Gypsies have long been among the most mysterious, exotic peoples on earth. They have been described as a race of nomads, who have no real home. Gypsies do have their own language, Romani, and they identify themselves as Romani people. Gypsies came to Europe long ago from India.
Gypsy history remained unknown for centuries, largely because they had no written language, and strangely enough, they had forgotten where they came from. Gypsies generally claimed to be Egyptians—hence the name "Gypsy." Europeans eventually discovered that the Romani language is related to certain dialects of India, and from there Gypsy history was gradually put together.
Gypsies were a low caste people in India who made their living as wandering musicians and singers. In the year 430, Gypsy musicians, (12,000 of them) from the tribe of India known as Jat (called Zott by Persians) were given as a gift to the Persian King Bahram V. Large numbers of them were captured by the Byzantines in Syria, where they were lauded as great acrobats and jugglers, about 855.
Gypsies are noted in the twelfth century history of Constantinople as bear keepers, snake charmers, fortune tellers, and sellers of magic amulets to ward off the evil eye. Balsamon warned the Greeks to avoid these "ventriloquists and wizards" that he said were in league with the Devil.
Symon Simeonis describes Gypsies in Crete (1323) as "asserting themselves to be of the family of Ham. They rarely or never stop in one place beyond thirty days, but always wandering and fugitive, as though accursed by God . . . from field to field with their oblong tents, back and low."
Gypsies living in Modon are described in 1497 by Arnold von Harff as "many poor black naked people . . . called Gypsies . . . follow all kinds of trade, such as shoemaking and cobbling and also smithery."
Gypsies are reported in Serbia in 1348; Croatia in 1362 (as goldsmiths); and Romania in 1378—as slaves put to work as barbers, tailors, bakers, masons, and household servants.
Gypsies first surface in Switzerland, Hungary, Germany, and Spain in 1414-1417. During this time they traveled about with a Safe-Conduct (similar to a Passport) from Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund. After Sigismund died, Gypsies traveled around Europe with safe-conduct letters from the Pope. Those from Sigismund were legitimate, but the supposed papal letters were forgeries.
Hermann Conerus wrote this about Gypsies: "They travelled in bands and camped at night in the fields outside the towns . . . They were great thieves, especially their women, and several of them in various places were seized and put to death."
In Switzerland it was noted that Gypsies wore rags that resembled blankets, but were bedecked in gold and silver jewelry. The Gypsy women became known as palm readers and petty thieves, suspected of sorcery. Many towns in Europe began to pay Gypsies to go away as soon as they appeared.
A Bologna chronicle from 1422 gave this account of a visit from a Gypsy group: "Amongst those who wished to have their fortunes told, few went to consult without having their purse stolen . . . The women of the band wandered about the town, six or eight together; they entered the houses of the citizens and told idle tales, during which some of them laid hold of whatever could be taken. In the same way they visited the shops under the pretext of buying something, but one of them would steal."
In the fifteenth century, the Gypsies spread many myths about themselves around the Europe. The greatest of these myths was outlined in the forged papal letter. The letter stated that the Gypsies had been sentenced by the Pope for their collective sins to live as nomads, never to sleep in a bed. Along with that sad tale, the letter instructed the people reading it to give the Gypsies food, money, and beer, and exempt them from any tolls and taxes.
Even though the majority of Gypsy people left the Ottoman Empire and moved on to Europe, some remained. Suleiman the Magnificent issued a decree to regulate Gypsy prostitution in 1530. It is known that Gypsy men played a significant role as miners in the Ottoman Empire of the sixteenth century. Others were watchmen, iron workers, and charcoal-burners.
In 1696, Sultan Mustafa II issued orders for Gypsies to be disciplined for their immoral and disorderly lifestyles. They were described as "pimps and prostitutes." But we also find that Gypsy people worked in the Ottoman Empire as broom-makers, chimney-sweeps, musicians, weapon-repairers, and in the manufacture of weapons and ammunition.
Gypsies are first noted as musicians in European history in 1469 (Italy). In 1493, they were banned from Milan because they were beggars and thieves who disturbed the peace. While a turban wearing Gypsy woman told your fortune, her children would pick your pockets. It was said that the Gypsy women cast spells and practiced witchcraft; the Gypsy men were experts at picking locks and pilfering horses.
Settled people are usually suspicious of rootless, masterless wanderers with no fixed address. The Gypsies traveled about Europe as did no other people, so they knew more than most about what was happening in various countries, and the activities of their inhabitants. This led to rumors that Gypsies were being used as spies.
