The Little Gipsy Girl

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The Little Gipsy Girl

by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra


A novella set in Spain, from the central city of Madrid to the southern city of Murcia, about 1613; published in Spanish (as La gitanilla) in 1613, in English in 1630.


When a beautiful young Gypsy (also spelled Gipsy) requires that her noble suitor become a Gypsy too, a series of adventures, misadventures, and surprising discoveries ensue.

Events in History at the Time of the Novella

The Novella in Focus

For More Information

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, considered by many the originator of the modern novel, was born in 1547 in Alcala de Henares in central Spain. He died in 1616, on April 23, the same day William Shakespeare (1564-1616) died. Unable to afford a university education, Cervantes joined the military, served overseas, and upon his return found a job as a tax collector. At the age of 58, after a lifetime of poverty and failure, his writing career began to soar when he published Part 1 of his masterpiece The Adventures of Don Quixote (1605; also in Literature and Its Times). Cervantes went on to write numerous poems, plays, and fictional works, most notably the Exemplary Tales (including The Little Gipsy Girl) in 1613 and Part of Don Quixote in 1615. Writing in a time of imperial glory and tumultuous change, he incorporated into his works the ironies and surprises of contemporary life. The Little Gipsy Girl, published between the two parts of The Adventures of Don Quixote, encapsulates all the social possibilities and tensions of Golden Age Spain. Much of the story’s power comes from its focus on one of the most reviled groups in Spanish society then and later.

Events in History at the Time of the Novella

A nation defines itself: Spain’s Golden Age

In many ways the year 1492 was an annus mirabilis (miraculous year) for Spain. With a great portion of its present-day geography united by the marriage of the so-called Catholic Monarchs, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, the task that remained was to create some sense of national cohesion and unity in the subjects of their previously individual realms. On the first day of 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella entered Granada to accept the capitulation of the last Muslim kingdom in Spain. This final consolidation of Spain’s territories was followed by events destined to bring about greater religious, nationalistic, and even linguistic unity: Jews were given the option of expulsion or conversion to Christianity, a decree that prompted the mass exodus of much of Spain’s important Jewish community; Christopher Columbus encountered and claimed the Americas for the Spanish crown, expanding Spain’s sphere of influence and opportunity; and Antonio de Nebrija published his Manual of Castilian Grammar, the first grammar of any modern language, which would facilitate the standardization and spread of Castilian Spanish throughout the new empire. Over the next hundred years, through the reigns of Charles V, Phillip II, Phillip III, and beyond, Spain woul struggle to define and redefine itself amidst a constantly changing set of internal and international factors.

The unity of Spain was not simply a matter of geography: the kingdoms brought together at the close of the fifteenth century retained considerable independence. Local laws, languages, and traditions were preserved by royal agreements. In the kingdoms that formerly made up Ferdinand’s territory of Aragon, “the allegiance of subjects was conditional on the king’s part of the bargain: the defense of their customs and liberties” (Fernández-Armesto, pp. 121-22). Preaching “peace among Christians and war on infidels,” the monarchs sought to impose uniformity in religion. Although the Moors who remained in Granada were initially allowed to practice Islam, Carlos V mandated a strict cam paign of Christian baptism in 1526. These forced conversions were of dubious worth, the suspicion being that the converts were not earnest Christians but were only going through the motions. This skepticism is reflected in ongoing fears that the Moriscos, Spain’s christianized Moors, would aid the Turks in the event of an invasion. To stave off this risk and respond to the popular revolts of 1568-70, Philip II decreed the dispersal of the Moriscos throughout Castile. They were ultimately considered too dangerous to remain and, on the advice of the count of Lerma and archbishop of Valencia, Philip III expelled the Moriscos in 1609. Nearly 300,000 Moriscos were shipped across the border, leading to the unsurprising result of labor shortages, unpaid loans, and a deflated economy. In Valencia, Aragon, and Murcia, where Moriscos had formed as much as a third of the population, the economies were devastated (Kamen, Spain 1469-1714, pp. 220-221).

As brutal as they were dramatic, the progressive measures against Spaniards of Muslim de-scent echoed earlier laws against Jews and Conversos (Christianized Jews). When the edict of expulsion was proclaimed in the spring of 1492, Spain’s Jewish population was estimated at between 80,000 and 100,000 (Kamen, Spanish Inquisition, p. 23, Suarez Fernandez, p. 50). Though many chose expulsion, perhaps half opted to remain in Spain as converts (Kamen, Spanish Inquisition, p. 24). The Conversos would be subject to constant vigilance and increasing restrictions. They could not hold positions in the Church or become nobles.

