Throughout history, fascination with the Romani Gypsies has ranged from obsessing over their supposed sexual permissiveness to speculating about their dealings with the occult and their alleged criminal behavior. Today, it’s all about them and their children—whether it’s kids they are accused of stealing, or children deported from Western European nations, or Roma teens attacked in hate crimes.
Just in time for the latest controversy—involving a French mayor accused of blocking the burial of a Roma baby—is a much needed book on Europe’s most misunderstood population; The Romani Gypsies by Yaron Matras.
The book aims to take stock of the Romani Gypsies today—where they might come from, their history as a people, their culture and customs, and the issues they face today. It is important to note, as Matras does, that the group under discussion are specifically the Romani Gypsies, not other traditionally itinerant groups such as Travellers.
There is no evidence of where the Romani originated except for their language. It is related to Hindi, Punjabi, Gujariti and other Indian languages, and identical words exist between the languages to this day. There can be no explanation outside of the Indian origin story, Matras writes, because ”it is inconceivable that a European population simply took of the study of an Indian language in late medieval times and adopted it as its everyday domestic speech form.” The term Rom, while commonly mistaken as having to do with Romani, is also believed to be tied to India. Matras believes it is related to the social caste in India called Dom that specialize “in certain trades, mainly services such as toolmaking, cleaning, and seasonal agricultural labor.”
The second clue in the language about the Romani origin story is the Greek influence. While other similar service trade-oriented caste groups ended up dispersed throughout Central Asia, the Roms, it would appear, ended up in the Byzantine Empire. This is also when it seems they were first called “Egyptians”—a designation that would stick with them and morph into Gypsy.
The subsequent centuries of their life in Eurasia is pretty much one ugly tale after another. Almost from the start, they were kept as slaves in Romania, even by the monasteries. They were subject to a special tax in the Ottoman Empire. Throughout the first half of the 15th century, they were welcomed in nearly every corner of the European continent as they migrated west. However, before the century came to a close they were targeted by governments across Europe, largely due to political turmoil. In 1548, for instance, the German Diet in Augsburg declared that the killing of Gypsies by average citizens would go unpunished. They were expelled from Czech lands, England, Spain, Venice, Warsaw, the Duchy of Lithuania, and Rome. They were constantly the target of decrees regulating their work, religion, marriage, housing, and taxes. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s, when it was estimated there were 200,000 enslaved Romani in the Romanian provinces, that the process of emancipation began. Even so, they were still the target of sterilization programs throughout the 20th century in Scandinavian countries.
It is a story of suffering that parallels the trials of Jews in Europe. However, while the Holocaust has at the very least made Europe grapple with its history of anti-Semitism, there has been no such reckoning for the Romani. While the Romani were also targeted by the Nazis and sent to die by the thousands in concentration camps, the post-war German government did not recognize them as victims of racial persecution. While German courts in the 1960s began to rule in favor of the Roms, it “was not until 1982 that the German government formally acknowledged that “Sinti and Roma” … had been victims of racial persecution by the Nazis.
Which brings us to today.
On my second day of study abroad in Italy, a police officer from Florence came to speak to students about life in Italy—both for our own sake and, more than likely, the sake of Florentines besieged by drunk co-eds. Part of the way through, my friends and I found ourselves flabbergasted as the officer told us that if a Gypsy woman holding a baby came up to us begging, we should yell “No!” and if she persisted, to physically shove her away.
Part of the immense value of this book by Matras is that it works to paint a complex picture of who the Romani are beyond the picture of a woman begging in the street. They have deep historic traditions, an intricate and functional family structure, strict (though unique) rules on hygiene and food preparation, and their own beliefs about the human body. Their values, by and large, are different from those of other Western European cultures. Communalism is at the center of how their society functions—for example, the notion of private property does not have the same meaning. Matras has gained the trust of the Romani communities—he has dined with them and worked to uncover their language and history.
For the information alone, the book should be required reading in Europe and for anyone interested in the continent’s history. However, it fails to satisfy when it comes to the toughest issue facing the relationship between the Romani and Western governments today—what do about the children?
For a variety of reasons, the Romani fight school systems tooth and nail. In the Romani world, Matras writes, the child is extremely important, and the removal of a child from the household even just for the day is extremely painful. It also represents, in the mind of the Romani family, an opportunity for the government to influence children away from the Rom life. Depending on the branch of Rom, the pursuit of education by a female may not be permissible beyond a certain point. As a result, Matras writes, Romani parents sometimes work assiduously to keep their children from getting a full education.
Matras holds the city of Manchester up as an example of how things can work better. Beginning in 2010, the city actively worked to establish smoother relations with the Romani. For instance, Romani adults were brought in for a mentoring program at the school and as translators. Attendance by Romani children jumped, and progress in relations were achieved in other spheres as well simply because local populations worked better to understand the Romani.
Education, either for humanitarian or nation-building purposes, is a prerogative of the modern nation-state. There is a clash on the issue of education, and in other parts of the book Matras documents that the obstinacy is not just on the part of Western governments. Working better to understand each other should without a doubt be an immediate step taken by communities with Romani populations. If that solves the issue of Romani children being kept from classrooms, that’s wonderful. If it doesn’t, at some point a line will be drawn as to how much leniency should be given to groups that for a variety of reasons—religion, culture—don’t fit neatly into society’s rules. Where that line should be drawn, and how it should be enforced, will hopefully be the subject of his next book.