The History and Origin of the Roma|
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
the "Gadje" strengthened to a certain degree the solidarity between individual
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
|Albania|| 90,000|| 100,000|
|Austria|| 20,000|| 25,000|
|Total Europe(approx.)|| 7,000,000||8,500,000|
From the European Roma Rights Centre