HAVING already stated to the reader at what period and by what means these wanderers introduced themselves into Spain, we shall now say something concerning their manner of life.

It would appear that, for many years after their arrival in the Peninsula, their manners and habits underwent no change; they were wanderers, in the strictest sense of the word, and lived much in the same way as their brethren exist in the present day in England, Russia, and Bessarabia, with the exception perhaps of being more reckless, mischievous, and having less respect for the laws; it is true that their superiority in wickedness in these points may have been more the effect of the moral state of the country in which they were, than of any other operating cause.

Arriving in Spain with a predisposition to every species of crime and villainy, they were not likely to be improved or reclaimed by the example of the people with whom they were about to mix; nor was it probable that they would entertain much respect for laws which, from time immemorial, have principally served, not to protect the honest and useful members of society, but to enrich those entrusted with the administration of them. Thus, if they came thieves, it is not probable that they would become ashamed of the title of thief in Spain, where the officers of justice were ever willing to shield an offender on receiving the largest portion of the booty obtained. If on their arrival they held the lives of others in very low estimation, could it be expected that they would become gentle as lambs in a land where blood had its price, and the shedder was seldom executed unless he was poor and friendless, and unable to cram with ounces of yellow gold the greedy hands of the pursuers of blood, - the alguazil and escribano? therefore, if the Spanish Gypsies have been more bloody and more wolfishly eager in the pursuit of booty than those of their race in most other regions, the cause must be attributed to their residence in a country unsound in every branch of its civil polity, where right has ever been in less esteem, and wrong in less disrepute, than in any other part of the world.

However, if the moral state of Spain was not calculated to have a favourable effect on the habits and pursuits of the Gypsies, their manners were as little calculated to operate beneficially, in any point of view, on the country where they had lately arrived. Divided into numerous bodies, frequently formidable in point of number, their presence was an evil and a curse in whatever quarter they directed their steps. As might be expected, the labourers, who in all countries are the most honest, most useful, and meritorious class, were the principal sufferers; their mules and horses were stolen, carried away to distant fairs, and there disposed of, perhaps, to individuals destined to be deprived of them in a similar manner; whilst their flocks of sheep and goats were laid under requisition to assuage the hungry cravings of these thievish cormorants.

It was not uncommon for a large band or tribe to encamp in the vicinity of a remote village scantily peopled, and to remain there until, like a flight of locusts, they had consumed everything which the inhabitants possessed for their support; or until they were scared away by the approach of justice, or by an army of rustics assembled from the surrounding country. Then would ensue the hurried march; the women and children, mounted on lean but spirited asses, would scour along the plains fleeter than the wind; ragged and savage-looking men, wielding the scourge and goad, would scamper by their side or close behind, whilst perhaps a small party on strong horses, armed with rusty matchlocks or sabres, would bring up the rear, threatening the distant foe, and now and then saluting them with a hoarse blast from the Gypsy horn:-

'O, when I sit my courser bold,
My bantling in my rear,
And in my hand my musket hold -
O how they quake with fear!'

Let us for a moment suppose some unfortunate traveller, mounted on a handsome mule or beast of some value, meeting, unarmed and alone, such a rabble rout at the close of eve, in the wildest part, for example, of La Mancha; we will suppose that he is journeying from Seville to Madrid, and that he has left at a considerable distance behind him the gloomy and horrible passes of the Sierra Morena; his bosom, which for some time past has been contracted with dreadful forebodings, is beginning to expand; his blood, which has been congealed in his veins, is beginning to circulate warmly and freely; he is fondly anticipating the still distant posada and savoury omelet. The sun is sinking rapidly behind the savage and uncouth hills in his rear; he has reached the bottom of a small valley, where runs a rivulet at which he allows his tired animal to drink; he is about to ascend the side of the hill; his eyes are turned upwards; suddenly he beholds strange and uncouth forms at the top of the ascent - the sun descending slants its rays upon red cloaks, with here and there a turbaned head, or long streaming hair. The traveller hesitates, but reflecting that he is no longer in the mountains, and that in the open road there is no danger of banditti, he advances. In a moment he is in the midst of the Gypsy group, in a moment there is a general halt; fiery eyes are turned upon him replete with an expression which only the eyes of the Roma possess, then ensues a jabber in a language or jargon which is strange to the ears of the traveller; at last an ugly urchin springs from the crupper of a halting mule, and in a lisping accent entreats charity in the name of the Virgin and the Majoro. The traveller, with a faltering hand, produces his purse, and is proceeding to loosen its strings, but he accomplishes not his purpose, for, struck violently by a huge knotted club in an unseen hand, he tumbles headlong from his mule. Next morning a naked corpse, besmeared with brains and blood, is found by an arriero; and within a week a simple cross records the event, according to the custom of Spain.