In 1497, the Diet (legislature) of the Holy Roman Empire issued a decree that expelled all Gypsies from Germany for espionage. In 1510, Switzerland followed suit, and added the death penalty. A Swiss chronicler denounced Gypsies as "useless rascals who wander about in our day, and of whom the most worthy is a thief, for they live solely for stealing."
133 laws against Gypsies were passed in the Holy Roman Empire between 1551 and 1774. One of those, passed in 1710, made it a crime to be a Gypsy woman or an old Gypsy man in Germany. They were widely viewed as a godless and wicked people. Violators were to be flogged, branded, and deported. To be a Gypsy man in Germany was to be given a life sentence of prison at hard labor. Children of Gypsy people were taken away from them and put into good Christian homes.
In the face of this persecution, we find Gypsy men in Germany forming gangs and turning violent in the eighteenth century. A huge crowd gathered at Giessen, Hesse, to watch the executions of 26 Gypsies in 1726. They were a gang led by the notorious Hemperla (Johannes la Fortun). Some were hung; some were beheaded.
The most famous of the German Gypsy brigands was Hannikel (Jakob Reinhard). He was hanged in 1783, along with three of his henchmen, for murder. Hannikel had himself a little army, which included women and children. His father was a platoon drummer.
In view of this violence, the King of Prussia decided in 1790 that Gypsy men should all be drafted into the military. Other European countries followed suit, and Gypsy men have since served as soldiers for every country in Europe.
We first find Gypsies in Scotland in 1505 as tinkers, peddlers, dancers, raconteurs, guisers, and mountebanks. In 1609, the Vagabonds Act was aimed at Gypsies, and four male members of the Faw family were hung in 1611 for not maintaining a permanent address. Eight more men, six of them with the last name of Faa, were hanged in 1624 for being "Egyptians." The Scottish Gypsy surnames Faa and Baille go back perhaps 500 years. A new decree was issued in 1624 that traveling Gypsy men be arrested and hanged, Gypsy women without children be drowned, and gypsy women with children to be whipped and branded on the cheek.
Billy Marshall was a famous Gypsy King in Scotland. He died in 1792 after living 120 years. Billy Marshall fathered over 100 children, some by his 17 wives, and some by other gals.
In England, the Egyptian Act of 1530 was passed to expel Gypsies from the realm, for being lewd vagabonds, conning the good citizens out of their money, and committing a rash of felony robberies. In 1562, Queen Elizabeth signed an order designed to force Gypsies to settle into permanent dwellings, or face death. Several were hanged in 1577, nine more in 1596, and 13 in the 1650s.
Under King James I, England began to deport Gypsy people to the American colonies, as well as Jamaica and Barbados. Dumping undesirables into the colonies became a widespread practice, not only Gypsies, but also "thieves, beggars, and whores."
Abram Wood and his family were the first Gypsies to settle in Wales, circa 1730. Abram was a great fiddler and storyteller. He became known as the King of the Welsh Gypsies. The sons and grandsons of Abram Wood mastered the national instrument of Wales: the harp.
In Provence it seems the Gypsies were welcomed. It is there that they first began to be called Bohemians. People flocked to them to have their fortunes told. The Gypsies claimed to have dukes and counts among them, and later added captains and kings.
The Spanish nobility protected the Gypsies at first. Gypsy women were adored for their beauty and seductive charms; Gypsy men were admired as excellent judges of the quality of horses, and hired by nobles to procure them for their stables. But in 1499 King Charles expelled all Gypsies from Spain, under penalty of enslavement.
King Philip III again ordered all Gypsies (who were called Gitanos) out of Spain in 1619, this time under penalty of death. An exception was granted for those who would settle down in one place, dress as Spaniards, and stop speaking their ancient language. Philip IV lowered the penalties to six years on the galleys for men and a good flogging for women, in 1633.
The city with the most Gypsies was, at the time, Seville. Many Gypsies were publicly flogged there for deceiving the populace by claiming to reveal secrets by divination, heal the sick by magic, cast spells, and for selling maps to buried treasure.
A new plan was hatched and executed in 1749, by which all Gypsies in Spain (est. 12,000) would be rounded up in a single night, their possessions confiscated, and forced into slavery. Gypsy women were sent to work as spinners, boys in factories, men in mines and shipyards. Fourteen years later, they were freed by King Charles III.
