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Painting 'Young Gypsies.' Family is key in the Romani people’s culture.

The Real History of the Romani People and the Misnomer of Gypsies

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Colloquially, and rather insultingly, known as 'gypsies', the history and culture of the Romani people is surrounded by stereotypes and misnomers, none more damningly pervasive than Esméralda from the Hunchback of Notre Dame . Because of such images spread by mass media's misunderstandings of the Romani, it is often believed that the Romani people are to be feared or exiled and avoided.

La Esmeralda. Illustration for Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo. Artist unknown. Appears in "Victor Hugo and His Time" by Alfred Barbou. 1882. (Public Domain)

La Esmeralda. Illustration for Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo. Artist unknown. Appears in "Victor Hugo and His Time" by Alfred Barbou. 1882. ( Public Domain )

The Romani are often painted as thieves and tricksters, in particular because of their nomadic lifestyle and their unorthodox practices in the eyes of the Christian Church during their early migrations. However, the migratory history of the Romani, their cultural persecutions , their native traditions, and their unbreakable familial bonds are likely why they remain so interesting to outsiders today.

‘Spanish Gypsies.’ Source: Public Domain

‘Spanish Gypsies.’ Source: Public Domain

From “Romani People” to “Gypsy”

So who are the Romani people? From where did they originate, and where have they been?

Recent scholarship has shown the Romani culture has Indian roots. Ronald Lee’s research suggests that North-Central India is their original homeland, although today many dwell in Europe—Italy, Spain, and Eastern Europe in particular— linguistic and genetic specialists are able to point rather confidently to Indian Romani origins.

This likely origin point should not, however, imply that all Romani people are alike; as in every culture, there are definitive distinctions recognized among the Romani. Influenced by their various movements, the collective 'Romani' have become individualized groups among themselves. Just as all Native Americans , for instance, are Native American but no two tribes are exactly alike.

The Romani seem to have migrated from northern India to Persia in the 11th century; from there moving into and populating Europe by the 1400's. Therefore, there are likely groups of travelers distinguished from the collective 'Romani' title by their Persian/Iranian customs, or Italian customs, or Romanian customs, depending on migration choices.

‘The Caravans - Gypsy Camp near Arles’ by Vincent van Gogh. (Public Domain)

‘The Caravans - Gypsy Camp near Arles’ by Vincent van Gogh. ( Public Domain )

Consistently a nomadic culture, the precise population number in each country over the centuries is nearly impossible to obtain. Census records are only so reliable when counting (or discounting) traveling ethnic groups.

For example, the prevalence of Romani people in Persia and Europe in the 11th and 15th centuries respectively can be predicated as a dramatic increase in Romani populations; but specific numbers both then and now remain mere ballpark figures. The inability to definitively nail down specifics also likely influenced the cultural stereotype of Romani “gypsies” that remains prevalent today.

First arrival of gypsies outside the city of Berne, described as "getoufte heiden" (baptized heathens). (Public Domain)

First arrival of gypsies outside the city of Berne, described as "getoufte heiden" (baptized heathens). ( Public Domain )

What is a Gypsy?

The term 'gypsy' has become synonymous with the Romani people in many regions. Loosely, the term describes a traveler of exotic origins, believed to have tricks up his/her sleeves and magical charms at the tips of his/her fingers. Such mistaken beliefs are predicated on the jobs the Romani obtained during their constant travels.

As nomads, their work needed to be able to move with them, or be easily left behind. As such, many "were livestock traders, animal trainers and exhibitors, tinkers (metalsmiths and utensil repairmen), and musicians; the women told fortunes, sold potions, begged and worked as entertainers."

Selling potions and telling fortunes are often construed as a form of witchcraft, and such career choices certainly appealed to a large group of individuals - or else those options would have been financially useless. However, they also made Romani people targets for persecution.

As such, the Romani name became further shrouded in danger and darkness when the persecution of witches and Jews, and other 'non-Christian' cultures spread like wildfire through various parts of Europe. Further, the term "gypsy" came to be used as a derogatory term for the Romani, implying their unorthodox ways (insofar as the Christian Church was concerned).

