Passion of a Gypsy Luke

By Peter Missler
[First published in the George Borrow Bulletin no 19, p. 59-69. The body-text is practically identical; the footnotes have been brought up to date with more recent research.]
It is a tiny volume, barely bigger than a hand, bound in dark, crackling sheepskin. The paper has a fresh and crispy feel to it and whenever you turn a page you have to fold it down with force. The letters stand out pitch black against the paper and it almost seems you can still smell the ink, as if these pages were printed only yesterday. Evidently this book has never been read; and that comes as no surprise, for its first words are:

‘Acána que saras han penchabado chuibar de pacuaró a narracion es buchias que andré amanque han sinado quereladas’.

And few are the polyglots to whom that makes any sense.

The intriguing little book is the famous ‘Gypsy Gospel’ - the gospel of Saint Luke in Romani-Caló which George Borrow translated and printed while in Spain (see The Story of the Four Books on this website) - and the copy I found, a rare survivor of the 500 printed, is kept in the Biblioteca Xeral (General University Library) of Santiago de Compostela (1). I was rather surprised to find it there. Santiago, the famous old pilgrimage town in the hearth of Galicia, was one of the Peninsula’s most conservative, hard-core Carlist bulwarks during Borrow's Spanish years, a lion’s den of that very backward Papism which he despised so much, and therefore it is barely the place to harbour such a heretic book. What in the world is it doing here? How did it end up in a town it ought to shun and - vice versa - in a town which ought to shun it? Borrow could not have carried it here during his Northern journey of August 1837, since - much as the title page says ‘1837’ - in reality the Gypsy Luke did not come off the press until January 1838 (2). Nor was there much reason to do so, because - as he observed himself - there were few Gypsies in Galicia at the time (3).

Title page of the copy of the Gypsy Luke in the Biblioteca Xeral of the University of Santiago de Compostela.
Borrow gives us a clue to the mystery in the closing chapters (38 to 42) of The Bible in Spain, which describe the calvary that the Gypsy Luke and its editor went through in 1838. Early that year, the conservative forces in Spain swept down upon the agent of the Bible Society. In January Borrow was forbidden to sell any more vernacular New Testaments, and in May his famous despacho in the Calle del Principe was raided and closed, his stocks of books confiscated, and he himself thrown into jail for 11 days (and not 3 weeks as he pretends with that romantic vanity which runs like a rich vein of mercury through all his writings!) (4).

Of course, given the Spanish government’s dependence on English funds, diplomatic support and gunboats in their fight against the Carlist insurgents, it was a highly undiplomatic deed to visit such measures upon a British national, who was the representative of a respectable religious organisation with fine connections to the British Minister in Madrid. Therefore, when the dust had settled, the embarrassed government apologised to Ambassador George Villiers for the impulsive actions of its subordinates and in a Real Orden (Royal Decree) somewhat mellowed its original severity, allowing Borrow at least to take his books out of the country if he wished to do so.

This Real Orden concerning the Gypsy Luke, issued on the 21st of July 1838, and passed on in official dispatch to the provincial governors on August 2 by the Minister of the Interior, the Marquez de Someruelos, was published in the official Gaceta de Madrid no 1386, on September 2, a fortnight before Borrow left the country for England. This is how it runs:

‘In view of the information received from the Archbishop-Elect of Toledo and the bishop of Cordoba concerning the translations of the Gospels into the Gypsy and Basque languages, (...) it has pleased Her Majesty the Queen Regent to order that the same measures which were taken in the case of the Spanish translations of the Bible and the New Testament without the necessary explicatory notes, be applied to said translations of the gospel into Gypsy and Basque; i.e. that those copies which are being offered for sale, and those already confiscated and kept in the Civil Governor’s office, be packed and sealed, and that Mister Borrow be informed of this. If this gentlemen wishes to recover them so as to remove them from the Kingdom, he must legally oblige himself to do so, indicating the customs post which he intends to use, so that its administrator may be informed and can give timely notice of having seen them removed from the country (...).

