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Free Spirits of the World: Nomadic  Gypsies




by Ian Hancock

Gypsies have existed as an oppressed people for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most significant of these originated in the time and circumstances of arrival in Europe, but a number of other factors complicate the picture as well.

Because of the nature of their entry into Europe, Gypsies arrived as a scattered nation of people united by language, culture and origin, but at the same time lacking any of the means by which other populations bound by the same factors assert and defend their identity. Gypsies had no political or military strength, and no geographical territory with which they could identify. Nor had they a history, or a religion, or a language which was familiar to those around them. Association with the Islamic threat, their dark skin, and the various means of livelihood which exploited the superstitious nature of the Medieval Europeans, all helped instill a negative image of the Gypsy in the Western tradition. When a group lacks the conventional means of redressing wrongs done to it, it will make the most of what is available; the fear of Gypsy magic was called upon as a means of reprisal some years ago in Florida, for example: a mother whose child was the victim of a hit-and-run accident "vowed to cast a Gypsy curse extending over three generations on the driver and his family if he does not come forward and pay the child's hospital bill." Such incidents help only to reinforce the stereotype from which they ultimately derive.

In addition to these external factors, internal factors have also helped keep the barriers firm. To a greater or lesser extent all Gypsy groups have inherited from India concepts of pollution and cleanliness, and these form a powerful basis for maintaining social distance from non-Gypsies. These beliefs extend into many areas of daily life, regulating involvement with food and its preparation, animals, personal hygiene, and interaction with others, both Gypsy and non-Gypsy. Among some groups, these concepts are vaguely defined; among others, the Vlax in particular, they are deep-rooted and pervasive. It is because of these cultural beliefs that Gypsies have discouraged familiarity with non-Gypsies who, by their manner of living, fall automatically into an unclean category, and are therefore able to pollute by association. The earliest accounts of Gypsies unanimously agreed that Gypsies had no religious or cultural beliefs; some more modern treatments, while admitting that these exist, maintain that they have all been adopted from outside. It is understandable that writers such as [John] Hoyland, [James] Crabb and others came to such conclusions-they were permitted no such information by the Gypsies they were so ardently trying to civilize. Contemporary exponents of this view, such as Jiti Lipa or Jozsef Vekerdi are less easily accounted for.

This reserve has had other, further-reaching effects; not often being able to obtain information at first hand about the true nature of Romani life, novelists have embellished their prose with fantasies of their own, and in doing so created in the last century the literary figure with which the Gypsy is today most often associated: a composite Gypsy, wearing Spanish flamenco dancer's dress, traveling in an English Gypsy caravan, playing Hungarian Gypsy music.

The first American account to discuss Gypsies at any length appeared in the Christian Enquirer for September 29th, 1855; American readers were given a picture which must have helped set the stage for what followed: 

The Gipsies ... are an idle, miserable race, a curse to the countries they inhabit, and a terror to the farmer through whose lands they stroll. They seem utterly destitute of conscience, and boast of dishonesty as if it were a heavenly virtue ... Laws have been passed in several countries to banish them, and great cruelties sometimes practiced to enforce these laws ... So deeply rooted are sin and vagrancy in the hearts of this miserable race, that neither penal laws nor bitter persecution can drive it out. They are not beyond the power of the Gospel, however, nor yet beyond the mercy of the Redeemer.

Attitudes towards the Gypsy today are mixed; while negative characteristics, usually theft or baby-stealing, often provide the rationale in fiction for introducing Gypsies into the plot, other, more positive characteristics also find a place. One such is the supposedly unfettered nature of Gypsy life, an outlet for the Victorian reader who no doubt longed for simpler, pre-Industrial Revolution times. But however Gypsies are defined and presented by the dominant culture, such definition and presentation denies Gypsies their real identity, and this is ultimately a kind of oppression.

The notion of an "outlet" has been discussed by [Werner] Cohn, who believes that Gypsies "persist because they, or groups like them, are needed in our culture," in other words, there exists a need for an avenue of escape, for whatever reason, and Gypsies, or more accurately the fictional image of Gypsies, are useful in providing this. [David] Sibley, quoted in the introduction, goes further and sees the denial of the real Gypsy identity as one means by which the dominant society can maintain its own parameters. Quoting from [Kai] Erikson, Ronald Takaki has also elaborated upon this notion of parameter-maintenance by keeping non-members in their place: 

Deviant forms of behavior, by marking the outer edges of group life, give the inner structure its special character and thus supply the framework within which the people of the group develop an orderly sense of their own cultural identity ... one of the surest ways to confirm an identity, for communities as well as for individuals, is to find some way of measuring what one is not.

