Europe’s forgotten people

Few people have been subject to so much mythologising as the Roma, though 600 years since their arrival in Europe, they remain little understood.

Roma in Britain.
Roma in Britain. Credit: nobleIMAGES / Alamy Stock Photo

The Roma are an Indian people. They left what is now north-west India and Pakistan in the early decades of the eleventh century. They moved west around the Caspian and into the Byzantine Empire by the end of the thirteenth century. Their arrival in Europe can be traced through city chronicles: by 1362 they were in Croatia, by 1401 in Poland, by 1418 in France, and so on.

Like much of Roma history and culture, the idea of Indian origins was widely contested. Late twentieth-century sociologists and ethnographers argued that Roma identity was merely a construct of dominant social groups, a way of labelling indigenous outcasts and vagrants. DNA research has now confirmed what Romani scholars had long argued, but the idea persists.

It is only two years since Matthew Parris wrote in The Times that the Roma and other travellers were ‘not a race but a doomed mindset’, and that society should work to eradicate their way of life. Legislators have been trying to do just that for centuries: the first attempt in England – in the form of banishment – is in a statute from 1531. Between 1551 and 1774, the Holy Roman Empire passed some 133 laws with that aim.

This April, meanwhile, Diane Abbott, the former Labour Party Shadow Home Secretary, wrote to the Observer that ‘Travellers’, as well as Irish and Jewish people, had experienced prejudice in the past, but not racism. ‘At the height of slavery, there were no white-seeming people manacled on the slave ships,’ she concluded.

But for some five hundred years, Roma in Moldavia and Wallachia were indeed enslaved. Punishments included beating the soles of the feet with a bullwhip until the flesh hung in shreds, and wearing iron collars lined with spikes. Roma women were raped, the men castrated. The killing of Roma slaves, technically illegal, was widespread but went unpunished. Slave auctions continued until the 1850s, the decade that freedom came.

Abbott’s comments were ironic, too, because for centuries, the Roma were also denigrated for the blackness of their skin, as Klaus-Michael Bogdal demonstrates in Europe and the Roma: A History of Fascination and Fear. They were ‘blacks… wild ugly Africans or Moors’, according to Swabian annals of 1418. ‘The men were very black and… the women the ugliest and darkest-skinned people anyone had ever seen,’ runs the Paris city chronicle of 1427. Even in 1909 a Danish travel writer could refer to ‘The Gypsy… with his alien head shape and his black skin… [which] gives them a resemblance to apes’.

The Roma became a target for Nazi genocide. Estimates for the numbers murdered vary. Roma scholar Ian Hancock has suggested it might be as high as 1.5 million – around half of the Roma population of Europe at the time. To distinguish their suffering from the Holocaust, Roma have started using a Romani word, porrajmos, to describe it. It means ‘the devouring’.

Bogdal’s is one of two new books that seek to explore Roma history, the other being Jeremy Harte’s Travellers Through Time: A Gypsy History. Whereas Bogdal’s canvass is pan-European and his focus on representations of the Roma in the wider culture, Harte’s is local and English, and an attempt to examine the community from the inside.

Unfortunately, Bogdal’s book, first published in Germany in 2011, is primarily a chronological literary survey of cultural stereotypes, summarised as ‘foreign nomads… a people of fortune tellers, thieves and robbers, musicians and dancers, whose beautiful women awakened desire’. His method is to work through text after text with laborious plot summaries. Typically, these are of works by minor writers, although some are minor works by great ones, Cervantes, Tolstoy and Strindberg among them. If you are in the market for a six-page précis of Archim von Arnim’s novella Isabella of Egypt, Charles V’s First Love, then this is the book for you.

Bogdal argues that the emphasis on literature is vital because ‘it is only through close textual analysis that we can go beyond the conclusions of history or sociology’. Unfortunately, on the basis of this book at least, the reverse is true. The Roma themselves aren’t so much obscured here as displaced. Roma slavery is only mentioned in passing, for example, and, somewhat surprisingly, Bogdal questions the historicity of organised ‘gypsy hunts’ in the Netherlands and the southern German principalities in the eighteenth century, although most historians consider them a well-attested phenomenon.

For Bogdal, ‘[the] main protagonists are the scholars, intellectuals, writers and researchers’ whom he regards as ‘the creators of culture’ – a revealingly patrician insight. The best chapters are those on the twentieth century, when we largely move out of the library and into the world, and the murderous correlation between literature, and in particular racist pseudo-scientific literature, and the lives of actual people comes into focus.

Jeremy Harte’s Travellers Through Time, meanwhile, is packed with real people leading rich, complex lives. It is not, however, as its publishers claim, ‘the first complete history of the Romany people, from the inside’. Harte, while active in Roma archival and historical organisations, is not himself Roma, and he focuses almost exclusively on the communities in Surrey and neighbouring counties. The approach is sound. As Harte writes: ‘Gypsy history must be a history of life as it was lived, not just the bleak outlines traced by official documentation, and to do that it helps to view things up close.’ But that word ‘complete’ is doing a lot of work.

In England, as on the continent, anti-Roma legislation was ferocious. An Elizabethan law of 1563 made it a capital offence not simply to be an ‘Egyptian’, but to look like or speak like one, too. It stayed on the statute book until 1783. Harte finds no executions under the act in Surrey, however, and only four in Middlesex. David Cressy, in his exemplary Gypsies: an English History (2018), records several dozen deaths nationwide, the last in 1628, when thirteen were hanged at a particularly bloody assizes in Bury St Edmunds. This disjunction between rhetoric and reality is one of the reasons Bogdal’s literature-first approach is so flawed.

Harte has done an excellent job of sifting the archives to show how the Roma lived, and how their lives were interwoven with the wider economy. It is far from true that the Roma were necessarily entirely itinerant. One nineteenth-century family recorded visiting forty-one towns over the course of a year, but by that time many families only travelled through the summer and autumn, when the demand for seasonal labour was at its peak. ‘The gypsies are the best workers in the hop-gardens,’ The Times reported; but farmers welcomed them, too, when it came to pea-picking, hay-making, bringing in the harvest. They were chimney sweeps, knife-grinders, tinsmiths. They repaired cane chairs, mended china; they made clothes-pegs, clothes-lines, baskets. All the family worked.

It is true, though, that the arc of Harte’s narrative tends towards greater restrictions – on freedom of movement, on the kinds of trades practised. As democratic accountability grew, particularly at a local level, so did the punitive sanctions.

Today, nearly half of Europe’s twelve million Roma live in ‘severe material deprivation’ with fully eighty per cent at risk of poverty, according to a 2021 survey from the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. A UK report came to similar conclusions earlier this year. Mobility and migration are likely to be among the defining social issues of European politics in coming decades. And yet, after 600 years, we have hardly begun to understand this great migrant people in our midst.


Mathew Lyons