In 1783, legislation was enacted whereby all Gypsy people were required to maintain a permanent address (but not in Madrid). However, this bill banned them from working in many of their popular livelihoods, such as shearing, trading in markets or fairs, and inn keeping. Those who continued to live as nomads were to have their children taken from them and placed in orphanages; a second offense would result in execution.
Portugal banned Gypsies in 1526, and any of them born there were deported to the Portuguese African colonies. The first record of Gypsy people being deported to Brazil appears in 1574. Whole groups of them were sent to Brazil in 1686. There were also times in the seventeenth century when the policy was only to send Gypsy women to the colonies, while the men were enslaved on galleys.
The King of France, Charles IX, banned Gypsies in 1561. He ordered that any Gypsy man caught in France be sentenced to three years on the galleys, in spite of the fact that they were pronounced a non-violent people. In 1607, Henry IV enjoyed Gypsy dancers at court. By 1666, Gypsy men were again condemned to galleys—this time for life—and Gypsy women caught in France had their heads shaved.
The Gypsies were declared royal servants in Hungary, and valued as smiths and makers of fine weaponry. They were called "Pharaoh's people" on official Hungarian documents. In a letter from the queen's court in Vienna (1543) it says "here the most excellent Egyptian musicians play." Gypsies also served as messengers and executioners.
Gypsies were expelled from Denmark in 1536 and Sweden in 1560. All these problems with the authorities of European countries had the result that a large number of Gypsy encampments were set up in remote areas on borders, since police had no authority beyond their province. More and more Gypsy men and women were being flogged and branded.
A census was conducted in Hungary (1783) that counted over 50,000 Gypsies. They are described as wanderers who lived in tents except in winter, when they retreated into cave dwellings. Gypsies had no chairs or beds, did not use kitchen utensils, ate mostly meat and noodles, loved tobacco and alcohol. They were disdained for eating carrion.
Gypsy people had only one set of clothes, but lots of jewelry. They were known to be peddlers, beggars, and thieves. Gypsy men were renowned as excellent horsemen, and horse traders. Some worked as skinners, as makers of sieves or wooden implements, as gold-sifters or gold-washers, even as tavern keepers.
Gypsies were known as an exceptionally proud people, but with little shame or honor. Parents loved their children very much, but did not educate them. The Gypsy way of life was contrary to the rules of every organized society. And those who did settle down were disdained by those who continued as nomads.
It is estimated that 800,000 Gypsies lived in Europe by the year 1800. They were most numerous in the Balkans, and had a substantial presence in Spain and Italy. About this time a German scholar, Heinrich Gellmann, proved that the Romani language was linked to some languages of India. Although these people would no longer be considered Egyptians, the name Gypsy stuck (as well as the word "gyp").
During the nineteenth century, Gypsies became prominent as musicians, chiefly in Hungary, Spain, and Russia. Hungarian nobility developed a tradition of having a Gypsy minstrel next to the host of a banquet to play for his guests. Before long Gypsy bands proliferated, always including a virtuoso violinist.
The first famous Gypsy violinist was Janos Bihari, from Bratislava, who performed at the Congress of Vienna in 1814. By 1850, Gypsy music was popular all over Europe. Gypsy groups went on the road to perform, some as far as America. In 1865, Ferenc Bunko played for the King of Prussia. Imitators of the famous Gypsy bands were soon ubiquitous in Europe, playing in taverns, markets, fairs, festivals, and weddings.
In Russia, Gypsies were beloved more for their singing talents. Most every noble family employed a Gypsy chorus, with Gypsy women (who were also dancers) in the main roles, accompanied by a seven string Russian guitar. The first recorded singer of flamenco music in Spain is a Gypsy man, Tio Luis el de la Juliana.
The Census of Hungary in 1893 identified 275,000 Gypsies, with the vast majority of them by now sedentary, gathered in their own enclaves. 90 percent of the Gypsy people were illiterate; 70 percent of Gypsy children did not attend school. Besides musicians and horse traders, the Gypsy men were primarily engaged as smiths, brick makers, and construction workers. Women were mostly hawkers. The largest concentration of them was in Transylvania.
In Victorian England, we see the emergence of Gypsy caravans with horse-drawn wagons (vardos), and donkeys or mules in train. Nomadic Gypsies still lived in tents—even in winter. The Gypsy folk are noted at this time as tinkers, potters, basket makers, brush makers, and cheapjacks. It is also in the nineteenth century that they become known as Travelers.
