Gypsy Folk Tales, by Francis Hindes Groome, , at sacred-texts.com
Folk-tales are scarcely literature, but a question affecting the world's literature arises out of these Gypsy folk-tales. Was the author of The Pilgrim's Progress an English peasant or a Gypsy half-breed? The Rev. J. Brown, in John Bunyan . his Life, Times, and Work (1885), shows that the family of Bunyan--a name spelt in thirty-four different ways--was established in Bedfordshire as early at least as 1199, and that in 1327 a William Bownon was living at Elstow on the very spot where John Bunyan was born in 1628. There is a gap in the Bunyan annals between 1327 and 1542, when one finds a William Bonyon of Elstow, as in 1548 a Thomas Bonyon, aged forty-six or more. Next come a Thomas Bunyon, 'Pettie Chapman,' who died in 1641, and his son, also Thomas Bunyon (1603-76), who, says Mr. Brown, is 'usually spoken of as a tinker, but describes himself as a "braseyer."' This second Thomas took for his second wife in 1627 an Elstow woman, Margaret Bentley (1603-44), and John was the first child of that marriage. He, as every one knows, was an itinerant though house-dwelling tinker (Brown, pp. 64, 119, 158, etc.); and his eldest son, John, 'was brought up to the ancestral trade of a brazier, and carried on business in Bedford till his death in 1728' (id. pp. 201-2). That is all of the essential to he gleaned about Bunyan's pedigree; we know nothing as to his grandmother or great-grandmother.
With this evidence, then, before him, Canon Venables pronounced, in the Dictionary of National Biography (vii., 1886, p. 276), that 'the antiquity of the family in Bunyan's native county effectually disposes of the strange hallucination, which even Sir Walter Scott was disposed to favour, that the Bunyans, "though reclaimed and settled," may have sprung from the Gipsy tribe.' By no means necessarily, as may be seen from a single example. During 1870-75 I often came across members of the Bunce family in Oxfordshire, Wilts, Herts, and Somerset. Stephen Bunce, of Wiltshire yeoman ancestry, had thirty years earlier married Phoebe Buckland, a thorough-bred Gypsy woman, had himself turned tent-dweller, and 'travelled' the southern counties till his death. They had a largish family; and many, perhaps most, of their sons and daughters have married Gypsies of more or less purity. One son was (and maybe is still) a small farmer and horse-dealer,
living in a house of his own at Pewsey. Now, if a son or a grandson of his rose to eminence, he could not by Canon Venables' argument be a Gypsy, because, forsooth! the Bunces are an old Wiltshire family.
The chief upholder of Bunyan's Gypsy ancestry was Mr. James Simson, a Scoto-American of New York, the editor of Walter Simson's History of the Gipsies (1865); and author of John Bunyan and the Gipsies (1882) and a whole host of similar pamphlets. He pointed out that Bunyan writes in his Grace Abounding: 'For my descent, it was, as is well known to many, of a low and inconsiderable generation; my father's house being of that rank that is meanest and most despised of all the families of the land.' And again: 'After I had been thus for some considerable time, another thought came into my mind, and that was, whether we were of the Israelites or no. For, finding in the Scriptures that they were once the peculiar people of God, thought I, if I were one of this race, my soul must needs be happy. Now, again, I found within me a great longing to be resolved about this question, but could not tell how I should. At last, I asked my father, who told me, No, we were not.' And yet again: 'I often, when these temptations had been with force upon me, did compare myself to the case of such a child whom some Gipsy hath by force took up in her arms, and is carrying from friend and country.'
Kidnapping has never been a Gypsy practice (In Gypsy Tents, pp. 244-46), nor, though it were, would a Gypsy, even a converted Gypsy, be likely to use it as an illustration. But Mr. Simson's two first passages are really pertinent. The Anglo-Israelite craze was not devised till 1793; and it is hard to conceive why about 1645 an English peasant-boy should have speculated on a Jewish origin for himself and his kindred. But with a Gypsy it would not the least surprise me. I hardly ever see Frampton Boswell, an English Gypsy of fifty, but he returns to the question, 'And there's one thing, Mr. Groome, I've been wanting to ask you about, and that is where you think our people originated.' Hindoos, Jews, and Egyptians are regularly passed in review, but Frampton cannot make up his mind, as neither can he about Rómani, except that 'for certain ’tisn't one of the Seven Languages.'
