Religious, Vagabonds, and Gypsies in Early Modern Europe

Gypsies in the Market, by Hans Burgkmair the Elder, c.1510 / Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

By Dr. Shulamith Shahar
Professor Emeritus of History
Tel Aviv University


Western Europe was made up of diverse tribes and ethnic groups, which settled there at different times.[1] Historians generally concur that nationalist ideology came into being in Europe only in the 18th century, but they disagree over when national consciousness arose. Many historians of the Middle Ages maintain that it appeared quite early. Marc Bloch suggested there was national consciousness in England, France and Germany as early as 1100. According to others (Johan Huizinga, George Coulton), it had existed since the 14th century in Germany, France and England, as well as in Spain, Hungary, Scotland and the Italian states. Some historians of the Reformation in Germany emphasize the role of national consciousness in the acceptance of the Reformation in Germany, although Germany was made up of many separate political entities—i.e., in the sense that Germanism stood up to the exploitative papacy.[2]

Other historians categorically reject the idea that national consciousness emerged before the 18th century. A few even deny the existence of nations before that time, claiming there were only ethnic communities. Some maintain that even in the 18th century national consciousness was limited to the educated elite and reached wider social strata only in the 19th century. Eugene Webber’s study of French nationality perceives the emergence among the peasantry of a national identity and a consciousness of belonging to the French nation only during World War I, and stresses the physical, political and cultural isolation of the typical French village.[3]

The question of the rise of national consciousness, however, lies beyond the parameters of the present discussion. The issue to be addressed when considering the Gypsies as a group is, on the one hand, the demands made by the ruling power on different ethnic groups, as well as the relations between them and the group that emerged in the course of history as the dominant ethnic community and, on the other hand, the attitude toward ‘strangers’ regarded as members of a different nationality or ethnic group. This essay will discuss the role of ethnicity vis-à-vis religion in creating barriers and hostility between distinct groups in Early Modern Europe. In this context, it will further seek to analyze various European perceptions of the Gypsies as a distinct group, their depiction as an ethnic group as opposed to denial of their ethnicity, and attitudes considering them a rabble of mixed national origins.

Ethnicity, Religious Conflicts, and Xenophobia

Landscape with Gypsy Fortune-Tellers, by Hendrick Avercamp, 17th century / Kunsthalle Hamburg

During the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, some ethnic groups continued to speak their own languages without hindrance, and to maintain their distinct traditions. In France—regarded as the prime example by proponents of the rise of national consciousness in the late Middle Ages— people in the Early Modern period still spoke, in addition to French, the official language, Flemish, Breton, Gascon and Basque, as well as various regional dialects. (Provencal had lost its status as an official language and declined even as a literary language in the 16th century.) In Alsace and Lorraine, which until 1648 acknowledged the sovereignty of the German emperor, the population spoke various French dialects. Albanians who settled in the kingdom of Naples in the late 15th century went on speaking Albanian. During the Reformation, Huguenots who had left France and settled in East Prussia continued to speak French and kept up some of their traditions. The Hutterites (an Anabaptist sect), who had migrated to Moravia, persisted in speaking German.

Thus, the Gypsies were by no means the only group to speak their own language. As Robert Bartlett has shown, the language question and ethnic tensions arose on the frontiers of Latin Europe, in the territories that had been conquered during the High Middle Ages. The appointment of a foreign clergyman who did not speak the local language annoyed the populace. This happened, for example, when a parish priest who knew no Welsh was posted to Wales, or to Ireland, where he spoke no Gaelic, or to East Germany, where he was unfamiliar with the local Slavic language, or to Bohemia, where he spoke no Czech. (Similar tensions, tinged with xenophobia, between the local populace and the conquerors or new settlers also arose in eastern and central Europe.)

These frictions increased in the 14th century, manifested by discrimination against the local populace within the municipal administration, and, at times, in admission to guilds. Municipal councils in the cities of Prussia issued orders restricting positions in the town councils to men of Germanic descent. Such statutes, known as the ‘Deutschtum paragraph,’ persisted in Prussia till the 17th century. In certain cities some guilds refused to accept apprentices of Slavic origin, in addition to illegitimate offspring, children of shepherds and others. In certain cities of Ireland and Wales, the local population was barred, not only from municipal posts and membership in the guilds, but even from citizenship. At the same time statutes were issued to prevent English settlers assimilating with the Irish. The so-called Statutes of Kilkenny of 1366 prohibited marriage between English settlers and Irish persons; the settlers were commanded to speak English, to ride on saddles unlike the Irish, to dress like Englishmen and to give their children English names. Moreover, within the Pale, no Irish person could hold church property or join a monastery.[4]

Spain was also a frontier region of Latin Europe. Its re-conquest from the Muslims and subsequent colonization went on for some five hundred years, ending in 1492 with Spain adjoining Muslim Africa. Discrimination against Jews and Muslims who had converted to Catholicism, and whose exclusion was part of the official ideology, was considerably more severe than discrimination against the local population in other frontier regions, and converted Muslims were eventually expelled. By and large, however, except in border regions, ethnic and language differences did not make for barriers between inhabitants of diverse local identities, who were all subjects of the same sovereign, although an inhabitant of one region might feel strange in another region of the same realm. Thus, in 1608, when Pierre de Lancre was sent by the parlement of Bordeaux to France’s Basque region to investigate residents’ complaints against local witches, the place and the inhabitants struck him as savage and alien, as strange as foreign countries.[5] Yet the local population’s legal position as French subjects was no different from that of the inhabitants of the Île-de-France. Differences in social status, privileges and duties were based on people’s class and/or corporation, as well as gender, but not on ethnic identity.