'Below there in the dusky pass
Was wrought a murder dread;
The murdered fell upon the grass,
Away the murderer fled.'

To many, such a scene, as above described, will appear purely imaginary, or at least a mass of exaggeration, but many such anecdotes are related by old Spanish writers of these people; they traversed the country in gangs; they were what the Spanish law has styled Abigeos and Salteadores de Camino, cattle-stealers and highwaymen; though, in the latter character, they never rose to any considerable eminence. True it is that they would not hesitate to attack or even murder the unarmed and defenceless traveller, when they felt assured of obtaining booty with little or no risk to themselves; but they were not by constitution adapted to rival those bold and daring banditti of whom so many terrible anecdotes are related in Spain and Italy, and who have acquired their renown by the dauntless daring which they have invariably displayed in the pursuit of plunder.

Besides trafficking in horses and mules, and now and then attacking and plundering travellers upon the highway, the Gypsies of Spain appear, from a very early period, to have plied occasionally the trade of the blacksmith, and to have worked in iron, forming rude implements of domestic and agricultural use, which they disposed of, either for provisions or money, in the neighbourhood of those places where they had taken up their temporary residence. As their bands were composed of numerous individuals, there is no improbability in assuming that to every member was allotted that branch of labour in which he was most calculated to excel. The most important, and that which required the greatest share of cunning and address, was undoubtedly that of the chalan or jockey, who frequented the fairs with the beasts which he had obtained by various means, but generally by theft. Highway robbery, though occasionally committed by all jointly or severally, was probably the peculiar department of the boldest spirits of the gang; whilst wielding the hammer and tongs was abandoned to those who, though possessed of athletic forms, were perhaps, like Vulcan, lame, or from some particular cause, moral or physical, unsuited for the other two very respectable avocations. The forge was generally placed in the heart of some mountain abounding in wood; the gaunt smiths felled a tree, perhaps with the very axes which their own sturdy hands had hammered at a former period; with the wood thus procured they prepared the charcoal which their labour demanded. Everything is in readiness; the bellows puff until the coal is excited to a furious glow; the metal, hot, pliant, and ductile, is laid on the anvil, round which stands the Cyclop group, their hammers upraised; down they descend successively, one, two, three, the sparks are scattered on every side. The sparks -

'More than a hundred lovely daughters I see produced at one time, fiery as roses: in one moment they expire gracefully circumvolving.' (17)

The anvil rings beneath the thundering stroke, hour succeeds hour, and still endures the hard sullen toil.

One of the most remarkable features in the history of Gypsies is the striking similarity of their pursuits in every region of the globe to which they have penetrated; they are not merely alike in limb and in feature, in the cast and expression of the eye, in the colour of the hair, in their walk and gait, but everywhere they seem to exhibit the same tendencies, and to hunt for their bread by the same means, as if they were not of the human but rather of the animal species, and in lieu of reason were endowed with a kind of instinct which assists them to a very limited extent and no farther.