‘Kartomantka’. (Public Domain) Depiction of a Romani fortune-teller in Poland, by Antoni Kozakiewicz, 1884.

‘Kartomantka’. ( Public Domain ) Depiction of a Romani fortune-teller in Poland, by Antoni Kozakiewicz, 1884.

Romani Families, Not Gypsies

It is because of such persistent mistrust of the Romani culture that the Romani themselves are not trusting and continue to function as individual groups of kin and extended families. They have laws unto themselves, and chiefs and councils as necessary, remaining with a  preference for their own rather than those of the non-Romani world.

While this observation is not absolute and should not be applied to all Romani groups or individuals, it does remain a significant aspect of many lives. Although urbanization has thrown a wrench in the traditional rural customs of many Romani factions, one thing has reigned supreme throughout all their migrations: family.

A Gipsy Family. Facsimile of a Woodcut in the "Cosmographie Universelle" of Munster: in folio, Basle, 1552. (Public Domain)

A Gipsy Family. Facsimile of a Woodcut in the "Cosmographie Universelle" of Munster: in folio, Basle, 1552. ( Public Domain )

Traditions have long been passed down through the family, more often orally than written, including native music, systems of justice, and marriage customs. Throughout the years of persecutions and exile, and in spite of the continuous insults from one century to the next, the Romani people have remained a tight knit community of families.

‘Gipsy Children’ by August von Pettenkofen. (Public Domain)

‘Gipsy Children’ by August von Pettenkofen. ( Public Domain )

Whether Italian, Romanian, Russian, Scandinavian, or in American groups, the power of the family is paramount to the continued survival of Romani people’s culture. It is unfortunate that despite the years and actions showing otherwise, the primary image of this group largely remains one of 'tricksters' and 'gypsies', rather than families.

Postcard of group of Romani people in front of their tent in Smyrne. (Public Domain)

Postcard of group of Romani people in front of their tent in Smyrne. ( Public Domain )

Top Image: ‘Young Gypsies’ (1879) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Family is paramount to the survival of the Romani people’s culture. Source: Public Domain

By Riley Winters

References

Bhanoo, S.N. 10 December 2012. Genomic Study Traces Roman to Northern India. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/11/science/genomic-study-traces-roma-to-northern-india.html?_r=0

Dossier. 17 October 2008. Peoples and nations today: the Roma . Available at: https://www.nationalia.info/new/8761/peoples-and-nations-today-the-roma

Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. 2018. Roma People. Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/topic/Rom.

Kenrick, D. 2007. Historical Dictionary of the Gypsies (Romani). Scarecrow Press: MD.

Lallanilla, M. 23 October 2013. 5 Intriguing Facts About the Roma . Available at: https://www.livescience.com/40652-facts-about-roma-romani-gypsies.html.

Matras, Y. Romani. Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Oxford: Elsevier. Available at: http://romani.humanities.manchester.ac.uk/downloads/2/Matras_Rmni_ELL.pdf

Comments

Gary Moran's picture

Good Article, very informative. Believing that all people should be judged by their actions and behavior regardless of their heritage. Thank You

I read a section in my sociology book when i in college (early 1990s) on the Romani culture. It stated they where basically scammers, always trying to get one over on the local population. According to the book, all the Romani men in an area would go by the same name to confound anyone trying to track down the one that scammed him. When I read this chapter I didn't believe it. I figured it was just stories to reinforce raciest stereo-types. When I brought it up with my professor, she assured me the description in the book was accurate. As I had not known any Romani I was unable to judge the truth. Later my father owned and ran a motel and the Romani known as the "Travelers" stayed with him on several occasions. He said he did not have any problems from them what so ever, and they were good customers. I now realize there are many different Romani groups and we shouldn't stereotype them, but as with everyone else view each as individuals.

I always understood that Romani were called Gypsies because they were believed to have come from Egypt.

"Recent scholarship has shown the Romani culture has Indian roots."

Yeah, that really narrows it down for us.
Ronald Lee provides a more detailed history:
https://kopachi.com/articles/a-new-look-at-our-romani-origins-and-diaspo...

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