University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


Gypsies: A Persecuted Race

How the Church Responded to the Gypsy Presence

Martin Luther gave Europe one of the first compilations of the Gypsy language in his Liber Vagatorium (Book of Vagabonds, 1528). In the preface to this work he called them "fake friars, wandering Jews and rogues." ("Slang" 1974:852).

Gypsies who wanted to become Christians upon entering Europe were rejected by the Church. The Archbishop Petri of Sweden decreed in 1560: "The priest shall not concern himself with the Gypsies. He shall neither bury their corpses nor christen their children." Priests in Magdeburg were ordered not to baptize Gypsy children without obtaining higher authorization. (Kenrick 1972:22).

Gypsies were rejected by the Church for two major reasons. The first, which may have been accurate, was that the main motive for their conversion was an expedient to greater acceptance by the European peoples. The second, was that from their first arrival, the Gypsies began to have a strong influence over certain classes of people. These people associated a certain magic with the Gypsies and were attracted by their fortune-telling and palmistry. While the Church looked at the Gypsies as an unorthodox people, they in truth felt threatened by the palmists who were now competing with the priests for the superstitious minds of the peasant (as well as the upper class) population during this period of the Middle Ages.

During the 19th century the Orthodox clergy in Bulgaria declared it a greater sin than theft to give alms to the Gypsies. (Kenrick 1972:21). In France during the 16th century those who had had their palms read by Gypsies were excommunicated or forced to do penance. (Kenrick 1972:22).

Both Moslem and Christian religious preachers placed Gypsies outside normal society by treating them as outcasts and not letting them participate in church and religious functions even when they professed to be converted to the religion of that country. Those Gypsies who were sincere in their beliefs were forced to listen outside an open window of the church or mosque.

During this time, there were some people who showed sympathy for the Gypsies. The Catholic clergy used its great power to heighten the persecution of the Gypsies by decreeing that such sympathizers were themselves subject to punishment and even death.

In Rumania Gypsies were forced into slavery. They were owned by local landowners and  officials in government. The Church bought Gypsy slaves, too for its awn purposes. The Church, without compassion, overworked, abused and shamefully took advantage of the Gypsies the same as did the other slaveowners. (Greenfeld, 1977:22).

Trade Guilds

In addition to the Church and State, a third powerful group, the trade guilds, fueled the growing prejudice against the Gypsies. The craft guilds resented the threat to their monopolies posed by the Gypsies' normal occupations and were jealous of the superior craftsmanship exhibited by some of the Gypsies.

As far back as we can trace, an important part of the Gypsies' stock-in-trade had been metalworking and other small crafts. They not only carried out blacksmithing, shoeing and repair work, but manufactured vessels and tools. On occasion, groups of Gypsy metalsmiths were employed as armourers in different parts of Europe and in Serbia at least they largely replaced local smiths because their handiwork proved superior. Others produced baskets,combs and jewelry, selling them in the market in direct competition with guild members. The guild masters would not tolerate this threat posed by wandering vagrants, as they saw them, to even a part of their monopoly. (Kenrick 1972:24).

The craft guilds had laws passed to prevent Gypsies from working at trades which were competitive to them. One of these laws stated that no Gypsy smiths could work in the city or town limits. If they did do work outside the city limits it must be done in an enclosure of some sort out of view of anyone passing by. This law made it impossible for the Gypsies to survive at the metalworking and small crafts that had been their traditional livelihood.

Barriers to making a living were everywhere in the 17th century. Serbian coppersmiths held a protected monopoly on the market. Gypsies were barred by law from manufacturing copper utentsils. The Guild of Locksmiths at Miskolc in Hungary canvassed successfully in 1740 to stop Gypsies from doing any metalwork outside of their tents. In Russia what little work the Gypsies were allowed to do was subject to extra tax levies. (Kenrick 1972:55)

The continuing pressure placed on them by the guilds resulted in Gypsies turning to petty crime and trickery :o survive. Europeans already looked at Gypsies as being sunning and dishonest. Increasingly Gypsies found it necessary to live out this expectation while they were trying to exist in a hostile environment that would not let them settle and work at their honest skills and traditional trades.