In no part of the world are they found engaged in the cultivation of the earth, or in the service of a regular master; but in all lands they are jockeys, or thieves, or cheats; and if ever they devote themselves to any toil or trade, it is assuredly in every material point one and the same. We have found them above, in the heart of a wild mountain, hammering iron, and manufacturing from it instruments either for their own use or that of the neighbouring towns and villages. They may be seen employed in a similar manner in the plains of Russia, or in the bosom of its eternal forests; and whoever inspects the site where a horde of Gypsies has encamped, in the grassy lanes beneath the hazel bushes of merry England, is generally sure to find relics of tin and other metal, avouching that they have there been exercising the arts of the tinker or smith. Perhaps nothing speaks more forcibly for the antiquity of this sect or caste than the tenacity with which they have uniformly preserved their peculiar customs since the period of their becoming generally known; for, unless their habits had become a part of their nature, which could only have been effected by a strict devotion to them through a long succession of generations, it is not to be supposed that after their arrival in civilised Europe they would have retained and cherished them precisely in the same manner in the various countries where they found an asylum.

Each band or family of the Spanish Gypsies had its Captain, or, as he was generally designated, its Count. Don Juan de Quinones, who, in a small volume published in 1632, has written some details respecting their way of life, says: 'They roam about, divided into families and troops, each of which has its head or Count; and to fill this office they choose the most valiant and courageous individual amongst them, and the one endowed with the greatest strength. He must at the same time be crafty and sagacious, and adapted in every respect to govern them. It is he who settles their differences and disputes, even when they are residing in a place where there is a regular justice. He heads them at night when they go out to plunder the flocks, or to rob travellers on the highway; and whatever they steal or plunder they divide amongst them, always allowing the captain a third part of the whole.'

These Counts, being elected for such qualities as promised to be useful to their troop or family, were consequently liable to be deposed if at any time their conduct was not calculated to afford satisfaction to their subjects. The office was not hereditary, and though it carried along with it partial privileges, was both toilsome and dangerous. Should the plans for plunder, which it was the duty of the Count to form, miscarry in the attempt to execute them; should individuals of the gang fall into the hand of justice, and the Count be unable to devise a method to save their lives or obtain their liberty, the blame was cast at the Count's door, and he was in considerable danger of being deprived of his insignia of authority, which consisted not so much in ornaments or in dress, as in hawks and hounds with which the Senor Count took the diversion of hunting when he thought proper. As the ground which he hunted over was not his own, he incurred some danger of coming in contact with the lord of the soil, attended, perhaps, by his armed followers. There is a tradition (rather apocryphal, it is true), that a Gitano chief, once pursuing this amusement, was encountered by a real Count, who is styled Count Pepe. An engagement ensued between the two parties, which ended in the Gypsies being worsted, and their chief left dying on the field. The slain chief leaves a son, who, at the instigation of his mother, steals the infant heir of his father's enemy, who, reared up amongst the Gypsies, becomes a chief, and, in process of time, hunting over the same ground, slays Count Pepe in the very spot where the blood of the Gypsy had been poured out. This tradition is alluded to in the following stanza:

'I have a gallant mare in stall;
My mother gave that mare
That I might seek Count Pepe's hall
And steal his son and heir.'

Martin Del Rio, in his TRACTATUS DE MAGIA, speaks of the Gypsies and their Counts to the following effect: 'When, in the year 1584, I was marching in Spain with the regiment, a multitude of these wretches were infesting the fields. It happened that the feast of Corpus Domini was being celebrated, and they requested to be admitted into the town, that they might dance in honour of the sacrifice, as was customary; they did so, but about midday a great tumult arose owing to the many thefts which the women committed, whereupon they fled out of the suburbs, and assembled about St. Mark's, the magnificent mansion and hospital of the knights of St. James, where the ministers of justice attempting to seize them were repulsed by force of arms; nevertheless, all of a sudden, and I know not how, everything was hushed up. At this time they had a Count, a fellow who spoke the Castilian idiom with as much purity as if he had been a native of Toledo; he was acquainted with all the ports of Spain, and all the difficult and broken ground of the provinces. He knew the exact strength of every city, and who were the principal people in each, and the exact amount of their property; there was nothing relating to the state, however secret, that he was not acquainted with; nor did he make a mystery of his knowledge, but publicly boasted of it.'

