Painting a dark picture of a people: "Gypsy Children", 1855, by August von Pettenkofen
Debates about immigration have come to focus more and more on the Gypsies, or Roma as it is now fashionable to call them. In fact, the name "Gypsy" has a long pedigree and tells us something important about who they have thought themselves to be. For the whole question of who they are needs to be explained. The public is almost as puzzled by the Gypsies today as it was when they first arrived in western Europe early in the 15th century. It has not been easy for a settled population to make sense of other people who have chosen a nomadic way of life.
Whereas the Jews have placed a strong emphasis on literacy and now have historians aplenty, the Gypsies can offer few voices to speak for their history. This means that the best way to examine their past is to look at how people in western Europe have reacted to their presence. One cannot always learn much from this about the true history of the Gypsies, but one can learn a great deal about the fears and surprise felt by the settled population of Europe. It is a complex history in which prejudice and persecution have been mixed with sympathy and support. No one now doubts that they originated in medieval India, though when they left there is uncertain; it is also uncertain how long or by what routes they meandered through Persia and the Middle East before arriving in Europe. Physical appearance is a poor guide, but when they first arrived several uncomplimentary writers in Germany commented on how dark they were. Better evidence is provided by their language, though it takes the form of many divergent dialects — still, the roots of Romany speech undoubtedly lie in the Indo-Aryan languages of medieval India, with layers of Persian, Greek and other languages that added a rich vocabulary as the Gypsies passed out of Asia into southeastern Europe, where they lived during the 14th century.
Gypsies began to enter western Europe itself from 1400 onwards. No one knows why they moved out of the Balkans; maybe the Turkish invasions that were then taking place disrupted their life, which became increasingly mobile. Their entry into western Europe was accompanied by elaborate tales about why they had arrived. They came to Hildesheim in Saxony in 1407; they called at the office of the town clerk, where they presented mysterious letters of accreditation, and they were given alms. Notwithstanding this act of generosity, they were treated with suspicion and were placed under armed guard. The distance between offering protection and ensuring segregation was not a vast one. Equally the distance between free gifts of alms and donations of protection money in the hope that they would move on was not vast.
These nomads were well-organised, led by people whom chroniclers called their "dukes" and "counts". A German chronicler of the early 15th century insisted on the novelty of the Gypsies: "something foreign never seen before". They arrived in Germany and Switzerland from lands farther to the east; they travelled in columns, some on foot and some on horseback, and would spend the night outside the city walls, which suited them better since they were (the chronicler insisted) thieves and were afraid of being arrested if they lingered within the walls. Numbers were not vast: three hundred here, a hundred there, male and female, in addition to their children. They were described as being "as black as Tartars", an odd statement, since Tartars are not black. Yet the same chronicler insisted on a link between their supposedly unpleasant appearance and what he thought to be their evil character. The demonisation of the Gypsies had begun.
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