Misunderstood For Six Hundred Years

The negative image of Gypsies that persists today is the result of centuries-old xenophobia, misrepresentation and downright fantasy

Europe Features
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.

The nomads studied the societies they encountered with some care, and they made an effort to present themselves in terms readily comprehensible to western Europeans: as devout Christian pilgrims. Their information network was impressive. There was no concerted action against them because they carried letters of protection apparently issued by several princes, notably Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Hungary. Thus when they arrived at towns and castles they were admitted by the city government, bishop or lord and, to cite one of the city chroniclers, they were “treated humanely”. The explanation of the wandering life (it was said) lay in their abandonment of Christianity in favour of paganism some years earlier; when they reverted to the true faith they were subjected by their own bishops to the penance of spending seven years on pilgrimage. This explanation would recur many times in various forms, long after the first seven years had elapsed and seven years had stretched beyond 70. It was also said that they had chosen to exile themselves from their native land in commemoration of the flight of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt, when Herod sought to kill the little boy. The Gypsies claimed to come from a place called “Lesser Egypt” in Africa (rather than from Asia), and they therefore were assumed to originate from somewhere near the Christian empire of Ethiopia, so they were welcomed by Emperor Sigismund as penitent Ethiopian pilgrims. The Ethiopian connection was exciting, because there was impossibly optimistic talk in the West of a grand crusading alliance between Catholic Europe and Ethiopia against the Muslim world. 

Through their supposed Egyptian origins they came to be known as Egypciens, and hence as “Gypsies”; this was an identity they seized upon, for the name had positive connotations. Yet there was always great ambivalence towards these nomads. In 1469 a “count of Little Egypt” was sent packing from Frankfurt-am-Main without gifts, and again and again the city council tried to keep Gypsies out of the town. Hospitality turned into hostility.

On August 17, 1427 they reached Paris. At their head was a single “duke”, accompanied by a count and ten mounted men. An anonymous observer wrote: “they said that they were good Christians; they came from Lower Egypt.” They elaborated the story of their origins still further. They now claimed that they had originally lived in a land that had become Christian, following its invasion by other Christians. Conquered by the Saracens, they had then abandoned their faith, only to become Christian once more when the Holy Roman Emperor and the king of Poland overran their land. The emperor was unhappy about their disloyalty and insisted that he would not allow them to return home without the consent of the pope. So they were sent to Rome, and the pope imposed a penance on them. They must wander the world for seven years without ever sleeping in a bed. Yet their harsh life was to be made less difficult to bear, since the pope ordered every bishop and abbot to give them a one-off gift of ten pounds in cash (thereby ensuring that they kept moving). The pope supposedly issued letters in their favour, though needless to say none has ever been found in the papal archives. 

The Parisian response to their arrival was to keep them outside the city walls, at Saint-Denis, even though they only numbered between 100 and 120. They became quite an attraction to the Parisian public. Most wore silver earrings, which they said was a sign of gentility in their homeland. In other words, they wanted to be recognised as people of high standing, despite their ragged clothes and simple style of life. The men were said to be “very black”, with black frizzy hair and pony-tails. They wore the simplest clothes: a blanket above a long smock. They were fortune-tellers, sometimes sowing discord when they convinced men and women that they were being cuckolded by their spouse. News of their necromancy reached the bishop of Paris, who decided to put an end to this nonsense: he arrived and excommunicated the fortune-tellers along with those who believed their false claims. On September 8 the Gypsies, under pressure from the bishop, moved on. The negative image of the Gypsies thus goes back to their first arrival in western Europe 600 years ago.

The stigmatisation of the Gypsies on the supposition that they were criminals led to their further exclusion from society, making it impossible for them to settle and strengthening the stereotype that established itself across western Europe. Often, they passed themselves off as Greek Christians, for this elicited sympathy at a time when the Turkish threat to the Balkans was seen to be real. When columns of Gypsies claiming to be Greek exiles entered Spain at the end of the 15th century, they were entering a hornet’s nest. The Jews had recently been expelled, and the Moors were under pressure to convert and to abandon their distinctive culture. Despite their claim to be Christian pilgrims, they could easily be confused with Moors, which would place them in great peril from the Inquisition and the public authorities. Yet what dismayed the rulers of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, was their conduct, not their supposed religious identity. The king and queen issued an ordinance to the wandering “Egyptians”, in which they complained that the Gypsies had sustained themselves not from honest crafts but from begging, stealing and fortune-telling. They were ordered to settle down and to find a master for whom they could work. Otherwise they would have to leave the country.

Any number of similar accounts of the arrival of the Gypsies, similarly constructed, then led to the crystallisation of the image that would be conveyed down the centuries, attributing to the Gypsies a love of theft, a taste for necromancy and a strangely threatening physical appearance. Albert Krantz, from Hamburg, who died in 1517, wrote of a strange people who arrived in the towns of the north German seashore in 1417, dark-skinned and ugly, “cooked by the sun”, dressed in filthy clothes; he asserted that they were skilled thieves, especially the women, whose stolen goods sustained the men. Where the earlier chroniclers had limited themselves to calling the Gypsies thieves, Krantz painted an altogether darker picture. They travelled the world but lived lazy lives, and did not recognise any country as their own. They had no religion and “lived from day to day”; he said that this was more the way of life of dogs than of humans. He was sceptical about their tales of penitential wanderings, which he described as fables. Of course, by his time the Gypsies had performed their seven-year penance many times over.  

The puzzlement of Europeans was encapsulated in the persistence of the story that they were Christian pilgrims seeking alms during a penitential journey. The balance between Christian hospitality and xenophobic hostility was a fine one. It was particularly difficult to maintain within the increasingly centralised bureaucratic state that came into being in the 15th and early 16th centuries, to which the alien customs and sheer mobility of the Gypsies seemed to pose a challenge. Western European princes and cities gradually decided that they had no place for wandering nomads within their states, trapping the Gypsies within the negative stereotypes that condemned them as thieves and sorcerers; in later centuries, they also suffered from unfounded accusations of child abduction. Much more positive romantic notions of the Gypsy did surface in the 19th century, in the works of Walter Scott and Victor Hugo, and in the books of George Borrow; but the classic image of them as asocial parasites was tragically revived by the Nazis; their Indo-Aryan origins were conveniently ignored by their exterminators. It is therefore important to remember that the negative image of the Gypsies today is the product of a long tradition of xenophobia, embellished by fantasy and exaggeration.