And as part of the same Royal Decree I inform (...) you that it has pleased Her Majesty (...), although always concerned that the doctrines of religion be kept in their full purity, to allow the public libraries to acquire and keep in their restricted section two copies of both translations (...) so that these publications, which do not lack merit as philological works, be not entirely lost.’ (5)

What happened next, Borrow tells himself in his ‘Account of Proceedings in the Peninsula’ submitted to the Bible Society in November 1838 (6):

‘Shortly before my departure a royal edict was published, authorising all the public libraries to provide themselves with copies of the said works on account of their philological merit; whereupon, on application being made to the [civil governor’s] office, it was discovered that the copies of the Gospel in Basque were safe and forthcoming, whilst every one of the sequestered copies of the Gitano Gospel had been plundered by hands unknown. The consequence was that I was myself applied to by the agents of the public libraries of Valencia and other places, who paid me the price of the copies which they received, assuring me at the same time that they were authorised to purchase them at whatever price which might be demanded.’

Manuel Facal, Librarian of the beautiful Sala de Investigadores of the Biblioteca Xeral, holding the Santiago copy of the 1o edition Gypsy Luke.
One of the institutions which acquired a Gypsy Luke was the Santiago University Library. We do not know where the book was bought or what was paid for it, since none of the library’s yearly reports of acquired titles has survived. Of course, one would like to see the circle close itself and find that the precious little volume had been bought from Borrow’s great friend Rey Romero. This is not wholly unthinkable, because Rey Romero’s bookshop was the only functioning one in Santiago at the time and his family had had close personal and professional ties to the University Library for nearly 3 decades (7). But since there is no indication that Rey Romero ever had the title in stock, all other options are open. The book may for instance have been donated to the library by Santiago Usoz y Rio (brother to Borrow’s Madrid collaborator Luis), who held the chair of Greek Language at the Santiago University from July 1850 onwards, and quite possibly possessed a copy of the work (8). Or perhaps the head librarian in 1838, Don Vincente Castro Lamas, simply asked some travelling professor to pick up a copy in Madrid, as was his custom, and hence the Santiago copy may well be one of those ‘plundered by hands unknown’ that Borrow mentions (8b).

However it went, the Gypsy Luke found its way to Compostela and in due obedience to the stipulations of the Royal Decree, Don Vicente destined it for the ‘reserved section’, i.e. the special bookcase in the head librarian’s office where the officially prohibited works were kept firmly under lock and key. In the hand-written Catalogo de la Biblioteca or ‘General Catalogue’ (9), it was summarily described as:

‘Embéo e majaró Lucas, el evangelio segun S. Lucas trad[ucido] al Romani, o dial[ecto] de los Gitanos de España, v[ease] Catalogo de los libros prohibidos’

Embéo e majaró Lucas, the gospel according to Saint Lucas, translated to Romani, or dialect of the Gypsies of Spain, see the Catalogue of forbidden books

And in that ‘Catalogue of Forbidden Books’ (10) we find it today, wedged in between the Elite des bons mots and Diderot’s Encyclopédie as:

‘Embéo e majaró Lucas. Brotoboro randado andré la chipe griega acána chibado andré o Romanó, ó chipe es Zincales de Sesí (El Evangelio según S. Lucas, trad[ucido] al Romaní, ó dialecto de los Gitanos de España) 1837 # in 8o (Por real orden de 21. de Julio de 1838, se prohibió la circulacion y venta de dicha obra; permitiendo unicamente que las bibliotecas publicas pudieran adquerir y conservar en su parte reservada dos ejemplares, a fin de que no se perdiese una publicacion, que no carece de merito como trabajo filologico)’.

Embéo e majaró Lucas (...) 1837 # in Octavo (By Royal Decree of 21 July 1838, the sale and circulation of said work were forbidden; it only being allowed that the public libraries could acquire and keep in the reserved section two copies of each, so that a publication which does not lack merit as a philological work, might not be lost).

A page of George Borrow’s Caló vocabulary at the end of The Zincali
That task completed, the book received its first catalogue signature: 43.9399 - an interesting number, since it shows that the Gypsy Luke, in near slavish obedience to the Royal Decree, was deliberately not included in the serie of Holy Scripture but in section 43 of Philological and Literary works. Then, finally, the dangerous, provocative little book was carried to the cabinet of Prohibited Works, and locked away, among a remarkable collection of 400 years’ worth of masterpieces (Milton’s Paradise Lost, Macchiavelli’s The Prince, the works of Voltaire, Hobbes, Grotius and Pascal, the prophecies of Nostradamus, and the Book of Common Prayer, to name but a few of the most outstanding), safely out of sight of the perverse and curious eyes of liberals and libertines.