The 16th and 17th centuries saw large-scale migrations. Protestants driven from Catholic cities in Germany, or from entire regions (such as the Tyrol), or who chose to leave a place where they were subject to restrictions, migrated mainly to Protestant cities. But there was also migration from one country to another. Protestants from the southern Low Countries moved to the United Provinces of Holland, to England or to the Protestant regions of Germany. Anabaptists emigrated from Germany to Bohemia and Moravia, Huguenots from France to Prussia and other Protestant countries. If newcomers were subjected to restrictions in their new countries, or were expelled from them at a later stage, it was due to their affiliation with a different church, not to their ethnic ‘otherness.’ When Mary the Catholic came to the throne, Calvinists who had come to England were compelled to leave. They moved on to Lutheran Sweden and Denmark, where they were accepted, though not without restrictions.6 When the Anabaptists were expelled from England in 1527 during the reign of Elizabeth, and from Bohemia and Moravia in 1622, on orders from the Hapsburg emperors, it was on account of their Anabaptist faith, not their ethnic foreignness.[7]

There was also a migration of merchants (who decided to stay in a country), of skilled craftsmen, whose specialty was in demand in the country in which they settled, and of suppliers, bankers, physicians and scholars, who clustered around the rulers’ courts, where some of them became advisors and office holders. Some became ‘citizens,’ and were thus exempt from the restrictions placed on strangers (mainly the right to bequeath and inherit property). Yet even they were distinguished, at least for the first generation, from the native population. Public attitudes toward them changed according to the circumstances—political and socio-economic—and did not always match the official position. Xenophobic expression proliferated both in scholarly discourse and in popular opinion in times of economic hardship, or of fear of enemies, when strangers were suspected of being spies since some of them had actually come from enemy countries (e.g., Protestants who immigrated to England from France and Spain).

Family in their decorated caravan en route to the Cahirmee Horse Fair at Buttevant, Co. Cork / National Library of Ireland on The Commons

In England the central government on the whole supported foreigners who were useful to it, while the local authorities sought to restrict or even to expel them. In 1567 the city of Norwich sought to expel foreigners who had settled there, as did the city of Colchester in 1580, but the queen did not permit it.[8] In 16th century France there were immigrants from Scotland, Lorraine and Italy, with the latter especially acquiring key positions in the king’s service. The Italians enjoyed the government’s patronage, while the general population regarded them with fascination and admiration, on the one hand, and hostility and envy, on the other.

Concurrent with their cultural influence, an anti-Italian discourse and a negative stereotype prevailed, leading to anti-Italian riots and petitions to the Estates General to exclude them from holding government positions.[9] After the St Bartholomew’s Eve massacre (1572), a group consisting of Huguenots and Catholics demanded that Italians be barred from political life and influence at court and even driven from the kingdom.[10] However, they were not expelled, nor were they driven from England where corporations sought to deport foreign merchants and craftsmen. This was in spite of the fact that the number of foreign immigrants in various countries rose steeply during the 16th and 17th centuries, arousing local national consciousness and feeling in response. As a historian of the Italian presence in France put it: “Italian immigrants accelerated the development of national feeling in its Galician, monarchist and xenophobic form.”[11]

In Spain, as noted above, the course of events was different. The Jews who became Christian, some voluntarily and some under coercion, were called Conversos, or ‘New Christians.’ Muslims who had been forced to convert were known as Moriscos. Once they became Christian, they could no longer be regarded as religious minorities. But in Spain in the Early Modern period, unlike in the Middle Ages, it was no longer sufficient to be baptized in order to belong to the dominant community. Unified Spain, which was striving to achieve a homogenous and monolithic society, insisted on the ‘purity of blood’ (limpieza de sangre), and the blood of Conversos and Moriscos was not ‘pure.’ The baptismal font could not wash away the taint of their origin, and they remained ‘others.’

The Gypsies – Ethnic Group or Rabble of Various Nations?

Gypsy caravan near Llanvetherine / Photo by Jeremy Bolwell, Creative Commons

Whereas the Conversos and Moriscos had clearly been viewed as distinct ethnic groups—whether or not it had been their ethnic ‘otherness’ that principally led to their persecution and expulsion—the position was not so clear-cut with regard to the Gypsies.

The definition of the Gypsies, both in learned discourse and in official statutes, had changed over the centuries and was sometimes contradictory even in the same period. In some of the first texts that described their appearance in western Europe in the early decades of the 15th century they were left unclassified. Writers referred to them as ‘people,’ or ‘creatures,’ who had turned up in the country;[12] or “a large crowd of alien vagabonds first showed up;”[13] or “there appeared ugly people whose skin was burnt black by the sun, wearing filthy clothes… The commonality calls them Tartars.”[14] Other observers spoke of a ‘nation’ (natio or gens, in the Latin texts), or a ‘people’ (Volk, in the Germanic texts). In the first half of the 15th century the priest Andreas of Regensburg spoke of “the nation of Gypsies (Ciganorum), called Cigawnar in the vernacular.”[15] Others denoted the Gypsies as “a miserable people;”[16] or “a useless people known as Gypsies.”[17] In the first half of the 17th century some authors still referred to the ‘people’ or ‘nation’ of Gypsies. The German historian, geographer and chronicler of Hessen wrote of the “disorderly Gypsy nation of thieves, sorcerers and beggars,”[18] while the Swiss Johannes Guler, like his predecessors in the 15th century, described them as “a people—a wondrous and strange people.”[19]

