The Writings of Prosper Mérimée/Volume 1/Carmen/Chapter 4


Spain is one of the countries in which those nomads, scattered all over Europe, and known as Bohemians, Gitanas, Gipsies, Zigeuner, and so forth, are now to be found in the greatest numbers. Most of these people live, or rather wander hither and thither, in the southern and eastern provinces of Spain, in Andalusia, and Estramadura, in the kingdom of Nurcia. There are a great many of them in Catalonia. These last frequently cross over into France and are to he seen at all our southern fairs. The men generally call themselves grooms, horse doctors, mule-clippers; to these trades they add the mending of saucepans and brass utensils, not to mention smuggling and other illicit practices. The women tell fortunes, beg, and sell all sorts of drugs, some of which are innocent, while some are not. The physical characteristics of the gipsies are more easily distinguished than described, and when you have known one, you should be able to recognise a member of the race among a thousand other men. It is by their physiognomy and expression, especially, that they differ from the other inhabitants of the same country. Their complexion is exceedingly swarthy, always darker than that of the race among whom they live. Hence the name of calé (blacks) which they frequently apply to themselves.[1] Their eyes, set with a decided slant, are large, very black, and shaded by long and heavy lashes. Their glance can only be compared to that of a wild creature. It is full at once of boldness and shyness, and in this respect their eyes are a fair indication of their national character, which is cunning, bold, but with "the natural fear of blows," like Panurge. Most of the men are strapping fellows, slight and active. I don't think I ever saw a gipsy who had grown fat. In Germany the gipsy women are often very pretty; but beauty is very uncommon among the Spanish gitanas. When very young, they may pass as being attractive in their ugliness, but once they have reached motherhood, they become absolutely repulsive. The filthiness of both sexes is incredible, and no one who has not seen a gipsy matron's hair can form any conception of what it is like, not even if he conjures up the roughest, the greasiest, and the dustiest heads imaginable. In some of the large Andalusian towns certain of the gipsy girls, somewhat better looking than their fellows, will take more care of their personal appearance. These go out and earn money by performing dances strongly resembling those forbidden at our public balls in carnival time. An English missionary, Mr. Borrow, the author of two very interesting works on the Spanish gipsies, whom he undertook to convert on behalf of the Bible Society, declares there is no instance of any gitana showing the smallest weakness for a man not belonging to her own race. The praise he bestows upon their chastity strikes me as being exceedingly exaggerated. In the first place, the great majority are in the position of the ugly woman described by Ovid, "Casta quam nemo rogavit." As for the pretty ones, they are, like all Spanish women, very fastidious in choosing their lovers. Their fancy must be taken, and their favour must be earned. Mr. Borrow quotes, in proof of their virtue, one trait which does honour to his own, and especially to his simplicity: he declares that an immoral man of his acquaintance offered several gold ounces to a pretty gitana, and offered them in vain. An Andalusian, to whom I retailed this anecdote, asserted that the immoral man in question would have been far more successful if he had shown the girl two or three piastres, and that to offer gold ounces to a gipsy was as poor a method of persuasion as to promise a couple of millions to a tavern wench. However that may be, it is certain that the gitana shows the most extraordinary devotion to her husband. There is no danger and no suffering she will not brave, to help him in his need. One of the names which the gipsies apply to themselves, Romé, or "the married couple," seems to me a proof of their racial respect for the married state. Speaking generally, it may be asserted that their chief virtue is their patriotism—if we may thus describe the fidelity they observe in all their relations with persons of the same origin as their own, their readiness to help one another, and the inviolable secrecy which they keep for each other's benefit, in all compromising matters. And, indeed, something of the same sort may be noticed in all mysterious associations which are beyond the pale of the law.

Some months ago, I paid a visit to a gipsy tribe in the Vosges country. In the hut of an old woman, the oldest member of the tribe, I found a gipsy, in no way related to the family, who was sick of a mortal disease. The man had left a hospital, where he was well cared for, so that he might die among his own people. For thirteen weeks he had been lying in bed in their encampment, and receiving far better treatment than any of the sons and sons-in-law who shared his shelter. He had a good bed made of straw and moss, and sheets that were tolerably white, whereas all the rest of the family, which numbered eleven persons, slept on planks three feet long. So much for their hospitality. This very same woman, humane as was her treatment of her guest, said to me constantly before the sick man: "Singo, singo, homte hi mulo." "Soon, soon he must die!" After all, these people live such miserable lives, that a reference to the approach of death can have no terrors for them.

One remarkable feature in the gipsy character is their indifference about religion. Not that they are strong-minded, or sceptical. They have never made any profession of atheism. Far from that, indeed, the religion of the country which they inhabit is always theirs; but they change their religion when they change the country of their residence. They are equally free from the superstitions which replace religious feeling in the minds of the vulgar. How, indeed, can superstition exist among a race which, as a rule, makes its livelihood out of the credulity of others? Nevertheless, I have remarked a particular horror of touching a corpse among the Spanish gipsies. Very few of these could be induced to carry a dead man to his grave, even if they were paid for it.

