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  • Why Children-Stealing Gypsies? December 21, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

    roma children

    The idea that someone is out to get our children has been around from classical times. Several antique Christian writers, for example, credit ‘the Jews’ with stealing children and this became, by the Middle Ages, part of the notorious ‘blood libel’ for which hundreds and perhaps thousands of men, women and, yes, children of Jewish descent were murdered. Fairies stepped into help ‘the Jews’ in medieval times, and there are hints that changeling beliefs date back beyond the Middle Ages. Then, in modern times, there are the most bizarre legends about children stealers from the white slave traders, to slender man to those homicidal clowns that were claimed, in some American cities, to hunt down our sons and daughters in sinister vans. But where does the idea that the Roma steal children come from? Beach’s only experience of gypsies growing up was in Enid Blyton and Tintin, but in Italy they are a part of day-to-day life in cities. Italians, usually the most civilised of peoples, will often come out with the claim that gypsies steal children and six-year-old Miss B spouted the same nonsense yesterday, apparently courtesy of our housekeeper: ‘gypsies are they the ones that kidnap children?’. There are plenty of references to this in popular culture: a particularly outrageous instance was a recent episode of the trashy American series Criminal Minds. (It goes without saying that if Criminal Minds ran a program on a Jewish family that stole kids, there would have been an uproar…) In fact, from what Beach can see the only real modern children stealing among gypsy populations are Roma infants being ‘confiscated’ by modern states, who presume to know better than their parents how the children should be brought up, and there are some cases of ‘child-swapping’ among Roma families. But leaving aside the politics, if this idea that gypsies steal children is one that has long been around, where does it come from? The easy answer is that gypsies are outsiders and society credits outsiders (‘Jews’, gypsies, fairies, err clowns…) with abominable acts. But, at least to Beach’s mind, this is not enough (though note that the linked article is well-informed and interesting). To better answer this it would be important to understand when the first child-stealing allegations against gypsies are made and where. The earliest that has turned up in a swift look through the sources dates from 1496-1498 and Germany where gypsies were accused of being in the pay of the Turks, working sorcery, plague carrying and child kidnapping. This sounds suspiciously like some of the prejudices worked with great skill against Jewish communities on the Rhine. Presumably the gypsies just picked up soot from the black snow balls hurled at ‘the Jews’: and, in fact, the ‘the Jews’ and Roma would suffer on the same butcher’s block for the next five hundred years? The Roma’s itinerant nature must have made them particularly convenient to blame: a child went missing, as children always do, and old Mother Hubbard remembered that there had been a gypsy camp, five miles away. (The fairies’ invisibility made them useful for similar reasons). It is also curious how many modern cases of gypsy kidnapping involve children who are blonde and blue-eyed and who are assumed not to be gypsies, but who later, after accusations and court orders, it transpires are ‘genetic’ children of arrested parents. Any other ideas as to why gypsies became child-stealing bogeys? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com