Perhaps the most dramatic repression came in the form of the Inquisition, a tribunal set up to suppress deviation from the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The tribunal was “clearly directed at the Conversos on the grounds that they remained secret Judaizers after conversion to Christianity” (Peters, p. 88). Founded in the twelfth century, the Inquisition began to flex its muscle when it became affiliated with the Crown of Castile in 1478. It was known officially as the Council of the Supreme and General Inquisition, and its first leader in this period was, ironically, a Converse—Tomas de Torquemada (1420-98).

Though its terrifying legacy appears to be more myth than substantiated reality, the Inquisition was certainly an entity to be avoided. Charges and evidence were presented in strict anonymity and the accused were generally imprisoned with their assets frozen while awaiting their hearing. The Inquisitors, contrary to popular belief, did not employ torture on a regular basis, but they did occasionally employ the methods that follow:

  • The garrocha : The prisoner was raised and repeatedly dropped while suspended by the wrists from a pulley on the ceiling, with heavy weights attached to his feet
  • The toca, or water torture: A cloth was inserted into the prisoner’s mouth and water poured in; when the prisoner swallowed the cloth and neared death by choking, it was pulled out.
  • The potro, or rack: The prisoner was tied to a rack with cords; as the rack was tightened, the cords bit into the prisoner’s body, cutting deeper with each turn of the rack.

“In all these tortures it was the rule to strip the accused first” (Kamen, Spanish Inquisition, p. 190). Guilty verdicts were common and they generally resulted in an auto de/e, a public display of guilt and penitence, which sometimes concluded in execution by the secular authorities, who worked alongside the Inquisition.

As noted, the Inquisition originated to handle charges of heresy and Judaizing, but during the second half of the sixteenth century other issues—notably bigamy and fornication—led the list of causes for trials. The tribunal became, as one historian has observed, “a social safety valve for the complaints of the poor and unsophisticated, who could never indict their neighbors or challenge their social superiors in ordinary courts” (Fernandez-Armesto, p. 133). Without money or power, Spain’s poorer classes often did have something of value: a lineage completely free of Jewish or Muslim blood, a “purity” that the bourgeoisie and nobles could not always claim. In short, the minorities of Spain—converted Jews and Muslims, as well as Gypsies—became marginalized even among the poor. Spain was a nation on the move at the time, one that seemed united geographically, spiritually, and even linguistically. But its unity was more gilt than gold, more apparent than real. Forced conformity and intolerance were actually the order of the day. For the Gypsies, it was a time of repression, suspicion, and outright danger. For Cervantes the writer, it was a time to reassess the values of a nation.

The Gypsies of Spain

Noted for their extraordinary appearance and mysterious ways, Gypsies travel in caravans, introducing a sense of the exotic into the towns and fairs where they ply their skills and wares (e.g., dancing, palm reading, livestock trading). Like the biblical wandering Jew, they are “pilgrims in the original sense of the word: travelers and strangers [who] travel and only ever pass through” (Leblon, p. 17; trans. E. Sutherland). Originating in India, the first group of Gypsies arrived in Spain around 1425 professing to be victims of Muslim persecution. The word Gypsy (gitano, in Spanish), comes from Egypt, the homeland often described by the Gypsy travelers who doubtless passed through Egypt on their way to Spain. (Today’s Gypsies generally prefer other names, in particular Rom or Romany, both derived from the word for man.)

Armed with papal letters of safe conduct, the Gypsies were received by Spam’s monarch as they had been by other pious kings across Europe, who saw in these Christians a personification of the ancient wandering Jew. As Christians, their wandering was considered a sort of pilgrimage to unspecified holy sites. Alfonso V, king of Aragon, welcomed the first group of Gypsies warmly, calling their leader “our beloved and devout” Juan of Egypt Minor and granting them protection (Albaicin, p. 109; trans. E. Sutherland). Before long, however, it became apparent that their pilgrimages were without end and that the age-old association between the Gypsies and the Jews was dangerous (Albaicin, p. 113).

By the close of the fifteenth century the Gypsies were no longer welcome in Spain. Its larger society had begun to see them as vagrants rather than pilgrims and to take legal steps to oust them. The Catholic Monarchs signed the first pragmdtica (edict or law) in 1499, ordering the removal or forced settlement and employment of the Gypsies. They were given 60 days to choose between exile, mutilation, forced labor (as galley oarsmen in military or privately owned commercial vessels), on the one hand, and cultural death through settlement, on the other hand. Additional anti-Gypsy pragmdticas were issued at regular intervals throughout the sixteenth century, by both the Crown and the Church, culminating in a 1609 order of six years in the galleys for any Gypsy laboring at anything other than farming (Leblon, p. 117). Still another expulsion of the Gypsies was ordered in 1611, but that this edict, like others, went unfulfilled is evidenced by subsequent laws restricting Gypsy work, travel, dress, and language (which would not be abolished until after the Francisco Franco dictatorship [1939-75]—only with Article 14 of the Constitution of 1977 were the anti-Gypsy provisions erased).