From the passage quoted above, we learn that the Gitanos in the ancient times were considered as foreigners who prowled about the country; indeed, in many of the laws which at various times have been promulgated against them, they are spoken of as Egyptians, and as such commanded to leave Spain, and return to their native country; at one time they undoubtedly were foreigners in Spain, foreigners by birth, foreigners by language but at the time they are mentioned by the worthy Del Rio, they were certainly not entitled to the appellation. True it is that they spoke a language amongst themselves, unintelligible to the rest of the Spaniards, from whom they differed considerably in feature and complexion, as they still do; but if being born in a country, and being bred there, constitute a right to be considered a native of that country, they had as much claim to the appellation of Spaniards as the worthy author himself. Del Rio mentions, as a remarkable circumstance, the fact of the Gypsy Count speaking Castilian with as much purity as a native of Toledo, whereas it is by no means improbable that the individual in question was a native of that town; but the truth is, at the time we are speaking of, they were generally believed to be not only foreigners, but by means of sorcery to have acquired the power of speaking all languages with equal facility; and Del Rio, who was a believer in magic, and wrote one of the most curious and erudite treatises on the subject ever penned, had perhaps adopted that idea, which possibly originated from their speaking most of the languages and dialects of the Peninsula, which they picked up in their wanderings. That the Gypsy chief was so well acquainted with every town of Spain, and the broken and difficult ground, can cause but little surprise, when we reflect that the life which the Gypsies led was one above all others calculated to afford them that knowledge. They were continually at variance with justice; they were frequently obliged to seek shelter in the inmost recesses of the hills; and when their thievish pursuits led them to the cities, they naturally made themselves acquainted with the names of the principal individuals, in hopes of plundering them. Doubtless the chief possessed all this species of knowledge in a superior degree, as it was his courage, acuteness, and experience alone which placed him at the head of his tribe, though Del Rio from this circumstance wishes to infer that the Gitanos were spies sent by foreign foes, and with some simplicity inquires, 'Quo ant cui rei haec curiosa exploratio? nonne compescenda vagamundorum haec curiositas, etiam si solum peregrini et inculpatae vitae.'

With the Counts rested the management and direction of these remarkable societies; it was they who determined their marches, counter-marches, advances, and retreats; what was to be attempted or avoided; what individuals were to be admitted into the fellowship and privileges of the Gitanos, or who were to be excluded from their society; they settled disputes and sat in judgment over offences. The greatest crimes, according to the Gypsy code, were a quarrelsome disposition, and revealing the secrets of the brotherhood. By this code the members were forbidden to eat, drink, or sleep in the house of a Busno, which signifies any person who is not of the sect of the Gypsies, or to marry out of that sect; they were likewise not to teach the language of Roma to any but those who, by birth or inauguration, belonged to that sect; they were enjoined to relieve their brethren in distress at any expense or peril; they were to use a peculiar dress, which is frequently alluded to in the Spanish laws, but the particulars of which are not stated; and they were to cultivate the gift of speech to the utmost possible extent, and never to lose anything which might be obtained by a loose and deceiving tongue, to encourage which they had many excellent proverbs, for example -

'The poor fool who closes his mouth never winneth a dollar.'

'The river which runneth with sound bears along with it stones and water.

Jump to Zincali Part 1 CHAPTER III

Return to Zincali Outline

This HTML version of  The Zincali is Copyright ©1999 by Dr. Frank Oliver Clark. This documents may be freely used for private purposes, and included in your own genealogy. However, this document is copyrighted and may not be sold, nor given to anyone who may attempt to derive profit from same.