Yet another rationale is provided by [William] Kephart, who explains anti-Gypsyism in terms of Gypsies being seen as a countercultural population, a group of people actually working against the values of the majority: 

American Gypsies, too, continue to face prejudice and discrimination ... Some observers contend that it is a matter of ethnic prejudice, similar to that experienced by blacks, Chicanos and other minorities. However, it is also possible that the Rom are perceived as a counterculture ... If people perceive of Gypsies as a counterculture, then unfortunately for all concerned, prejudice and discrimination might be looked upon as justifiable retaliation.

The Rom least well-equipped to retaliate against such social pressures are those best represented in the American Gypsy community: the Vlax, most of whose history in Europe has been one of enslavement. Existing for centuries in a society which provided all of what little material possessions they had, and which allowed them no involvement in any kind of decision-making, their modern descendants still look to the establishment as a source of support rather than as something to be worked with for the long-term good. British and Hungarian Gypsies, subject to more assimilative pressures in their countries of origin, for better or for worse have learned to melt more effectively into the larger society, and have a much higher proportion of "professional" occupations represented among them in the United States. An exception among the Vlax are some of the Machvaya and other Rom of Serbian origin, a number of whom have also acquired mainstream occupations as well as high status within the Vlax community. It is likely that this is also due to assimilative factors. After abolition, those fleeing from Rumania westwards into Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia fared very differently from those who went eastwards into Russia.

In Serbia, the leveling power of Turkish rule, exerted for successive ages, had the effect of elevating the Gypsies somewhat toward the social status of the other rayahs. Here, therefore, although they are still an inferior caste, and not allowed to exercise the rights and powers of citizenship, the Gypsies are perhaps less widely separated from the peasantry around them than anywhere else in Europe. They fought bravely with their Serbian neighbors against the Turks, and as smiths, farriers, and dealers in live stock, have many of them earned a comfortable livelihood, and proved themselves respectable members of society.

It cannot be denied that the fuel for much of the discrimination against Gypsies in contemporary America is provided by the media. It requires very little effort on the part of those writing for the popular press, whether as journalism or fictional literature, to consult the existing sources and come up with material of their own without ever approaching Gypsy agencies themselves for their information. Almost all of the thousands of works relating to Gypsies have been written by non-Gypsies, and it is probably true that most of those have based their creations on the works of other non-Gypsies without ever checking their facts at first hand.

Despite the enormous responsibility that journalists have in transmitting information to the public, with very few exceptions the media continue grossly to misrepresent Gypsies and to perpetuate negative, and often defamatory, stereotypes. It has become so commonplace for the press to define Gypsies, an ethnic people, solely by behavioral criteria, that Gypsies themselves will frequently deny their identity: 

A Houston builder and Gypsy ... now doesn't tell anyone he's a Gypsy because he says it would ruin his business. "I'm not ashamed of it," he says, "but you've got to understand the effect it could have."

It is also true that, because of the widespread enforcement of laws over the past centuries which have forbidden Gypsies to stop anywhere, and consequently to attend school, Romani cultures have developed as non-literate cultures. Even in countries with long-settled Gypsy populations-and today the majority of the world's Gypsies are not nomadic-a way of life which does not include literacy as a primary skill continues to be perpetuated. As a result, the kinds of organized approaches made to television stations, congressmen, newspaper editors and the like which other minorities have used to bring their point of view before the public, have simply not been within reach. Lacking access to lawyers, and other establishment means of seeking redress, Gypsies have not, until recently, been able even to take the first step towards challenging media misrepresentation. A situation exists today in which those who write for the popular press feel quite at liberty to say the most outrageous things about Gypsies, while they would be aghast if they were ever expected to put their names to the same kind of article about, say, Italians or Jews or African-Americans.

