Sunday, April 7, 2019

Among peasants and Travelers

“Tattarplågan” is a book in Swedish published in 1942. The author, Carl-Martin Bergstrand, was a folklorist and ethnographer mostly specializing in southwestern Sweden (Västergötland, Halland, Bohuslän, Dalsland, Värmland). In this book, he describes (and attacks) the Swedish Travelers, a minority group with cultural traditions similar to those of the Gypsies. “Tattare” is a derogatory word for Swedish Traveler, originally simply denoting the supposed Tatar origin of this group, but later acquiring a heavily negative connotation. Still today, people seen as extremely unkempt, unruly and dirty might be called “tattare”. The title of the book could be translated “The Tattare Problem”.

The book is a weird mélange of fact and fiction. Often, it doesn´t describe the Travelers per se, but rather Swedish folk perceptions about Travelers. These are mostly negative. The Travelers were seen as threatening, as aggressive beggars and thieves, and as lascivious heathens. Both Bergstrand and the Swedish peasants whose stories he has collected from various archives state that the Travelers did make a living by selling various items, but this is seen as a mere front for their *real* activities, which are invariably of a criminal nature. Sometimes, the line between selling and scamming was pretty thin, as when Travelers sold worthless horses to unsuspecting farmers. Bergstrand also mentions that some Travelers made a living by taking jobs considered below the dignity of Swedes, such as flaying and burying dead horses, castrating farm animals or even killing kittens.

The superstitious Swedish peasants often feared the supposed magical powers and curses of the Travelers. Traveler women in particular were seen as witches with often malignant powers (usually used against peasants who refused to give food or clothing to Traveler beggars). A few benign powers are mentioned, too, such as the claim that Traveler women could magically make birth pangs disappear, and were therefore invited when peasant women were about to give birth. But even here, the Tattare are somewhat ambivalent, for instance by transferring the birth pangs to the husband of the woman giving birth! A more disturbing legend claimed that Travelers kidnapped Christian children and sold them to Freemasons (sic) who would then sell them into slavery in the Ottoman Empire! I wonder about the provenance of this legend – did peasants in god-forsaken corners of southwest Sweden really know about Freemasonry?

There are two main theories about the origins of the Swedish Travelers. One is that they are Gypsies (Romani). The other is that they are really Swedish, or in some cases from other White groups, and that their Gypsy-like lifestyle is the result of socio-economic factors. Bergstrand mediates between the two positions. In his estimation, the Tattare are of Romani origin, but due to centuries of intermarriage with, and new recruitment from, various stigmatized White underclass groups, the majority have become “Swedish”. The solution to the Tattare Problem is therefore integration or assimilation into the Swedish middle or working classes.

Since the stories in “Tattarplågan” haven´t been fact-checked for accuracy, I don´t think this is really an anthropological study. Rather, it´s a collection of Swedish folklore about a group considered dangerous and alien. As such, it could be of some interest to the general reader. Provided you understand Swedish, of course!

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