Today is the International Day of the Roma, a large stateless ethnic group known variously as Rom, Romany, Romani etc. and commonly referred to in English as “gypsies,” although that term is now a catchall for a slew of travelling people. The day is meant as a time to celebrate the Romany people’s heritage and accomplishments, as well as a special moment to press for the end of discrimination against them around the world. I have a particular interest in these people because my maternal great-grandfather was Romany (our family term), so, although the connexion is distant, I feel an affinity.
Here is a newspaper photo of my great-grandfather, William George Sloper, with his wife and children (my great aunts and uncles). My granddad, Billy Sloper, is seated beside his mother. He was the eldest of this large brood – not uncommon for Romany then and now. I never knew my great-grandfather, of course, but I knew quite a few of his children. He was a circus trapeze artist in his youth, but when the troupe was performing in Oxford he met my great-grandmother (not Romany) married and settled down in a house in a district know as St Ebbes (colloquially, The Friars), and worked as a gas fitter (a specialized form of plumbing). When I was at Oxford (early 1970’s) I was able to meet and get to know the surviving siblings.
It is a daunting task to try to say something in a short space about the Romany as a whole; they are so diverse and scattered. Even the basic language has seven distinct branches that are mutually unintelligible. There are some core values that are more or less universal to all Romany groups, but over time these have become diluted, and, typically, relatively settled groups take on the characteristics of the culture where they live. Thus, for example, Romany may be Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Muslim, with a few Protestants mixed in depending on their location. To make life a bit easier I am going to give a brief overview and in the process I’ll also say something about the centuries of discrimination.
The Romany are a diasporic (territorially scattered) ethnicity of Indian origin, living mostly in Europe and the Americas. In their own language, generally called “Romani” by scholars, they are known collectively as Romane or Rromane (depending on the dialect). The double “r” in the latter is guttural and trilled. Romany are widely dispersed, with their largest concentrated populations in Europe — especially central and eastern Europe and Anatolia, the Iberian Kale, and Southern France. They originated in India and arrived in midwest Asia, then Europe, at least 1000 years ago, either separating from the Dom people or, at least, having a similar history; the ancestors of both the Romani and the Dom left North India some time between the sixth and eleventh century. There is very little linguistic or historical evidence to pin down the time of migration from India more precisely. It is conjectured that they were low caste musicians and entertainers who traveled to make a living.
Since the nineteenth century, some Romany have migrated to the Americas. There are an estimated one million in the United States; and more than 600,000 in Brazil, most of whose ancestors emigrated in the 19th century from eastern Europe. Brazil also includes Romany descended from people deported by the government of Portugal during the Inquisition in the colonial era. In migrations since the late 19th century, Romany have also moved to Canada and countries in South America. Argentina has a population of more than 300,000 Romany most of whom are still migratory. Many make a living trading in used cars as they once used to with horses. One of my early nicknames in Buenos Aires was “Gitano,” not because of my heritage but because I travel a lot.
The Romany are probably unique among diasporic peoples in that they have never identified themselves with a territory, have no tradition of an ancient and distant homeland from which their ancestors migrated, and do not claim the right to national sovereignty in any of the lands where they reside. Rather, Romany identity is bound up with the ideal of freedom expressed, in part, in having no ties to a homeland or, in many instances in a home locale. Traditionally they are travelers. The absence of neither orally transmitted origin stories nor of a written history has meant that the origin and early history of the Romany people was long an enigma. Indian origin was suggested on linguistic grounds as early as 200 years ago. Now genetic evidence connects the Romany people and the Jat people, the descendants of groups which emigrated from South Asia towards Central Asia during the medieval period. Recent analysis of Y-chromosomes (paternally inherited) and mitochondrial DNA (maternally inherited) shows that a large percentage of contemporary Romany carry genetic material that is not found elsewhere outside of India.