While the Gypsies were still referred to as a people or nation (often qualified as worthless), a different depiction gradually emerged in the latter half of the 16th century and eventually became dominant. Though the term ‘a people’ was still occasionally used, it no longer designated an ethnic group but rather a mixed rabble of individuals from various nations: “a thievish treacherous licentious people, consisting of an assembly of diverse felons.”[20] Their ability to speak several languages was no longer seen as a talent, but was due to their being a gang of people of various native languages (which made them all the more dangerous).[21] It was said that they had no language of their own. They spoke an argot of swindlers and thieves; alternatively, they spoke the Wendish language.[22]

It was also suggested that there had originally been a nation of Gypsies, but that the current lot (i.e., in the 16th and 17th centuries) were not descendants of the original Gypsies who had come to western Europe in the early 15th century—those genuine Gypsies had returned to their homeland, and all that was left was a rabble of thieves.[23] The statement that this ‘rabble’ was composed of peoples “who are not far from us,” or “are living among us”[24] (the ‘genuine’ ones having gone back to their homeland), meant a denial of the Gypsies’ entire past, as well as all their cultural characteristics. In time, all mention of the ‘genuine’ Gypsies who had returned to their native land was also abandoned, and the Gypsies were depicted as an assortment of the lowest members of all nations. As the Bavarian chronicler Aventinus put it, “It is a species of the biggest thieves, the filth and refuse of various nations.”[25]

Early descriptions of the Gypsies upon their appearance in western Europe emphasized their black skin as a characteristic of their ethnic identity; this feature could not be ignored even when it became commonplace to deny that they were a distinct ethnic group. The solution was to assert that their distinctive skin color was not natural. According to the Dutch Calvinist pastor Gisbert Voetius, their children were light-skinned at birth, but as they grew older they rubbed their skin with black coloring, or became sunburned[26]—that is, they were pretending to be an ethnic group with distinctive physical features. According to the 17th century English author Thomas Dekker (1570–1632), their dirty skin color was not inborn, nor was it the result of sunburn, but was due to the fact that they painted their faces. “No red-ochre man carries a face of a more filthy complexion. Yet they are not born so, neither has the sun burnt them so, but they are painted so; yet they are not good painters either, for they do not make faces but mar faces.”[27] He was quoted by his contemporary Samuel Rid.[28] Scholars concurred with this view.

In a work published in 1646, the English scientist Thomas Browne discussed at length the complexion of the Africans. He rejected the explanations put forward by his predecessors and contemporaries, arguing that the Africans’ coloring, having been acquired in the distant past, had become immutable. By contrast, he described the Gypsies as ‘artificial Negroes’ and ‘counterfeit Moors,’ who ‘acquire their complexion by anointing their bodies with bacon and fat substances and so exposing them to the sun.” Browne criticized the various theories concerning their origin, expressing the opinion that they probably came from nearby countries, such as Wallachia, Bulgaria and Hungary. He concluded by stating that it mattered not what nation they had sprung from, since by this time they were a mixture of all nations, having taken on members in all the countries where they wandered.[29]

Sir Thomas Browne / National Portrait Gallery, London

Browne was not the only one who was preoccupied with the Africans’ black complexion. The 16th century saw the start of English colonialism: commerce with Africa was a stage in the transit of Mediterranean trade to the Atlantic, and representations of Africa and its black inhabitants made their appearance. It was an accepted fact, rooted in both the classical and biblical traditions, that the African’s black coloring was immutable, and that the notion of lightening it was a metaphor for the impossible.[30] The novelty lay in the discourse about the color’s origin. Among the various explanations proposed in the 16th and 17th centuries were cosmetics, God’s curse on Noah’s son Ham, and exposure to the fierce sun—all of which were discarded by Browne and gradually by others.

The view that became widespread and was never rejected was that the Africans had acquired their dark coloring in the distant past, and that it had become permanently fixed since then. Christian culture regarded the black color not only as ugly but as symbolizing the forces of evil (darkness), sin and death. (In Spain, Christians who sought to vilify Muslims described them as black as pitch.[31]) In the 16th century this association sharpened the distinction between ‘us’(we) who are white, fair and Christian, as opposed to the ‘other’ who is black, ugly, evil and pagan. Black and white became typical of binary contrasts and hierarchical definitions, if not of race (modern racial theory was yet to be born), certainly of ethnicity and culture.[32] Needless to say, the description of the Gypsies as a rabble of various nationalities pretending to be an ethnic group was hardly complimentary, yet those who denied them their ethnicity and their naturally dark complexion unwittingly weakened the contrast between them and white European nations.

The opinion which became accepted in the scholarly discourse—that the Gypsies were not an ethnic group but a rabble of vagabonds, beggars and criminals of diverse nationalities—was also expressed in the statutes of the Spanish government, although these tended to be contradictory. Some referred to an ethnic group of Gypsies which other people joined, while others did not—leaving their identity unclassified. A statute issued by Carlos II in 1685 stated: “Lest there be any doubt who may be deemed a Gypsy, we declare that any man or woman caught wearing the dress that hitherto this category of people have been known to wear, or who speaks the Jerigonza language, will be deemed a Gypsy.”[33]

The inner contradiction was even more evident in the record of the debate that followed the roundup in 1749 in Spain, which led to the confinement of 9,000–10,000 Gypsies. Shortly after the operation a discussion arose about the need to free those of the detainees who possessed documents from the state authorities or the local councils where they lived, showing that they were permanent inhabitants, made their living by honest work, and were lawabiding, tax-paying and legally married. These, it was said, were ‘good Gypsies,’ or ‘non Gypsies’ (de-noser Gitanos). Only the bad ones, vagabonds, beggars and the like, should be kept in detention. These were labeled in the statutes as “a multitude of infamous and harmful people,” or “the disreputable caste (mala casta) of Gypsies by birth, or a malicious usurpation of this name.”[34]

King Carlos III, who in 1783 ordered the release of Gypsies still in detention, and issued the ‘pragmatic sanction’ intended to advance their integration in a more humane manner, was also more consistent than the authors of those statutes. He repeatedly asserted that the Gypsies were not a nation, but did not describe them as a rabble of base rogues: “I declare that those called or calling themselves Gypsies are not so by origin or nature, and that they come from no unwholesome root.”[35] That is to say, they were a people following a way of life that had to be eradicated, but this was not an inborn defect of an ethnic group, and could be changed and corrected.

