Exiles from Egypt, travellers from the East, ‘counterfeit Egyptians’, strategic performers: Gypsies in early modern England evaded easy categorisation as far as non-Romanies were concerned. They were often vilified by policy-makers, authorities, and moral writers who considered them to exist dangerously beyond the scope of English law and government. ‘By name they are called Gypsies, they call themselves Egiptians’, reported Thomas Dekker in 1609. ‘They are a people more scattred then [sic] Jewes, and more hated’. They have ‘the bodies of Frantick persons’ dictated by influence of the moon, acting like the ‘onely base Ronnagants [renegades] upon earth’. Dekker did not just compare Gypsies to Jews but to ‘Tawny Moores’ and ‘wild Irish’, evoking other marginalised peoples on the fringes of early modern English society. ‘Foraging’ and mobile, carrying their belongings with them as they travelled from town to town or parish to parish, Gypsy communities mingled with English parishioners in the localities, while remaining recognisably separate.
The Romani people are now largely recognised to have originated from north-western India. They migrated into Persia, then the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires, and were present in Europe from the middle ages. Within Europe, Gypsies settled in the Balkan provinces, north of the Danube in present-day Romania (though the etymologies of ‘Romania’ and ‘Romani’ are unrelated), or travelled further west, some eventually arriving in England and Scotland. While present in Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and the Low Countries by the 1420s, Gypsies are not recorded in the British Isles until the early sixteenth century. Since Gypsies moved between towns and geographic spaces, they were viewed as ‘a strange and illegitimate hybrid, neither Egyptian nor English, neither black nor white’.
To English observers, mobility remained a key marker of Gypsy identity. According to a tale that some Gypsies themselves perpetuated, they had originated from a tribe in Egypt, condemned to wander as exiles for refusing to shelter Mary and Joseph. Though accepting Christ, they passed through Europe on the ordinance of the pope to go on pilgrimage as penance — one of the few accepted forms of mobility in the medieval period. Early modern individuals expressed scepticism at this tale: as Andrew Boorde related in 1542, ‘[t]her be few or none of the Egypcions that doth dwel in Egipt, for Egipt is replected now with infydele alyons’. Gypsies purposely enhanced their origin story, Samuel Rid maintained in 1614, by staining their faces, adopting colourful and patched-up clothing, and imitating nomadic groups from the Mediterranean and the East, but their origins were not easy to verify.
The religious element of ethnographic depictions of Gypsies in early modern England is remarkably muted. While ‘Turk’ or ‘Jew’ were terms that did not easily separate religion and ethnicity, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries writers rarely focused on the religious beliefs of Gypsies, perhaps because they tended to adopt the religion of the countries in which they lived. Though at times their palm-reading was related to superstition, Gypsies were rarely accused of witchcraft and put to trial. As Becky Taylor suggests, this was likely because the fear of malevolent magic was generally considered to be a threat within a community, rather than outside of it, which highlights the exclusion of Gypsies in English parishes. What authors seemed more concerned with was the fluidity of Gypsy identities, including ‘counterfeit gypsies’, or English men and women who joined Gypsy communities. Samuel Rid noted in 1614 that Tudor monarchs had been increasingly concerned with controlling the mobility of gypsies, but also punishing those who ‘counterfeited’ them. Both gypsies and ‘such fellowes as tooke upon them the name of Egiptians above the age of fourteene, or that shal come over and be transported into England, or any other persons, as shal be seene in the company of Vagabonds calling themselves Egipctians, or counterfeiting, transforming, or digsuising themselves by their apparel, speach, or other behaviours into Egyptians and so shall continue, either at one, or severall times, by the space of a month they should be adjudged fellons’. This particular concern over English subjects transforming ‘into Egyptians’ suggests a broader mistrust over the possible difficulties in categorising identity. In 1628, John Agglinton, a runaway apprentice, was apprehended ‘in the company of certain counterfeit Egyptians that were tried and executed at the last assizes in Suffolk’. Though not condemned under the Egyptian Act of 1562, Agglinton was sent back to his master and subsequently re-apprenticed to a shipwright. As David Cressy has observed, the apprentice’s time among the gypsies, and his return to settled English society, ‘indicates ... the porosity of the boundaries between migrants and mainstream populations’.
The spheres in which Gypsies operated, in localities as well as their occasional access to courts or aristocratic estates to perform music and dance, were not separate from the daily lives of other English inhabitants. Nonetheless, authorities sought to enact a model of reform by putting Agglinton back within the folds of hierarchical society. At the same time, Harman’s desire to see gypsies, ‘throughe wholsome lawes ... dispersed, vanished & the memory of them cleane extynguyshed’ thankfully did not succeed, even when authorities took measures to assimilate or drive them from the realm.