Non-Gypsy populations receive most of their knowledge of Gypsies from works of fiction and from the media, rather than from Gypsies themselves. Journalists and novelists for years have had completely free reign to exploit their fantasies in print, comfortable in the knowledge that no one would be likely to challenge them-and certainly that no Gypsy ever would. When Peter Maas was asked in a Washington Star interview (November 25th, 1975) why he felt he could make such negative claims about Gypsies in his book, he replied that no Gypsies had challenged them, that protesters were "just not out there." A traditional, fictional image of the Gypsy, of non-Gypsy origin, has emerged and has become so deeply entrenched in the popular mind that the real thing remains unseen.

From an urban perspective, "real" Gypsies-that is, those conforming to the romantic myth-are a rural people; from a rural perspective, "real" Gypsies no longer exist; they are a part of a vanished folk culture. We might compare Brody's description of the "real" Eskimo as conceived by the white community in the Canadian North: "the tough, smiling, naive, ultimately irrational soul who, animal-like, is deeply attracted to roaming the open spaces of the limitless tundra and ice." Again, the mythical individual is removed from the dominant society and merges with nature.

In Britain and France, Romani Gypsies in dirty roadside sites are condemned as unsanitary squatters who give the "real Gypsies" a bad name. The romantics defend the "true Romany" and write of their "purity of blood," perceiving a clear distinction between the Borrowvian ideal and what they see in real life. Others are less charitable: a letter to the press from an angry citizen in England complained that "they are very much detested and feared... even the true gypsy glamourised by George Borrow was never liked" (The Surrey Advertiser for April 19th, 1977). In the United States and Canada, the average citizen is likely to think that there are no Gypsies in those countries at all. They never see the campfires and waggons they associate with Gypsies, or the violin-toting individuals sporting earrings, embroidered vests and tambourines. Books and articles have been written which refer to Gypsies as "hidden" or "invisible" Americans, and Gypsies make good use of this fictional image as a shield between themselves and outside society, even giving it back if it is in their interests to do so.

Over a century ago, [Walter] Simson despaired at the widespread false perception which existed of the Gypsy, and at their exaggerated image as "wanderers": 

The popular idea of a Gipsy, at the present day, is very erroneous as to its extent and meaning. The nomadic Gipsies constitute but a portion of the race, and a very small portion of.Little has changed in the intervening century. [Judith] Okely, in a recently-published work on the British Traveller population shows how "Outsiders have projected onto Gypsies their own repressed fantasies and longings for disorder," and makes the point that "Gypsies do not travel about aimlessly, as either the romantics or the anti-Gypsy suggest." Much is made of this, as well as of stealing and promiscuity, in sustaining the stereotype. Stealing in particular is seen as a Gypsy trait; specialists such as Lombroso or [Terry] Getsay have even implied that it is a genetic characteristic. Certainly some Gypsies steal, just as some Eskimos or Berbers or Englishmen steal; others don't. It is social behavior, and it is not transmitted biologically. To believe that such a thing is possible reflects not only prejudice, but an ignorance of scientific fact.

Problems which exist today are the result of a continuum of circumstances going back for centuries. Few could argue that there has not been moral justification for subsistence stealing in the past, or that in some places it continues to be necessary, although this is not likely to be taken into consideration in a court of law. Historically, stealing has meant survival, and there are many shopkeepers throughout Europe even today, who will not serve Gypsies. There are homeowners, too, who will refuse to give Gypsies as much as a glass of water. Given the choice between seeing one's family starve, or else stealing, the latter is going to be the likelier option, whether one is a Gypsy or not. But the public doesn't seem to be interested in Gypsies who don't steal; perhaps it spoils the image it has created.

There are a number of cases on file in the archives of the Romani Union, of crimes such as shoplifting being perpetrated by people reported as Gypsies, but who in fact turn out not to be Gypsies at all. The label is freely applied by police reporters on the basis of behavior assumed to be typical of ethnic Gypsies-which of course it is, if the model sought is the Gypsy of fictional literature. It is to the credit of the Saint Paul Chief of Police that he apologized publicly in 1985 for thus misapplying the word in the news bulletins issued by his department. There are hundreds of thousands of Gypsies in the United States who deplore the illegal activities of those who make the news, and who make a clear distinction between themselves and "le Rom kaj coren," i.e. Gypsies who steal, and there are hundreds of thousands who try to make a decent and honest living in the face of adversity. Gypsy priests and ministers don't ever seem to generate media interest.

