Curious Science of Bohemians and Gypsies in the Face of Learned Europe (The)

Frontispiece of the The Art of Knowing Men, by Marin Cureau de La Chambre. The king’s physician, amid his instruments and books, represents the learned practice of physiognomy, which relegates the fortune-teller, in the street wearing a traditional outfit, to a marginal background.

The fluctuating identity of Gypsies was built gradually after their arrival in Western Europe during the fifteenth century. Despite a certain fascination they were considered as professionals of nomadism, theft, vagrancy, and trickery, so much so that an increasingly repressive legislative arsenal was implemented to dislocate their groups. The figure of the fortune-teller partially embodies the prejudices and stereotypes that have fueled the European imagination towards Gypsies up to the present day. The reprobate culture of their curious science of chiromancy was nevertheless assimilated by scholarly Europe. The success of treatises on physiognomy and chiromancy were inspired by the “Egyptian knowledge” that the Gypsies brought into Europe. The strange, popular, and oral science of chiromancy practiced by the Bohémiennes [female Bohemians] stood in contrast to the learned chiromancy of scholars. In this sense, Gypsy culture influenced and became a part of the culture of scholarly Europe.