A History of the Representation of 'Gypsies' in Early Modern Britain

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: English Language and Literature


Attitudes towards those called, variously, 'Egyptians', ''Gyptians', 'Gypsies', 'Roma', and 'Travellers' have never been singular. Rather, this multiplicity of names suggests a continual cultural reinterpretation of this diverse social group. My project examines this process at its outset: in early modern Britain. At its worst, scholarship on this subject has facilitated the historical marginality of the Romani people through reliance upon reductive caricature. My project seeks to redress this by considering the relationship between the representation of the figure of the Gypsy, and the lived experience of the historical Roma.

The Archives
I will begin by examining the changing ways in which early modern legislation delineated the 'Egyptian' people. From 1530 to 1597, they were treated separately from domestic vagabonds and with varying degrees of penal severity, as I will explore through The National Archives' assize records. I will then move on to show how representations of Gypsies were informed by and informed representations of other social groups. Dekker calls them 'more scattered than the Jewes, and more hated', and a 1569 draft bill concerned with Catholic 'Disguised Priests' uses the anti-Gypsy legislation as its framework. I will examine the twin understandings of Egyptians and Gypsies, and the way in which this homophone poses a challenge to archival research.

The Literary Text
This chapter will examine the gulf between the literary representation of the Gypsy and the evidence from the archive about the lived experience of Romani people. It will examine the ways in which the legal concept of the 'counterfeit Egyptian,' which established the status of 'Gypsy' as performative, lays the ground for theatrical representation. It will serve as a conceptual introduction for my exploration of the cultural construction of Gypsy identity which follows.

Social Order
The most common feature of Gypsy society, as constructed in literary and non-literary texts, is its situation within larger social networks. Encompassing the religious, military, familial, and the national, these social structures both threatened and bolstered 'legitimate' social order through emulation. I will examine Rid's 'Martin Mark-All' and the arrival of John Faw, 'King of Little Egypt', in Scotland, as examples of the construction of Gypsy society as counter-culture.

This chapter will ask how the social identity of the Gypsy was mediated through the practice of prognostication and vice versa. I will examine Jonson's 'Gypsies Metamorphos'd' and More's 'Dialogue Concerning Heresies' as examples of the construction of Gypsy chiromancy as ludic but also socially facilitative. I will explore the dramatic representations of fortune-telling and return to the work of Keith Thomas to suggest that, as a pseudo-scientific practice, fortune-telling was socially acceptable in early modern Britain.

There are two extant records of the Romani language from the period, Boorde's 'Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge', and the Winchester Confessions of 1615-16. However, Roma are most commonly depicted as speaking cant. This chapter will examine this phenomenon as a means of understanding their apparent proximity to domestic vagabonds, but also as a way of considering the invisibility of the group within the scholarship of ethnicity in the period.


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