Gypsies


Gypsies
   Since the Romantic period, Gypsies have had a glamorous image for writers and artists outside their communities, evoking ideas of freedom, exotic passion, mystery, and a life close to nature. In folk tradition, however, the stereotyping is negative; Gypsies are seen as dangerous outsiders; they are likely to seduce respectable women, for example in the well-known song about the grand lady who left her husband and child to follow a Gypsy (F. J. Child, English and Scottish Ballads, no. 200). They are suspected of cunning and dishonesty in their work as horse-traders, scrap merchants, and street sellers, and feared for their reputed power to cast spells, *curse, and bless - a reputation they themselves fully exploit.
   Real or pretended Gypsies have long made their living as *fortune-tellers (Davies, 1999a: 258-65). The first law against them in England, in 1530, condemns their 'greate subtyll and crafty meanes' of deceiving people through palmistry; in 1620 John *Melton noted in his Astrologaster how 'figure-casters' (i.e. drawers of horoscopes) 'would appear in the villages in the likeness of Gypsies . . . and that they might be thought to come of the issue of that sun-burnt generation, they with herbs and plants . . . (would) discolour their faces, and then for bread, beere, bacon, cheese, but especially for money, would undertake to tell poore maid-servants their fortunes'. Gypsies still work as fairground fortune-tellers, using palmistry, the crystal ball, or cards; they visit many towns to sell 'lucky' white *heather in the streets, where they offer instant fortune-telling. The old request to 'cross the Gypsy's palm with silver' has now become 'Give us gold, dearie', meaning a Ј1 coin, or even 'Give us paper, dearie' [JS]. The rumour of a 'Gypsy curse' surfaces occasionally, for instance to explain a football club's repeatedly poor results.
   The other long-established dread was of their kidnapping children. Flora Thompson describes in Lark Rise to Candleford ( (1945), chapter 2) how it scared her to see any Gypsies, 'for there was a tradition that once, years before, a child from a neighbouring village had been stolen by them'. This fear seems to have died away, though 'I'll give you to the Gypsies' was a threat used to naughty children within living memory.
   The real lifestyle and customs of Gypsy families are virtually unknown to the English public, apart from the lavish *funerals of their most respected members - invariably dubbed 'Gypsy Kings' or 'Queens' by the press. Folklor-ists are aware that some have kept the art of formal *storytelling, and fine *fairytales were collected from them in England early in the 20th century (Philip, 1992: pp. xvii-xx), and are still being collected in Scotland.
   For the Gypsies' own history and traditions, see J. Okely, The Traveller-Gypsies (1983); D. Mayall, Gypsy-Travellers in 19th-Century Society (1988); Angus Fraser, The Gypsies (2nd edn., 1995); F. H. Groome, Gypsy Folk-Tales (1899); The Journal of the Gypsy-Lore Society.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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