Contemporary scholars have suggested that one of the first written references to the Romany, under the term “Atsingani” (that is, from the Greek atsinganoi, cognate with “tzigani” or “gitani,” Romance words for “gypsies”), dates from the Byzantine era during a time of famine in the 9th century. In the year 800 CE, Saint Athanasia gave food to “foreigners called the Atsingani” near Thrace. Later, in 803 CE, Theophanes the Confessor wrote that Emperor Nikephoros I had the help of the “Atsingani” to put down a riot with their “knowledge of magic.” However, the Atsingani were also a Manichean sect that disappeared from chronicles in the 11th century. “Atsinganoi” was used to refer to itinerant fortune tellers, ventriloquists and wizards who visited the Emperor Constantine IX in the year 1054. The map below (click to enlarge) gives a good representation of the migrations of Romany from the 12th to 16th although it contains a fair degree of speculation and interpolation.
Early histories show a mixed reception for Romany in Europe. Although 1385 marks the first recorded transaction for a Romany slave in Wallachia, they were issued safe conduct by Sigismund of the Holy Roman Empire in 1417. Romany were ordered expelled from the Meissen region of Germany in 1416, Lucerne in 1471, Milan in 1493, France in 1504, Catalonia in 1512, Sweden in 1525, England in 1530, and Denmark in 1536. In 1510, any Romany found in Switzerland were ordered to be put to death, with similar rules established in England in 1554, and Denmark in 1589. Portugal began deportations of Romanies to its colonies in 1538.
Later, a 1596 English statute, however, gave Romanies special privileges that other itinerants lacked and France passed a similar law in 1683. Catherine the Great of Russia declared the Romany “crown slaves” (a status superior to serfs), but also kept them out of certain parts of the capital. In 1595, Ştefan Răzvan overcame the stigma of his birth to a Romany father, and became the voivode (prince) of Moldavia. He was a rare exception, however. In sum, from the 16th to 19th centuries European Romany were alternately left alone, persecuted, enslaved, exiled, disenfranchised, executed en masse, and forcibly assimilated. Without power, wealth, or influence they were at the mercy of political forces and were often made the scapegoats for social troubles that were none of their making.
On the other side of the coin, in the late 19th century Romany were frequently admired in the arts. So-called gypsy music became immensely popular in this period. Strictly speaking there is no unified style of Romany music. Romany musicians in various countries took the local musical forms and made them their own. Famous examples include the Andalusian flamenco which has frequently been performed and influenced by Romany musicians, and the Hungarian csárdás, composed examples of which found their way into the classical repertoire. Classical composers who have used csárdás themes in their works include Emmerich Kálmán, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Léo Delibes, Johann Strauss, Pablo de Sarasate, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and others. The csárdás from Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus, sung by the character Rosalinde, is probably the most famous example of this style in vocal music. One of the best-known instrumental csárdás is the composition by Vittorio Monti written for violin and piano, but here played by a Hungarian Romany orchestra.
Of course Bizet’s Carmen romanticizes the mystery and passion of the Romany. (A modern analog would be Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves”).
The fate of the Romany has been equally mixed, as in previous eras, in the 20th and 21st centuries. During World War II, the Nazis murdered hundreds of thousands of Romany in what is sometimes referred to as the “other Holocaust.” Numbers killed are impossible to determine accurately and figures range from a low of 220,000 to as many as 1.5 million. Like the Jews, they were sentenced to forced labor and imprisonment in concentration camps. They were often killed on sight, especially by the Einsatzgruppen on the Eastern Front.
In Communist central and eastern Europe, Romanies experienced assimilation schemes and restrictions of cultural freedom. The Romani language and Romany music were banned from public performance in Bulgaria. In Czechoslovakia, tens of thousands of Romany from Slovakia, Hungary and Romania were re-settled in border areas of Czech lands and their nomadic lifestyle was forbidden. In Czechoslovakia, where they were labeled as a “socially degraded stratum,” Romany women were sterilized as part of a state policy to reduce their population. This policy was implemented with large financial incentives, threats of denying future social welfare payments, misinformation, and involuntary sterilization. In the early 1990s, Germany deported tens of thousands of migrants to central and eastern Europe. Sixty percent of around 100,000 Romanian nationals deported under a 1992 treaty were Romany.
