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

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.


The arrival of the Gypsies in the West during the fifteenth century coincided with the rediscovery of ancient knowledge from the East, particularly chiromancy and physiognomy. These two divinatory practices were thought at the time to come from Egypt, and consisted of reading the lines of the hand and facial features.

The rediscovery of the “Egyptians”

The rediscovery of the occult knowledge of Egypt was encouraged by the work of the humanists. In 1460, the Florentine Marsilio Ficino translated into Latin the Corpus hermeticum, a series of treatises attributed to the legendary Greek-Egyptian mage Hermes Trismegistus (“thrice-greatest”), a Hellenistic fusion of Hermes and Thot. The Hieroglyphica of Horapollo of the Nile was printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius, and then translated throughout Europe. In 1498, the Antiquitatum of Annius of Viterbo proposed a syncretic reading of Biblical chronologies, Greek history, and Egyptian annals. He likened Noah to Janus and Jupiter to Osiris, and descended the primary peoples and dynasties of Europe from his son, Libyan Hercules. This synthesis between biblical and pagan antiquities reserved a central role for Egypt. Abraham became the one who taught astrology to the Chaldeans, and Hermes Trismegistus was likened to Moses. These works fascinated early humanist Europe.

The arrival of the Gypsies in the West within this broader context prompted numerous polemics regarding their origins. They were called Bohemians, Egyptians (or Gypsies), and Cingari (Zigeuner, Tsiganes), and presented themselves as Christian pilgrims from Little Egypt who were wandering as a gesture of penitence for refusing to welcome the fleeing Virgin and Christ. The learned of the period likened them to Jews—another wandering people—and thought they came from Ethiopia or Bogomile Bulgaria. During the eighteenth century, the theory of an Indian origin took hold. These groups were in fact originally from the Balkans. The practice of chiromancy by “fortune-tellers” sparked interest. Associated since the early fifteenth century with Egypt, bringing to mind the hermetic practices described by the humanists, they were ascribed an Egyptian identity. Certain scholars even tried to decipher the hieroglyphics using the language spoken by these peoples.

This population was the stuff of fantasy throughout Europe. The “beautiful Egyptian [woman]” became an obligatory figure in literature and genre painting from Cervantes to Molière, and from Caravaggio to Georges de La Tour. The stereotype of the sensual Bohémienne dancing for money took hold in courts, celebrations, and ballets. Lords all the way up to the prince de Condé welcomed Bohemians in their salons, and recruited them as soldiers and masters of arms. They also drew the attention of authorities. While the “dukes and counts of Egypt” were received with consideration in Italy and France during the fifteenth century, they were the subject of increasingly coercive legislation from the 1500s onwards, such as the English Egyptian Acts of 1530, 1554, and 1572, which banished all “Gypsies” from the kingdom.

“Curious science” and learned practices

Bohemian chiromancy and physiognomy enjoyed real and lasting success in European societies. They were inscribed within a group of divinatory practices that were widespread in both working-class and elite settings. In 1579, the lawyer Pierre Massé wrote that these practices were familiar to everyone due to the Egyptians “coureurs” (vagrants) who practiced it. They formed what scholarly treatises called the “curious science” of the Egyptians, which pictorial or literary representations associated so closely with this group.

This enthusiasm prompted the appearance of a scholarly, institutional and written practice of chiromancy and physiognomy in reaction to the popular knowledge of Bohémiennes. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it took advantage, among others, of the audience for the medical theories of Paracelsus (1493-1541), notably in the Germanic world. Strongly tinged with hermeticism, Paracelsian medicine made chiromancy and physiognomy into pathways for diagnosis and medical knowledge. In Italy, the universities of Bologna and Padua gave physiognomy an official place in the works of Alessandro Achillini (1463-1512), Cornelio Ghirardelli (†1637), and Camillo Baldi (1550-1637).

These academics were joined by influential popularizers and practitioners who were often close to power, such as Robert Fludd (1574-1637), Thomas Hill (1528-15…), and James Boevey (1622-1696) in England. In France, the regular physician to Louis XIV, Marin Cureau de La Chambre (1594-1669), defended this scientific, scholarly, and licit practice of physicians in contrast to the illicit and popular one practiced by Bohémiennes. In the broader context of the institutionalization of the sciences, it raised a problem of legitimacy, hence the oral tradition of these women on the margins of society was disqualified by the written science of men of power. The popularity of Bohemian divination did not, for all that, diminish among the general public.


This paradoxical situation helped justify the growing repression in Europe against Gypsies, who were already suspected of heterodoxy. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the astrologer and doctor Simon de Phares listed various mancies among the seven “forbidden arts” of the Church: chiromancy, oniromancy (divination through dreams), pyromancy (by fire), etc. The Church’s offensive against heresies and superstition after the Council of Trent (1545-1563) fueled this condemnation. In 1586, the Coeli et Terrae papal bull of Pope Sixtus V condemned the occult sciences, astrology, and mancies. Diocesan synods increased their warnings against female practitioners of chiromancy. In the early seventeenth century, the Spanish Jesuit Martin del Rio (1551-1608) likened the practice of chiromancy to an occult, magic, and even diabolical science by presenting Bohémiennes as dangerous creatures of evil. In 1617, the diocesan synod of Sala (Naples) asserted that female Gypsies who practiced the “magic arts” must be incarcerated.

The criminalization of Bohemians was part of a Europe-wide evolution. These populations, which were deemed to be poor, vagrant, and falsely practicing the arts of divination, were rejected in increasingly assertive ways. In 1492, the abbot of San Stefano al Como, Bonifacio Simonetta, established a correlation between persecution of the Bohemians in Europe and practice of the divinatory arts, in his treatise entitled Astronomica, chiromantica et phsiognomica. The movement accelerated in the seventeenth century. In France, the criminal edicts of July 1682 included Bohemians among “false seers” and “false witches.” As the crime of witchcraft had itself been abolished, the state banned divination as a fraud and imposture. The companies of Bohemians were dispersed, the men sentenced to galleys, and the women locked up in public hospices. It was up to the police to “ban those who abused the public under the name of magicians, diviners, and prognosticators” (Nicolas de La Mare).

The rejection of Bohemian divination by scholars in preference of a scientific practice, along with the repression practiced by monarchic states against this population, led their influence on the culture, arts, and history of early modern Europe to be forgotten. The learned triptych of classical Europe—clerics, jurists, and scholars—condemned Gypsies to a fluctuating and suspicious identity, that of a “wandering nation” that was vagrant, foreign, and dangerous for public order, as well as the bearer of a condemned culture. The twenty-first century has largely maintained this notion. The social, cultural, religious, and military incorporation of Gypsies in early modern Europe nevertheless marks their anchoring within European culture.

To quote from this article

Yann Rodier , « The Curious Science of Bohemians and Gypsies in the Face of Learned Europe », Encyclopédie d'histoire numérique de l'Europe [online], ISSN 2677-6588, published on 22/06/20 , consulted on 20/04/2024. Permalink :


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