Danny Yee >> Anthropology

Gypsy history

To: sci.anthropology
From: STEPHANIE G. FOLSE (sfolse@du.edu)
Date: 4 Feb 1995

<long argument -- about "parasitical" cultures and how the term can or cannot be applied to the Jewish and Gypsy peoples -- cut>

Well, to give people some sort of basis for their arguments about Gypsy culture (since at least one has admitted his knowledge of Gypsies mostly comes from bunco squads), I present here a history of the Gypsy peoples that I pieced together from varying (and sometimes contradictory) sources.

I admit freely that some of this may be wrong due to the fact that *good* sources for Gypsy history and culture are few and far between. If I have anything wrong, or if you can clarify anything, please feel free to e-mail me at: sfolse@du.edu.

My sources are the same ones that I listed in a post earlier in this thread, so I won't repeat them here. E-mail me if you would like them.

I don't claim that I do doctorate-level work, but I am working towards my Masters' degree in Anthropology, so I have some knowledge of the discipline :-).

Stephanie G. Folse
University of Denver

Tracing the history of a non-literate culture

Linguists compare Gypsy languages to historical languages; they look at words borrowed from other languages and when and where those words originally existed. It is possible to trace Gypsies back to their origin: the Sind area of India (today south central Pakistan -- the mouth of the Indus). Three separate emigrations occurred over the course of about four hundred years, traceable today in three identifiable linguistic populations: the Eastern Gypsy (Domari) in Egypt and the Middle East, the Central Gypsy (Lomavren) in Armenia and eastern Turkey, and the Western Gypsy (Romani) (Romany refers to the people, Romani refers to the language, Rom refers to a man or the people as a whole. Confused yet?) in Europe. This last group is the population most widely dealt with in reference works and literature, and therefore most of the information here pertains to them.

The first exodus was spurred by a ruler of Afghanistan, Mahmud of Ghanzi, who invaded the Sind area in A.D. 1001-1027. The second exodus arose out of attacks upon northwest India by Mahmud of Gorh (A.D. 1191-1192), and then the empire expansion of Genghis Khan (A.D. 1215-1227). The third took place during the reign of the khan Tamerlane in the late 1300's and early 1400's, when he attempted to repeat Genghis Khan's exploits.

Origin of the Gypsy

The cultural group that would later become the Gypsies led a semi-nomadic life in India, and has been tentatively identified as the Dom, which has been recorded as far back as the sixth century. The Dom performed various specialized jobs such as basket-making, scavenging, metal-working and entertainment, traveling a circuit through several small villages each year. This is not a unique phenomenon; the Irish Travellers, although completely unrelated genetically to the Gypsies, fulfill the same functions. Indian caste beliefs of the time may have been the original model for the strict purity and pollution ideology of the present Gypsies, modified over time through contact with other cultures. This semi-nomadic life allowed the Dom the opportunity to easily flee when battles threatened the area in which they lived, and apparently did so three times during the Middle Ages.

The European Gypsies are perhaps the original refugees from Mahmud of Ghanzi's wars, for all sixty Romani dialects contain Armenian words, suggesting that they passed through Armenia in the early 11th century on the way into the Byzantine Empire. The impetus to continue on and enter Byzantine Anatolia was most likely provided by the Seljuk Turks attacked Armenia during the 11th century and spurred the Gypsies onward

The earliest currently known reference to Gypsies is in a Life of St. George composed in the monastery of Iberon on Mt. Athos in Greece in 1068. It relates events in Constantinople in 1050, when wild animals plagued an imperial park. The Emperor Constantine Monomachus commissioned the help of "a Samaritan people, descendants of Simon the Magician, who were called Adsincani, and notorious for soothsaying and sorcery," who killed the beasts with charmed pieces of meat. (I wonder if the concept of "poison" never occurred to these people?) "Atzinganoi," the Byzantine term for Gypsies, is reflected in several other languages: the German "Zigeuner," the French "Tsiganes," the Italian "Zingari," and the Hungarian "Cziganyok."

During the next 200 years, the Gypsies slowly advanced southwest into Arabia, Egypt and North Africa, northwest into the Byzantine Empire and established themselves in the southern Balkan countries (Serbia, Moldavia, Bulgaria, Hungary and the surrounding area) before 1300. It seems likely to me that this movement was slow due to the westward pressure of the Mongolian Empire; all of Eastern Europe's population was in turmoil and Russian refugees were fleeing west at the time. Once Khubilai Khan died in 1294, the Mongolian Empire began its decline and the borders crept back east, easing pressure on Europe and allowing the Gypsies to expand more rapidly than the previous two centuries. They entered Dubrovnik (modern-day Yugoslavia) before 1362, and had blanketed the Balkans by 1400.

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries came as close to a Gypsy Golden Age as there had ever been. Gypsies covered Thrace, Macedonia, Greece, Yugoslavia and Rumania long before the Ottoman Turks conquered those lands. There was a large population at the seaport of Modon in the 1300's, on the most popular route to the Holy Land, settled in the Gypsy Quarter, a tent-city just outside the city walls sometimes called Little Egypt. This exposure to pilgrims and the attitudes and privileges accorded to them may have led the Gypsies to adopt pilgrim personas once they spread into Western Europe.