Did the view that the Gypsies were not a distinct ethnic group produce a change in attitude and policies toward them? As we have seen, belonging to a different ethnic group, as opposed to a different religious or Christian denomination, did not necessarily lead to restrictions and persecution. Hostility and controls occurred in particular circumstances, as for example on the frontiers of Latin Europe, or when a group competed with one of the economic sectors, or when it acquired what seemed to be excessive power (like the Italians who settled in France). The rulers did not always accede to the demands made by this or that element to restrict the foreigners, and the latter could also become subjects of the realm and thus be freed from the few and well defined restrictions placed on foreigners as such. Nevertheless, in times of economic hardship or fear of enemies, foreigners could become popular scapegoats, although they were less likely to be victimized than were socially marginal people, such as lepers (in the late Middle Ages), prostitutes, and, in times of religious fervor, homosexuals. They were certainly less liable to become scapegoats than were the Jews.

The Gypsies were an ethnic group whose appearance was strikingly different, and whose way of life resembled that of vagrants—a persecuted marginal group. Their distinct ethnicity was a feature of their image as much as were their questionable Christianity and objectionable way of life. Yet denial of their ethnicity, which was taking shape just when policies toward vagrants were becoming tougher, did not change the Gypsies’ image, nor the attitude toward them. Nor was it a factor in the transition from a policy of expulsion to one of integration, even in Spain. Integration was adopted because the expulsions had failed. In all countries it also formed part of the general trend of growing governmental intervention into the lives of subjects of all classes.

Denial of the Gypsies’ ethnicity and their depiction as a rabble of mixed national origins were insults added to the long-established litany of their supposed bad qualities. But it did not put an end to their perception as a different human group, even among other vagrants and beggars. The English writer Thomas Dekker, mentioned above, wrote in his pamphlet “Lanthorne and Candle Light” that the Gypsies darkened their faces with paint—that is, they pretended to be a group with distinct physical attributes. At the same time, he declared, “Look at the difference there is between a civil citizen of Dublin and a wild Irish kern, so much difference there is between one of these counterfeit Egyptians and a true English beggar.”[36]

Cristóbal Pérez de Herrera, 1558 / Wikimedia Commons

The Spaniard Cristobal Perez de Herrera was a royal physician who headed the medical services in the Spanish navy in the first two decades of the 17th century. He wrote a pamphlet in installments, advocating changes in the organization of assistance for the poor, similar to reforms instituted in other countries. Before the expulsion of the Moriscos, he expressed concern with the growing numbers and high birth rate of Moriscos and Gypsies, while “our numbers are diminishing on account of the wars.”[37] He regarded the Gypsies, like the Moriscos, as differing from the Spanish ‘us.’ Similarly, Edward Hext, who served as justice of the peace in Somerset, England, wrote a report in 1596 about vagabonds and beggars in his county, referring to the Gypsies as a separate group with customs unlike those of others.[38] William Harrison (1535–93) wrote of “the English scoundrels” that “in counterfeiting the Egyptian rogues, they have devised a language among themselves which they name ‘canting.’”[39]

Throughout western Europe there were people who joined the Gypsies, if only for a time—young persons who fell out with their families, deserters from various armies, adventurers and criminals on the run. There is no telling how many such cases there were. Historians differ on the subject, and it is doubtful that the sources are of much use in determining the extent of the phenomenon. It is also difficult to assess the frequency of mixed marriages, given that the Gypsies on the whole tended to keep apart from the gadjo (external, non-Gypsy) world, and that their purity laws greatly restricted their contacts with non-Gypsies. Denunciation of bogus Gypsies or those who joined them in the 16th–17th centuries came at a time when anger regarding beggars and vagrants, as well as legislation against them, was increasing. It seems that the denunciations indicate less the large numbers of Gypsy impostors than anxiety about the spread of ‘Gypsyness’—i.e., a way of life characterized by vagrancy, no fixed abode and lack of regular work in the service of a master.

In 2002 the historian Brian Reynolds published research that integrated a study of the Gypsies in Early Modem England with one of the criminal world. He argued that the actual number of Gypsies in England was quite small and that they were wholly assimilated into the criminal world, its language and way of life. English vagrants and criminals had heard about the Gypsies of Continental Europe, and sought to imitate them rather than the few Gypsies in England.[40] According to this contention, the Gypsies did not wander or live apart from the rest of the population, and moreover, did not form groups that non-Gypsies joined. They were simply an undistinguishable part of the world of criminals and vagrants. The theory, however, fails to convince, since it ignores all the distinctions made in contemporary sources between Gypsies and other vagabonds, and the fact that even on the Continent— where, as the author states, there was a greater number of Gypsies— some sources mention non-Gypsies who joined them and pretended to be Gypsies.

