By Contributing Writer Stephan Steiner
“Images have been reproached for being a way of watching suffering at a distance, as if there were some other way of watching” (Susan Sontag). In other words: If we want to understand visually, then we are in any case forced to keep our eyes open, be it at the price of voyeurism.
What is to be watched here is a torrent of tortures, literally winding its way through an oil painting. In the very foreground a young woman, breasts denuded, one nipple tweaked with heated pliers. Then, a group of people of all ages–men and women, babies, toddlers, elderly–huddled together as if refusing to move any further. But exactly this is asked from them by a neatly dressed man, halberd in one hand, pointing toward an ongoing scene of humiliation and torture with the other. Moving the eyes further counter-clockwise, one sights four men in a row, two with hands pinioned and shoulders exposed, while their counterparts in frock-coats raise fistfuls of switches, bound for imminent flagellation. A river marks the boundary to the background, in which a person sitting on a chair awaits decapitation in front of two clerics. At the far end of perspective, fading in the tremolo of (most probably) late summer’s light, corpses hang from the gallows. Thus, not only the spectators of today, but also some of the protagonists of the depiction itself become voyeuristic observers.
During the first half of the eighteenth century, the streets of the Holy Roman Empire as well as some of its bordering regions must have been full of such signposts. Yet only seven of them have survived (or at least historians have so far been able to detect that many) in museum collections in Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands. The example shown here is by far the most elaborate, but the iconographic programs of all the others also abound in violence, heralding corporal punishment, mutilation, and death. The addressees of such harbingers of destruction were Gypsies, as they were referred to by the majority population. But many of this population also addressed themselves as Gypsies – long before the politically correct, but historically insufficient, combined term Roma and Sinti was created.
To contemporaries the people depicted were discernible as Gypsies by the distinct outfit they wore. Especially the woman’s schiavina, an oriental shepherds’ dress formed by a quadrangular woolen scarf, tied over the shoulder, which also functioned perfectly as a baby carrier, was seen as “typical” for Gypsy nomads.
After more than one century of increasingly harsh Gypsy legislation in the Holy Roman as well as in the Habsburg Empire (which were only in parts identical), the turn of the eighteenth century marked a clear shift in mentalities away from relentless persecution to attempted extinction. In this theater of war, declared on a minority that had been in the heart of Europe for almost two hundred years, the warning signs were intended to keep Gypsies from crossing the many borders of the era and to inform them about their almost ubiquitous outlaw status (Vogelfreiheit, a cynical term in German, literally meaning “being as free as a bird”, but used to signify a status without any rights, not even the one to exist). But deterrence was only one aspect of such visualisations. The other was the elimination of any excuse of ignorance of the law by Gypsies, who when detained often claimed a lack of legal knowledge. Now, even illiteracy could not prevent them from the long arm of the law.
These signs were the perfect emblems of an absurd situation: Gypsies, not allowed in territory A, were also not allowed to switch over to the neighboring territory B, as each and every place was forbidden ground. For them there was no legal place to stay; before even being accused or tried, they were already guilty.
Gypsy warning signs made their way through half of Europe, being a new means of approaching the so-called Gypsy plague (Zigeunerplage), as it was most bluntly called by rulers and their officials. Together with common beliefs within the majority population, an explosive cocktail of (mostly ungrounded) fears was mixed: spies for the Ottomans, uncivilized “Orientals”, black magicians and notorious burglars, robbers and even cannibals–all this was ascribed to the Gypsies.
Why exactly tablets were chosen as a way of communicating the legal framework to passers-by is unclear, but probably similar signs regarding beggars, Jews, or the plague could be seen as direct precursors. The oldest trace of Gypsy warning signs can be found in a decree enacted in Kleve-Mark (a part of Brandenburg-Prussia) in 1685. In 1702, the kingdom of Prussia also ordered the erection of warning signs, as part of an edict concerning the expulsion of Gypsies. Over the course of approximately two decades, many similar orders were issued, among others in Nassau-Siegen 1707/08, the Electoral Palatinate 1709, Electoral Hannover 1710, Electoral Mainz 1711 or Bavaria 1716 as well as in the Habsburg Empire (Bohemia 1706, Silesia 1708, Moravia 1709, Inner Austria 1714, Austria above and below the Enns 1720, and Hungary 1724).
Long unquestioned from a moral point of view, Gypsy warning signs caused very practical problems instead. From the perspective of the administration, the trouble with Gypsy warning signs started even before their erection and accompanied their entire life cycle: Who was obliged to pay for them? Who would maintain them? What should be done in case they were stolen? And stolen they were, be it a simple matter of organizing firewood by the locals, or a protest against their function as an instrument of exclusion.
Enlightenment marks the gradual fade-out of the martial mentality expressed in the warning signs. Coerced settlement first and subsequent total assimilation were now seen as the perfect solution to problems that to a great extent had been perceived in a phantasmagorical fashion or at least over-exaggerated by the majority population. But, despite all the Janus-faced altruism of the Age of Reason, warning signs in some regions quite astonishingly outlived the associated major changes in mind-set. Thus, in some parts of the Holy Roman Empire warning signs were still in use regardless of the highpoint of Enlightenment. Hessen-Kassel, for instance, renewed its respective orders in 1772, Oranien-Nassau in 1782. Some warning signs were maintained up to the first decade of the nineteenth century (e.g. in the duchy of Lippe).
Until one decade ago, pre-modern visual representations of Gypsies were thought to be extremely rare. But with more focused research by scholars such as Peter Bell and Jörg Suckow, more and more depictions of supposed “Orientals” or “social misfits” in art have turned out to be images of Gypsies instead. Interestingly enough, the phenomenon of Gypsy warning signs has so far only been studied on a systematic and continuous level in the context of the Bohemian Lands of the Habsburgs, namely in several articles by Jiří Hanzal, the Czech Republic’s distinguished scholar on Gypsies in the early modern period.
The obsession with a Holy Roman Empire or a Habsburg monarchy “cleansed” from all Gypsy riffraff, harmful and mischievous to the country (schädlich- und landesverderbliches Ziggeinergesindel) as emblematically expressed in the warning signs, was a utopia the authorities yearned for during the long eighteenth century. What seemed utopia to them, turned out to be dystopia for the various groups of persecuted Gypsies.
On February 5, 1995, four Austrian Roma were killed by a booby trap placed next to their village. The bomb was released when these four people tried to remove a sign, which in solemn letters on black ground mocked a funerary inscription, which read, “Roma, back to India!”
Stephan Steiner. Historian. Professor at Sigmund Freud University (Vienna, Austria). His research concerns the history of violence especially in the early modern context, but also including long-term perspectives. Detailed references concerning his blog article are to be found in a forthcoming edited volume on Representations of External Threats in History (edited by Eberhard Crailsheim). Research has been partly supported by a travel grant, kindly awarded by the German Historical Institute Warsaw.