Safely? Well, that is to say... Surely not half as safely as the bishops of Cordoba and Toledo would have liked it, due to the fact that Santiago was not really so conservative a town as it seemed at first sight. As Ms Concha Varela Orol (11), the Librarian of the Biblioteca Xeral, explained to me during an interview she generously allowed to encroach upon a very busy schedule: the regular hierarchy of the Santiago church might indeed be ultra-Carlist and anti-liberal, but underneath that spotless tablecloth of strictly enforced orthodoxy, the ideas of the Enlightenment had made considerable inroads, particularly in two university institutions. The first of these was the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy, where a liberal tendency of Jansenist stamp held silent sway, and the second was the library itself, which in the first thirty years of the 19th century was directed by three librarians of notably progressive convictions. The first of these, as Ms Varela put it, was an Ilustrado (a Spanish scion of the Enlightenment), the second an Afrancesado (a philosophical follower of the French Revolution) and the third, the formidable doctor Joaquin Patiño, soon to become head of the Madrid National Library, a famous liberal. All three men were priests, but they were denounced time and time again to the ecclesiastical authorities for their unclerical lifestyle, their unorthodox opinions, and the way they led the library. In theory they were supposed to guard the key to the cabinet of Prohibited Books with their lives and ensure that no unauthorised person ever got close to the contagious heresies it contained. In practice, however, they continuously allowed forbidden books to be taken from its shelves, lent them out to notorious liberals, and - worst of all - they themselves were instrumental in organising secret ‘tertulias’ (social clubs) where such books were collectively read and discussed. In short, the head librarian’s office, far from being a unassailable bastion guarding those poisonous printed ideas in its deepest dungeons, functioned as a literary greengrocer which provided select forbidden fruit to the freethinkers of Compostela; a place where the Gypsy gospel was available to any one who wished to read it (if he could!).

Of course little of this comes as any surprise. In the long run all prohibition which goes against the grain of ardent desire is futile; and doubly so in the case of George Borrow, who loved to defy his detractors. As we learn from his letters and The Bible in Spain, Borrow never really stopped selling the Gospels in Caló if he had any available. He did so in Seville in 1839 and even in the custom-house of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, near Cadiz, when in obedience to the Royal Decree, he finally shipped some of his prohibited translations out of Spain (12). It would seem to be one of the copies he sold in Andalusia which was donated a number of years ago to the Bible scholar father Serafín de Ausejo, who on his death in 1982 left it to the library of the catholic magazine El Adalid Seráfico, in the Capuchin Convent of Seville (13). There it was rediscovered by Father Alberto González Caballero, a very learned capuchin friar and university professor from the convent in Sanlúcar, who used it as the basis for a brand new edition of the Gypsy Luke, published in January 1999, not by the Bible Society or some Faculty of Philology, but by an enlightened catholic publishing house from Cordoba engaged in social work among Borrow’s beloved Gypsies (14).

Front cover of Father Alberto González’s 1998 re-edition of the Gypsy Luke.
This paperback reprints a slightly adapted version of Borrow’s own Romani text of the 1st edition - without taking into account Borrow’s more ‘exotic’ edition of 1872 - with a parallel Spanish translation, a vocabulary of Caló words that the Bible Society would not let our author publish alongside (but not the same one as we find in The Zincali, where Borrow eventually included it), and - most significant of all - without a single explicatory note! In his introduction, which speaks of Borrow in purely impartial terms, Father Alberto explains that evangelisation was the foremost goal behind the new edition, since ‘every attempt to make the Word of God more accessible is a service rendered to the church, which “endeavours with maternal care that apt and faithful translations be made into various languages, particularly from the original texts of the Holy Books” (Concilio Vaticano II, Dei Verbum, no 22)’; and that ‘the spreading of the Word of God is “useful to teach, argue, correct and educate in justice” (2 Tm 3, 16)’. Could George Borrow have put it any better? Would he have put in any differently? The ways of Spain have changed indeed!

Given his complex character, it is always hazardous to guess at Borrow's emotional reactions. Nevertheless I dare say that - had he lived today - he would have been delighted to know that in the end both his little book and his missionary style had proven irresistible even to the heirs of those backward priests and theologians who tried so desperately to put a stop to his labours. Vengeance, Cardinal Richelieu once said, is a soup best served cold. One might add that vindication is no less delicious a cool dessert.

(1) The book carries the present catalogue signature 25.735. The 1959 Catalogo de la Biblioteca Universitaria, Impresos Siglo XIX, Tomo 1, 1800-1850’ (Santiago, 1959), registers the item on page 361, lemma 3732 as ‘San Lucas: Embeo e Majaró Lucas, evangelio traducido al Romaní, 1837’.

