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"The gypsy possesses without doubt a high level of natural common sense and skill; from this comes the resourcefulness and trickery that he uses to achieve his ends."
February 29, 2012 2:44 AM   Subscribe

The tendency of existing research to treat the Roma as having first entered European political history with the Nazi genocide disregards a unique six-hundred-year history. It is indeed the case that the Roma, who over long periods of time lived nomadically and possessed no written culture of their own, have left almost no historical accounts of themselves. The heritage and documents therefore do not permit a history of the Roma comparable to that, for example, of the persecuted and expelled French Huguenots. What is available to us, however, is evidence – in the form of literature and art – of the way in which the settled, feudally organized European population experienced a way of life that it perceived as threatening. Despite consisting solely of stories and images that are defensive "distortions", this evidence provides a far from unfavourable basis for an examination of the six-hundred-year history of the European Roma, insofar as it is a history of cultural appropriation characterized by segregation. We encounter the traces of the reality experienced by the Roma almost exclusively through depictions by outsiders, and must use these to imagine those parts considered impossible to represent. The extraneous cultural depictions of the Roma – variously referred to as gypsies, zigeuner, tatern, cigány, çingeneler, and so on – have created heterogeneous units of "erased" identity and cultural attributes. The "invention" of the Gypsy is the underside of the European cultural subject's invention of itself as the agent of civilising progress in the world.

Europe invents the Gypsies: the dark side of modernity
posted by timshel (33 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
...this seems like the place to put this Guardian story about the way that the Roma are treated even now in Gyöngyöspata, Hungary: Poor, abused and second-class: the Roma living in fear in Hungarian village. Both the history mentioned here and the modern attitudes within the Guardian story have such a clear line of succession.
posted by jaduncan at 3:26 AM on February 29, 2012


We just seem to love finding the "Other" to hate and blame for all our ills, even if it has no basis in fact: "The old idea that the Gypsies were non-European again became paramount – despite the fact that, after half a millennium of continuous presence on the continent, it was entirely implausible.
posted by arcticseal at 3:44 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's a very early description of the arrival of 120 Roma people in Paris in 1427, from the Journal d'un Bourgeois de Paris, the diary of an anonymous priest written between 1405 and 1449 (own quick and Google-assisted translation from medieval French, I'm sure there's a better one somewhere). It's interesting that such an early description manages to encapsulate European attitudes towards Roma that are still valid centuries later:

On Sunday 17 August 1427, twelve penitents came to Paris. It was a duke, an earl, and ten men, all on horseback, who called themselves good Christians and natives of Lower Egypt […]. They had travelled five years before coming to Paris […]. The rest of the people - one hundred or one hundred and twenty men, women and children - arrived only the day of the Beheading of St. John but were not allowed to enter Paris and were housed at La Chapelle-Saint-Denis […]. They were about ten or twelve hundred when they had left their country, and the rest had died en route. Their king, queen and the survivors still hoped to own property in this world since the Holy Father had promised to give them a good and fertile country where they could live, provided that they complete their penance with a good heart. […] In truth, their children, boys and girls were of incredible skill; most had pierced ears and wore one or two rings of silver in each ear: it was, they said, the fashion of their country. The men were very black and had curly hair. The women were the ugliest and the swarthiest imaginable. All the women had face wounds and had black hair like the tail of a horse. They were dressed in an old homespun garment attached at the shoulder by a large piece of cloth or rope; their only linen was an old gown or shirt. In short, those were the poorest creatures that one had ever seen coming to France in living memory. Despite their poverty, there were witches in their company who, by looking at the hands of people, revealed the past and predicted the future. They also sowed discord in many households, saying to the husband "Your wife has cuckolded you", and to the woman "Your husband has cheated on you". But worse was that during their speeches, by magic, devilry or address, they emptied their purses of some of their listeners. This is what people said, but I went to talk to them two or three times and I never lost a penny and I never saw them read hands. But as the people started spreading this rumour around, the news reached the Archbishop of Paris, who went to see them and took with him a Friar Minor named Petit Jacobin who, on his order, gave a beautiful sermon and excommunicated all the fortune tellers, and all who had shown their hands to them. They then had to leave and they went to Pontoise, the day of Our Lady in September.
posted by elgilito at 3:58 AM on February 29, 2012 [9 favorites]


Interesting, but shallow and one-sided article. Most damningly, it treats the Roma themselves solely as victims without any agency and at no point explores how their own culture evolved and adapted in response to outside pressures.