The Gypsies’ gifts as dancers, acrobats, musicians, tinkers, and livestock traders were equaled by their skill in storytelling and allegedly in palm reading. Alternately called witchcraft and deceit, these last skills in particular attracted both popular awe and official distrust of the Gypsies. As early as 1525, the Cortes (parliament) of Toledo requested that “the Egyptians” stay away “since they steal from the fields


“Black sheep or perhaps scapegoats bearing Spain’s and even all of Europe’s sins” is the way one historian describes the Gypsies (Leblon, p. 39; trans. E. Sutherland). Though from such a characterization, one would expect a history of conflict between Gypsies and the Inquisition, the reality was somewhat different. In some ways, the Inquisition highlights how marginalized the Gypsies were, even from their Jewish and Muslim counterparts. As Rom historian Joaqum Albaicin points out, his ancestors had more fearsome persecutors than the Inquisition in Spain: “poor and therefore arousing less envy, the Gypsy was more likely to be persecuted by the Santa Hermandad—the police—than by the Inquisition” (Albaicin; trans. E. Sutherland, p. 1 12). Of some 30 cases brought before the Inquisition in Madrid, Cuenca, and Valencia, about two-thirds of the charges brought against Gypsies were for witchcraft, including such diverse spells as money-making schemes, herbal healing, and love potions. The tribunals determined that most of the charges were accurate, but their sentences varied wildly. One case featured a woman described as little more than a vain enchantress, sentenced to the extraordinarily harsh punishment of torture followed by an auto de fe, 200 lashes, and eight years exile from Madrid (Leblon, p. 155). This extreme case was not typical. Another Gypsy was brought up on charges of “an explicit pact with the devil, lethal powders, lies, tricks, fortune telling, use of holy words and the mysteries of the faith for illicit and dishonest ends, demonic invocations, loitering, [and] perjury” (Leblon, p. 155; trans. E. Sutherland). For this string of punishable offenses, he received just a warning. Such charges, concludes another Rom historian, are based more on ignorance than on malice, an ignorance likely born of the profound segregation in which the Gypsies lived (Leblon, p. 165).

and destroy orchards and deceive people” (Kamen, Spain 1469-1714, p. 109). This early petition combines the notions of trickery with theft, a charge that will be leveled against the Gypsies more than any other. Another common charge was kidnapping children to sell them. Notable in early reports of cases involving Gypsies was the men’s ability to keep silent when questioned and to avoid arrest by seeking refuge in churches or simply disappearing from the caravan until the police left. In rural areas, where friendships were more common among Gypsies and non-Gypsies, this sort of evasion was facilitated through shared interests with local authorities. In cities, where Gypsies were less likely to establish relationships, well-placed bribes were doubtless useful investments.

Of the marginal subpopulations in Spain, the Gypsies have been perhaps the most marginal of all. The Cortes of Castile decreed in 1594 that the group be forbidden to speak its language, live together, or marry among itself so that “the memory and name of the Gypsies be lost… and that no one in these kingdoms be called a Gypsy” (Leblon, p. 33; trans. E. Sutherland). Others called into question the very existence of the Gypsies as an ethnic group. For example, in 1631, Juan de Quifiones argued that the group’s exotic dress, dark skin, and foreign tongue were all ruses to facilitate trickery (Leblon, p. 33).

Nobility and social classes

One of the defining characteristics of Spain’s Golden Age (primarily 1550-1650) was a new social mobility. By the end of the 1500s, Spain’s noble classes comprised some 10 percent of the overall population (Kamen, Spain 1469-1714, p. 103). Noble status conferred, among other benefits, freedom from taxes, extraordinary leeway in issues of law, and the right to self-defense in case of danger or insult. A person’s nobility could be based on hereditary factors dating hundreds of years back or might be awarded to those serving in politics, excelling in exploration and commerce or performing special favors—including making loans—for the Crown. In the early years of the Golden Age, “America and the Seville trade [commerce in goods to and from the New World, which passed through the river port of Seville] were the most striking cause of social advance,” swelling the ranks of the nobility (Kamen, Spain 1469-1714, p. 104). As the number of tax-exempt noble grew, so did the financial burden on the rest of the population.