History has shown time and time again that oppressor nations either attribute their own techniques of domination to the people they dominate, or else reinterpret their oppressive acts in what they perceive to be a positive way. Shifting blame onto the victim is a self-exonerating response well known in psychiatric circles. Dougherty devotes a whole appendix to the theme of Gypsies stealing babies, but gives no irrefutable evidence to support this widespread belief. The documentation gives another side to the story: it has been Gypsy children who have been stolen from their parents by non-Gypsies. The Swiss situation which came to light in 1973, discussed in chapter XIV, is one recent example. The author's own father was taken from his parents in 1918 for the same reasons, ostensibly for his own good. [John] Hoyland writes that "from such Gipsies who had families" in Maria Theresa's Hungary, "the children should be taken away by force; removed from their parents, relations, and intercourse with the Gipsey race." One child, "a girl fourteen years old, was forced to be carried off in her bridal state. She tore her hair for grief and rage, and was quite beside herself with agitation." [Heinrich] Grellmann recommended that taking Gypsies' children be used as a means of coercion: 

The Gipseys, in common with uncivilized people, entertain unbounded love for their children. This excessive fondness for their children is, however, attended with one advantage: when they are indebted to any person, which is frequently the case in Hungary and Transylvania, the creditor seizes a child, and by that means obtains a settlement of his demand, as the Gipsey will immediately exert every method to discharge the debt, and procure the release of his darling offspring.

In the introduction to the new edition of her book Gypsies: The Hidden Americans from the Waveland Press, (1986), Anne Sutherland tells of a communication from the Chief of Police of one northern city who, having read the first edition of her book, expressed gratitude at having learned of such close family feeling amongst the Rom because he could now use it, by exerting pressure upon Gypsy children, to keep their parents in line.

"Wandering" or "roaming" is another commonly-repeated attribute, and are words which frequently find a place in accounts about Gypsies. Yet the words imply aimlessness, as though Gypsy lives have no purpose or direction; they are often qualified by words like "carefree." The harsh conditions of life on the road are never dealt with, and the day-to-day responsibility of feeding a family and keeping it clothed and warm is trivialized out of existence. 

If I am fancy free, And love to wander- It's just the Gypsy in my soul.

Gypsies in western Europe have traditionally been kept on the move because of laws which have given them no alternative. Means of livelihood have been developed which are adapted to this kind of life, and have subsequently become part of the stereotype. Individuals not conforming to these-who include a growing number of those involved in the Romani civil and political rights movement-are not infrequently denied their Gypsy identity by sociologists and others whose investment in them depends upon their remaining passive and traditional. A Gypsy in a horse drawn wooden caravan is ideal; in a motorized trailer, not quite so authentic; in a house, he's a total disappointment; as journalist Ira Berkow said in a 1975 feature story, "Gypsies are, shockingly, also becoming home owners!"


Gypsy women have for long been represented as sexual temptresses, and Gypsy men as a sexual threat to non-Gypsy women, in both song and story. The Impressions' Gypsy Woman has been recorded by a dozen artists since it was first released in 1961, and tells of the singer's watching the girl, longing to kiss and hold her as "all through the caravan, she was dancing with all the men" in the "campfire light"; Gypsy Davy is a traditional ballad about a lady who left her mansion and her husband to go off with a Gypsy; Lawrence's novel The Virgin and the Gypsy is a typical literary work along the same lines. And yet it was the European slaveowners who took Gypsy women at their will and used them, while calling them "whores," and it was the European slaveowners who castrated their male slaves to protect their own women from their servants' lust.

[Werner] Cohn may be right when he argues that non-Gypsies need a Gypsy image to project their fantasies onto; an example of this appeared in the Sunday supplement of one Boston newspaper in August, 1986. Describing a Romani family in that city, the writer stated on the first page of her article that from their appearance, ". . . they could be Spanish, or French, or Italian, or Irish," but by the second page she had already begun to be carried away by the lure of the stereotype: 

They are glitter and gold, decked out in bright babushka of legend. They are exotic women in colorful skirts, dancing in sensual swirls. They are dark men with smoldering eyes. They are carefree spirits playing the tambourine. The entire image is crowned with a halo of mystique, shrouded in a cloak of mystery. And there is some truth to all of it.

The article also stated that Gypsies don't work, have no professional people among them, and are not officially recognized as an ethnic community in the United States.