(2) See The Bible in Spain, ch. 38. For further bibliographical information and the genesis of the Gypsy Luke: Ridler, Ann M., ‘Sidelights on George Borrow’s Gypsy Luke’, in: The Bible Translator, Vol. 32, no 3, July 1981, p. 329-337; Collie, M. and Fraser, A.: George Borrow, a Bibliographical Study, Winchester, 1984, p. 109-115; and my article ‘Gypsy Luke Project: Preliminary Results’ in the George Borrow Bulletin no 32, pp. 32-48 (that article will soon be included on the George Borrow Studies website as ‘The story of the Gypsy Luke’).

(3) See Borrow’s letter to Brandram of 1 November 1837 (in Darlow, T.H., Letters of George Borrow to the British and Foreign Bible Society, London, 1911, p. 261): ‘(...) the Rommany-Chai, of whom, by the way, I found no trace in Old Castile, Galicia, or the Asturias.’.

(4) See Fraser, A., 'Sleeping under the Angel's Wings: Borrow's imprisonment in Madrid', in: Proceedings of the 1991 George Borrow Conference (Toronto, 1992), 25-43.

(5) For reasons of space I reproduce only a translation of extracts. For the full text see Coleccion de las leyes decretos y declaraciones de las Cortes, Tomo 24, Madrid, 1839, p. 341 or Massa Sanguineti, Carlos, et. al., Diccionario jurídico administrativo, Madrid, 1858-1864, Tomo 2, p. 809, lemma ‘Evangelio’.

(6) ‘Account of Proceedings in the Peninsula’ , Darlow, op. cit., p. 359-374.

(7) An 1812 bill of 8,500 reales for the delivery of books (Mazo A534, ‘Catalogos de libros de la biblioteca’ in the Archivo Historico de la Universidad de Santiago, seccion Archivo Universidad) and correspondence (mentioned in the Libro de Claustros 1806-1809, no A137, folio 333 of the same section) show that Francisco’s brother Pedro, the founder of the shop, occasionally sold books to the library. Francisco’s mother appointed the head librarian Joaquin Patiño as executor to her will (cf. my article ‘The Most Considerable of them All’, in George Borrow Bulletin no 16, p. 40, or on this website).

(8) See ‘Borrow in Galicia’ by Pedro Ortiz Armengol, in George Borrow Bulletin no 12, p. 83-88. I owe this suggestion to Dr. Ann Ridler, to whom I am as always deeply indebted for much invaluable help in writing this article.

(8b) Conceivably the book may also have been part of the mayor donation to the university library made in 1850 by a gentleman of the name Parga y Puga, which contained his own books, those of the closed Santiago monastery of San Martín and those of the Galician sculptor Castro. See López García, Ana Belen, ‘Revistas especializadas en Biblioteconomía y Documentación en el siglo XIX: El “Boletín Bibliográfico Español y Estrangero” (1842-1868)’, in Documentación de las Ciencias de la Información 2007, vol. 30, p. 215, no 6.

(9) Biblioteca Xeral of the Santiago University, Manuscript MS 588, Appendix to the letter E, folio 113.

(10) Noticio o Catalogo de las obras i libros prohibidos, Año 1813, in Archivo Historico Universitario, parte Archivo Universidad, seccion Historico, no 489, legajo 534, ‘Catalogos de la Biblioteca’, lemma E (no page number).

(11) Ms Varela, whom I wish to thank heartily for providing the background information on the Santiago University Library, has recently published her doctoral thesis on the origins of the library’s collection in the 18th and 19th centuries: see Varela Orol, Concha, A Biblioteca Pública da Real Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela, Universidade, 2007. The Gypsy Luke gets treated on p. 240.

(12) Cf. Borrow’s letter of 29 September 1839 to Brandram from Seville: ‘Of the (...) Gospel [in Caló] (...) nearly one hundred copies [have] been circulated amongst the Rommanees of Andalusia during my present visit.’ Darlow, op. cit., p. 444. Also Bible in Spain ch. 48-50.

(13) I owe this information to Father Mariano Ibañez Velasquez, editor of El Adalid, who assured me in his kind letter of 15 January 2000, that the copy - which is still in the convent’s library - was neither bought nor acquired through auction.

(14) El Evangelio de San Lucas en Caló, ed. Alberto González Caballero, Ediciones El Almendra, Cordoba, 1998 (ISBN 84-8005-037-3).