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  • The Origin and Function of the Gypsy Image in Children's Literature
  • Ian Hancock (bio)

Gypsies, or Romanies, have provided writers with a source of color since their very appearance in Europe in the Middle Ages. Black's Gypsy Bibliography, which includes nothing later than 1914, lists 351 novels, 199 plays, and 133 ballads in the English literary tradition alone, which have been written about or which feature Gypsy characters.

In children's literature, in Britain perhaps even more than in the United States, Gypsies turn up with some frequency —never as characters who happen incidentally also to be Gypsies, but because they are Gypsies, and because they serve a specific purpose. This purpose has, broadly speaking, three manifestations: the Gypsy as liar and thief either of property or (especially) of non-Gypsy children; the Gypsy as witch or caster of spells; and the Gypsy as romantic figure. In order to understand why the Gypsy should find him or herself in this mainly unflattering role, it is necessary first of all to understand what a Gypsy really is, and what historical circumstances have led to the emergence of so deeply-rooted a fictional image.

In the United States, which in fact has one of the highest Gypsy populations of any country in the world, Gypsies are often thought of as fantasy beings: journalist Randolph Conner writes of "witches, devils, ghosts, monsters, fairies, gypsies and other supernatural characters" celebrating Halloween (Conner); the Cooper Manufacturing Co. of New York includes a Gypsy with the witches and monsters which make up its line of Halloween costumes sold each year. Among those who know that Gypsies are actual people, there is the widespread idea that they are a social, or a behavioral population like hippies or tramps, rather than an ethnic group. There are many references in the literature to individuals becoming Gypsies by joining such a group or adopting a stylized way of life.

Gypsies, or more properly Romanies or Rom, share a common origin in ninth-century India. Evidence for this is abundant, whether linguistic, historical, cultural, or anthropomorphic. Leaving India at the time of (and probably because of) the Indo-Persian wars, the original population found itself in the Byzantine Empire by the tenth or eleventh century, and by the fourteenth century had been pushed [End Page 47] up into southeastern Europe on the crest of the encroaching Turkish invasion.

The Europe in which those early Gypsies found themselves was a land in turmoil. The Muslims were preventing access to the eastern trade routes and to the Holy Land; the economy and Christendom were both threatened, and the Crusades had depleted the manpower drastically. Gypsies, being dark-skinned, unfamiliar in language and dress, and coming from the east, were thought to be Muslims themselves. Even today, they are called "Tatars" or "Heidens" or "Turks" in some parts of Europe, and the very word "Gypsy" derives from "Egyptian," a medieval label vaguely applied to any exotic eastern peoples.

Because of their mistakenly-acquired identity, and because they lacked a country and military or political strength, Gypsies could not satisfactorily convince the Europeans that they were not part of the Islamic invasion. Thus, they soon became the target of cruel persecution. In southern Europe, due to their metalworking skills, they were made the property of the state in Moldavia and Wallachia and they became slaves, a condition which lasted for five centuries until its abolition in the middle of the last century (Hancock, The Pariah Syndrome). Elsewhere, laws were passed making it illegal even to be born a Gypsy. Those caught were mutilated and hanged. Later, huge numbers were rounded up and transported to work in the colonies overseas, in India and Africa as well as in the Americas. There were Gypsies with Christopher Columbus on his third voyage to Hispaniola in 1498 (Wilford), and the first to reach North America arrived in 1664, banished from England by Oliver Cromwell.

Prejudice against Gypsies became embedded in the attitudes and eventually in the folklore of European culture. Unable to defend themselves, easily recognized in large groups, Gypsies learned to stay away from urban areas and to travel in small numbers, denying whenever possible their...


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