The Gypsies, or Roma, are unique: they are the only nomadic people in recorded history who have not been either hunters or herders. They are believed to have originated in the north of the Indian Subcontinent but are now found in all European countries, the Middle East, North Africa, North and South America and Australia.
The exact origins of the Gypsies are unknown. Their name reflects the widespread but mistaken medieval European belief that Gypsies came from Egypt. The name most commonly used by Gypsies to describe themselves, ‘Rom’, is a reflection of the fact that for centuries Romania, and the Balkans more generally, has been the main Gypsy centre in Europe.
The Gypsy language, Romani, shows a strong Romanian influence but its basic vocabulary and grammar point to a north Indian origin. Iranian and Armenian influences on the language are a sign that the Gypsies also spent a long time in the Middle East before they reached Europe.
It is not known when or why the Gypsies left India but they were living in Iran by the 10th century AD. The Iranian poet Firdausi (c.930 – 1020) wrote of the Gypsies in his epic history of the Iranians, the Shah Nama (Book of Kings), that they were originally a tribe of musicians who had been sent to the ruler of Iran by the Indian king. Once they had eaten the ruler out of house and home, the Gypsies took to the roads. By the 11th century Gypsies living in the Byzantine Empire and soon afterwards were spreading through the Balkans. When the Ottoman Turks began to overrun the Balkans in the 14th century, groups of Gypsies dispersed across Western Europe, reaching Bohemia in 1399, Bavaria in 1418, Paris in 1421, Rome in 1423 and Spain in 1425.
In the early 16th century Gypsies spread to Britain, Scandinavia, Poland and Russia, but the Balkans remained the main Gypsy centre. At first Gypsies were protected by authorities. Early in the 15th century Sigismund, king of Hungary and Bohemia (r.1387 – 1437), gave letters of protection to Gypsies in his lands. It was these letters which caused Gypsies to be called ‘Bohemians’ in many European countries and why today people with unconventional lifestyles are described as Bohemians.
An independent lifestyle
Medieval Europeans, who rarely travelled far from their native villages, found the Gypsy lifestyle totally alien. Dressing distinctively, travelling and living in brightly painted horse-drawn wagons, Gypsies made their living by horse-trading, metalworking, music and dance, healing and fortune-telling. Until people got wise of them, they were also very successful at conning alms from the pious by pretending to be pilgrims. Although they might work as seasonal labourers, they were generally disdainful of working for wages, seeing this as a loss of independence. Gypsies were greeted with a mixture of curiosity and hostility. Their skills, especially their knowledge of horses, made them useful but, in the case of fortune-telling and healing, gave rise to suspicion of witchcraft and black magic. Their curses were feared and they were even thought to steal children to bring up as Gypsies. The gypsies’ unwillingness to become wage slaves was seen as indolence and a sign of criminality.
As early as 1449, Gypsies were expelled from Frankfurt in Germany; laws expelling Gypsies from the rest of Germany were passed in 1500. The fact that over the next 200 years German states frequently re-enacted such laws, often with savage penalties, such as hanging, branding and mutilation, shows they were ineffective or not rigorously enforced. Similarly harsh laws were enacted against Gypsies in Spain several times after 1499 and remained in force until the death of the fascist dictator Franco in 1975. In the 19th century the Spanish government deported Gypsies to Argentina; the Portuguese deported them to Brazil. In England in 1530 Gypsies were given a choice of settling and adopting a trade, or leaving the country.
But Gypsies were still there in 1546, when some were forcibly shipped across the Channel to France, and presumably also in 1554 and 1562, when the laws were reissued. France also introduced punitive laws against Gypsies in 1504, condemning them to become galley slaves if they did not settle permanently. These ineffective laws were repeatedly re-enacted until 1803. In Romania, Gypsies were enslaved and were emancipated only in 1856. Many Gypsies from Eastern Europe emigrated to the USA in the 1880s to escape hostility but were often refused entry.
The history of intermittent persecution pales beside the persecution of the Gypsies by the Nazis. They regarded Gypsies as sub-human and in 1943 ordered their systematic extermination in all territories under their control. Up to 400,000 Gypsies may have been killed in Nazi death camps by the end of the Second World War. After the war, Gypsies faced further persecution by the communist regimes of the Soviet bloc. A ban on nomadism, forced settlement, dispersion and deportation were used to try to destroy the Gypsies as a distinct ethnic group. When the Cold War ended in 1989, there was an exodus of East European Gypsies to Germany and other western European countries.
A more insidious threat to the Gypsy way of life emerged in the 19th century. As European countries industrialised and steam engines and internal combustion engines began to replace horsepower, the Gypsies’ traditional economic role diminished in importance. At the same time, the intensification of land use for farming, housing, industry and recreation greatly reduced the number of places where Gypsy camps were tolerated. Gypsies gradually became concentrated around urban centres. Seasonal movements were abandoned and Gypsies became semi-settled. In the second half of the 20th century, Gypsy families began living in caravans drawn by motor vehicles. Horse-trading remains an important activity for a small minority of Gypsies but most are now engaged in scrap-metal collection and construction.
A closed society
Despite all difficulties, Gypsies still retain a distinct ethnic identity after something like 1000 years as a wandering stateless people. This is in part because their mobility has been a barrier to assimilation into their host communities. The values of Gypsy society, which still show traces of their Indian origins, have also stood in the way of their assimilation. Gypsy society is organized in clans based on occupation, each with its own chief. Marimé, the Gypsy code of ritual purity, incorporates taboos on food, parts of the body, relations between the sexes and even topics of conversation. Traditional Gypsy society is therefore a closed one which shuns contacts with non-Gypsies (gadjés), who are regarded as impure, as well as potentially hostile. Marriages to non-Gypsies are extremely rare.
If they have remained socially separate, the Gypsies have always been partially assimilated into the culture of their host communities; for example, they adopt the language and religion of the country they are in. Their folklore and music are also usually survives because it is useful as a means of secret communication, incomprehensible to non-Gypsies. Because so many are now sedentary, and because of their partial cultural assimilation, estimates of the Gypsy population vary wildly, from 8 to 12 million worldwide and 3 to 8 million in Europe.
by John Haywood, “The Great Migrations: From the Earliest Humans to the Age of Globalization”, 2008