When Phillip II fixed the Spanish capital in Madrid (1561), the court and would-be courtiers flocked there. For the first time, large numbers of nobles with inherited land grants found themselves in direct contact—and competition—with more newly appointed nobles and even with those seeking titles of nobility, all of them angling for royal attention and favors. Because nobility in itself was no longer a guarantee of long-inherited privilege, blood purity—proof of neither Jewish nor Muslim ancestry—took on a new significance. This new concept of blood purity succeeded in barring social advancement to the Converses, creating conflicts within the elite. The concern for blood purity furthermore added a racial sense to the view of honor in Spanish society. It “supported the claims of nobles to be an exclusive hereditary caste” of not only Christian but also untainted—preferably Iberian—blood (Kamen, Spain 1469-1714, p. 106).

The riches from the mines of Mexico and Peru paid off loans and other expenses, and what was left found its way into the hands of only a small minority of Spaniards. Yet most of the population suffered the consequences in the form of rampant inflation, which saw the cost of goods go up for everyone without a parallel increase in the average income. When mine production fell off towards the end of the sixteenth century, economic disaster set in. The logical result was a general social instability affecting virtually every social class. Thousands migrated, voyaging to cities like Madrid and Seville or to other parts of the Empire, leaving in their wake large sections of rural Spain seriously underpopulated. Poverty pervaded in both formerly self-sufficient farm villages that no longer had enough laborers and in cities too swollen to accommodate new migrants. As a resentful Sancho de Moncada observed in his 1619 Discourse Against the Gypsies, a new class of people was pushed to the margins: “hordes of vagrants and atheists without law or religion, Spaniards who have joined this Gypsy life or sect and who welcome other lazy and washed-up people from all over Spain” (Moncada in Leblon, p. 36; trans. E. Sutherland). At the other end of the social scale, money also grew scarce. As the Venetian ambassador to Spain wrote in 1681, “There is hardly a noble who … in the absence of royal pensions, could keep himself on his own income” (cited in Fernandez-Armesto, p. 150). In 1607 Philip III was forced to declare bankruptcy: Spain was, much like the magistrate and his wife in The Little Gipsy Girl, without a single cuarto, without a single coin (Cervantes The Little Gipsy Girl, p. 22).


The figure of the rogue or pícaro captured the imagination of Spain and soon all of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The paintings of José de Ribera (1591-1652), Diego de Velázquez (1599-1660) and Bartolomé Murillo (1617-1682) abound in marginal figures, with sympathetic portraits of street urchins and vendors, drunks, beggars, and even dancing girls. Readers devoured picaresque literature, tales that featured the adventures of a pícaro, or “popularised and romanticised the delinquency of the urban poor” (Kamen, Spain 1469-1714, p. 251). Two examples, Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), and Mateo Aleman’s Guzman de Alfarache (1 598), provide rich views into the daily life of an era even as they offer scathing social commentary on that era. That this critical view surfaces again and again in Golden Age literature is strong proof of at least the writers’ awareness of the contrast between social status and the honorable nature of individual behavior.

The Novella in Focus

The plot

Raised by an old Gypsy woman as her granddaughter, Preciosa is a lovely and talented Gypsy girl whose sterling qualities stand out that much more sharply against her harsh surroundings.

[Her environment] only served to reveal that she had been born of better stock than a line of gipsies, for she was exceedingly polite and well-spoken. And yet, in spite of this, she was some-what brazen, but not to the extent that it gave way to any impropriety. On the contrary, although she was quick-witted, she was so virtuous that in her presence no female gipsy, whether young or old, dared to sing lascivious songs or use indecent language.

(Gipsy, p. 7)

Preciosa’s wit and self-assurance are highlighted in this first section through a series of songs. When her songs attract a crowd of admirers, a local magistrate passing by approaches to see what is happening. “Since the young gipsy girl had made a particularly good impression on him,” he orders the Gypsies to sing that evening for his wife (Gipsy, p. 14). On her way to Dona Clara’s house, Preciosa is accosted by a suspiciously well-dressed poet-page. He offers her gold and a lovesick ballad to sing (Gipsy, p. 15). Curiously the magistrate’s lavish household lacks any coin at all for the Gypsy who has come to entertain its lady. Obliged to tell Dona Clara’s fortune with a borrowed silver thimble, Preciosa sings the woman’s fortune with lyrics that subtly cast aspersions on the woman’s character. She leaves the house with some irritation, saying she will return if required and adding, “I’ll take it for granted that you won’t give me anything and so save myself the bother of expecting something” (Gipsy, p. 22).