It also gives very short thrift to authors sympathetic to the gipsy culture: no mention of Garcia Lorca's Gipsy Ballads??
posted by Skeptic at 4:04 AM on February 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


Interesting, but shallow and one-sided article. Most damningly, it treats the Roma themselves solely as victims without any agency and at no point explores how their own culture evolved and adapted in response to outside pressures.

It also gives very short thrift to authors sympathetic to the gipsy culture: no mention of Garcia Lorca's Gipsy Ballads??


In fairness (although I agree the article is flawed) it's about the conception of the Roma rather than the Roma themselves. By necessity such a short form essay isn't going to care that much about the truth of Roma life, and has to pack in 600 years of external attitudes. The article also effectively stops at Nazism and deals with the 20th Century in a few hundred words, so I'm not surprised that it focusses on Nazism rather than Spanish literature. It's undoubtedly coming with a slant of not allowing for any positive views of the Roma, but an essay of that length about such a wide geographical area and time period is always going to be extremely simplistic as there isn't room for a more complex examination.
posted by jaduncan at 4:31 AM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


From the article:
"In the mid-nineteenth century, artists identifying with the gypsy life, or at least what they imagined it to be, began calling themselves La Bohème, or bohemians. The term "gypsy romanticism" soon became established to describe their idealised, sentimentalised depictions."

Two examples:

"The Gypsy Baron (German: Der Zigeunerbaron) is an operetta in three acts by Johann Strauss II which premiered at the Theater an der Wien on 24 October 1885. (...)
Synopsis: This is the colourful story of the marriage of a landowner (returned from exile) and a gypsy girl who is revealed as the daughter of a Turkish Pasha, and the rightful owner of a hidden treasure. It involves a fortune-telling Romany Queen, an absurdly self-important Mayor, a rascally Commissioner, a Military Governor, a band of Gypsies and a troop of Hussars.

Place: Hungary
Time: 18th century"

Also:
"Wenn die Zigeuner nur noch einen Namen nennen
Dann kommt die Katja, die immer singt und lacht"
(Warning: the last link contains Heino content.)
posted by iviken at 4:36 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've read two books on the Roma that I recommend, for those interested. They're both somewhat well-regarded intro texts on the subject: Jan Yoors's, The Gypsies, a classic memoir of a young man's time spent among them; and Angus Fraser's, The Gypsies, a somewhat scholarly popular history.

As discussed here, there's a lot of bad information out there about the Roma. Besides all the bigotry against them which results in a lot of misinformation, they are themselves pretty xenophobic and close-mouthed and so there's not as much really solid work on their culture and history as you might expect, all things considered.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:10 AM on February 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


Bury Me Standing is well-recommended, with good reason. Also, one of my former professors has written this about the Roma. It's more political science-y.
posted by orrnyereg at 7:05 AM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


La Boheme - the original Wiggas?

(I feel so wrong for writing that phrase just now).

In all honesty - I find myself shocked by how widespread the hate is towards Roma - aside from the usual shit like those two poor girls who died and were covered up and ignored on a beach in Italy, I hear comments on Reddit (yes, I know, they aren't necessarily representative), but surely there'd be one European defender of the Roma on there (there's general a diverse range of opinions on Reddit for every other issue)... But I have yet to see a single European stand up and say "Hey guys, we're kinda being dicks about this"

It's really sad and a huge blow to the otherwise decent perception I have of "Europe". (In quotes, because yeah, as if I can just call a huge culturally diverse place like Europe one name).
posted by symbioid at 7:33 AM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I remember Roma being pretty numerous in Sarajevo.some begged, others recycled scrap- metal. Many women told fortunes. I had my fortune and my sin's fortune told once, out of curiosity. My son has not saved this country. He is NOT the next Ché. I am NOT the mother of many children.

In Bosnia they tell fortunes with coffee grounds. In any case, rank superstring but a great fund-raiser for Roma.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 7:46 AM on February 29, 2012


This is fascinating, thanks a lot.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:11 AM on February 29, 2012


I'd love to stand up for the Gypsies, but one of their Dickensian youthful thiefs just walked towards my kids as a threatening pseudo beggar IN A RESTAURANT, then jedi stole my iphone in what is clearly an organized racket in London to steal them in volume and move them out to Spain and Ireland resellers.

