All Roads Lead to Roma: A Very Gypsy History


Romantic Art: Making stereotypes look good.

There are few groups who have been so romanticised and so reviled over the course of history as those travellers of Europe and the Near East, the Gypsies. The Romani – to use the more accurate and polite term, because they’re not actually from Egypt – have been the subject of so many stereotypes and stories counting them would be impossible. They have also been alienated and persecuted to within an inch of their existence: even now, there are people who see them as nothing more than thieves, cons and scroungers. It is a belief that has existed as long as they have lived in Europe. But underneath that Daily Mail surface exists a monolithic, ancient culture. Their coming to be in Europe isn’t simple, but it’s interesting. Their story isn’t wholly happy, but it’s important. And it starts with a question.

“Where the hell did the Romani come from?!?” is, like all the best questions on Holistic History, almost impossible to answer. The Romani, like a lot of travelling cultures, have a distinct lack of written history until they get to Europe, which is not entirely hard to understand: before paper and the widespread use of vellum the only option was to write things on metal or stone. For travellers like the Romani, unless you want to go carving your messages on rocks and then leaving them behind like it’s prehistoric Twitter, this makes it difficult to take your past with you. Nevertheless, we do know some things about the origins of the Romani: recent genetic evidence suggests that they’re from Rajasthan in India, for start, so the current theory is that they migrated up through Persia to avoid…well, you know, the foreign guys who happened to be conquering Rajasthan in India at the time. So far, so much common sense. On their journeys around the Middle East, they split into three groups named Dom, Lom and Rom based on…well, based on which was the more convenient to pronounce in the places they settled, and the Romani made their first marks on western history. Reaching Europe in the 11th century, the Rom started to settle in the declining Roman Empire (they clearly liked the similar sounding name) and then Romania (see what I mean?) and by the 16th they had reached as far as Britain and Scandinavia – although they remained in the highest proportions in south-eastern Europe for minor reasons like slavery and oppression. But we’ll get to that. By the full height of the Renaissance, there were Romani in most of the kingdoms of Europe, and even further – Columbus brought three Roms with him to the New World, the first few of another continental migration. By the Enlightenment, their origin didn’t really matter – they had spread through almost every country in Europe. The burning question, then, became how to keep a consistent cultural identity across a whole continent.


The Romani get expelled from Spain in 1554. In the same decade, a law passes in England making being a Gypsy an actual crime.

I’m not saying that there’s one, completely unified Romani culture – there are several million Sinti, Kale, Roma and Romanichal who might have something to say about that and I am desperate to not offend the Sinti when they have names as awesome as Django Reinhardt. However, there is a sort of cultural consistency amongst Romani groups – it’s called Romanipen, in case you feel this article needed a few more words beginning in Rom. Like those other famous exiles in Europe, the Jews, Romani culture was upheld through the Middle Ages by observing a series of laws and codes instead of a shared language and land. It still has influence today. The general theme is purity – virginity is traditionally upheld as the greatest virtue, and some Roms will not take baths to avoid stagnant water, only washing in showers or natural running water. Ever the communitarians, the Romani also traditionally use shunning and shame to uphold customs, which manifests itself today in fantastic phrases like “May shame eat your face”. Tradition and even religion vary massively over Europe – the northern Romani are generally more influenced by Evangelical Christianity, the southern by Islam and Catholicism, but the so-called Romani Code influences all. In the end, it’s that success at keeping a culture going that can make the Romani remain a distinct culture while so many other immigrants of their time seem to have assimilated completely. Unfortunately, that outsider aspect came at a cost. Europe was a dangerous place for exiles, and none seemed more dangerous to the rulers of Europe than the dark-skinned and mysterious Romani.  In the end, it would cost them over a million lives.

You can say the Romani got off to a bad start in Europe because enslavement by Romanians is generally considered as a bad start as you can get. Tied to the land in a status even below serfs, the Romani were kept in large numbers in Eastern Europe as farm labourers. Elsewhere, they were forced into an almost nomadic lifestyle by Western European leaders who frequently banished them (banishing being apparently a thing they could do on a whim – Elizabeth I of England banished all the black people from London in 1601 only to give up when no-one turned themselves in). That constant travelling eventually became an important part of Romani culture, but it also made them newcomers and strangers wherever they went. The Enlightenment, based on principles of “tolerance” and humanitarianism, saw a change in attitudes. The Romani were suddenly seen as poor backwards immigrants in need of naturalisation, to the extent that the Austrian Empress Maria Therese decreed that they should be renamed “New Hungarians” and forced to fit the Hungarians’ nomad-to-settler mould. Communism, when it reached Eastern Europe, did much the same, offering jobs to Romani people that had previously been denied at the cost of abandoning their traditional communities, but in non-Communist Europe they retained the role they had always had on the outskirts of society. It’s then that they fell foul of a theme of history. Every action has its reaction, each enlightenment its reactionaries. Many were led to believe that the Romani were going to be outsiders forever, and a drain on society for just as long. In 1933, some of those people came into power.


Gypsies gathered in a concentration camp.

It’s difficult to translate “Porajmos” into English. It’s a Romani word that means something like “The Devouring”, but even that doesn’t quite cover it – the best would probably just be “The Romani Holocaust”. Labelled by the Nazis as “asocials”, the people who didn’t quite fit the Nazi vision of society, the Romani were taken to concentration camps and then death camps and systematically murdered: first those from Germany, then France and Italy and Romania  and Bulgaria. Let me list some of the countries with the highest Romani populations. Germany. France. Italy, Romania, Bulgaria. The death toll was between 200,000 and 1,200,000, and probably to the higher end – destroyed records mean only 200,000 can be confirmed. If you can find a way to visualise that, tell me.


Real sign; real attitudes.

Today, safe from the genocide of the past but not entirely healed by it, the Romani are undergoing a social revolution. Record numbers now live in permanent residences, and secular education is improving alongside assimilation. But the struggle to retain a cultural identity within that, while definitely possible, seems more difficult year on year, and Maria Theresa’s dream of getting rid of all that is Gypsy through assimilation could one day come true. The persecution of the Romani, at the risk of getting too political, is far from over.  Forced relocations are still common in Romania, France and Italy; segregated classrooms for Romani students mean that 75% of Romani girls cannot read. Infant mortality is on average ten times higher just for being in a Rom community, and the issue of employers refusing Romani workers from the UK to Greece is currently being reviewed by the EU.

About 1,000 years ago, the first Romani arrived in Europe.

At what point will they stop seeming like outcasts?





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