In THE GYPSIES, Angus Fraser has pursued an interest evident in his previous works, such as his edition of GEORGE BORROW’S LETTERS TO JOHN HASFELD (1982-1984). Like Borrow, the nineteenth century travel writer, this twentieth century historian is fascinated by gypsies; unlike the romantic Borrow, however, Fraser takes a scholarly approach to his subject.
Dealing as it does with a period in which there were few written references to gypsies, the initial section of THE GYPSIES is highly speculative. In it, Fraser outlines the linguistic evidence of the gypsies’ origin in India and the physical and genetic studies which indicate their distinctive identity. Later chapters draw upon historical records to trace migrations into Persia and Armenia, into the Byzantine Empire, and finally throughout Europe. Unfortunately, Fraser notes, none of these records were kept by the gypsies themselves; therefore, they deal as much in rumor, such as stories of cannibalism and witchcraft, as in truth, notably the gypsies’ habits of sharp trading and stealing. Partly because of the prevalence of such rumors, from the fifteenth century on, the gypsies were increasingly persecuted. The inhumanities to which they were subjected culminated in the Nazi death camps, a systematic attempt at genocide. However, as Fraser points out in his final chapter, the survivors of centuries of mistreatment still preserve their identity, now adapting in various ways to an urban, technological society.
THE GYPSIES is an excellent book, carefully researched, honestly written, and profusely illustrated. While Fraser’s scholarship cannot be faulted, his work should interest a general readership, in part because of the exotic subject matter, in part because of the author’s obvious sympathy for a people so determined to preserve their culture and their freedom.
Sources for Further Study
The Guardian. December 8, 1992, p. 8.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, November 2, 1992, p. 60.