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The History and Origin of the Roma
26-02-2000

The country of origin of the Roma was a great mystery from the Middle Ages, when they arrived in Europe, to both the inhabitants of the countries they arrived in, as well as to historians. It isn't possible to determine the date of their arrival in Europe exactly, because they spread through Europe in individual bands independant of each other. The only available references are the records that have survived in the archives of various cities and towns. These records are evidence only of their "official" discovery and don't reveal the exact date of their arrival, merely a chain of events that made their way into the archives.

There are many references in the chronicles of the period of wandering jugglers and conjurers entertaining the feudal lords, of scantily-clad dancers in splendid colors, favored in the gentlemen's courts and hated by the pious and respectable citizens. But they could have the Roma confused with wandering bands of "artists."

Then, abruptly, in the 14th century, companies of people started to wander from place to place; people which differed from the inhabitants by their darker skin, their clothes, their distinct way of life, their completely incomprehensible tongue, their temperament, and their unwillingness to conform to the pressure of the majority population.

For this reason, medieval scholars put forth the question, Who are the Roma, how did they come to the Czech Lands, and where did they come from? After many centuries, Europe has yet to find an answer to these questions. This ignorance of the Roma is related to the distance which arose between the original inhabitants and the Roma, and which remains among a majority of people to this day.

The most well-known and most widely-held opinion about the origin of the Roma was that they originated in Egypt, from where they came to the Christian lands. This is evident in the naming of Roma in many countries - Gitanos, Gypsies - but in reality these names seem to be derived from the name of the Little Egypt region in Peloponnesia or Asia Minor. In the Balkans, the Roma were named by a term originally given to a sect of Macedonian monks, the Athiganoi or Atsiganos, from which came another group of names - Zingaro, Tsigane, Zigeuner, Cigani, Cikani.

The first step in answering the question"Who are the Roma?" was made by chance in 1763 by a Hungarian theology student named Stefan Vali, who met several Indians in Leyden, Holland, where they were studying medicine. Vali was intrigued by their similarity to the Roma, who he knew well from his home in Hungary. He continued beyond these external similarities, writing down more than a thousand Malabar words, along with their meanings. When he returned to Hungary and discovered the meanings of the words among the Roma, he was surprised at the similarity of the two languages. From this beginning, a detailed study followed with the aid of a whole range of experts - linguists, historians, ethnologists - and the Indian origins of the Roma are today established beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Speculation about which level, or caste, of Indian society the Roma belonged went on for many years among the linguists and the historians. The majority of experts came to the hypothesis through their research that the Roma belonged to the lowest caste. Indian society was strictly divided into a series of castes: the Brahmana (priests), the Kshatriya (rulers and soldiers), the Vaishya (artisans, farmers, shopkeepers), and the Shudra (servants and laborers). Membership in the lowest caste would also explain why the Roma began to leave India in the 8th century. (The date of their departure can be estimated by the lack of certain changes in their language that other related Indian languages went through later.) It's possible that they were driven out by frequent droughts or famines, or that they simply wanted to escape from the strict Indian caste system and look for a new "market" for their products and services.

Not only their language bears witness to their Indian origin; there's also the surprising similarity of a number of customs, a similar social structure, their choice of professions, the same technology of metal-working, etc. Linguists were able to lay out Romani history very precisely according to the evolution of Romani dialects. Due to the fact that languages evolve according to certain laws, linguists were able to determine very precisely the period and their places of residence. Among the first philologists to establish this was Martin Block (1936): "The number of foreign loan words in Romales corresponds to the length of stay in various countries." Thanks to this revelation, we can estimate the migration of the Roma from India to Europe with greater precision.

In the opinion of linguists and historians, the Roma's migration from India was dependent on geography, through Mesopotamia to the Near East to the Asian parts of Turkey, where the greater part of the Roma settled and resided for three centuries (from the 12th to the 15th).

This period helped them in their first orientation with a new culture, and facilitated their later advance to Europe. In connection with the Mongol and Turkish expansion, they continued through Asia Minor and the Balkans, settled for a time in Greece, which explains the numerous Greek words in Romales, and then advanced up the Danube valley to Central Europe. A different branch went through Armenia, the Caucasus, later Russia and then Scandanavia. By the 15th century, the Roma were dispersed all throughout Europe, including England and Scotland.

At first these people aroused curiosity in Europe, and their exotic appearance brought forth various speculations about the reasons for their wandering life and theories about their original homeland. Europeans were patient with the nomads at first, taking them to be the penitent Christian pilgrims they passed themselves off as. Chroniclers described their looks and compared them to the Tatars. Dark skinned, they approached the cities in long caravans, some on foot, others on horseback, with wagons full of baggage, women and children. Central Europe still remembered the Tatar raids very well, and the Roma, who were well aware of their similarity to the Tatars, presented themselves as peace-loving folk and good Christians besides.

In some places, the Roma were actually welcomed, because they brought new technologies for working iron and metals, they brought new experiences, and they came - at least according to their testimony - from the Holy Sepulcher. Medieval man, who spent his life in one place, only understood wandering as a form of sacrifice or penance. For this reason, they considered people who wandered to be penitents. The Roma added to these ideas with their own legends. They tried to convince the inhabitants of these medieval towns that their wandering was penance for the sins of their forefathers, who refused to accept the Virgin Mary and Jesus, when they fled before Herod to Egypt. Another universally widespread legend was the justification of their migratory life as punishment for renouncing Christianity, and that they had to pay for this betrayal with 7 years of constant wandering from place to place.

In Europe, the Roma found themselves in an entirely special situation, because their group's informal norms weren't always in harmony with the norm and value systems of the surrounding majority population, and to this day they have difficulty finding a compromise among the norms to follow. The Roma always lived in closed groups. Their entrance into the world of this majority population onlt intensified the closeness of their groups, and the unfriendliness of the "Gadje" strengthened to a certain degree the solidarity between individual Romani groups.

The majority society was and unfortunately remains for the Roma a foreign group, which very rarely did anything good to them in the past, and for this reason they treat it without hesitation as something "secondary," from which they can steal and rob without shame. Until Czech society starts to treat them like they belong, and the Roma feel so toward "Czech" groups, each will remain in their own groups.

The Roma Population in Europe
CountryMinimumMaximum
Albania 90,000 100,000
Austria 20,000 25,000
Belarus10,00015,000
Belgium10,00015,000
Bosnia40,00050,000
Bulgaria700,000800,000
Croatia30,00040,000
Cyprus5001,000
Czech Republic250,000300,000
Denmark1,5002,000
Estonia1,0001,500
Finland7,0009,000
France280,000340,000
Germany110,000130,000
Greece160,000200,000
Hungary550,000600,000
Ireland22,00028,000
Italy90,000110,000
Latvia2,0003,500
Lithuania3,0004,000
Luxembourg100150
Macedonia220,000260,000
Moldavia20,00025,000
Netherlands35,00040,000
Norway5001,000
Poland50,00060,000
Portugal40,00050,000
Romania1,800,0002,500,000
Russia220,000400,000
Serbia-Montenegro400,000450,000
Slovakia480,000520,000
Slovenia8,00010,000
Spain650,000800,000
Sweden15,00020,000
Switzerland30,00035,000
Turkey300,000500,000
Ukraine50,00060,000
United Kingdom90,000120,000
Total Europe(approx.) 7,000,0008,500,000

From the European Roma Rights Centre



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