The Early Years

  • Richard J. Pym


So begins Cervantes’s novella La gitanilla (The Little Gypsy Girl), the tale chosen by its author to open his 1613 collection of Novelas ejemplares.1 The passage’s seven insistent references to theft famously epitomize the common stereotype of the gypsy that had long since come to enjoy widespread currency across Europe. In Spain, the continual attribution to gypsies throughout the early modern period of transgressions ranging from highway robbery and worse by the men, to sorcery, petty theft, and various forms of deception by gypsy women, continued to fuel their unenviable reputation. But a vicious circle was also at work. At least part of the blame for the stubborn persistence of gypsy criminality there must lie with the very instruments repeatedly invoked to control it. As draconian legislation increasingly demanded that the gypsies abandon not just their few traditional occupations, but also in many cases even their homes, what began as a response to specific, delinquent behaviours quickly translated into wholesale stigmatization and economic emasculation. Framed by men of the centre with little real knowledge of those at the outermost margins of society against whom they were directed, the laws unsurprisingly reflected the shortcomings of the simplistic, demonizing stereotype of the gypsy on which they drew, and which, of course, they further reinforced.


Fifteenth Century Early Modern Period Traditional Occupation Petty Theft Common Stereotype 
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© Richard J. Pym 2007

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  • Richard J. Pym

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