I have said that most gipsy women undertake to tell fortunes. They do this very successfully. But they find a much greater source of profit in the sale of charms and love-philters. Not only do they supply toads' claws to hold fickle hearts, and powdered loadstone to kindle love in cold ones, but if necessity arises, they can use mighty incantations, which force the devil to lend them his aid. Last year the following story was related to me by a Spanish lady. She was walking one day along the Callé d'Alcala, feeling very sad and anxious. A gipsy woman who was squatting on the pavement called out to her, "My pretty lady, your lover has played you false!" (It was quite true.) "Shall I get him back for you?" My readers will imagine with what joy the proposal was accepted, and how complete was the confidence inspired by a person who could thus guess the inmost secrets of the heart. As it would have been impossible to proceed to perform the operations of magic in the most crowded street in Madrid, a meeting was arranged for the next day. "Nothing will be easier than to bring back the faithless one to your feet!" said the gitana. "Do you happen to have a handkerchief, a scarf, or a mantilla, that he gave you?" A silken scarf was handed her. "Now sew a piastre into one corner of the scarf with crimson silk—sew half a piastre into another corner—sew a peseta here—and a two-real piece there; then, in the middle you must sew a gold coin—a doubloon would be best." The doubloon and all the other coins were duly sewn in. "Now give me the scarf, and I'll take it to the Campo Santo when midnight strikes. You come along with me, if you want to see a fine piece of witchcraft. I promise you shall see the man you love to-morrow!" The gipsy departed alone for the Campo Santo, since my Spanish friend was too much afraid of witchcraft to go there with her. I leave my readers to guess whether my poor forsaken lady ever saw her lover, or her scarf, again.

In spite of their poverty and the sort of aversion they inspire, the gipsies are treated with a certain amount of consideration by the more ignorant folk, and they are very proud of it. They feel themselves to be a superior race as regards intelligence, and they heartily despise the people whose hospitality they enjoy. "These Gentiles are so stupid," said one of the Vosges gipsies to me, "that there is no credit in taking them in. The other day a peasant woman called out to me in the street. I went into her house. Her stove smoked and she asked me to give her a charm to cure it. First of all I made her give me a good bit of bacon, and then I began to mumble a few words in Romany. 'You're a fool,' I said, 'you were born a fool, and you'll die a fool!' When I had got near the door I said to her, in good German, 'The most certain way of keeping your stove from smoking is not to light any fire in it!' and then I took to my heels."

The history of the gipsies is still a problem. We know, indeed, that their first bands, which were few and far between, appeared in Eastern Europe toward the beginning of the fifteenth century. But nobody can tell whence they started, or why they came to Europe, and, what is still more extraordinary, no one knows how they multiplied, within a short time, and in so prodigious a fashion, and in several countries, all very remote from each other. The gipsies themselves have preserved no tradition whatsoever as to their origin, and though most of them do speak of Egypt as their original fatherland, that is only because they have adopted a very ancient fable respecting their race.

Most of the Orientalists who have studied the gipsy language believe that the cradle of the race was in India. It appears, in fact, that many of the roots and grammatical forms of the Romany tongue are to be found in idioms derived from the Sanskrit. As may be imagined, the gipsies, during their long wanderings, have adopted many foreign words. In every Romany dialect a number of Greek words appear, as, for instance cocal (bone), from κόκκλον; petaíe (horse-shoe), from πέταλον; cafi (nail), from καρΦί, etc.

At the present day the gipsies have almost as many dialects as there are separate hordes of their race. Everywhere, they speak the language of the country they inhabit more easily than their own idiom, which they seldom use, except with the object of conversing freely before strangers. A comparison of the dialect of the German gipsies with that used by the Spanish gipsies, who have held no communication with each other for several centuries, reveals the existence of a great number of words common to both. But everywhere the original language is notably affected, though in different degrees, by its contact with the more cultivated languages into the use of which the nomads have been forced. German in one case and Spanish in the other have so modified the Romany groundwork that it would not be possible for a gipsy from the Black Forest to converse with one of his Andalusian brothers, although a few sentences on each side would suffice to convince them that each was speaking a dialect of the same language. Certain words in very frequent use are, I believe, common to every dialect. Thus, in every vocabulary which I have been able to consult, pani means water, manro means bread, mâs stands for meat, and lon for salt.

The nouns of number are almost the same in every case. The German dialect seems to me much purer than the Spanish, for it has preserved numbers of the primitive grammatical forms, whereas the gitanas have adopted those of the Castihan tongue. Nevertheless, some words are an exception, as though to prove that the language was originally common to all. The preterite of the German dialect is formed by adding ium to the imperative, which is always the root of the verb. In the Spanish Romany the verbs are all conjugated on the model of the first conjugation of the Castilian verbs. From jamar, the infinitive of "to eat," the regular conjugation should be jamé, "I have eaten." From lilar, "to take," lille, "I have taken." Yet, some old gipsies say, as an exception, jayon and lillon. I am not acquainted with any other verbs which have preserved this ancient form.

While I am thus showing off my small acquaintance with the Romany language, I must notice a few words of French slang which our thieves have borrowed from the gipsies. From Les Mystères de Paris honest folk have learned that the word chourin means "a knife." This is pure Romanytchouri is one of the words which is common to every dialect. Monsieur Vidocq calls a horse grès—this again is a gipsy word—gras, gre, graste, and gris. Add to this the word romanichel, by which the gipsies are described in Parisian slang. This is a corruption of romané tchave—"gipsy lads." But a piece of etymology of which I am really proud is that of the word frimousse, "face," "countenance,"—a word which every schoolboy uses, or did use, in my time. Note, in the first place, that Oudin, in his curious dictionary, published in 1640, wrote the word firlimouse. Now in Romany, firla, or fila, stands for "face," and has the same meaning—it is exactly the os of the Latins. The combination of firlamui was instantly understood by a genuine gipsy, and I believe it to be true to the spirit of the gipsy language.

I have surely said enough to give the readers of Carmen a favourable idea of my Romany studies. I will conclude with the following proverb, which comes in very appropriately: En retudi panda nasti abela macha. "Between closed lips no fly can pass."

  1. It has struck me that the German gipsies, though they thoroughly understand the word cale, do not care to be called by that name. Among themselves they always use the designation Romané tchavé.