The nomadic status of gypsies has long been a particular concern for state governments and policy-makers’ fear of social disorder. Gypsies who arrived in England in the sixteenth century entered a realm where laws and systems of government were still in a process of codification. Anti-vagrant legislation specifically attempted to limit gypsies’ geographic mobility and keep them within the parish, where they could be better regulated. Early modern legislation expressed a deep concern over migration within and beyond the realm, and the laws and punishments concerning gypsies reveal the difficulties of the state in controlling boundaries. A 1530 act against gypsies called ‘Egyptians’ an ‘owtlandisshe’ people, dangerously mobile and resisting the realm’s parish system, travelling instead ‘from Shyre to Shyre and place to place’ telling fortunes and deceiving ‘the people of theyr Money’. Repeated legislation in 1552 and 1554 threatened gypsies with imprisonment and loss of goods. Gypsies in England could be whipped, mutilated, and even subject to death if caught again after mutilation. The poor laws of 1562 began to include ‘counterfeit’ Egyptians in their legislation, exhibiting concerns with English-born subjects who adopted the manners and lifestyles of gypsies. ‘Looke what difference there is between a civill cittizen of Dublin & a wilde Irish Kerne, so much difference there is betweene one of these counterfeit Egiptians and a true English begger’, Dekker wrote. English men and women who assumed Gypsy identities were liable to the same severe punishments as gypsies themselves. This highlights the fluidity of mobile groups in early modern England, where a crossover existed between the language used to describe vagabonds, beggars, and gypsies. In 1596, all persons pretending to be Egyptians, or ‘wandering in the Habite Forme or Attyre of counterfayte Egypcians’ were to be punished as felons, whether they could be defined as ‘actual’ gypsies or not. This law was significant, then, in that it broke down the categories of ‘real’ and ‘counterfeit’ gypsies, suggesting that notions of a ‘genuine’ Egyptian had disappeared altogether, viewing all forms of vagrancy as equally dangerous.
Fears of placenessness were linked to mistrust over the permeability of territorial divides, which presented a threat to notions of cultural unity, as seen in the Borders. As the line between England and Scotland, the Borders were a place that monarchs and statesmen repeatedly deemed poorly-controlled. Such places were full of ‘evell ... soe daungerous ... and not curable by anie milde meanes’. It is no coincidence that Dekker compared gypsies to ‘a wilde Irish Karne’ — kerns were Gaelic soldiers from Ireland, many of whom fought for Gaelic lords or Catholic powers on the Continent, and who represented a threat to Protestant order. The Gaelic Irish, many displaced by renewed Tudor campaigns in Ireland, operated in bands who were seen to undermine the ‘civilizing’ initiatives of the state. The severe sentencing against gypsies suggests a disproportionate fear — not of large numbers of the English population actually becoming gypsies, but that national identity was threatened by those who sought to reject their loyalty to the centralising state and the vision of Englishness it advanced. Gypsies were incorporated into concerns of a larger vagrant underworld populated by spies, thieves, Catholics, and other figures of ambiguous loyalties to the central government, at a time when population increase, food riots, and harvest failures were contributing to a climate of malaise and societal discontent.
Gypsies were thus portrayed as elusive figures, English and not-English, able to evade the control of local authorities. They interacted with and often charmed local communities while never settling permanently among them, and authorities portrayed gypsies as adept in exploiting the charity of parishioners. These perceptions led to extraordinary acknowledgments of Gypsy self-fashioning. However exaggerated, gypsies were seen to occupy complex subaltern societies, deviously carnivalesque and staunchly in control of their lives and livelihoods. Like actors, gypsies were accused of wearing costumes that changed their appearance. Thomas Harman’s 1567 tract against vagabonds, printed three times in the 1560s and again in 1573, attributed the mobile poor, including gypsies, to the spread of the plague and other social ills. ‘Calling and naming themselves Egiptians’, Harman warned his readers that gypsies were guilty of ‘fedinge the rude common people wholy addicted and geven to novelties, joyes, and newe inventions’. ‘Their apparell is od[d], and phantasticke’, Dekker wrote, with women dressed ‘like one that plaies, the Roague on a Stage’. Dekker conceded, also, that though gypsies wore garish scarves, rags, and mantles, their undergarments were ‘hansome and in fashion’. Both Harman and Dekker made clear that they believed gypsies fell in the category of undeserving poor because they wilfully cozened others, building a strong identity for themselves through their fashions and habits. They inveigled others with ‘the strangeness of the attyre of their heads, and practising paumistrie’, through their secret language and riotous, indulgent behaviour. Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s play, The Spanish Gypsy, performed at court in 1623, explicitly linked counterfeit Egyptians — ‘Gipsies, but no tann’d ones, no Red-oker rascalls umberd with soot and bacon as the English Gipsies are’ — with evasion of the law and the antics of a travelling troupe. The recognition of skill, not extended to the undeserving poor, casts further ambiguity on gypsies and their public image.
In many ways, the difficulties of categorising gypsies were precisely what made them such a source of fascination. Documents do not easily reveal what gypsies themselves thought about their place in early modern England, though it should observed that Harman and Dekker both noted that gypsies called themselves ‘Egipcians’. Beyond popular representations and litigation, glimpses into the way that gypsies understood their own heritage, and constructed their identity in the realm, provide small revelations about the agency of those who navigated the in between. Alexandra Shepard’s study on wealth, goods, and social identity in early modern England noted the profound impact of widening social inequality in the later sixteenth century, but also the way individuals established themselves through their belongings, from linens to tools, livestock to cushions. The way individuals used their goods to negotiate their place in the commonwealth can perhaps help cut through the more disparaging language found in letters such like William Harborne’s to Francis Walsingham in 1584. Encountering ‘a Rude, Rough, rustical Arabian [horse], Presently putt to sale by a black, base, empti-pursed Egyptian’, Harborne wrote, ‘I Pittied his povertie, paid his price, & bettered his beeing’. Whether Harborne had indeed ‘bettered the beeing’ of this ‘Egyptian’, the letter offers insight into the life of a Gypsy man, seen as ‘black’ and set apart, but who nonetheless played a role in the circulation of goods and who was a familiar feature in the English landscape.