Returning to Madrid another day, the Gypsy women encounter an elegant young man who offers his gold and his love to Preciosa. Don Juan de Carcamo agrees to renounce his wealth and position and join her Gypsy caravan for two years, accepting as well the new name of Andrés Caballero. When the caravan leaves Madrid, Andrés is initiated into the customs and traditions of the Gypsies and soon distinguishes himself as a talented athlete and charming companion. He also determines “as was to be expected from someone of his genteel breeding” that, unlike the other Gypsies, he would only pretend to steal (Gipsy, p. 44). This is an important distinction to Cervantes’s readers, who saw petty thieving as the Gypsies’ main occupation: “we work by day and we steal by night or, more precisely, we warn people not to be careless about where they leave their property”(Gipsy, p. 40). In a period whose popular image of Gypsies was very much one of vagrants, thieves, and liars, Cervantes appears to have at least partly shared this image, though his tale also questions the standard view.

One circumstance clouds the growing love of this special pair: Andrés is unable to overcome his jealousy at the impassioned verses the poet-page sends Preciosa, even fainting when he first hears them. Preciosa rejects this jealousy, reviving him with a stern rebuke: “That’s a fine gipsy spirit you’re showing there. Andrés, how will you ever endure the water torture if you can’t cope with the paper test?”(Gipsy, p. 35). When the poet-page reappears among the Gypsies, now camped out in Extremadura, Andrés assumes the worst. Alonso Hurtado, the poet-page, puts all such fears to rest, though. He confides that he is fleeing a scandal in Madrid, and the Gypsies welcome him into their troupe, renaming him Clemente (Gipsy, p. 50). Like Preciosa and Andrés, Clemente soon distinguishes himself as a talented athlete and charming companion. But he will disappear as soon as trouble rears its head.

The carefree existence of the pretend Gypsies continues until they arrive in Murcia, where the handsome Andrés catches the eye of a lusty young woman “more forward than she was beautiful”(Gipsy, p. 58). Juana Carducha propositions him directly: “I like the look of you; and if you want to marry me, it’s up to you. Give me an answer quickly”(Gipsy, p. 58). When Andrés declines the offer, she feels “embarrassed, wretched, and hell-bent on revenge”(Gipsy, p. 59). “[W]ith the cunning, subtlety, and secrecy engendered by her evil intent,” she plants some jewelry in his bags and denounces him as a thief (Gipsy, p. 59). The situation worsens when a “swaggering soldier, the mayor’s nephew” insults and strikes Andrés hard. So hard was the blow that “it shook him out of his abstraction and reminded him that he was not Andrés Caballero but don Juan and a gentleman. He rushed at the soldier, deftly unsheathed his sword, and furiously plunged it into his body, leaving him dead on the ground” (Gipsy, p. 60). Don Juan, alias Andrés, is imprisoned.

With her beloved facing certain death, and the other Gypsies arrested or in hiding, Preciosa is devastated. Hearing that “Preciosa’s beauty was so radiant that no one could look at her without blessing her,” the Chief Magistrate’s wife asks to see her and is instantly charmed by her looks (Gipsy, p. 61). As the Gypsy girl weeps and begs to delay the hearing so that Juan’s father could intervene, her presumptive grandmother reveals an important secret. Years earlier she had stolen the girl from the very same chief magistrate, writing the child’s name and date of the kidnapping on a piece of paper. The jewelry belonging to the infant dona Costanza de Azevedo, a mark on the girl’s breast, and two conjoined toes provide irrefutable proof of the truth of Preciosa’s identity. It is then Preciosa’s turn to reveal the truth about Andrés and his crime, explaining that the soldier had “tried to dishonour him, and he could do no less than act according to his true nature and kill him”(Gipsy, p. 65). When he discovers that Andrés is really the son of a noble knight, and that Preciosa loves him, the magistrate agrees to their marriage. The murder charges are quickly dropped with the promise of two thousand gold ducats to the dead man’s uncle in exchange for his pardon of don Juan (Gipsy, p. 69). The social order reestablished, all ends well with a joyous marriage between the two lovers now confirmed to be as noble in birth as they are in character.