Romanticized depictions of Gypsies had already appeared in various literary genres in the Early Modern period. These often described a non-Gypsy joining their bands and seeking to be one of them. But it is doubtful whether these stories tell us much about the realities of the time—the notion that many beggars and vagrants joined the Gypsies, when joining them or pretending to belong among them could serve no useful purpose. The fate of Gypsies who were arrested was hardly an inducement. But whether or not there were significant numbers who joined the Gypsies, the assumption that their bands were swelled by non-Gypsy vagrants and dangerous types from the lowest strata of society merged with the denial of Gypsy ethnicity. We can only speculate whether denial of Gypsy ethnicity strengthened the view that they were joined by others or that Gypsy bands included many non-Gypsies, supported the opinion that they were not an ethnic group. Either way, the two theories became fused.

In many countries, in addition to statutes against non-Gypsy vagrants, against both Gypsy and other vagrants or specifically against Gypsy vagrants, there were laws against both Gypsies and those who joined them, wandered with them, and pretended to be Gypsies by dressing like them. Such, for example, were the decrees issued by Queen Elizabeth of England in 1597,[41] and by the Prince Elector of Saxony in 1652, which declared the Gypsies outlaws, and specifically included demobilized soldiers who joined them and dressed like them.[42] This phenomenon was depicted as an undesirable one-way trend—non-Gypsies adopting the Gypsy way of life. The statutes do not tell us how widespread this tendency actually was, but they certainly indicate the extent of anxiety regarding vagrancy. In the final analysis, denial of their ethnicity neither improved nor worsened the lot of the Gypsies. It might even have encouraged some circles to believe that they could be made to assimilate. This is implied in the proclamation of Carlos III, noted above, which stated that the Gypsies’ way of life did not derive from an “unwholesome root,” while not disparaging them as a rabble of base rogues.

Ironically, it was in the late 18th century when Gypsy ethnicity was being denied, when the policy of forced assimilation was most intense, when Carlos III issued his ‘pragmatic sanction’ and when Maria Theresa and Joseph II issued their decrees, that early study of the Gypsies’ language gave rise to the view that they were an ethnic group originating in India. Not uncommonly, similar theories, definitions and categorizations can lead to different conclusions. The assertion that the Gypsies were not an ethnic group reinforced Carlos III’s belief that they could be ‘reformed.’ Yet the definition labeling them as a racial group in the 19th century did not discourage the missionaries of the evangelical movements from seeking to eradicate their paganism and to reform them morally, maintaining that only their physical characteristics were inherited and were therefore unchangeable.[43]

This fascinating 1850 hand colored map by Justus Perthes depicts Bohemia or modern day Czech Republic / Wikimedia Commons

There were several incidents in France in which Gypsy groups detained by the authorities benefited from denial of their ethnicity. In 1626 the chief prosecutor of the Parlement of Paris, Molé, informed the minister of justice that some vagrant Gypsies in the Île de-France were French families, who simply had to return to their village of origin and settle down.[44] In 1727 an official of the crown instructed the town council of Saint-Jean-de-Luz in southwestern France about a detained Gypsy band, stating that it was not birth that made a person a Gypsy (Bohême), but vagabondage. Therefore, if these people were permanent residents they should be freed;[45] that is to say, if they were not vagabonds they were not Gypsies. The Gypsies sometimes identified themselves as such, while others denied the fact in the hope of evading punishment, and on occasion identified themselves in a subtler way in keeping with the contemporary discourse about them among non-Gypsies. One band member, arrested in 1667, argued that while they were commonly called Bohêmes, in reality he had never been to Egypt. Another argued that though his parents had been Gypsies, he himself was born in France. But the judge did not take any interest in their origins, and though they argued that they were honestly employed, he decided that they were vagabonds and sent them to prison, from where they would have been sent to the galleys. Luckily for them, they escaped.[46]

In the second half of the 19th century, recognition of Gypsy ethnicity gave rise both to racist anti-Gypsy attitudes that justified their continuing persecution and discrimination, and to a romanticized view of them. The latter notion vindicated the nomadic existence of some Gypsies, since it was believed to be genetically predetermined. Romantic racism was especially widespread in England. The Gypsies were depicted as the oldest members of the Aryan race who spoke an Aryan language. It was in this spirit that an organization was formed in 1888, entitled the Gypsy Lore Society, which still exists. Prior to World War II, most of the articles in its periodical dealt with Gypsy language and folklore. Both the hostile racist and the romanticized view of the Gypsy race recapitulated in modern terms the attitudes of the Early Modern period, when Gypsies were still viewed as an ethnic group and referred to as a nation or a people. The 16th century distinction between ‘genuine’ and ‘false’ Gypsies was also revived. In the 16th century it was said that the ‘genuine’ ones had returned to their homeland, and in the 19th it was argued that most of the ‘genuine’ Gypsies had disappeared due to persecution and mixed marriages. Only those classified as ‘genuine’ Gypsies were entitled to continue traveling. It was mainly writers and folklorists who adopted the romanticized view. By contrast, most social reformers, local officialdom, philanthropists and missionaries, attacked the Gypsies as parasites and vagrants who needed to be reformed at any cost.[47]

The Nazis applied their own rationalization to the racial definitions that had prevailed in the 16th–17th centuries—the Gypsies were not a nation (in Nazi terms a pure race) any more than the Jews were one. Both were ‘bastardly people’ (a bastardized people—Bastard-völk), a filthy rabble defiling the pure Germanic blood. The imagery and stereotypes that had taken root through the centuries were explained on the basis of a racial theory that led to a policy of repression and extermination. Gypsies were sterilized—like the mentally retarded, the mentally ill and ‘asocial’ cases. They were confined in concentration camps and eventually transported from Germany and Nazioccupied countries to the death camps. Many of them died of hunger and disease in the camps, many others were put to death in the camps in Germany, and in the occupied countries by the local population, whose conduct was legitimized by Nazi policy.[48] They were murdered without any provocation, without having sought to break away from Germany or the occupied countries in order to set up their own state, and without having collaborated with the enemy.

