The Gypsies

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.

The Gypsies

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

It is appropriate that Angus Fraser was selected to author this volume in the series called The Peoples of Europe. Fraser’s earlier scholarly work focused on George Borrow, the nineteenth century British writer whose fascination with Gypsies was evident in such accounts of his life and travels as The Zincali: Or, An Account of the Gypsies in Spain (1841) and The Romany Rye (1857). In writing his own book, Fraser had to acknowledge the fact that writers such as Borrow combined valuable observations with rumors and inventions. Even without such romantic testimony, it is particularly difficult to sort out the facts about Gypsies from the fictions that have grown up concerning them. The chief problem is that although they always have had a sense of identity, Gypsies themselves have kept no formal history, either oral or written. In writing his comprehensive study, Fraser had to rely on contemporary comments by outsiders, whose attitudes might vary from antipathy to romantic gullibility, as well as on the work of other scholars, who because of conflicting evidence have been unable to reach agreement on a number of central issues. Despite the difficulties of his task, in The Gypsies Fraser has produced a superb history that presents his extensive findings and some tentative conclusions in a balanced and highly readable manner.

Fraser’s thoughtful approach is illustrated in the first chapter of the book, in which he discusses the various methods scholars have used in attempting to ascertain when and where Gypsies came into being as a people. The best-known of these methods is the study of linguistics. Since their language, Romani, is similar to Indian languages, it can be assumed that the Gypsies originated in India. As Fraser notes, however, because so little is known about the early development of Indian dialects, several theories as to the geographical home of the Gypsies are equally plausible. Even the one conclusion that linguists of both major schools had agreed on recently has come into question. Their assumption that the Gypsy exodus from India took place shortly before the ninth century A.D. has been challenged by a new argument, placing their entrance into Persia as early as the fourth century b.c.e.

More briefly, Fraser surveys studies in physical anthropology and in genetics that confirm the conclusion of the linguists as to the Indian origin of the Gypsies. The studies once again provide no hint as to the reason for the Gypsies’ departure. Even modern Gypsies with scholarly training, after themselves investigating these historical problems, seem no better able to answer these perplexing questions.

In the chapters that follow, Fraser cites references to Gypsies in written texts of the tenth and eleventh centuries, proving that they first entered Persia and Armenia, then moved into the Byzantine Empire and the Balkans. Although there are now historical records to document the diaspora, the reason for the movement still is unclear. Even more mysterious than this historical question is a practical one. As Fraser points out, unlike the Jews, the Gypsies had no historical tradition, no religious mandate, no prophetic tradition, no priestly regulations, in short, no structure to maintain their common identity after they had scattered in different directions. Their lack of a common history is reflected in the fact that no leaders ever attained the importance of folk heroes. The Gypsies had no David, no Moses, no Joshua. Their lack of a common religion is evidenced by the fact that various Gypsy groups eventually adopted different faiths, taking on the convictions of the people among whom they were living. Whatever their religion or location, however, throughout the centuries the Gypsies have maintained their sense of identity, their consciousness of being different from everyone around them.

It was inevitable that a people so distinctive would be extremely vulnerable to persecution. The documents Fraser cites suggest that these exotic people, who were called by a name suggesting that they had come from Egypt, at first attained a kind of security because their skills were needed by the people they visited. For example, skilled artisans, such as smiths and cobblers, were too valuable to be driven away. Moreover, the coming of Gypsy entertainers—of snake charmers, bear handlers, acrobats, and jugglers—must have provided much excitement to the inhabitants of small medieval villages. Early in their history, Gypsy women began to specialize in soothsaying, or fortune-telling, a talent much in demand even if Christian churchmen considered it suspect. Because they were needed, the Gypsies were given a certain latitude. Even though they were developing a reputation for sharp dealing, even for thievery, they were...

(The entire section is 1960 words.)