So fuck that particular Roma kid. But best of luck to them in Hungary.
posted by C.A.S. at 8:11 AM on February 29, 2012


Latcho Drom is a fascinating movie about the Gypsies and where they came from, told primarily as the journey and development of their music.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:27 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


C.A.S:

If thefts like yours are indeed part of a big organized racket (as the London police are very keen to explain, so I don't necessarily believe it) then perhaps the resellers in Spain and Ireland are a more appropriate target for rage than the people at the bottom of the heap who happen to belong to an ethno-cultural group.
posted by colie at 8:30 AM on February 29, 2012


> perhaps the resellers in Spain and Ireland are a more appropriate target for rage than the people at the bottom of the heap who happen to belong to an ethno-cultural group.

Oh, for fuck's sake. I have tremendous sympathy for the Roma and have more than once written about the historical oppression they've suffered, but I hate this kind of Pecksniffian approach: "Don't blame the poor oppressed person who stole your stuff! He's depraved on account he's deprived!" Bullshit. To excuse thieves on the grounds that they are part of an oppressed group is to slander all the members of the group who somehow manage to survive without resorting to theft. And frankly, if it had been your kids who were frightened and your phone that was stolen, I'll bet you'd be pissed off too.
posted by languagehat at 8:43 AM on February 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


The resellers in Spain and Ireland are all part of the same group, its even very possible part of the same extended family. While the police were useless, I used Find My Phone to get a house and my calling records on the SIM before it was cancelled.

They often use the kids to do the stealing, and the dads and uncles and cousins and their friends who sell the stuff on.

To be honest, this poor bottom of the heap kid could very easily not really live in London, just have been sent here specifically because it is a target rich environment. I'm not feeling too sorry for him, and in fact having all his phone numbers raises some interesting thoughts.

Italian-Americans were bottom of the heap at one point, but that doesn't mean that the mafia precursors were a good idea and totally excusable behavior.
posted by C.A.S. at 9:05 AM on February 29, 2012


Colie,

As for not believing that this is an organized racket, I HAVE THE FUGGING PHONE RECORDS which I got myself, which go all over Spain and Ireland, two places there are large Roma communities.

The police didn't tell me shit about this crime, I pretty much solved it myself, I've scouted the house it was reset in as well, so I've seen who the people are.

But you go on knowing it all.
posted by C.A.S. at 9:10 AM on February 29, 2012


Hi C.A.S.

My wife had her iPhone stolen in exactly this manner and heard the reseller info from the police, and then the restaurateur, and then everyone was an expert on Roma street crime of course. London's police are among the most corrupt and racist in the world, so I took it with a pinch of salt.

Nobody likes being the victim of crime, of course, and I apologise if I've made light of that in any way. It's shit.

However, when my wife's phone was stolen I was not keen on making a big deal of whether it was Roma, or organised crime, or both. It was just crime to me, maybe because I'm white, middle-class, educated, make a decent living, nice family, car, flat, and can easily afford the world's most desirable consumer gadget - all these things tend to stop me wanting to immediately overshadow my assessment of how crime works in society with 'BUT THEY STOLE MY IPHONE!'

No doubt all the networks in your tale are exactly as you describe, but its interesting how readily people want to get into some familiar memes about Gypsies - 'they train their kids' etc.

I'm sure it can be a bit prissy to insist 'He's depraved on account he's deprived!', but then again is he depraved on account of being Roma? Where did it come from?

To excuse thieves on the grounds that they are part of an oppressed group is to slander all the members of the group who somehow manage to survive without resorting to theft.


I didn't excuse the crime, I just didn't want to characterise it as a specifically Roma crime (which phone theft surely isn't - it happens everywhere), and I also think people only really steal stuff to sell it cos they need the cash. Which is not really all that evil - despite the fact that capitalism goes crazy over crimes against property.

Anyway I've no wish to fall out with anyone over the internet and I may well be wrong... :-)
posted by colie at 10:05 AM on February 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


I also think people only really steal stuff to sell it cos they need the cash.

Really?
posted by stinkycheese at 10:37 AM on February 29, 2012


My Family and Other Gypsies
posted by Artw at 10:38 AM on February 29, 2012


I'm not sure where this is going about the stealing thing, and fair enough people steal stuff for all sorts of reasons I guess.
posted by colie at 10:54 AM on February 29, 2012


London's police are among the most corrupt and racist in the world...

