Juridical Autonomy among Fifteenth
and Sixteenth Century Gypsies
One of the most intriguing aspects of Gypsy history is the apparent manner of their arrival in western Christendom in the early fifteenth century. For a time, they can be seen to be behaving in a fashion that, for them, was unprecedented. They moved around conspicuously, seeming almost to court attention. Some of them evidently bore safe-conducts from up high, fostering a story of their being penitents who were undertaking a seven-year pilgrimage to expiate a period of apostasy. Pretended pilgrims, like the coquillards of France, were no novelty in the Middle Ages, but they did not usually travel in family groups under leaders with impressive titles, as these new arrivals did. I have sought elsewhere to set out the general pattern of Gypsies' history through the centuries.1 My present purpose is to gather in whatever can be gleaned from chronicles and archives about one particular feature of the status accorded to them when they spread out from the Balkans and central Europe—and that is the extensive recognition that administration of justice among them was largely an internal matter.
The earliest report is furnished by a north German chronicler. Hermann Cornerus found room in his world history, Chronica novella, to record a singular event of which he may well have been an eyewitness. Referring to the closing months of 1417, he described the progress of a party of Gypsies through northern German territories. Among much else, he wrote: “They also had chiefs among them, that is a duke [ducem] and a count [comitem], who administered justice over them and whose orders they obeyed…. They also carried letters of recommendation [litteras promotorias] from princes and especially from Sigismund, King of the Romans, according to which they were to be admitted and kindly treated by states, princes, fortified places, towns, bishops and prelates to whom they____________________