Tinker in Bunyan's day indubitably carried a suggestion at least of Gypsydom. I have not been able to see The Tinker of Turvey, 1 or Canterbury Tales (Lond. 1630, ed. by J. O. Halliwell), to which Mr. Brown refers, but from his few quotations on p. 34 it seems evident that that 'strolling Tincker and brave mettle-man' regarded himself as something widely different from an ordinary English artificer. Sir Thomas Overbury in his well-known Characters (1614) describes 'The Tinker,' the companion of whose travels 'is some foul sun-burnt quean, that since the terrible statute recanted gypsism and is turned pedlaress. So marches he all
over England with his bag and baggage,' etc. In an article by A. H. A. Hamilton on 'Quarter Sessions under Charles i. from original records of Devon' (Fraser's Mag., Jan. 1877) is a quotation concerning 'sundry suspect persons, Roagues both sturdy and begging vagrant, some whereof pretend to be petty chapmen [like Bunyan's grandfather], others peddlers, others glassmen, tynckers, others palmesters, fortune readers, Egiptians, and the like.' Brazier is a frequent designation of Gypsies at the present day--e.g. the baptismal register of Hill, Sutton Coldfield, has 'Jan. 27, 1866, Miriam Kate Agnes, daughter of Benjamin and Mira Boswell, cutler and brazier'; and that of Boothroyd, Dewsbury, has 'Mary Jane dr of Thomas and Mary Green, Dewsbury Moor, Brazier of the Gipsey tribe.' The occurrence in the Bunyan pedigree of such Gypsy 'Christian' names as Mantis and Perun, Delarīfa and Meralíni, would be a strong point, but is entirely lacking. On the other hand, 'gaujified' or gentilised Gypsies often drop such names; two brothers of my acquaintance, Oti and Lazzy, became thus plain William and George. A contemporary description of Bunyan (Brown, p. 399) as 'tall of stature, strong-boned, though not corpulent, somewhat of a ruddy face, with sparkling eyes . . . his hair reddish,' runs rather against the theory of Bunyan's Gypsy ancestry, but not conclusively, for I have known two Gypsy brothers, one very swarthy, the other red-haired.
The strongest corroboration of that theory was unknown to both Mr. Simson and Mr. Brown. In Notes and Queries for January 24, 1891, p. 67, 'R.' cited an entry from the parish register of St. Mary's, Launceston: '1586, March the ivth daie was christened Nicholas, sonne of James Bownia, an Egiptia rogue.' Here 'Egiptia' (? Egiptiā) must stand for 'Egiptian'; 'Bownia' similarly should be 'Bownian,' and, if so, we have veritable Gypsy Bunyans. It may seem a far cry from Launceston in Cornwall to Elstow in Bedfordshire, were nomads not in case; in time, the interval between this baptism and the birth of 'the inspired tinker' is but forty-two years.
But, anyhow, whether Bunyan was Gypsy 1 or Gentile, folk-tales (plus the Bible) seem to me quite as likely a source of inspiration for his Pilgrim's Progress and Holy War as (say) the fourteenth century Pélerinage de l’Homme or the siege of the Anabaptists at Münster. I do not believe this has ever before been suggested; I will merely suggest it, and leave the working out of it to folklorists.
294:1 Turvey, a parish near Elstow, was a Gypsy abode long after Bunyan's day; at it, in 1822-25, Legh Richmond buried two Gypsies--James Smith, and his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Robinson, both of the reputed age of 105. Robinson was a surname of descendants of Bunyan.
295:1 There are those to whom the notion will seem monstrous that the author of The Pilgrim's Progress should have been 'a gipsy!' I would remind such that at the present day there is Mr. George Smith, the Converted Gypsy, of the Potteries, who conducts missions in Edinburgh and other large cities. I have never heard him myself, but I am assured by a competent judge that he is a really eloquent preacher. Then there was William Mitchel (1672-1740), the Edinburgh 'Tinklarian Doctor,' author of a score of prophetical pamphlets. There was Thomas Wright, the tinker Berean of Barnsley, who baptized Ebenezer Elliott in 1781. And there was the founder of the American Shakers, 'Mother' Ann Lee (1736-86), a Manchester blacksmith's illiterate daughter, who married in 1762 the blacksmith Abraham Stanley. The conjunction of the surnames Lee and Stanley, of the smith's craft, and of the illiteracy, renders it almost certain in my mind that these were Gypsies.