During the 1990s and early 21st century many Romany from central and eastern Europe attempted to migrate to western Europe or Canada. The majority of them were turned back. Several of these countries established strict visa requirements to prevent further migration.
In 2005, the Decade of Roma Inclusion was launched in nine central and southeastern European countries to improve the socio-economic status and social inclusion of the Romany minority across the region. The first World Romani Congress was organized in 1971 near London, funded in part by the World Council of Churches and the Government of India. It was attended by representatives from India and 20 other countries. At the congress, the green and blue flag from a 1933 conference, embellished with the red, sixteen-spoked chakra, was reaffirmed as the national emblem of the Romani people, and the anthem “Gelem, Gelem” was adopted as a national anthem.
The International Romani Union was officially established in 1977, and in 1990, the fourth World Congress declared April 8 to be International Day of the Roma, a day to celebrate Romani culture and raise awareness of the issues facing the Romani community. The 5th World Romany Congress in 2000 issued an official declaration of the Romany as a non-territorial nation.
There have been many studies of Romany culture but you have to take them with a grain of salt. I don’t think you can speak of a unified underpinning that unites all Romany peoples, although worldwide there is a definite sense among Romany peoples that you are either embracing the Romany ethos or you are not. Anthropologists would define them as patriarchal and patrilocal. Women generally hold a lower position than men although they can achieve a measure of social status as they get older and as they have children. They have tended to have large families, and a high value is placed, therefore, on childbirth. Very Biblical. A woman on marriage moves to live with her husband’s family and her duties shift from her parents to her in-laws.
Romany traditional purity laws are similar to those of both Hindus and Jews. Certain body parts, animals, acts etc. are considered impure, and any violation of purity laws must be atoned for. In classic Romany culture failure to abide by such rules, called “Romanipen,” can lead to exclusion from the community. Someone who fails to adhere to Romanipen is known as a Gadjo. But as with Jewish and Hindu rules of this sort, in the modern world many Romany no longer follow Romanipen completely, although a substantial percentage in eastern Europe living in Romany enclaves do.
I could not leave this discussion of the Romany without a tip of the hat to the vardo, or gypsy wagon, a unique feature of English Romany. They were a very common sight on roads in England in the 19th and early 20th century. They are highly decorated horse drawn wagons that are both home and transport. Nowadays about 1% of English Romany live and travel in them although they are not normally as highly decorated as they once were. They are now mostly collectors’ items and there are several projects at the moment to restore abandoned vardos. Here’s a few images to whet your appetite.
Speaking of appetite, there is not much I can say about Romany food. When asked about what they eat Romany will normally reply “we eat what you eat.” This is generally the case but I can note a few points. First is the traditional method of cooking – a cast iron pot slung over an open fire. In Our Forgotten Years: A Gypsy Woman’s Life on the Road, Maggie Smith-Bendell talks about the open fire, called in Angloromani (the English Romany creole dialect), a yog: “The yog was the centre of our life, of our family. Everything got discussed and pulled apart and put back together in front of the yog. It was everybody’s job to keep it going. I still have fires outside.” It was also common to eat from a single communal dish, using the right hand only, as is customary throughout India. Smith-Bendell also notes that it was normal to catch and eat small animals such as rabbits and hedgehogs, although in the latter case they were considered impure in the breeding season.
So, I suggest a rabbit stew. No great secret here. Brown off a jointed rabbit with some onions. Add what vegetables you have to hand and top off your cooking pot with water. You can also add field herbs of your choosing. In English byways and woods there are still plenty to be found. Simmer for an hour or more until the rabbit is tender. With store bought rabbit (sadly lacking in flavor in comparison with wild rabbits) an hour is sufficient.