In addition to the popular observer, there exists a substantial body of academics who specialize in Gypsy Studies, and who have established scholarly reputations for themselves by doing so. The opinions of these individuals are perhaps even more important than those of the untutored, since these are the specialists who, if it is sought at all, are approached for information about Gypsies. Romani scholarship rests upon the work of these people: Grellmann, [August] Pott, [Franz] Miklosich, [Graziadio] Ascoli and others have laid the foundation for what we know of Romani language and history.

The Victorian preoccupation with the "purity" of the noble savage is understandable in the light of those times, and the attitudes of 19th century "Gypsy buffs" whom Dougherty says "tended to be either superficial sentimentalists or genteel snobs looking for a feudal relic to coddle and patronize," must be interpreted with that in mind. But it is a singular characteristic among some of the contemporary students of Gypsies that the same attitudes persist. Where these people could do more than any other outsiders to help the Romani cause, they stubbornly refuse to disturb their anthropologists' and folklorists' perception of the Gypsy. We may compare 19th century statements made by such specialists with those made in the 20th century: [Alexander] Paspati maintained that "it is in the tent that the Gypsy must be studied, and not in the villages of the bastardized sedentary Gypsies," and [Richard] Pischel believed that "the Gypsy ceases to be a Gypsy as soon as he is domiciled and follows some trade."

Twentieth century investigators have sometimes challenged reality in the light of direct evidence. Jaroslav Sus, a Czech, claimed that it was an "utterly mistaken opinion that Gypsies form a nationality or a nation, that they have their own national culture, their own national language." The former sub-editor of the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald, scorned the Romani nationalist movement as "romantic twaddle" (The Birmingham Post for July 14th, 1973, p. 2), echoing the words of Dora Yates, honorary secretary of the same society, to which she belonged for 63 years and who, referring to the same movement, asked "except in a fairy tale, could any hope ever have been more fantastic?" Another member, Werner Cohn, believes that 

The Gypsies have no leaders, no executive committees, no nationalist movement ... I know of no authenticated case of genuine Gypsy allegiance to political or religious causes.

The most recent denial of the nationalist movement has come from yet another member of the Gypsy Lore Society, Jiti Lipa: 

To be exact, there is no one Gypsy culture nor one Gypsy language ... If in the process of looking for native assistants and for training them [the Gypsilorist finds that] literary talents should appear, so much the better ... In reality, however, it is mere toying, a waste of energy and material means which are not abundant for Gypsy studies. While a missing attribute is being artificially contrived, which is supposed to make the Gypsies an ethnic minority in the conventional sense in the eyes of wishful thinkers and bureaucrats, irreplaceable values of Gypsy culture are being lost in our time.

These attitudes on the part of the non-Gypsy population, whether academic or popular, are a direct result of centuries of oppression, an oppression which has denied Gypsies the wherewithal to make their voices heard and to challenge discriminatory laws and widespread negative media stereotyping. Other persecuted peoples have begun to redress the wrongs being perpetrated against them; there are now no laws operating against American Indians or African-Americans in this country, nor are they maligned and misrepresented in the press. Books presenting them in a defamatory light are removed from school libraries now as a matter of course. Not so for Gypsies, however, who continue to provide a source of romantic and other exploitation, and who continue to be taken advantage of because of their traditional lack of organized political, academic or military strength. Writing of the post-emancipation situation in Moldavia and Wallachia, and of the gains made by other linguistic and cultural minorities in modern Rumania, [Sam] Beck makes this point well: 

Romania's German-speaking populations have received support from the West German state, Magyars are supported by the Hungarian state, and Jews by Israel. Groups like the Tigani did not have such an advantage. Lacking a protective state they have no one to turn to when discrimination is inflicted upon them as a group. Unlike ethnic groups represented by states, Tigani are not recognized as having a history that could legitimize them.

Gypsies use their language and core-culture as a kind of moveable country; wherever they have gone, ethnic identity has usually been maintained despite fragmentation and, until recently, a lack of international cohesiveness. Whether the three branches of Gypsy ... prove to belong to one migratory stock or not, it is clear that the Western Romani people were united linguistically and culturally at the time of entry into Europe. Whatever factors divided the contemporary populations, and they are not inconsiderable, they are overwhelmingly the result of involvement with the non-Gypsy, and are directly relatable to the oppression here described. If Romani Gypsies are to regain that unity, the causes and nature of the oppression which destroyed it have to be understood and challenged.