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Littell's Living Age/Volume 130/Issue 1681/The First Appearance of Gipsies

From Temple Bar.


One day, four hundred and fifty years ago, or thereabouts, there knocked at the gates of the city of Lüneburg, on the Elbe, as strange a rabble rout as had ever been seen by German burgher. There were three hundred of them, men and women, accompanied by an extraordinary number of children. They were dusky of skin, with jet black hair and eyes; they wore strange garments; they were unwashed and dirty even beyond the liberal limits tolerated by the cold-water-fearing citizens of Lüneburg; they had with them horses, donkeys, and carts; they were led by two men whom they described as duke and count. These two alone were dressed in some kind of splendor, and rode richly caparisoned horses; they were most courteous in manner; they seemed careful to conciliate; they talked among themselves a strange language, and they understood the language of the country. All they asked was permission to camp for a few days outside the gates. All the Lüneburgers turned out to gaze open-mouthed at these pilgrims, while the duke and the count told the authorities their tale, which was wild and romantic; even had they invented a story to suit their own objects, no other could so well have enlisted the sympathies of a credulous, kindly, uncritical, and soft-hearted folk. Many years before, they explained, while the tears of penitence stood in the eyes of all but the youngest children, they had been a Christian commuity, living in orthodoxy, and therefore happiness, in a far-off country known as Egypt The Lüneburgers had heard of Egypt. Crusades had not been out of fashion more than two hundred years, and people still told of dreadful things done in Egypt as well as in the Holy Land. Egypt, indeed, was about as well known to mediæval Europe as it was to the Israelites under the judges. The strangers came from Egypt. It was the land of the phœnix. It was not far from the dominions of Prester John. It was the country of the Saracen and the infidel. They were then a happy Christian flock. To their valley came the Saracens, an execrable race, worshipping Mahound. Yielding, in an evil hour, to the threats and persecutions of their conquerors, they — here they turned their faces and wept aloud — they abjured Christ. But thereafter they had no rest or peace, and a remorse so deep fell upon their souls that they were fain to arise, leave their homes, and journey to Rome in hope of getting reconciliation with the Church. They were graciously received by the pope, who promised to admit them back into the fold after seven years of penitential wandering. They had letters of credit from King Sigismund — would the Lüneburgers kindly look at them? — granting safe-conduct and recommending them to the safe protection of all honest people. The Lüneburg folk were touched at the recital of so much suffering in a cause so good; they granted the request of the strangers. They allowed them to encamp; they watched in curiosity while the black tents were pitched, the naked babies rolled out on the grass, the donkeys tethered, and the brass kettle slung over the newly kindled fire; then they went home. The next day the strangers visited the town. In the evening a good many things were missed, especially those unconsidered trifles which a housewife may leave about her doorway. Poultry became suddenly scarce; eggs doubled in price; it was rumored that purses had been lost while their owners gazed at the strangers; cherished cups of silver were not to be found. Could it be that these Christian penitents, these remorseful backsliders, these seekers after holiness, these interesting pilgrims, so gentle of speech, so courteous and humble, were cut-purses and thieves? The next day there remained no longer any doubt about the matter at all, because the gentle strangers were taken in the act, red-handed. While the Lüneburgers took counsel, in their leisurely way, how to meet a case so uncommon, the pilgrims suddenly decamped, leaving nothing behind them but the ashes of their fires and the picked bones of the purloined poultry. Then Dogberry called unto him his brother Verges, and they fell to thanking God that they were rid of knaves. This was the first historical appearance of gipsies. It was a curious place to appear in. The mouth of the Elbe is a long way from Egypt, even if you travel by sea, which does not appear to have been the case; and a journey on land not only would have been infinitely more fatiguing, but would, one would think, have led to some notice on the road before reaching Lüneburg. There, however, the gipsies certainly are first heard of, and henceforth history has plenty to say about their doings.