Re: Gypsy history <long> (was: Re: about gypsy)

Gerold Firl (
9 Feb 1995 13:16:01 -0800

In article <3h1ig1$> (STEPHANIE G. FOLSE) writes:

><long argument -- about "parasitical" cultures and how the term can or
>cannot be applied to the Jewish and Gypsy peoples -- cut>

Should I infer from this that you find the characterization of the
relationship between gypsy and host cultures as "parasitic" to be
inaccurate? If so, I'd be interested in hearing why.

When I say parasitic, I think of a relationship which does not show a
balenced reciprocity of exchange; rather than a mutual give-and-take, a
preponderance of take over give. This does not apply exclusively to
criminal subcultures, of course; it can also describe the relationship of a
martial ruling class, when the military contribution to the well-being of
society as a whole is not balanced by the costs of maintainence. In that
case, the martial class becomes an oppressor, rather than a protector. As
such, it functions as a parasite.

>Well, to give people some sort of basis for their arguments about Gypsy
>culture (since at least one has admitted his knowledge of Gypsies mostly
>comes from bunco squads), I present here a history of the Gypsy peoples
>that I pieced together from varying (and sometimes contradictory) sources.

Don't underestimate the quality of ethnographic information availible from
bunco squads. Their perspective has a particular slant, of course, but they
also have some tools availible which other kinds of investigators do not. A
police officer may be able to uncover facts which an anthropologist would
not - particularly in the case of extremely secretive or closed societies.

And thank-you for posting this history. I found it very informative. I
didn't realise that the gypsy exodus was so recent.

>Indian caste
>beliefs of the time may have been the original model for the strict
>purity and pollution ideology of the present Gypsies, modified over
>time through contact with other cultures.

Interesting. Whereas the gypsy caste you describe was probably very low on
the social heirarchy (scavengers and entertainers are usually considered
"untouchables", I believe), this segregation was later needed to maintain
gypsy identity as a minority in the foreign cultures of europe and the
middle east. It's somewhat of a reversal; a previously low-caste group
transformed into an exclusive population exploiting a mass of, essentially,

> Gypsies a little farther north, in the Balkans, were not quite as
>lucky. They certainly had economic importance, valued as artisans
>practicing such trades as blacksmithing, locksmithing and
>tinsmithing, and also filled the niche between peasant and master,

Here we see an example of an actual cooperative relationship between
gypsies and the host culture. As metalworking specialists, the gypsies had
a superior technologicalskill which gave them a legitimate place in the
economy. This was less practical in western europe, where metal-working
technology was more advanced than in the balkans, and was disseminated more
widely, even down at the village level.

> Whatever the impetus, the Gypsies exploded into central
>Europe. The usual scam involved a group claiming to be from Egypt
>or Little Egypt (perhaps referring to Modon?) showing up in a city
>and informing city officials that they were Christians doomed to
>wander for a period of years to fulfill a penance imposed upon them
>for the sin of neglecting their religion. They would collect food,
>money and letters of protection from the city and then continue to
>the next town. By 1417, Gypsies were recorded in Germanic cities.
>In 1418, several thousand Gypsies under a leader called Count
>Michael showed up in Strassbourg. Gypsies were entering Brussels
>and Holland by 1420, Bologna in 1422, and showing up in Rome in
>July of that same year. They travelled into Spain by 1425 and Paris
>by 1427. By the middle of the century, rulers and town
>governments started banning Gypsies, usually citing theft,
>fortunetelling, begging and sometimes espionage as the reasons.
>Europeans also recognized as lies the Gypsies' claims to be pilgrims in
>exile from Egypt, but there are a few instances of alms being given
>into the sixteenth century, apparently by slow learners.

Can this be seen as a discription of a cultural adaptation, the evolution
of a new means of surviving, where the scam takes the place of reciprocal
exchange? If the previous metal-working niche was found to be already
occupied, then a new niche would have to be found.

U.S. gypsies, in the mid-twentieth century, consistantly related the
following tale for why gypsies steal: when christ was being taken to
calvary to be crucified, a gypsy was watching the procession. He tried to
steal the nails from the romans, but only succeeded in getting one of them:
the longest nail, which was to be pounded through the heart. After christ
was nailed to the cross using the three remaining nails, the romans
apprehended the gypsy and tried to get the final nail from him. In spite of
their physical maltreatment, the gypsy would not reveal the location of the
remaining nail. In appreciation for his efforts, christ granted the gypsies
the right to steal in perpetuity.

Now, I find this legend interesting. It acknowledges that theft causes
damage and pain to the victims (christ would not have suffered were it not
for the theft), but offers a palliative inoculation using the symbols of
the christian cultures on which the gypsies prey. This is an example of the
kind of cultural weapons which must be brought to bear in order to prevent
assimilation. The gypsies have been remarkably successful at this.

I would be interested in hearing more about the Tinkers. Who were they,
where did they come from, and what did they do? You say that they engaged
in metal-working and entertainment, just as the gypsies did; doesn't it
seem strange that such a combination should evolve in parallel, for these
unrelated cultures?

>Why stay nomadic for so long?
>They were mostly successful until the nations of the nineteenth and
>twentieth centuries grew powerful enough to force the majority to
>settle. Their identity as a separate people is still strong enough for
>them to remain the brunt of prejudice and hatred, a fact hammered
>home by the killing of half a million Gypsies by the Nazis during
>World War II. Now, it may only be a few generations until any
>idea of nomadism is leached out of almost all Gypsies.

You mentioned earlier that the Dom of the Sind were nomadic *before* the
exodus, though not to the extent developed later. All the gypsy adaptations
are built around nomadism, and nomadism is the prerequisite for the many
strategies for survival used by the gypsies. Pot-mending, entertainment,
theft and swindling are occasional.

As far as prejudice and hatred is concerned, keep in mind that this shiv
cuts both ways.

No mention was made of gypsy technology; the gypsy wagon was (and is) a
marvel of efficient transport. But the automobile has removed the gypsy
advantage in this area; once gypsies were more mobile than anyone else.
Now that distance has been conquered, gypsy mobility has been neutralised.

I highly recommend joseph mitchel's _up in the old hotel_ for its
description of gypsy customs in mid-20th century US.

Are you familiar with the term *bajour*, the big score? Apparently derived
from a serbian word, *bazur*, a beautiful flower, used to describe anything
beautiful, but in gypsy parlance coming to mean their favorite and most
effective con game. Any idea of the antiquity of this term?

Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
me, and me alone, so sue us god. I won't tell Bill & Dave if you won't.
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf