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Martin Kevorkian, Chair CAL 226, Mailcode B5000, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-471-4991

Fall 2007

E 397M • Images of the Gypsy in Western Literature

Unique Days Time Location Instructor
36315 TTh
11:00 AM-12:30 PM
UTC 4.114

Course Description

The Romanies, or "Gypsies," have been a source of curiosity and inspiration for Western writers since the late Middle Ages. Black's Gypsy Bibliography, which has no entries later than 1914, lists 133 ballads, 100 plays, 351 novels and 262 poems which include Gypsy characters or which have a Gypsy theme, in the English literary tradition alone. It lists hundreds more for other languages. There are works published on the appearance of Gypsies in the works of Dickens, Shakespeare and Joyce.

Romanies are in fact a people of Asian origin, speaking a Northern Indian language and supporting an Indian-based culture. This has been known to western scholars since the 1760s, and the literature relating to this is vast. Much of it can be seen in The Romani Archives and Documentation Center located on our own campus. Despite this, another Romani persona has emerged, that of the "gypsy," which bears little resemblance to the actual population but which, for most people, is the only Romani identity with which they are most familiar. This dual identity can be explained in part by European responses to the arrival of Romanies in the West ca. AD 1300. While the Indian identity was not understood, other suggestions were readily forthcoming, including (a) Gypsies were from Egypt--hence the ethnonym "Gypsies," (b) Gypsies were Jews, (c) Gypsies were from Atlantis, (d) Gypsies were from the Moon, and (e) Gypsies represented the descendants of a lost, prehistoric race. By the time that the Indian connection was made in the 18th Century, the mystification of the Romani population was well-entrenched.

The biggest reason for the emergence of the romantic literary image, however, originates as a response to the Industrial Revolution. The gradual mechanization of western Europe pushed the pre-industrial, rural economies further into a past which became increasingly idealized. The angst generated by a longing for cleaner, simpler times was abundantly reflected in 19th century literature and art, which was replete with images of shepherds, milkmaids and idyllic rural scenes. With all of this, the Gypsies--untouched and untouching--came to symbolize continuity of the older, lost era, and resistance to the changes responsible for bringing grime and poverty to the cities.

This was also a time of colonial expansion overseas and the oppression and proselytizing of non-white peoples, and the emergence of racism as a (pseudo)-scientific concept. Darwinism helped establish the notion of ranking human groups, and of "race mixing" as a degenerative behavior. Linguistics and anthropology were emerging as formal disciplines, and the notion that "Indians" were right there in the heart of Europe provided further fascination. That many Romanies were not especially phenotypically "Indian" in appearance was explained by race mixing, which naturally created the concept of the "Pure Gypsy," a noble savage keeping at a distance from civilization.

Because Romani culture shuns contact with the non-Romani world--a cultural practice based on pollution taboos inherited from India--investigators were not usually successful in achieving an intimate knowledge of their subjects. This did not prevent intensive efforts to save the population by the Church Missionary Society. The way was left open for writers and others to provide missing information from their own imaginations, which added to the emerging literary identity, but the closed nature of Romani society also meant that the Romanies themselves remained largely unaware of their fictional portrayal, and did not (nor had the wherewithal to) challenge it.


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