A small minority survived, thanks to romantic racism. Though more widespread in England than in Germany, it was accepted in certain Nazi circles, represented, notably, by Himmler. They revived the distinction between ‘impure’ rabble and ‘pure,’ noble Aryans, speakers of an Indo-European language. Thanks to Himmler, a minority of the Sinti tribe in Germany was classified as ‘pure’ and hence was saved. There was a further continuity in policy toward Gypsies: as in the Early Modern period Gypsies were conscripted, despite their bad reputation, by the various national armies. Thus in the 20th century hundreds of Gypsies were forcibly recruited by Nazi Germany and served in the Wehrmacht in 1942–43. In the final stages of the war hundreds of Gypsies of the Sinti tribe were taken from the concentration camps and sent to the Russian front to fight for Germany alongside other ‘asocial’ cases and convicted criminals.[49]


After the end of World War II, the debate about the Gypsies reappeared among both scholars and policy makers. Whether or not they are an ethnic group continues to be discussed. A number of historians argue that philologists who studied the Gypsy language and concluded that they were an ethnic group were responsible for creating a fictitious Gypsy identity that ultimately led to anti-Gypsy racism and its horrendous outcome.[50] In 1998 a collection of articles by Lucassen and others emphatically denied Gypsy ethnicity. Refuting any basis for such a definition, the authors assert that defining the Gypsies as an ethnic entity opens the door to racist hostility toward them. They argue that it ignores the changes that have taken place over time in their way of life, differences in tribal customs, the lack of proof that they have a common past, the extent of intermarriage, and the fact that other wanderers have been dubbed Gypsies. They contend that stigmatization has influenced the Gypsies’ group formation, and with it their ethnic consciousness, to a large degree.[51]

However, the authors signally failed to prove their case, just as Brian Reynolds has failed to show that the Gypsies did not constitute a distinct group during the Early Modern period. (Among other flaws, there is no basis to the claim that since the Gypsy way of life changed over the years they are not an ethnic group.) Those who argue against the Gypsies’ ethnicity resemble those who reviled them in the 16th and 17th centuries, denying them both a history and cultural characteristics. Those who regard the Gypsies as an ethnic group, or, rather, stress their common origins and distinctive culture, maintain that rejecting those roots, and thus the identity and culture of the Gypsies, turns them into a ‘social problem,’ the solution to which is coerced adaptation. Once defined as targets for assimilation, they are perceived as misfits, a view that has become part of their image in non- Gypsy eyes.[52]

Official policies toward the Gypsies continue to vary. The Soviet Union recognized the Gypsies as a national minority in 1925, and Gypsies who wished to could be so classified in their ‘internal passports.’ Later the same principle was applied in communist Yugoslavia. In Britain, the Gypsies were recognized as an ethnic minority in 1976, after considerable hesitation and debate, and thus protected from discrimination by the Race Relations Act.[53] In communist Czechoslovakia, on the other hand, the Gypsies were not recognized as an ethnic group, or one with its own language and culture, but defined as people following an unwholesome way of life that needed to be corrected by any means. In the post-communist period the Gypsy situation there has worsened, as it has in Hungary and Romania.[54]

Many Gypsies have emigrated from Eastern Europe to the West, where their situation is improved, and many more wish to do so. In Germany, the Gypsies themselves are divided—some seek to stress their ethnic and cultural distinction, others their identification with German society. In population censuses held in Hungary (1990) and in Slovakia (2001), only a small percentage of Gypsies considered themselves members of the Gypsy national minority.[55]


1 This article is based on a chapter from my book in publication, Others and Other ‘Others’: Gypsies, Marginal Groups and Minorities in Western Europe in the Early Modern Period. The study is intended to free the Gypsies from their isolation in historical research by comparing their image and status to that of other marginal and minority groups, and locating their story in the history of Western Europe in the Early Modern period.

2 C. S. Dixon, The Reformation in Germany (Oxford, 2002), pp. 14–15, 31–2.

3 For a survey of views on this question, see H. A. Winkler, “Nationalism and the Nation-State in Germany,” in M. Teich and R. Porter (eds.), The National Question in Europe in Historical Context (Cambridge, 1993), pp. 182–95; W. Connor, Ethnonationalism. The Quest for Understanding (Princeton, 1994), Ch. 9; see also A. D. Smith, “The Problem of National Identity: Ancient, Medieval and Modern,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 173 (1994), pp. 275–99.

4 R. Bartlett, The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950–1350 (Penguin Books, 1994), pp. 197–242. The author also discusses ethnic- language tensions in international religious orders.

5 J. Céard, “La Sorcière, l’étrangere: Le voyage de Pierre de Lancre en sorcierie,” in M. T. Jones Davies, L’Étranger: identié et altcrité au temps de la renaissance (Paris, 1996), pp. 79–100.

6 O. P. Grell, “Exile and Toleration,” in O. P. Grell and B. Scribner (eds.), Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 164– 81.

7 J. Panek, “The Question of Tolerance in Bohemia and Moravia in the Age of the Reformation,” in Grell and Scribner, Tolerance and Intolerance, pp. 231–48.

8 L. Hunt Yungblut, Strangers Settled Here among Us: Politics, Perceptions and Presence of Aliens in Elizabethan England (London, 1996), pp. 40–51.

