The Early History
The Gypsies are a close-knit communal people who have a shared background, but are scattered throughout the world. Their origins have been the subject of controversy throughout the centuries, but in modern times, we have discovered, from research into their language, that the gypsies originated in Northern India, from whence they spread throughout Europe and the Middle East. No one knows when the first gypsies left India or, indeed, why.
They seem to have arrived in the Middle East about 1000 AD, some going on into North Africa and others on into Europe. They were an intelligent people, used to living on their wits, who found it easy to impress the uneducated locals by giving themselves unwarranted titles and assuming the importance to go with them. Hence they arrived in Europe as Lords, Dukes, Counts and Earls of Little Egypt, demanding and receiving help and support from those in authority. Claiming that they had been ejected from their homeland, ‘Little Egypt’, by the wicked Saracens, or that they were on a pilgrimage, gained them succour from no less than the Pope himself, who demanded that they be given safe passage in the countries over which he had sway. So they were able to travel in relative safety, and could expect food and lodging from religious houses, as the rich of the time felt that it would assist their standing in the eyes of the church if they supported pilgrims. Having been on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land was the ultimate status symbol, but supporting those who had been on one, or were taking part in one was the next best thing. So with their quick wits and silver tongues they were soon under the protection of Kings throughout Europe.
We know for sure that a group of four hundred arrived in Germany, at Luneberg, in 1417. Their leaders, the ‘Dukes’ Andrew and Michael, along with sundry ‘Counts’ gave, by their dress, the impression of wealth and respectability. While they were well dressed, their followers were anything but. The ‘nobles’ stayed in the local hostelry, whilst the others camped or dossed wherever they could find shelter. As pilgrims, they were protected by a letter from the Emperor Sigismund. Sigismund, Roman emperor and King of Hungary and Bohemia, and son of the Emperor Charles 1V, was renowned as the great leader who had taken the combined armies of Christendom on a Crusade against the Turks in 1396. One of the most far-sighted statesman of his day, he tried to bring about the expulsion of the Turks from Europe by uniting all of Christendom against them.
Later, having persuaded Pope Martin V that they were on a seven year pilgrimage, they received a letter of protection allowing them free and unhindered access to all Christian countries. They lived off the generosity of the locals, and when insufficient was forthcoming, helped themselves. The ladies soon gained a reputation as fortune-tellers, but as many of their ‘clients’ were relieved of their purses at the same time, they also gained the not unfounded reputation of being thieves and pickpockets. Many were arrested and some executed.
Similar groups arrived in most of the countries of Central and Western Europe throughout the 1400’s. They are recorded in Italy, France, Germany and Hungary. They roamed far and wide, living the nomadic life, with the men carrying on their trades as horse dealers, musicians amd workers of metal, while the women continued to tell fortunes and to relieve the unwary of their property. Despite their supposed religious nature, they were feared by many, and this built up into movements by governments against them.
Countries issued edicts against them, the first being Spain in about 1490, but this just drove them underground. Spain tried, over the next three hundred years, to prohibit their dress, language and customs and so force assimilation and an end to their wanderings. Country after country passed laws to reject and expel them, sometimes to colonies overseas. In 1539, France issued a nationwide expulsion order, England having attempted the same in 1530, under threat of imprisonment, but when that failed, the penalty became death in 1554. In parts of Central Europe they were forced into bondage, and in Romania made to live as chattel slaves – a situation which did not change until they gained their freedom in 1856. In many cases, their answer was to move elsewhere until such times as a law was made expelling them from there also, but, as all unsettled tribes who live among settled communities are open to becoming convenient scapegoats, the increased complaints, genuine or not, by the local populace surely led to official and legal persecution wherever they went.
In the 20th century, persecution reached its height in Nazi Germany where about a quarter of a million were exterminated in concentration camps. Wherever the Nazi authorities came across them, they were bent on wiping them out. After the Second World War, the Communist authorities of Eastern Europe tried to integrate them into their system as factory labour, and, although this was totally against the Gypsy ways, succeeded to some degree in eliminating their full-time nomadic life style. There was great reluctance to grant recognition to the Gypsies as an ethnic group, and only in parts of the former Yugoslavia were they treated as a recognised minority group. In western Europe, the nomad life continued to some extent, but their way of life led to continuous clashes with a structure set up to manage life in settled communities, and still does to this day. There are, at present, possibly up to six million gypsies in Europe with the largest concentrations being in the Balkans and Central Europe, with major groupings in Russia, Spain and France. In the former Communist countries many are suffering under the present economic hardship there, and with the collapse of national boundaries in Europe, there have been attempts by Central European groups to enter Britain, which has been sold to them as a country which is prepared to give handouts to all. Not being members of the EC they are not entitled to anything and have been returned.
Gypsies first appeared in the Americas in the 16th century when the colonies were being used, mainly, as dumping grounds for the undesirables of European society. By the end of the last century, however, the groups of gypsies were entering the US and Canada along with other European emigrees, with perhaps up to a million now being in North America. Initially they settled in country areas, but with the hardships of the Great Depression, they were forced into towns.
Over the years, with groups becoming isolated from one another, various distinctive groupings have developed, with their culture and social organisation changing and developing. They still tend to keep themselves to themselves and regard contact with non-Gypsies as polluting and a danger to their traditions and customs. Their language has been a major unifying force as they have kept Romani as their own, although dialects have developed and their own language has been affected by the language of the nation within which they live. Many groupings have taken up the religion of the areas within which they live, so there are Roman Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Muslims.
Gypsy life is still very firmly based on the primacy of the family with the elderly being revered and respected. Morality is very strict with chaperoning and the arrangement of marriages still the norm in some groupings. Bride-prices may still paid to the father of the bride to compensate him for the loss of a daughter.
In most of the world, Gypsies are now held in low esteem and tend to be involved in economically unimportant activities, which allow them to work on their own behalf. The traditional occupations are horse-trading, peddling and door to door trading, blacksmithing and metalworking, fortune-telling and healing, small scale craftwork such as wood carving, and music and entertainment. Many will remember the pan mender, the clothes peg maker and the fortune teller whose palm had to be crossed with silver. The pressure to stop their nomadic ways and settle is still increasing. In Scotland their right to special campsites has been hotly disputed. Their cause has not been helped by the increase in the number of new-age travellers who tend to be seen as a disparate group of individuals living life by their own rules at the expense of ‘law-abiding society’, who settle where they wish, do what they want and leave nothing but destruction behind. This type is exactly what the Gypsies are not. Nevertheless, the two groups have tended to become confused to the detriment of the true Romanies. There seems no doubt that with the Gypsies’ growing awareness of their common origins, language and culture that their society will survive.