It appears that the Gypsy population in Britain was about 13,000 by 1900. The Gypsies served a useful function by distributing goods to remote towns and villages, not yet served by trains. They enlivened village festivals with their musicianship, singing, and dancing. They gained a good reputation as people who could repair most anything. Townsfolk would await the arrival of the Travelers to hear the latest news and gossip from other parts of the realm.
Gypsies were also quite involved in the harvesting of hops in England and Ireland, while their womenfolk worked carnivals and fairs telling fortunes. One writer invited tourists to come and see the Gypsies, but advised them to come in the morning, as at night the Gypsies are inebriated. The coming of mechanized harvesting machines, as well as cheap machine-manufactured goods, lessened the demand for work common to Gypsy travelers.
In Romania, 200,000 Gypsy persons were still enslaved in the first half of the nineteenth century. They worked as grooms, coachmen, cooks, barbers, tailors, farriers, comb makers, and domestic servants. Their masters could kill them with impunity.
One reformer described the treatment of these slaves in Iasi: "human beings wearing chains on their arms and legs, others with iron clamps round their foreheads . . . Cruel floggings and other punishments, such as starvation, being hung over smoking fires, being thrown naked into a frozen river . . . children torn from the breasts of those who brought them into the world, and sold . . . like cattle."
Before World War One, Gypsies drew huge crowds in England and France when they would wander into a town. People longed to see Gypsy women in person, with gold coins around their necks and bosoms, as well as in their hair-plaits. Gypsy men would call on factories, breweries, hotels, and restaurants in search of work repairing copper vessels and the like.
The United States welcomed a large number of Ludar, or "Romanian Gypsies" (actually most were from Bosnia) from 1880 to 1914. These people joined circuses as animal trainers and performers. Passenger manifests show that they brought bears and monkeys with them across the Atlantic.
In traditional Gypsy culture, the father arranges the marriage of his son with the father of a prospective bride. The young people generally have the right of refusal. The father of the groom pays a bride-price, which varies according to the status of the two fathers and the two families, as well as the girl's potential as an earner and "history." The new couple then resides with the parents of the groom. The new bride must perform household duties for her in-laws. Sometimes families exchange daughters as brides for their respective sons.
A great fear of Gypsy people through the ages has been of the mullo (a ghost or vampire). In some tribes of Gypsies, it is customary to destroy all property belonging to a dead person to prevent them from haunting the living. In England this would include the person's living-wagon (van).
The Gypsies also dread being declared "polluted" by their clan, which is social death. One can become polluted (defiled) by contact with an unclean female, whose lower parts are considered marime. This term is complicated but we can safely say it has much to do with genitalia, bodily functions, puberty, menstruation, sex, pregnancy, and childbirth.
Gypsies were never well received in Germany. Near the close of nineteenth century, things got worse as Germans subscribed to the theories of Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso. One of his ideas was that criminality is inherited. As one proof of this, Lombroso pointed to the Gypsies, whom he described as generation after generation of people who are vain, shameless, shiftless, noisy, licentious, and violent. Not to mention puppeteers and accordion players.
In 1886, Bismarck noted "complaints about the mischief caused by bands of Gypsies traveling about in the Reich and their increasing molestation of the population." In 1899, a clearing house was set up in Munich to collate reports of the movements of Gypsies. The general German opinion was that the nomadic Gypsies used the cover of being entertainers and perfume dealers, but actually focused on begging and stealing.
In 1905, Alfred Dillmann distributed his Gypsy Book to police around Europe. The book profiled 3,500 Gypsies. Dillmann hoped it would help eradicate the "Gypsy Plague." By 1926, laws were passed that made it compulsory for Gypsies in Germany to have a permanent address and maintain regular employment. Violators were sentenced to two years in a workhouse. The reason for this penalty was: "These people are by nature opposed to all work and find it especially difficult to tolerate any restriction of their nomadic life; nothing, therefore, hits them harder than loss of liberty, coupled with forced labor."
In Switzerland, after 1926, Gypsy children were taken from their parents; their names were changed, and placed in foster homes. This policy ended in 1973.
Nazi spokesman Georg Nawrocki had this to say in 1937: "It was in keeping with the inner weakness and mendacity of the Weimar Republic that it showed no instinct for tackling the Gypsy question. . . . We, on the other hand, see the Gypsy question as above all a racial problem, which must be solved and which is being solved." The National Socialists designated Gypsies, along with Jews, for annihilation.