The Gypsies seemed to prefer Venetian territories such as Crete and Corfu, perhaps because those lands were relatively safe from the constant Turkish incursions. The population, and therefore their annual dues, in Corfu increased enough to form an independent fief conferred in 1470 onto the baron Michael de Hugot, which lasted until the nineteenth century. In the town of Nauplion, in the eastern Peloponnese, the Gypsies apparently formed an organized group under a military leader, one Johannes Cinganus (John the Gypsy). The Venetians expected to be given military aid in the case of increasing Turkish raids, and may have hoped the Gypsies would cultivate depopulated land.

Gypsies a little farther north, in the Balkans, were not quite as lucky. They certainly had economic importance, valued as artisans practicing such trades as blacksmithing, locksmithing and tinsmithing, and also filled the niche between peasant and master, but to prevent escape the government declared them slaves of the boyars. They could be sold, exchanged or given away, and any Rumanian man or woman who married a Gypsy became a slave also. Liberty was not fully restored to them in Moldo-Wallachia until the nineteenth century.

During the fifteenth century, the nature of the Gypsies' hesitant travels into Western Europe changed. Before that time, they were quiet, unobtrusive and loosely organized, but afterwards they moved in a purposeful way, courting attention, claiming to be pilgrims and demanding subsidies and letters of dispensation. During the two decades after 1417, there are some interesting observations to make. The Gypsy bands seemed to have some unity of action and connection with each other, telling the same tales and displaying similar supporting documents (papal letters and such). A surprising fact is that well into the sixteenth century there is no mention made of Gypsies having their own language, and no apparent difficulty in communicating with the inhabitants of countries they were visiting for the first time. These groups were organized under leaders with noble names and titles, sometimes exchanged with other chiefs. This is unusual in that many of the countries of central and eastern Europe made sure that Gypsies did not rule Gypsies.

What was behind this curious behavior? It may have been the Turkish invasion of the Balkans in the early 1400's; Wallachia capitulated to Turkish rule in 1415, two years before the first Gypsy bands were recorded in Western Europe. The Gypsies themselves would probably not have been affected in the long run under Turkish rule (ignoring the immediate fires, sacking and battles), due to the Turkish habit of leaving civilian populations free as long as they paid taxes to their conquerors, not an unfamiliar state of affairs for Gypsies. Many people stayed and embraced Islam, but there are records of other refugees including nobles wandering west in groups and subsisting on charity. One traveler who visited Modon attributed the Gypsy migration to lords and counts who would not serve under the Turks. It seems that the self-interest of barons of Gypsy fiefs who stood to lose quite a bit under Turkish rule was the impulse behind the organized incursions into Western Europe, and at least during the first few years the men who claimed to be barons, counts and dukes were telling the truth.

Whatever the impetus, the Gypsies exploded into central Europe. The usual scam involved a group claiming to be from Egypt or Little Egypt (perhaps referring to Modon?) showing up in a city and informing city officials that they were Christians doomed to wander for a period of years to fulfill a penance imposed upon them for the sin of neglecting their religion. They would collect food, money and letters of protection from the city and then continue to the next town. By 1417, Gypsies were recorded in Germanic cities. In 1418, several thousand Gypsies under a leader called Count Michael showed up in Strassbourg. Gypsies were entering Brussels and Holland by 1420, Bologna in 1422, and showing up in Rome in July of that same year. They travelled into Spain by 1425 and Paris by 1427. By the middle of the century, rulers and town governments started banning Gypsies, usually citing theft, fortunetelling, begging and sometimes espionage as the reasons. Europeans also recognized as lies the Gypsies' claims to be pilgrims in exile from Egypt, but there are a few instances of alms being given into the sixteenth century, apparently by slow learners.

At this point their meteoric expansion westward stopped for almost a century. Groups traveled east from the Balkans into Russia, establishing themselves in Siberia by the early sixteenth century but they did not enter Great Britain until 1514, probably because a completely separate ethnic group, the Tinkers, already occupied Britain and performed the same roles Gypsies did in other countries: nomadic entertainers, knife-grinders, pot-menders, woodworkers, transient field employees and so forth. The impetus to enter the British Isles was probably given by late fifteenth century Spanish policies ruling against and banishing Gypsies. With nowhere else to go, they entered Britain, then finally Norway in 1544 and Finland in 1597.

Why stay nomadic for so long?

From an anthropological point of view, I would say that this transient, fully nomadic lifestyle developed in response to the constant fighting pushing them west. Originally refugees from India, they may have thought they would return to their homeland as soon as Mahmoud of Ghanzi's fighting stopped. Refugees quite often stay ready to return to their point of origin for many years once pushed out of their native lands. (A modern example: some Cuban refugees still keep bags packed in anticipation of returning at any time.)

When the Dom people left the Sind, they probably planned to live on the road for a few years and then return to their home territory. Normally, the second generation would have settled down in this "temporary" new area, but they were semi-nomadic to begin with, and then the Seljuk Turks invaded and pushed them farther west. After that the Mongolian expansion kept pushing them, and eventually the idea that there was a "back home" was lost. They retained their original semi-nomadic lifestyle in the midst of sedentary cultures, keeping their language and strict pollution ideology in order to maintain their unity as a people as well as clinging to something familiar in the midst of strange new cultures. They were mostly successful until the nations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries grew powerful enough to force the majority to settle. Their identity as a separate people is still strong enough for them to remain the brunt of prejudice and hatred, a fact hammered home by the killing of half a million Gypsies by the Nazis during World War II. Now, it may only be a few generations until any idea of nomadism is leached out of almost all Gypsies.

Anthropology << Danny Yee