The early history of the Gypsies remains speculative. It is not clear whether they were a pariah group living on the periphery of Indian civilization, were members of one or more Hindu castes, or represented a number of different social classes and tribal groups. They apparently left their original homeland in northern India in several waves, beginning as early as the 5th century. The most important migrations, however, began in the 11th century as the result of Muslim invasions of India. The Gypsies initially traveled westward across Iran into Asia Minor and the Byzantine Empire; from there the majority proceeded into Europe by way of Greece during the early 14th century. Their route into Europe can be traced by vocabulary borrowings found in European Gypsy dialects, all of which contain words from such languages as Persian, Kurdish, and Greek. After a sojourn of about 100 years in Greece, the Gypsies spread all over Europe. By the early 16th century they had reached the most distant areas of the continent, including Russia, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and Spain. The Gypsies were generally well received in Europe at first, but soon antagonism was aroused by their exotic appearance, deviant life-style, and closed society. In Spain, where the Gypsies had enjoyed freedom under Muslim rule, their situation changed after the Christian reconquest in 1492; between 1499 and 1783 at least a dozen laws were enacted prohibiting Gypsy dress, language, and customs in an attempt to force assimilation. The first official repression of Gypsies in France occurred in 1539 with the order for their expulsion from Paris. Similarly, in 1563, the Gypsies were commanded to leave England under the threat of death. During the 17th century in Hungary and Romania, many Gypsies were forced into bondage as serfs; in Romania, their final liberation did not take place until 1855. The Gypsies were not treated harshly everywhere in Europe. In czarist Russia, for instance, their circumstances differed little from the masses of impoverished peasantry. In the Balkans, during almost 500 years of Turkish rule, many Gypsies enjoyed special privileges by converting to Islam. In such countries as Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Bulgaria, their position today is similar to that of other ethnic minorities. Discrimination against Gypsies, however, has persisted in much of Europe to the present time. In the 20th century, persecutions reached their height during World War II (1939- 1945), when about 250,000 Gypsies perished in Nazi concentration camps.
The total number of Gypsies in the world today is estimated between 3 million and 6 million. Census figures are not precise because Gypsies often are not counted. By far the largest concentrations are found in the Balkans, central Europe, Russia, and other successor republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), with smaller numbers scattered throughout Western Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Americas. Although Gypsies first appeared in America as indentured laborers during the colonial period, they began to migrate in significant numbers from Russia and the Balkans during the late 19th century. Evidence suggests that fewer than 100,000 Gypsies now live in the United States and Canada. Although many western European Gypsies are still nomadic, the vast majority elsewhere are sedentary. Of the more than 1 million in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, for example, probably no more than 10 percent are nomads. In the United States, Gypsies traveled about in rural areas until the Great Depression of the 1930s, when most settled in large cities on both coasts. Gypsies are fragmented into groups sometimes referred to as nations or tribes, generally defined by geographic area of settlement or recent origin. The European tribes include the Gitanos of Spain, the Manouche of France, the Sinte of Germany and central Europe, the Romnichals of Great Britain, the Boyash of Romania, and the Rom of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The Rom also make up the single largest group in the United States. Under the influence of a growing worldwide nationalist movement that stresses cultural and ethnic unity, the word Rom (“the people”) is gradually replacing the term Gypsy.
Because the Gypsies are widely dispersed, their culture and social organization vary considerably. A salient characteristic everywhere, however, is a strong sense of group cohesion and exclusivity stressing the sacredness of Gypsy traditions in opposition to those of the outside world. Contact with non-Gypsies is regarded as potentially “polluting,” a concept probably derived from the religious beliefs of their Hindu ancestors. Another unifying force is the influence of the Gypsy language, Romany, which consists of a number of dialects belonging to the Indic branch of the Indo-European languages. Most Gypsies speak some form of Romany, and others employ dialects of the local languages with extensive Romany borrowings. Gypsies are perhaps most profoundly differentiated from one another in the area of religion, as they have usually adopted the faiths of the countries in which they live. Among the Gypsies can be found Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and Muslims. They have little recourse to the clergy, however, preferring to carry out religious rituals in their own homes or in the context of folk observances. The various Gypsy tribes are divided into clans, each composed of a number of families related by common descent or historic association. Clans have nominal leaders, who sometimes adopt the title king or queen. Such titles do not signify positions of generalized political leadership but are simply bestowed as signs of respect or to impress outsiders. The Gypsies are family oriented, with the elderly occupying positions of respect and authority. Marriages are usually arranged and represent the desire to create alliances between families or clans rather than a personal attraction. A strict sexual morality prevails; it is still common for unmarried girls to be chaperoned. A number of groups, including the Rom, maintain the institution of bride-price, a payment made by the family of the groom to that of the bride to indemnify them for the loss of a daughter and to guarantee that she will receive good treatment. Another important institution is the kris, an informal court that adjudicates disputes and matters of common law and Gypsy custom. In general the Gypsies have little dependence on the formal social structures of the societies in which they live because these functions are replicated within their own communities. Gypsies generally pursue traditional occupations, including music and entertainment; blacksmithing and metalwork; horse and stock trading; peddling and small-scale commerce; fortune-telling and curing; and basketmaking, wood carving, and other crafts. The Gypsies tend to be most integrated culturally and economically in the less industrialized regions of southern Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Almost everywhere, however, they are under pressure to abandon their traditional way of life. In Great Britain, for example, their right to campsites has long been an issue of litigation. Nevertheless, the Gypsies' growing awareness of their common origins, language, and culture suggests that Gypsy society will not disappear.
Links to Gypsy Sites