That's quite a claim! Having not surveyed police departments from around the world, however, I am in no position to contradict you.

Which is not really all that evil - despite the fact that capitalism goes crazy over crimes against property.

I'm pretty sure that people all over the world hate to have their shit stolen, not just capitalists. When I think of all the places and times throughout history where the punishment for stealing was something harsher like branding, amputation of hands and such, I don't feel like capitalist systems "go crazy" over such crimes, relatively speaking. I'd be curious to hear of the socialist paradise where thieves are gently tut-tutted for their transgressions.
posted by Edgewise at 11:15 AM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've written about his before on the blue, but the tragedy of the Roma in Europe is not just the treatment they've been subjected to, but the resultant social pathology in the Roma communities. Intense discrimination and the resultant isolation are a breeding ground for some very unsavory behaviors, which in turn re-inforce prejudice and discrimination in an especially vicious cycle.

The victims are everywhere. Both among the Roma and the non-Roma who experience some of that pathology. Of course, when you shit is stolen, you are not going to go back into centuries of oppression to put it all in context, that's understandable. But it also makes it harder to solve the problem when your only tool is law enforcement (you=society). Law enforcement is part of the solution, no question, but unless there's a broader approach, these problems will continue. Problems, which by the way, affect the Roma even more than their non-Roma victims. Those organized crime gangs victimize their own communities first and foremost. That's always been the case. There were more poor Italian victims of the Mafia than non-Italian. Same for the Irish. I think we're all familiar with the dreary pattern of extortion rackets targeting their own recent-immigrant communities, taking advantage of the the fact that the police distrust of the whole community and the victims as a result have nowhere to turn to.

It's really typified by the very name: Gypsy. It comes from "Egyptian" - the claim the Roma would make when they LIED in order to be allowed to travel and immigrate. They lied claiming they were Egyptian Christians (to account for their ethnic look). Because had they told the truth, no Christian-dominated nation would allow them in - discrimination based on religion. That was centuries ago. Already from the beginning of their history in Europe they were forced to resort to LIES. About their very identity. Before you condemn them, think about the long history of those who had to "pass", essentially lie about themselves, because it was the only way to survive. When you have to lie about who you are, right there, you are carrying a huge burden (btw. the specific history of the word "Gypsy" is why I always refer to Roma as Roma).

And sure, it's annoying as hell. The pickpockets, the aggressive panhandling, the thefts, the burglaries and so on. Perhaps the worst of it, is that it strips away the empathy the average European has for their fellow human being. And the losers, once again, are the Roma - as well, as their non-Roma victims, more for the social disengagement and dehumanization of both victims and perpetrators, than for any material losses.
posted by VikingSword at 11:55 AM on February 29, 2012 [7 favorites]


London's police are among the most corrupt and racist in the world...


Obviously when we're talking about police attitudes it's not much of a beauty parade, but the London police have been described even by the British judiciary as institutionally racist; perhaps other police forces across the world have too?

'In the UK, the inquiry about the murder of the black Briton Stephen Lawrence concluded that the investigating police force was institutionally racist. Sir William Macpherson used the term as a description of "the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin", which "can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes, and behaviour, which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping, which disadvantages minority ethnic people". Sir William’s definition is almost identical to Stokely Carmichael’s original definition some forty years earlier.'
posted by colie at 1:14 PM on February 29, 2012


"London's police are among the most corrupt and racist in the world...

That's quite a claim! Having not surveyed police departments from around the world, however, I am in no position to contradict you."

I've spent lots of time abroad. Let me clarify that it's clearly complete bollocks. Moscow militia chuck people out of Moscow for being Caucasian (as in from south of Russia). Armenian police stopped my car and just flat demanded a bribe because I'm European, and in Nepal the army came for medical help but said if I'd been a native Nepali they'd have left me to die utterly unassisted. So yeah, the Met aren't perfect. Often they aren't even good. But globally speaking they are excellent. When they shoot a civilian it's a scandal. When Sao Paulo police shoot someone nobody is even surprised.
posted by jaduncan at 2:47 PM on February 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's really typified by the very name: Gypsy.