A literary challenge to established stereotypes

The novella opens with a sharp denunciation of the Gypsies as a race of thieves, a ploy almost certainly calculated to attract readers fascinated by tales of the picaros. “In such a people the desire to steal and the act of stealing are inseparable instincts which remain with them until they die,” the reader is told (Gipsy, p. 7). The negative image of the Gypsies is reinforced through a series of details. At the center of the plot is the kidnapping of the infant dona Costanza de Azevedo, later known to her Gypsy kidnapper as Preciosa. Seeing that the girl’s talent and beauty “were bound to be powerful attractions and enticements with which to accrue her fortune,” Preciosa’s “crafty grandmother” first fosters her charms and abilities and later scolds her for hesitating to take some coins (Gipsy, p. 7). When Andrés learns the Gypsy ways, his first lessons are on the art of thieving. Classes are imparted with humor and the promise that “you’ll like it so much that your fingers will be itching to get on with it”(Gipsy, p. 42).

In the story, the Gypsies take great pride in their talents as thieves. But this dark portrait of the Gypsies is not as straightforward as these examples suggest. Throughout the novella, Cervantes alternates “between the acknowledgement of popular stereotypes about Gypsies and his own questioning of these attitudes by showing that Gypsies can be as good as any non-Gypsy” (Ricapito, p. 23). Gypsies are shown to be fiercely independent, aware of and prepared to pay the cost of their free existence. The Gypsies facilitate dealings with corrupt judges with pieces of gold and insure good relations with the local authorities by “handing over some cups and other items of silver”(Gipsy, p. 58). When Andrés observes that Gypsies are often whipped, he receives a philosophical response from an older Gypsy:

Everything in this life’s subject to its own dangers, and in his actions a thief risks such consequences as lashes, the galleys, or the gallows. But just because one ship ends up in a storm or sinks doesn’t mean that no other ship should sail. … Especially since any man among us who has been lashed by the law wears an insignia on his back that looks far more impressive than the finest one he could wear across his chest.

(Gipsy, p. 42)

The joking tone of the older Gypsy belies the seriousness of this point of pride: to be a Gypsy is to survive harsh trials with a strength of character not easily understood, even by Andrés.

Preciosa is first distinguished from the Gypsies, notable among the Gypsy girls not only for her beauty but also for her cleanliness and good manners, proof positive “that she had been born of a better stock than a line of gipsies” (Gipsy, p. 7). Her virtue is praised, but on closer reading the other Gypsy girls are virtuous as well. They refuse, out of fear, to venture into a room filled with gentlemen. Gypsy women, explain the elders, are always careful about their virtue—any one guilty or even suspected of adultery is subject to judgment and execution by her peers.

Like Preciosa, the noble don Juan stands out among the real Gypsies. He outshines them at every athletic event and either fakes or pays for the thefts he commits. Petty thieving is indeed portrayed as their stock in trade, served when necessary by lies—“between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ we make no distinction when it suits our purpose,” observes an older Gypsy (Gipsy, p. 39). But the Gypsy men are shown to have extraordinary character as well. They welcome newcomers into their midst without hesitation and offer assistance to the injured poet-page without asking for anything in return. As “lords of the pastures, of the ploughed fields, of the woods and hills, of the springs and rivers,” their nearly idyllic lifestyle is based on a profound connection with nature (Gipsy, p. 39). This connection is apparent in their love for animals (the thought of killing Andrés’s mule, an “innocent” and “blameless creature,” is repugnant to them [Gipsy, p. 38]) and in their embrace of their surroundings, as the old Gypsy explains:

We cherish these huts and camps of ours as if they were sumptuous palaces with gilded roofs; we have our own Flemish scenes and landscapes in the lofty crags and snow-covered peaks, in the wide meadows and dense wood-lands which surround us every step of the way.

(Gipsy, p. 40)

So detailed a portrayal of basic virtues suggests that they at least partly compensate for the more negative traits presented.

The behavior of the couple bespeaks a class division, relegating Preciosa and Andrés, who are not really Gypsies, to a seemingly higher, more ethical status. This class division is problematic however, once the story shows some crude sup-positions about “typical” Gypsy behavior to be untrue, or rather true of everyone. For example, another Gypsy girl, Christina, is moved to jealousy by the celebration welcoming Andrés as Preciosa’s suitor, an emotion the narrator is quick to describe as natural, “[f]or envy inhabits barbarian camps and shepherds’ huts as well as the palaces of princes, and it is annoying to see your neighbour, who seems no more deserving than yourself, exalted in such a way”(Gipsy, p. 43). Here the sin of envy is shown to be universal, as is robbery elsewhere, though this sin is also shown as particular to the Gypsies, keeping with the stereotypes of Gervantes’s time.