The image of Gypsies became less and less favorable in the popular mind. In less than fifty years after the first Gypsies had arrived in Europe, growing complaints pushed them into hardship that forced them to use means of trickery and dishonesty to survive. This initiated a vicious cycle that has persisted up to the present day. Faced with banishment and even death, Gypsies have continuously battled barriers to making a legitimate living and attempting to live a normal life as do other Europeans.

By the year 1544 the Christian Church, along with government and trade guilds had fostered such strong prejudice against Gypsies that outright repression began. states and governments and their citizenry repressed and persecuted Gypsies in a most savage manner while at the same time claiming to be good God-fearing, civilized people.

Anti-Gypsy Laws

For centuries, every country in Europe promulgated laws for the express purpose of repressing and/or expulsing the Gypsies. In 1510 France had a series of expulsion laws against Gypsies "because of their alleged religion and frauds." They were to be "driven away by fire and sword." (Greenfeld 1977:19). Historian Scott-Macfie lists 148 such laws promulgated in the German states alone between 1416 and 1774. (Kenrick 1972:42).

The anti-Gypsy laws began in Lucerne in 1471 and spread with rapidity and in volume and severity throughout Europe. The dates of the first such laws in each locality give an example of this rapid-fire succession: (Kenrick 1972:42).

1471 Lucerne
1482 Brandenburg
1484 Spain
1498 Germany (Freiburg Diet)
1524 Holland
1526 Portugal
1530 England
1536 Denmark
1539 France
1540 Flanders
1541 Scotland
1549 Bohemia
1557 Poland and Lithuania
1637 Sweden

In England in 1544 Gypsies were looked at as sorcerers and cheats and accused of causing disease in cattle. Signs were posted for Gypsies to leave England within 40 days or face death. By 1562 any man or woman who became sympathetic to the Gypsies was also subject to harsh punishment. The English regarded the Gypsy way of life a crime and those who kept company with Gypsies were also guilty of this crime. In 1554 the law in England imposed death for being a Gypsy.

Sweden had some of the harshest laws of all. Gypsies who failed to leave were brutally attacked or hanged. Gypsies who escaped to Finland were usually driven back to Sweden as the Finns did not want them either.

In the 16th century any Gypsies caught in France were flogged. The French government from 1765 began to give bounty money for the capture of Gypsies, giving twenty-four francs for a male and nine francs for a female Gypsy, dead or alive. (Kenrick 1972:46). At this time it was common for Gypsy women to have their head shaved and be sent to the workhouse; the men were put into chains in galleys forever. (Greenfeld 1977:19)

"Gypsy Hunts"

Also in the 16th century began the "gypsy hunts." Not unlike a fox hunt, the Gypsies were rounded up and hunted for sport. This savage practice was prevalent in Switzerland, in Holland up to the 18th century and reaching as far as Denmark. No crime needed to have been committed by these people in order for them to be incarcerated or hunted down like animals.

In 1589 the King of Denmark decreed that any leader of a Gypsy band was to be sentenced to death. Honors and rewards were given to those who would participate in Gypsy hunts and capture them. These hunts continued as late as the 19th century.

A great Gypsy hunt covering four districts of Jutland took place on November 11, 1835. The day brought in a bag of over 260 men, women and children.

A Rheinland landowning aristocrat is said to have entered in his list of game killed during a day's hunting:

Item: A Gypsy woman with leer sucking babe. (Kenrick 1972:46)

In Germany and other countries the law supported this treachery. Martin Block, the Gypsiologist, had recorded the following German law enacted in Aachen in 1728: order to root out this brood of rascals... whether the Gypsies resist or not, these people shall be put to death. Nevertheless, those who... do not counterattack may be granted at most half an hour, to go on their knees and beg of the Almighty, if they so wish, pardon for their sins and to prepare for death ....(Greenfeld 1977:61).

In an account of the "miserable state of these people," the scholar Grellman stated, "They were not always looked upon as human creatures, for at a hunting party, at one of the small German courts, a mother and her child, were shot like a couple of wild beasts." (Greenfeld 1977:61).