9 J. F. Dubost, La France italienne xve–xviie siècles (Paris, 1997), pp. 307–87.

10 M. Plaisance, “Les florentins en France sous le regard de l’autre,” in J. Dufournet, A. C. Fiorato and A. Redondo (eds.), L’image de l’autre Européen XVe– XVIe siècles (Paris, 1992), pp. 147–57.

11 Dubost, La France italienne, p. 387; Hunt Yungblut, Strangers Settled Here among Us, p. 46.

12 A. Tuetcy (ed.), Journal d’un Bourgeois de Paris, 1405–1499 (Paris, 1881; reprint, Geneva, 1975). pp. 219–21.

13 “Quaedem extranea et praevie non visa vagabundaque multitudo huminum,” Herman Cornerus, Chronicon, in R. Gronemeyer (ed.), Zigeuner in Spiegel Frueher Chroniken und Abhandlungen. quellen von 15 bis zum 18 Jahrhundert (Giesen, 1987), p. 15.

14 “… homines nigredine informes ex cocti sole, immundi veste… Tartaros vulgus appellat….” Albertus Krantzius, Saxonia, in Gronemeyer, Zigeuner in Spiegel, p. 25. Describing their arrival in Bologna, the author writes about the duke “… who came with women, children and companions from his country [de suo paese].” A. Sorbelli (ed.), Corpus Chronicorum Boloniensium, in Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, ed. A. L. Muratori, Vol. 18 (Citta di Castello, 1900), p. 568.

15 “Gens Ciganorum volgariter Cigawnar vocitata,” Andreas, Diarum Sexennale, in Gronemeyer, Zigeuner in Spiegel, p. 19.

16 “elend volck,” Sebastian Muenster, Cosmographei, in Gronemeyer, Zigeuner in Spiegel, p. 34.

17 “unnutz volck,” Christian Wursitisen, Bassler Chronick, in Gronemeyer, Zigeuner in Spiegel, p. 39.

18 “… das diebrisch unartig und zaubersich bettelvolck die Zigeuner,” in Gronemeyer, Zigeuner in Spiegel, p. 44.

19 “… fromd wunder selzam volck,” Johannes Guler, Ractia, in Gronemeyer, Zigeuner in Spiegel, p. 45.

20 “Ein loses Diebische untreuwes Volck von allerley verlauuffenen bosen Buben Zusamen Gerottet,” Cyriacus Spangenberg, Sachsische Chronica, in Gronemeyer, Zigeuner in Spiegel, p. 38.

21 Crusius, Amales Suevici, in Gronemeyer, Zigeuner in Spiegel, p. 40.

22 Johannes B. Goropius Becanus, Hermathena, in Gronemeyer, Zigeuner in Spiegel, p. 77.

23 Johannes Stumpf, Schweytzer Chronik, in Gronemeyer, Zigeuner in Spiegel, p. 32; Sprecher von Berneck, Pallas Rhaetica, in Gronemeyer, Zigeuner in Spiegel, p. 48.

24 “… ex variis nationibus non ita remotis,” Christoph Besold, Thesaurus Practicus, in Gronemeyer, Zigeuner in Spiegel, p. 102; “ex variis nationibus etiam inter nos considentibus, collectam,” Johann Limmaus, De jure publico Imperii Romano Germanic, in Gronemeyer, Zigeuner in Spiegel, p. 105.

25 “… furacissimam illud gens hominum, colluvies atque sentina variorum gentium,” Annales Boiorum, in Gronemeyer, Zigeuner in Spiegel, p. 28; see also Martin Anton Delrio, Disquisitiorum magicarum, in Gronemeyer, Zigeuner in Spiegel, p. 79.

26 Gisbert Voetius, De gentilismo et vocatione gentium, in Selectarum disputationum theologicarum, pars. II (Utrecht, 1655), p. 656.

27 Thomas Dekker, “Lanthorne and Candle-Light,” in A. F. Kinney (ed.), Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars (University of Massachusetts Press, 1973; reprint, 1990), p. 243.

28 Samuel Rid, “The Art of Juggling or Legerdemain,” in Kinney, Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars, p. 266.

29 Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Enquiries into Very Many Received Tenets and Commonly Presumed Truths, ed. G. Keynes (University of Chicago Press, 1964), Vol. II, Chs. x–xiii, pp. 467, 481–2.

30 “Can the Ethiopian change his skin…? (Jeremiah 13:23); likewise the Roman satirist Lucian coined the phrase, “Washing the Ethiopian to make him white,” quoted in F. M. Snowden, jr., Black in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience (Cambridge, MA, 1970), p. 50 and note 36.

31 On this subject, see E. Lourie, “Black Women Warriors in the Muslim Army Besieging Valencia and the Cid’s Victory: A Problem of Interpretation,” Traditio 55 (2000), p. 19.

32 For a thorough discussion of this subject, see K. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Cornell Univ. Press, 1995).

33 The documents discussed appear in translation in J. P. Ligeois, Gypsies: An Illustrated History, trans. T. Berrett (London, 1986), pp. 105–7.

34 The documents, some in the original and translation and some only in translation, appear in A. G. Alfaro, The Great Gypsy Round-Up: The General Imprisonment of Gypsies in 1749, trans. T. W. Roberts (Madrid, 1993), pp. 78–82.

35 Liegeois, Gypsies, p. 106.

36 Dekker, “Lanthorne and Candle-Light,” p. 243. In the Early Modern period, Gypsies were thought to have come from Egypt.

37 The pamphlet, entitled “Discorsos del amparo de los legitimos nobres y reduccion de fingidos,” is discussed in B. Geremek, Les fils de Cain: Pauvres et vagabonds dans la literature europeenne (xve-xviiie siècles) (Paris, 1991), pp. 293–6.

