Academic journal article Romani Studies

'Counterfeit Egyptians': The Construction and Implementation of a Criminal Identity in Early Modern England

Academic journal article Romani Studies

'Counterfeit Egyptians': The Construction and Implementation of a Criminal Identity in Early Modern England

Article excerpt

The first references to 'Egyptians' in English history come in the early sixteenth century, and show amicable meetings in royal courts (Crofton 1889: 6-7). In the early 1520s, these 'Egyptians' are mentioned in local records, in similarly peaceful settings: in Gloucestershire in 1521 the crown disbursed to 'certain Egiptions at Thornbury, 40s' (Brewer 1867: 499). Later in the parish of Stratton, Cornwall, money flowed in the opposite direction, as the churchwardens received twenty pence 'of the Egyppcions for the church house' (Peacock 1880: 198; Winstedt 1913-14). However, by 1531 all 'outlandysshe People callynge themselfes Egyptians' were ordered to be expelled from England on pain of imprisonment and forfeiture of goods (22 Henry VIII c. 11, 'An act concnyng Egypsyans' [Statutes of the Realm 1817: 327]). Over the course of the next seventy years Tudor governments sought to 'unburden' England of the 'false and subtile Companie of Vacaboundes calling themselves Egiptians' (5 Elizabeth I c. 20, 'An Acte for the Punishement of Vagabonds calling themselfes Egiptians' [Statutes of the Realm 1819: 448]) by banishing them from the realm, confiscating their goods, encouraging their settlement, and ultimately executing them.1 This seventy-year period saw four separate statutes that addressed 'Egyptians', each using modified methods of identification and punishment. Elizabeth I's 1598 act was the last to address 'Egyptians' until the eighteenth century (Mayall 1995: 23-5). This article seeks to explain how Tudor governments came to assert control over 'Egyptians' through the construction and implementation of a criminal identity, and how this became the effective regulatory definition for nearly 150 years.

The term 'Egyptian' as it appears in the Tudor statutes invites a cautious approach to the history of people to which this label was applied. In the medieval and early modern periods, 'Egyptians' across the Ottoman Empire and continental Europe are said to have described themselves as 'pilgrims', wandering the earth as penance for sins in their homeland, either 'Egypt' or 'Little Egypt'. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, 'Little Egypt', or 'Aegypta Minor', was speculated to be in a number of places, from India to the Pelopennese in Greece (Eliav-Feldon 2012: 124-5; Taylor 2014: 26-7; Matras 2014: 134-9). However, rather than being an accurate demonym reflecting geographical origins, the term Egyptian has been shown to have only been used as a selfdescriptor when communicating with outsiders (Matras 2014: 136-7). The Egyptian legislation alludes to this: the 1531 'Act concnyng Egypsyans', applies to 'outlandysshe people calling themselfes Egyptian' (Statutes of the Realm 1817: 327). The term is thus neither an endonym nor an exonym (Marushiakova and Popov 2013: 62-3); that is, neither a term that 'Egyptians' used amongst themselves, nor one applied to them solely by an external group. Instead the word 'Egyptian' is somewhere in between these two categories, used only in self-presentation. Tapping into ideas about penance, pilgrimage and Christian history, the use of the term Egyptian as an outward-facing self-descriptor shows that 'Gypsies were successful in presenting themselves in ways that were acceptable and explicable to late medieval audiences' (Taylor 2014: 44). When studying this word 'Egyptian' in its legislative context, we must remember that we are not studying any one group, but a view and construction of a particular group shaped by legislators and governors, themselves part of a wider hostile culture. The almost universally negative characteristics that laws, ordinances and directions ascribe are then by no means reflective of who these people were, and we would do well not to internalise and repeat them uncritically.

Why study identity?

A study of Tudor anti-Egyptian legislation is, broadly, a study of marginalisation, repression and persecution. The people that legislation was concerned with were those towards the bottom of the contemporary social hierarchy. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.