A large share of the non-Gypsy population is shown to be corrupt. Madrid, “where everything is bought and sold,” is home to indolent gentlemen passing the day at cards and magistrates quick to order Preciosa and her colleagues to entertain them (Gipsy, pp. 8, 15, and 14). The song Preciosa sings for the magistrate’s wife includes wittily veiled slurs on the lady’s virtue (suggesting that she has had other husbands and will go on to have many more) and origins (in saying her son the canon will not work in Toledo, the song suggests he is of Converse ancestry) (Gipsy, pp. 20-22). The mysterious poet-page Alonso Hurtado seeks Preciosa’s love with his sudden, public declarations of passion; his insincerity becomes clear when he explains why he has fled the capital. Almost surprised that Andrés would suggest it, he declares that he has not sought out the Gypsies because of Preciosa: “Madrid has beauties of its own who can and do steal hearts and subjugate souls as well as, and even better than, the loveliest gipsies”(Gipsy, p. 50). Instead, Hurtado has fled the capital—with plans to leave the country—following a street fight over a woman in which two men are killed. The seediness of this crime, his vague explanations, and even his name (hurtado is Spanish for “stolen”) all suggest a more profound and general slipperiness of character.

That the pure love of Andrés and Preciosa develops within the Gypsy camp, not the standard world of class and honor, suggests that there is something of profound value among Gypsies lacking in outside society, which is shown in the story to be highly flawed.

In the prologue to the collection of his 12 exemplary stories, or novelas ejemplares, Cervantes explains that he calls the tales exemplary because “on close examination you will see that there is not one from which you cannot extract some profitable example” (Cervantes, p. 4). As the lead story, the importance of the example set forth in The Little Gipsy Girl is underscored. Challenging


Clever, beautiful, and self-confident. Preciosa appears to the modern reader to be an ideal role model. Within her Golden Age context, however, the Little Gypsy Girl is “the antithesis of a virtuous woman” (Márquez-Raffetto, p. 57). Her Gypsy ties make her morality automatically suspect: at least one 1619 critic denounced Gypsy women as “public whores, common (as they say) to all Gypsy men, who with their lewd dances, gestures, words, and songs do grave damage to the souls of Your Majesty’s subjects” (Moncada in Lebion, p. 37; trans. E. Sutherland). Preciosa, who insists on maintaining both her virginity and a level of decency in the songs she sings, clearly shows this racist image to be false. However, her public performances and directness indicate that she is no lady. Golden Age educators had a clear view of what a lady should know and do. A woman’s discretion was all-important: in 1524 Juan Luis de Vives advised young women to “be retiring and to take care to not go out much; [a young woman] should know that it reflects poorly on her honor to be known to many and to have her name spoken publicly” (Vives in Márquez-Raffetto p. 57; trans. E. Sutherland). Inside or out, young ladies were counseled to remain silent, as Fray Luis de León advises in his 1583 La perfecta casada (The Perfect Wife):

It is right that women take pride in their silence, both those who do well to hide their little wisdom and those who could reveal what they know without shame; because silence and only the least bit of talking are not only a pleasant condition but a necessary virtue in all women.

(León in Márquez-Raffetto; trans. E. Sutherland, p. 56)

The moment she discovers her true identity, Preciosa becomes an exemplary lady, confessing her love for Andrés with a sigh and murmuring “[w]ith her eyes fixed bashfully on the ground” that “she had only the desire her parents wanted her to have” (Gipsy, p. 67). In losing her voice, Preciosa becomes an exemplar according to the social norms of her day. However, there is a careful bit of juggling here in the portrayal of Preciosa’s character. Her immense appeal as a Gypsy girl and her willing conformity to the expectations of a lady at the end can be seen as more evidence of Cervantes’s desire to challenge contemporary assumptions—this time in relation to women.

stereotypes, the novella thwarts expectations among readers of Cervantes’s day, prompting them to question longstanding assumptions and to identify, at least in some ways, with a disparaged ethnic group. “Cervantes makes a very strong statement about cruelty, narrowness of vision, closure of mind, and the place for compassion and understanding toward individuals whose lives are different from that of the average Spaniard” (Ricapito, p. 37). At the same time, the stories promote self-scrutiny on the part of readers. The Gypsy world, segregated from mainstream Spanish society, serves not as a model but as a mirror in which readers can consider the strengths and weaknesses of their own culture and character.