38 The report appears in full in F. A. Aydelotte, Elizabethan Rogues and Vagabonds (London, 1913; reprint 1967), Appendix A14.

39 William Harrison, G. Edelen (ed.), The Description of England (Cornell Univ. Press, 1968), p. 184.

40 B. Reynolds, Becoming Criminal. Transversal, Performance and Cultural Dissidence in Early Modern England (John Hopkins Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 28–44. The number of imposters listed is very small, and it is not certain they were imposters. Thomas Fricke estimates that there were only sporadic and brief cases of cooperation between Gypsies and non-Gypsies, and few cases of intermarriage. T. Fricke, Ziguener im Zeitalter des Absoluismus (Pfaffenweiler, 1996), pp. 390, 398.

41 A. Luders, T. E. Tomlins and J. Raithby (eds.), The Statutes of the Realm (London, 1810–25; reprint 1963), Vol. 41, p, 448; see also A. L. Beier, Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560–1640 (London, 1985), pp. 61–2.

42 A. Fraser, The Gypsies (Oxford, 1992), p. 150; one of the early texts which stated that the Gypsies accepted indiscriminately any men and women who wished to join them dates back to 1520: “Recipiunt passim et viros et foeminas volentes in cunctis provinces, qui se illorum moscent contubernio,” Krantzius, Saxonia, p. 25; see also statement of Delrio at the end of the 16th century, in Gronemeyer, Zigeuner in Spiegel, p. 80.

43 D. Mayall, Gypsy Travellers in 19th Century Society (Cambridge, 1988), p. 29.

44 H. Asséo, Le traitement administratif des Bohémiens (Problèmes socio-culturels en France au xviie siècle) (Paris, 1974), p. 43.

45 F. de Vaux de Loletier, Les Tsiganes dans l’ancienne France (Paris, 1961), p. 203.

46 Ibid., pp. 104–5.

47 On this issue, see B. Vesey-Fitzgerald, Gypsies in Britain: An Introduction to Their History (Devon, 1973), p. 208; L. Lucassen, W. Willems and A. Cottar, Gypsies and Other Itinerant Groups: A Socio-Historical Approach (London/New York, 1998), pp. 25, 31–2; D. Mayall, “Lorist, Reformist and Romanticist: The Nineteenth Century Response to Gypsy Travellers,” Immigrants and Minorities 43 (1985), pp. 53–67; Mayall, Gypsy Travellers, pp. 29–33.

48 On this issue, see Lucassen et al., Gypsies and Other Iterant Groups, pp. 26–9, 89–93; G. Margalit, “Racist Occupation in Germany with the Gypsies from the Late 19th Century until 1945,” Historia 1 (1998; Hebrew), pp. 105–19. There is no question that a genocide of Gypsies took place, but scholars are divided on the question of whether the Nazis intended to exterminate all the Gypsies in the world, as they did the Jews, or whether the Gypsy problem was more marginal in Nazi policy. There is also a dispute over the number of Gypsies who perished, whether murdered or starved to death. Estimates vary between 200,000 and one million and a half, as claimed by Gypsy activists: R. Vago, “The Roma in Central and Eastern Europe: The Plight of a Stateless Minority,” in Antisemitism Worldwide 2000/1 (Tel Aviv University, 2002), pp. 26–9; M. Zimmermann, Rassenutopie und Genozid (Hamburg, 1996).

49 Margalit, “Racist Occupation in Germany,” pp. 117–18.

50 On this issue, see Y. Matras, book review of J. Gierke (ed.), Die Gesellschaftliche Knostruktion des Zigeuners zur Gense eines Vortweils (Frankfurt am Main, 1991), in Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, Series 58 (1998), pp. 67–70. Groellmann, one of the first to study the Gypsy language, regarded them as an ethnic group originating in India, opposed their expulsion and favored missionary work among them in order to ‘reform’ them. But he also copied earlier texts and helped to entrench negative stereotypes. Though he acknowledged their ethnicity, it did not prevent him from repeating his predecessors’ argument that their dark complexion was not natural. He maintained that it was caused by their way of life—in the summer they were exposed to the sun, and in winter they stayed in a smoky hut. It was also because the mothers rubbed their children with a dark ointment, or placed them in the sun or near the fireplace. He argued that the proof of this assertion was that Gypsies serving in the imperial army in Hungary and Gypsy musicians, who kept themselves cleaner, had a lighter skin. H. M. G. Grellmann, Dissertation on the Gypsies, trans. M. Raper (London, 1787), p. 10.

51 “Stigmatization has influenced group formation and along with it ethnic consciousness to a large degree”: Luccassen et al., Gypsies and Other Itinerant Groups, p. 6, also pp. 7–9, 20–4.

52 Liegeois, Gypsies, pp. 181, 193.

53 J. O’Connell, “Ethnicity and Irish Travellers,” in M. McCann, S. Ó Síochaín and J. Ruane, Irish Travellers: Culture and Ethnicity (Belfast, 1994), p. 119; Vago, “Roma in Central and Eastern Europe,” pp. 21–2.

54 Liegeois, Gypsies, p. 111; I. Hancock, The Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution (Ann Arbor, 1987), pp. 126–7.

55 On this issue, see G. Margalit, “Identity and National Consciousness among German Sinti and Roma (Gypsies),” in S. Volkov (ed.), Being Different: Minorities, Aliens and Outsiders in History (Jerusalem, 2000; in Hebrew); Vago, “Roma in Central and Eastern Europe,” p. 26.

From The Roma: A Minority in Europe: Historical, Political, and Social Perspectives (01.23.2013)



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