Dr. Robert Ritter, a Nazi scientist, wrote in 1940: "Gypsies [are] a people of entirely primitive ethnological origins, whose mental backwardness makes them incapable of real social adaptation . . . The Gypsy question can only be solved when . . . the good-for-nothing Gypsy individuals . . . [are] in large labor camps and kept working there, and when further breeding of this population . . . is stopped once and for all."
The National Socialist Workers Party (NAZI) rounded up the Gypsies for "protective custody," and shipped them off to concentration camps. Gypsy persons were forcibly sterilized, the subjects of medical experiments, injected with typhus, worked to death, starved to death, froze to death, and gassed in various numbers. The total dead at the hands of the Nazis is estimated to be 275,000.
By the 1960s, Gypsy caravans were now mostly drawn with motorized vehicles, and tents had largely been replaced by rough shacks. Many took up residence in state supplied slum housing. Most Gypsies remained uneducated and illiterate. Many of the men became scrap dealers, and some worked with copper to produce ornamental, decorative pieces of art. Gypsy women were still noted for fortune telling and begging. Some Gypsy children turned to shoplifting, picking pockets, and stealing from vehicles, since they were immune to prosecution.
One would expect that Gypsy people would have fared well under Communist regimes, what with their stated philosophy of equality for all. But entrepreneurial activities were illegal in Communist states, and these were the specialties of Gypsies.
There were 134,000 Gypsies in the Soviet Union in 1959; by the census of 1979 they numbered 209,000. Nomadism was against Soviet law. Work in Soviet factories and farms held little appeal to Gypsies.
Starting in the 1950s, Poland offered housing and employment to Gypsies, but most continued to wander. Therefore, Gypsies were forbidden to travel in caravans in 1964. This law was strictly enforced, and within two years 80 percent of Gypsy children were enrolled in school.
In Czechoslovakia, a law was passed in 1958 that forced Gypsies into settlements. Violators had their horses killed and wagons burned. The Czech people looked down on Gypsies as a primitive, backward, and degenerate people. 222,000 of them were counted in the 1966 census, and 9 percent of all babies born that year in Czechoslovakia were Gypsies. Their numbers rose to 288,000 by 1980.
Romania, in the early 1970s, tried to obliterate Gypsy culture and force the Gypsies into squalid ghettos. Their valuables were confiscated, including their favorite form of savings—huge old gold coins. Bulgaria forbade Gypsies to travel and closed their associations and newspapers.
Things were better under the milder form of Communism practiced in Yugoslavia. There we see television and radio stations that broadcast in the Romani language. Gypsies began to participate in regional politics, and a few hundred of them became doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Still, only 20 percent of Gypsy adults had even attended elementary school. They settled in small towns, and began buying and selling ready-made goods, surplus and seconds, and used clothing.
Gypsies embraced education more readily in Britain. They seemed to become aware that at least basic school learning is necessary in the modern age. It is handy to be able to write estimates and receipts; to read plans and manuals; to hold a driving license and insurance; and mostly, to be able to deal with Britain's social services bureaucracy.
A 1989 report by the European Community stated that only 35 percent of 500,000 Gypsy children in the 12 member states attended school regularly; half had never been to school even one time; hardly any went on to secondary education; and Gypsy adults had an illiteracy rate of 50 percent.
Spain decided to integrate the Gypsies, but there was a fierce backlash from Spanish citizens against having Gypsies as neighbors, or having their children attend school with Gypsy children. In Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria settled Gypsy families were beaten up and their houses set on fire. For this reason, some reverted to the nomadic life.
Today, there are five or six million Gypsies living in Europe. Over one million live in Romania; half a million in both Bulgaria and Hungary; a quarter of a million in Russia, Spain, Serbia, and Slovakia.
In France and Italy, Gypsy families still work the circus and fairgrounds. In many countries they operate repair services of various types; sell used cars, furniture, antiques, and junk; sell carpet and textiles. They still hawk, make music, and tell fortunes.
One new development is the rise in Pentecostalism among Gypsies. There is even a Gypsy Evangelical Church, with over 200 churches in France alone.
There have been six World Romani Congress forums held, from 1971 to 2004, to discuss how best to press for rights for the Gypsy people.
My primary source for this article is The Gypsies by Sir Angus Fraser.
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