I've had a similar hunch about an earlier name than that: zingari/Zigeuner, derived from the Greek atzinganoi, meaning... "untouchable". I can't bring myself to imagine that this was a locally invented designation for them - it seems reasonable to credit them with having adopted the moniker. Given the unlikelihood of their origin effectively being among that Indian caste, it's a name that already seems a case of a self-identity built on a deception. On self-deception, even. And even if what I'm reading into the etymological implications were not the case, to call yourself "untouchable" is still an acutely self-conscious foundation for your collective identity.
posted by progosk at 2:59 PM on February 29, 2012


It's really typified by the very name: Gypsy. It comes from "Egyptian" - the claim the Roma would make when they LIED in order to be allowed to travel and immigrate. They lied claiming they were Egyptian Christians (to account for their ethnic look). Because had they told the truth, no Christian-dominated nation would allow them in - discrimination based on religion.

I read a couple of fascinating books about gypsies on my own a few years back. I've been hesitant to bring them up because I'm unsure of the scholarship.

Anyway, the origins of the Roma are a bit unclear, but my understanding is that, at this time, they have been traced back to Indian ancestry. It's not really clear why they left India, though some trace them back to some legends of an Indian king giving a gift of 10,000 musicians as a gift to the Persian king; that theory always sounded really unlikely to me, though.

Another very interesting thing about the Roma is that, for their first century or two in Europe, bands of them would roll into town with letters of passage or pilgrimage signed by the Roman Emperor - and later, the pope - and presume upon their hospitality. The letter by the emperor was legit, but once he died, they started forging papal letters. The first few times they would visit a place, there were generally well-received, but that changed after a century or two.

This is just amazing to me. I suppose it goes to show how you could get away with something for a long time before the days of mass media (or even the printing press). It's like one long prank on Europe. It's hilarious, but on the other hand, it is understandable why they developed a bit of a shady reputation. Maybe somebody who knows more than me can clarify or verify this...after all, I'm not scholar, just an interested reader.
posted by Edgewise at 6:37 AM on March 1, 2012


Yeah, that's stuff that I remember from the book I read on their history. It is very interesting.

Some of the discussion here about their shady reputation confuses me because what VikingSword and others have mentioned is true: you can't really separate their socioeconomic history in Europe from their outlaw status. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't know of any other ethnic group in Europe that has existed on the edges of society, often legally outcast, for anywhere approaching the length of time that the Roma have. When you're not allowed to operate within the respectable, legal bounds of a society, you operate outside of it. And when you do that for hundreds and hundreds of years, your culture integrates this status.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:32 AM on March 1, 2012


> Anyway, the origins of the Roma are a bit unclear, but my understanding is that, at this time, they have been traced back to Indian ancestry.

Yes, there's no question about that; their language is clearly North Indian (with lots of loan words from European languages, obviously).
posted by languagehat at 8:58 AM on March 1, 2012


A friend with Sinti connections once scolded me for referring to The People Formerly Labelled as Gypsies as "Roma." Not all Romani-speaking people consider themselves Roma, she insisted.
posted by tangerine at 4:57 PM on March 1, 2012


That's true. As Wikipedia says:
Self-designation also varies: In Central and Eastern Europe, Roma is common. The Romani of England call themselves (in Angloromani) Romanichal, those of Scandinavia (in Scandinavian romanidialect) Romanisæl. In German-speaking Europe, the self-designation is Sinti, in France Manush, while the groups of Spain, Wales and Finland use Kalo/Kale (from kalo meaning "black"). There are numerous subgroups and clans with their own self-designations, such as the Kalderash, Machvaya, Boyash, Lovari, Modyar, Xoraxai, Lăutari, etc.
Similarly, there are Eskimo who do not want to be called Inuit. Ethnic nomenclature isn't easy.
posted by languagehat at 5:42 PM on March 1, 2012


Is "Gypsy" pejorative? It's the term I grew up with and am inclined to continue using, especially if "Roma" isn't accurate, but if there's a better term for The People Formerly Labelled as Gypsies as a group I'll switch.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:11 PM on March 4, 2012


Roma is accurate and favored, it just isn't all-inclusive. Most People Formerly Labelled as Gypsies will appreciate your taking the trouble to use the term even if they don't use it in English themselves. (Interestingly, they tend to have zero interest in teaching outsiders their language; it is used as a guard against outsiders. I have personally known one non-Roma who learned it, and she had married a member of the group.)
posted by languagehat at 1:09 PM on March 4, 2012


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