different from an ordinary English artificer. Sir Thomas Overbury in his well-known Characters (1614) describes 'The Tinker,' the companion of whose travels 'is some foul sun-burnt quean, that since the terrible statute recanted gypsism and is turned pedlaress. So marches he all

p. 295

over England with his bag and baggage,' etc. In an article by A. H. A. Hamilton on 'Quarter Sessions under Charles i. from original records of Devon' (Fraser's Mag., Jan. 1877) is a quotation concerning 'sundry suspect persons, Roagues both sturdy and begging vagrant, some whereof pretend to be petty chapmen [like Bunyan's grandfather], others peddlers, others glassmen, tynckers, others palmesters, fortune readers, Egiptians, and the like.' Brazier is a frequent designation of Gypsies at the present day--e.g. the baptismal register of Hill, Sutton Coldfield, has 'Jan. 27, 1866, Miriam Kate Agnes, daughter of Benjamin and Mira Boswell, cutler and brazier'; and that of Boothroyd, Dewsbury, has 'Mary Jane dr of Thomas and Mary Green, Dewsbury Moor, Brazier of the Gipsey tribe.' The occurrence in the Bunyan pedigree of such Gypsy 'Christian' names as Mantis and Perun, Delarīfa and Meralíni, would be a strong point, but is entirely lacking. On the other hand, 'gaujified' or gentilised Gypsies often drop such names; two brothers of my acquaintance, Oti and Lazzy, became thus plain William and George. A contemporary description of Bunyan (Brown, p. 399) as 'tall of stature, strong-boned, though not corpulent, somewhat of a ruddy face, with sparkling eyes . . . his hair reddish,' runs rather against the theory of Bunyan's Gypsy ancestry, but not conclusively, for I have known two Gypsy brothers, one very swarthy, the other red-haired.

The strongest corroboration of that theory was unknown to both Mr. Simson and Mr. Brown. In Notes and Queries for January 24, 1891, p. 67, 'R.' cited an entry from the parish register of St. Mary's, Launceston: '1586, March the ivth daie was christened Nicholas, sonne of James Bownia, an Egiptia rogue.' Here 'Egiptia' (? Egiptiā) must stand for 'Egiptian'; 'Bownia' similarly should be 'Bownian,' and, if so, we have veritable Gypsy Bunyans. It may seem a far cry from Launceston in Cornwall to Elstow in Bedfordshire, were nomads not in case; in time, the interval between this baptism and the birth of 'the inspired tinker' is but forty-two years.

But, anyhow, whether Bunyan was Gypsy 1 or Gentile, folk-tales (plus the Bible) seem to me quite as likely a source of inspiration for his Pilgrim's Progress and Holy War as (say) the fourteenth century Pélerinage de l’Homme or the siege of the Anabaptists at Münster. I do not believe this has ever before been suggested; I will merely suggest it, and leave the working out of it to folklorists.



294:1 Turvey, a parish near Elstow, was a Gypsy abode long after Bunyan's day; at it, in 1822-25, Legh Richmond buried two Gypsies--James Smith, and his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Robinson, both of the reputed age of 105. Robinson was a surname of descendants of Bunyan.

295:1 There are those to whom the notion will seem monstrous that the author of The Pilgrim's Progress should have been 'a gipsy!' I would remind such that at the present day there is Mr. George Smith, the Converted Gypsy, of the Potteries, who conducts missions in Edinburgh and other large cities. I have never heard him myself, but I am assured by a competent judge that he is a really eloquent preacher. Then there was William Mitchel (1672-1740), the Edinburgh 'Tinklarian Doctor,' author of a score of prophetical pamphlets. There was Thomas Wright, the tinker Berean of Barnsley, who baptized Ebenezer Elliott in 1781. And there was the founder of the American Shakers, 'Mother' Ann Lee (1736-86), a Manchester blacksmith's illiterate daughter, who married in 1762 the blacksmith Abraham Stanley. The conjunction of the surnames Lee and Stanley, of the smith's craft, and of the illiteracy, renders it almost certain in my mind that these were Gypsies.

To Next Book

To Privious Book