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Currents: looking for linguistic footprints

Linguistic Footprints: Professor Tom Kealy Begins a Search for Gypsy Influence on European Horse Culture

It happens. When the right hunches are followed down the right museum corridors, when the little niggling thought won't go away and leads to hours in an archive, wonderful discoveries can happen.

It happened in 1979, for example, when researcher Dr. Eugene Lyon from the University of Florida found a bundle of documents in the Archives of the Indies in Seville, Spain, that ultimately revealed details about Christopher Columbus's ship, Niña. These documents, Lyon concluded after contacting other Columbus scholars, had never been read.

One of the details in that 400-plus page bundle was the nugget that on Columbus's third voyage in 1498, two Gypsy women named Catalina and Maria were among 10 convicted murderers on board, freed on condition that they emigrate to the New World. This is the first documented evidence of Gypsies in the New World. Had others gone before them?

Symbolic Relationships

Colby-Sawyer Associate Professor of Humanities Thomas Kealy is collecting nuggets, and spent his eight-month sabbatical this year digging through archives in Spain and France to find traces of a people who left little trace. He is, essentially, chasing ghosts by looking for the linguistic footprints of Gypsy culture on the language and philosophy of horsemanship in Renaissance Europe. His research, he hopes, will result in the same kind of discovery Lyon made in uncovering forgotten documents that could hold the key to a new level of understanding of language, symbolism and culture.

Kealy wrote his dissertation as a Fulbright scholar in 1997-1999 in Spain on how Spanish culture used images of animals to create a human philosophy in the Renaissance. He focused on the fox, well represented in Islamic, Judaic, and Christian cultures, and what it symbolized in Renaissance literary culture, its relationship to people and its appearance in emblematic poetry.

Kealy came to Colby-Sawyer in 2000, and among other courses, has taught the Pathways seminars Adventures on the Silk Road and Animals in Culture and Nature; World Literature; Writing 105; and A Study of Language. It was while teaching Animals in Culture and Nature, and watching his class question a natural horse trainer, that he first began to wonder where the horse culture originated. Then, while planning for the course Encountering America, which examines the first interactions between Native Americans, Europeans and West Africans, Kealy's thoughts again turned to the horse and its symbolism.

“Designing that course got me thinking about the relationships between horses and Spain, and between horses and the New World. There weren't horses in North America before the Spaniards brought over thousands of them, and how did that happen?" Kealy asked.

“At the same time, I was looking at how Gypsies migrated across Europe. What I discovered was that just about 75 years before the Spanish were bringing horses to the New World, the Gypsies were moving into Spain. Essentially, the Gypsies came to Barcelona in 1427 and then just disappeared into Spain and its larger culture of wandering people. Given the established relationship between Gypsies and horses, I wanted to know if there was an influence of Gypsy culture on the horse training and the movement of horses from Spain to the New World. So, that's what I decided to do my sabbatical on.”

Scouting trips helped Kealy locate the archives in Paris and Madrid he would use, and when he arrived in Europe for his sabbatical, his first mission was to get up to speed on Gypsy language, culture and history. Most of that information was in French, as the French carefully documented the outsiders' movements from village to village.

“A sabbatical is supposed to be a challenge, and one of the challenges for me was to go to a new country. I'd lived in Spain, but France was new to me,” says Kealy. Though he had hoped to travel frequently between Paris, Madrid and Seville, where the Archive of the Indies holds Columbus's documents, a less-than-helpful exchange rate with the Euro made Seville, six hours south of Madrid and 17 hours south of Paris, hard to reach.

“I did go to Madrid a few times to get into the documents - and I can tell you that reading hand-written medieval Spanish handwriting is quite difficult - but it was great to read texts in French and Latin and Spanish that recorded the Gypsies' entrance into Spain,” says Kealy. “The way they moved through Western Europe was fascinating. It was one of deception and playing off people's prejudices to make a living. If they were considered really good with horses, they would play off that and be really good with horses; if they were considered palm readers, they would happily take people's money to read fortunes.

“This wandering group of people was very good at identifying the roles they could play in society, and one of them was being good with horses,” Kealy explains. “People thought the Gypsies were kind of wild themselves, and therefore closer to nature and able to have a relationship with them beyond what a civilized person would have. They used that to their benefit to become horse traders and blacksmiths. It worked for them.”

Digging In

There is, Kealy discovered, little documented history of Gypsies in Spain until 1499, when the Catholic rulers Ferdinand and Isabella begin to fear that Moors, who were expelled from the kingdom in 1492, were still present in Spain but blending in with the Gypsy population. To make sure the Moors were truly gone, the king and queen also expelled the Gypsies.

At the same time, the empire was building massive stables in Cordova and Seville to raise horses to send to the New World. Kealy's research shows that while upper ranks of stable management were people from Spain or Italy, the workers were often Gypsies. In fact, while he found few records of Gypsies in Spain at that time, their names did start to appear in documents as stable hands. Members of these expelled populations were apparently hiding in plain sight by caring for the king's most glamorous survival tool of all: the horse.

“One interesting find I made was a book in the Madrid archives that actually laid out all the laws for horses and those who take care of them,” says Kealy. “A lot of the laws associated with horses were the same as those related to the Gypsies. For example, a stable hand couldn't take a horse out of the stable or loan it to anyone or use it as a stud; the way in which they could work with the horses was very strictly controlled, and the sexual behavior of the horse was completely under the control of the stable master, of course!

“The kings of the time were trying to perfect the Spanish horse, and they knew what they were doing. In the same way, the lives of the Gypsies were controlled by a state that kept outsiders out of society and the horse culture at large, which was reserved for heads of state and the military. There was certainly a class system involved, with a stable master who was a classical scholar of horsemanship, and then almost everyone else was nameless.”

The Next Chapter

Kealy's sabbatical findings are already influencing his teaching here at Colby-Sawyer. In his Pathway seminar Adventure on the Silk Road, he has lectured about horses in terms of itinerant cultures, Western Asia, literature, and nomadic/sedentary culture interactions. He suspects that Gypsies will work their way into his Pathway next spring, and he finds it all very exciting.

“This project, I love it,” says Kealy, pointing to a pile of notebooks he filled while in Spain and France. “I'm really thankful that the college and my colleagues were able to help me take that sabbatical. The research I conducted then is going to last a while.”

Yet, Kealy also sees his months in Europe as just the beginning of his research on the relationship between human and horse, and on the overlapping layers of symbolism, language and culture. He hopes to continue his work with a visit to France this winter, and to return to Spain this summer. From a base in Seville, he hopes to compare the Gypsy language in Southern Spain and the vocabulary they have for horses, with the language used in medieval manuscripts about horses.

“I need to meet with people who are still training horses in southern Spain and see how the language they use is different from the classical language of horse training, and how does that relate to Gypsy language. Can it be traced back to the old stable documents?” he wonders.

“There are basically two languages of the horse culture: one is very classical and represents the idea of the horse in the Renaissance. The relationship between the horse and humans was a very upper-class relationship based on men, horses and war that keeps out women and the lower classes. But then the people tending the horses were commoners and have their own kind of language and relation to the animal itself, and there's not a lot written out there regarding about that second horse language. What was the life of a stable hand in these massive stables of the empire? There's not a lot written about that as far as I can tell.”

But maybe, somewhere in the archives of Seville, long forgotten and just waiting for Kealy, is a bundle of documents that confirm his niggling thought: That yes, Gypsies were sent to the New World to care for the horses and establish new stables for the empire on Hispaniola.

They might exist, and Kealy thinks that if they do, he'll find them. A long shot, some may say, but it happens.

-Kate Dunlop Seamans