Shades of Difference: Mythologies of Skin Color in Early Modern England

By Sujata Iyengar | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
Artificial Negroes

In the Renaissance, the so-called Gypsies were thought to come from Egypt, although Sir Thomas Browne includes this belief as one of the “Vulgar and Common Errors” that his Pseudodoxia Epidemica attempts to correct. Browne calls the Gypsies “Artificial Negroes” or “counterfeit Moors” who darken their skins cosmetically: “Artificial Negroes, or Gypsies acquire their complexion by anointing their bodies with Bacon and fat substances, and so exposing them to the Sun” (PE, 3:255). But, as is now well known, the Gypsies call themselves “the Romany people” or “Roma,” and their language, “Rom.” Linguists note that the Romany language resembles Punjabi and that the words “Rom” and “Dom,” the name for a North Indian caste of nomadic dancers and musicians, are probably cognates. Most scholars agree that the Gypsies came from India, gradually making their way across Europe as dancers, tinkers, and fortune-tellers.1 Among Romanies, the story of their Egyptian origin is supposedly known as “the Great Trick.”2 Upon their landing in France in 1427, the Gypsies told King Charles VII that they belonged to a tribe of “Little Egypt” that, having refused to shelter Mary and Joseph after the slaughter of the innocents, was doomed to wander the world doing penance for its sin by visiting all the Christian shrines in Europe. Such claims of religious penance earned them special privileges in medieval Scotland and Tudor England. James V, James VTs grandfather, paid them lavishly for dances in court and even drew up a (short-lived) treaty with John Faw, self-proclaimed “Lord and Earl of Little Egypt,” agreeing that the constables and officers of Scotland would help Faw regain his throne from a Gypsy usurper and return to his mythical kingdom of “Little Egypt.” In England, Gypsies had the right to be tried by a jury half of whose members were also Gypsies, and they were permitted to hunt; moreover, as pilgrims they were entitled to receive alms when churchmen and aldermen distributed them.3

But successive monarchs removed the Gypsies’ rights and imposed harsh legislation forcing them to settle in one area, doff their “outlandish” clothing, and take up a trade, accusing them of being “counterfeit Egyptians.” Rogue literature similarly accuses Gypsies of counterfeiting,

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Shades of Difference: Mythologies of Skin Color in Early Modern England
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Abbreviations ix
  • Introduction 1
  • I - Ethiopian Histories 17
  • Chapter 1 - Pictures of Andromeda Naked 19
  • Chapter 2 - Thirteen- Ways of Looking at a Black Bride 44
  • Chapter 3 - Masquing Race 80
  • II - Whiteness Visible 101
  • Chapter 4 - Heroic Blushing 103
  • Chapter 5 - Blackface and Blushface 123
  • Chapter 6 - Whiteness as Sexual Difference 140
  • III - Travail Narratives 171
  • Chapter 7 - Artificial Negroes 173
  • Chapter 8 - Suntanned Slaves 200
  • Chapter 9 - Experiments of Colors 220
  • Afterword- Nancy Burson’s Human Race Machine 241
  • Notes 245
  • Bibliography 269
  • Index 299
  • Acknowledgments 309
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