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Romance and the Romany

Since their arrival in Britain around 500 years ago, Gypsies have created a rich tapestry of romantic folklore. Yet, argues Jeremy Harte, this aspect of their past has been almost completely ignored by academic historians.

Gypsy Encampment, Appleby by John Atkinson 1919

Representations of Gypsy culture are often contentious. Even those produced by Gypsies typically show a selective history; there is only so much about the community that the ordinary non-Gypsy wants to know. As long as the conversation is kept to the safe nostalgia of the past, we can talk about a history of prejudice, eviction, brutality and disenfranchisement. But get too close to the present and the conversation becomes much less comfortable. The majority of the 500 years since Gypsies first arrived in Britain have been spent telling the strangers of the host nation what they want to hear, which is not necessarily the historical truth.

There is a consensus that whatever Gypsy life is like today, the romantic side of the Romany past – its old waggons and coloured horses, music by the fireside – should not be forgotten. In the traders’ stalls at Appleby, Stowe and Epsom, where goods are laid out to appeal solely to Gypsy taste, the same tropes appear again and again. Everyone agrees that these things help to define the historical identity of the community. 

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