The choice to feature a Gypsy troupe in this story is both calculated and natural: calculated in that readers of Cervantes’s day would be attracted to a picaresque tale about a group as familiar as it was exotic, and natural in that the story of Preciosa and even the anecdote of Juana Carducha are drawn from folklore (Avalle-Arce, pp. 15-16). Cervantes may have drawn his inspiration from versions of these folktales included in a late fifteenth-century comic play (Juan del Encina’s Eglogct de requiebro de amor) and the fourteenth-century miracle tale of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, respectively. Cervantes had family connections to Gypsies as well: his cousin Martina was the product of his aunt and a half-Gypsy, and it has been speculated that the family had Jewish ancestors as well (Duran, pp. 29-30). Such autobiographical connections are perhaps less important than Cervantes’s well-known life of travels and poverty. True to his family history, Miguel de Cervantes spent his life largely on the road. Following a decade overseas, in Italy and later as a prisoner of the Turks in Algiers (1575-80), he would return to Spain to spend 15 years traveling through Andalusia during his stint as a tax collector. Not only was Cervantes familiar with the wandering lifestyle of his time but also with the prisons. (Andrés is imprisoned toward the end of The Gipsy Girl) Imprisoned for debts and other offenses, Cervantes learned firsthand the power a person of rank could wield to effect an early release. His vivid portrait of Gypsy life is clearly a reflection of Cervantes’s own complex biography: “he was at the same time inside and outside the mainstream of Spanish life” (Duran, p. 28).


The Exemplary Novels received no critical attention at the time of their publication, a fact that is not unsurprising given the era. But the censor’s seal of approval, required of all publications under the Inquisition, offers a glimpse of how contemporary readers saw them:

Given as the angelic doctor St. Thomas states that eutropelia, or honest entertainment, is a virtue, I judge that true eutropelia is in these Novels, because they entertain with their originality, they teach with their examples to flee vice and follow virtue, and because the author is true to his intent, thereby giving honor to our Castilian tongue.

(Juan Bautista, p. 248; trans. E. Sutherland)

This blend of entertainment and education evidently appealed to the limited population of seventeenth-century readers, for popular reaction to the Exemplary Novels was immediate. They were enormously successful, as indicated by the production of as many as 23 editions within the century. Early critical reaction focused on the exemplary quality of the stories and appeared primarily in other works. One of these reactions came from the still unidentified person who wrote under the pseudonym of Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda and in 1614 produced an imitation of Cervantes’s Don Quixote. This contemporary found the Novels “more satirical than exemplary” but thought them quite clever (Fernandez de Avellaneda in Amezua y Mayo, trans. E. Sutherland, p. 608). Another contemporary was more pointed in his critique, accusing the stories of doing harm, saying that the “lascivious foolishness” of these stories “combats the virtue of married women, the chastity of maidens, and the precious honesty of widows, who often end up seduced by their reasoning” (Cristobal Suarez de Figueroa in Amezua y Mayo, trans. E. Sutherland, pp. 609-10). Despite such reactions, the Novels spawned multiple imitations in Spain as well as translations and imitations abroad. The first recorded English translation appears to have been in 1630, with dramatic versions appearing as early as 1653 (Amezua, p. 589). Other translations have been published at regular intervals to the present.

—Erika M. Sutherland

For More Information

Albaicín, Joaquin. En pos del sol. Los gitanos en la historia, el mito y la leyenda. Barcelona: Ediciones Obelisco, 1997.

Amezúa y Mayo, Agustín de., Cervantes, creador de la novela corta espanola. Vol. 1. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, 1982.

Avalle-Arce, Juan Bautista. “La gitanilla.” Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society 1 (1981): 9-17.

Cervantes, Miguel de. The Little Gipsy Girl. In Exemplary Stones. Trans. Lesley Lipson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Durán, Manuel. Cervantes. New York: Twayne, 1974.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. “The Improbable Empire.” In Spain. A History. Ed. Raymond Carr. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Juan Bautista, Fr. “Aprobacion.” In Novelas ejemplares. La ilustre fregona. El casamiento enganoso. Coloquio de los perros. By Miguel de Cervantes. Madrid: Castalia didactica, 1997.

Kamen, Henry. Spain 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict. New York: Longman, 1983.

_____. The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Leblon, Bernard. Los gitanos de Espana. El precio y el valor de la diferencia. Trans. Irene Agoff. Barcelona: Editorial Gedisa, 1993.

Márquez-Raffetto, Tamara. “Inverting the Paradigm: Preciosa’s Problematic Exemplarity.” Mester 25 (1996): 49-78.

Peters, Edward. Inquisition. New York: The Free Press, 1988.

Ricapito, Joseph V. Cervantes’s Novelas ejemplares. Between History and Creativity. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1992.

Suárez Fernández, Luis. “La población judía en vísperas de 1492. Causas y mecanismos de la expulsion.” Losjudios de España. Historia de una diáspora. Ed. Henry Mechoulan. Madrid: Ediciones Trotta, 1993.