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The Monacelli Press
New York, 2004

The Photographs of Jan Yoors and His Life with the Gypsies

Ian Hancock


Up until about 1990, if a novel with a Gypsy theme included scattered bits of the Romani language thrown in for the sake of authenticity, then one could have been reasonably sure that, had they not been taken from George Borrow’s nineteenth century works1, then they originated in the books written by Jan Yoors2.  In her Annotated Bibliography, Diane Tong acknowledges that they “have served as the inspiration for many sensationalist novels and most U.S. children’s fiction about Gypsies”3. Indeed not much else containing samples of the language and first-hand details of Romani life was readily available in English until a decade ago, and while the number of books and articles otherwise dealing with Gypsies was huge, very few even came close to being reliable.

The opening up of Eastern Europe has changed all that, and new grammars and dictionaries and ethnographies now number in the dozens.  Romanies from those very areas through which Yoors traveled as a youth are now moving more easily westwards, and those of us in the West are better able to go ourselves to meet them in Central and Eastern Europe.  Nevertheless despite these new freedoms in the post-communist world, books such as those by Yoors and (very few) others are probably the closest most are ever likely to get to encountering the Gypsy people.

The impact, cultural and otherwise, that the Romanies have had on the West is considerable, though for the most part it is not immediately evident; while most people are aware of the Romani roots of flamenco, for example, fewer realize that the classical musical tradition exemplified by the works of Liszt, Dvořak, Rachmaninoff and others owes its inspiration to original Gypsy themes.  Numbers of singers, painters, artists and politicians are of Romani descent (some of these are included in the chronology, below, and include such notables as Charlie Chaplin, Rita Hayworth and Django Reinhardt); perhaps it was these qualities of the culture that inspired Jan Yoors to leave his Belgian family at the age of 12 and travel for the next ten years with a kumpania, a company of nomadic Lovari Romanies4.

Jan Yoors (1922-1977) was a remarkable man. To some he was above all the outsider who was accepted into closed Romani society and who lived within it for a decade, and who was thereby able to bring its details to the outside world.  For others he was an outstanding photographer, and for yet others, a weaver of the most magnificent tapestries. So vivid are his descriptions of life with the Gypsies that it’s been said by some that he surely must have made them up.  Clearly he didn’t; I have met elderly Lovara in Germany and Sweden who spoke of his being remembered in their families from the 1930s, and the photographs in this book are testimony enough. Such a claim was likely seasoned with a measure of resentment, for “running away with the Gypsies” ranks high among the escapist fantasies of the settled world. But Jan Yoors did it, and in so doing has left an account uniquely accurate in its detail, and written in so engrossing a style that he, like Borrow before him, has been the sole entrée into the Gypsy world for so many people.

Those new to the field of Romani Studies learn very quickly that the population referred to as “Gypsies” is in fact considerably diverse, and that those they first met—perhaps vicariously in the pages of one of Jan Yoors’ books—are just one of many distinct groups, all going by the name of “Gypsy” or its equivalent  (Zigeuner, Tsigan, etc.); Yoors himself demonstrates this:  his first intimate contact (though not his first-ever contact) was with Vlax-speaking Romanies, and for him the Sinti Romanies in Northern Europe were “in many respects totally unlike other Romani tribes,” while the Calé Romanies in Spain were “in total contrast” to them.   If this is in fact the case, and in large measure it is, what accounts for such “total” differences among populations sharing the same name and identity?  Should Vlax, Sinti, Calé (and Romanichals and Bashaldé and Manouche and others) even be regarded as the same people?  Are “Gypsies” in fact a European construction, as has been claimed from time to time over the past two centuries?  Such questions can be addressed in a better-informed way today because we know a great deal more about Romani origins that we did even since the time when Yoors was writing.

Theories of Origins

For the first five centuries after the Romani presence was first noted in the West, Europeans were, with only one or two exceptions completely baffled by the newcomers, whom they referred to by a multitude of misnomers and about whose identity they offered a multitude of incorrect hypotheses.  Names deriving from the two commonest misidentifications illustrate this: the words “Gypsy”, “Gitano”, “Gyphtos”, “Sipsiwn,” “Gitan” and several more in various languages derive from Egyptian, while “Zigeuner”, “Tsingan,” “Cigan,” “Zingaro”, “Cingene” and others come ultimately from Atsinganoi, a Greek word at first used to refer to a Melchizedekian religious community in the early Byzantine Empire.  Other common labels reflecting the perceived ethnicity or behavior of the early Romanies include Tatar, Heathen, Saracen, Turk, Bohemian and simply Traveler, so it is easy to see that any firm or clearly understood notion of real Romani identity remained elusive for most of the ca. seven and a half centuries spent in the West, if we take the West to include Constantinople and the area known today as Turkey in Europe, and the former Christian, Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire. 

Unraveling the Origins of the Romanies

It is no secret that the origins of the Romanies are to be found in India.  This has been generally understood for over two hundred years, though it was first referred to in 1550 by Sebastian Mhnster, who was told this by the Romanies themselves5.  And while Romanies in the mediaeval Balkans also reportedly called themselves Romiti and Romavi, these names didn’t stick, and they may in any case have referred to their former home in the Rum Sultanate, whose territory extended into areas of the former eastern Byzantine Empire after the arrival of the Seljuks in 1071.

We generally credit a Hungarian named Valyi Stefan with bringing the Indian connection to the attention of the European scholars, but it took sixteen years for this to happen.  Valyi came from a wealthy, landowning family in the Austro-Hungarian town then known as Raab (now called Győr, located some sixty miles south-east of Vienna).  In 1760 he was attending the University of Leiden in Holland where on one occasion he was sitting in on a discussion about Sanskrit by a group of young men from Malabar, India, students of religious studies like himself.  He knew nothing of Sanskrit, the ancient and sacred Indian language of Vedic literature, but he did know some Romani, which he had picked up from the Gypsy laborers on his family’s estate.  Perceiving some similarities between the two, he mentioned the fact to a colleague and eventually this information found its way into the pages of the Vienna Gazette in 1776 (at about the same time that America was gaining its independence).  Inspired by this report, the first-ever book on Romanies, Die Zigeuner by Heinrich Grellmann appeared seven years later.   This work more than any other is responsible for many of the stereotypes and mistaken notions about Romanies6. It was heavily plagiarized by succeeding writers on the topic, but did establish Romani Studies as a serious, albeit marginal, area of research.  

Linguistics as a Detective’s Tool

Grellmann believed Romanies to be members of the Shudra (his “Suder”) caste, which occupies the lowest stratum in the Indian social hierarchy, because of how he saw their condition in his Europe.  Half a century later, the scholar Augustus Pott published a study of Romanies in which he advanced the likelihood that the Rom were descendants of the dom, a social category of low-caste Indians who, like the Romanies were, among other things, entertainers, fortune-tellers and practitioners of various menial but necessary jobs. 

Pott also wrote about another population that spoke an Indian language and which had apparently migrated out of India, and which in fact called itself Dom.  These were the people commonly called the Nawar (the plural of Nuri), who today live throughout the Middle East, especially in Syria, Jordan and Palestine.  The existence of yet a third group, the Lom (commonly called Bosha) in Armenia and eastern Turkey also came to the attention of the 19th century scholars; while by that time their original language had been whittled away to just a vocabulary scattered throughout the Armenian language, that vocabulary was Indian too.  It was natural to assume, therefore, that the Rom, the Dom and the Lom were all part of one original migration out of India that subsequently branched off in three separate directions, only the Rom reaching Europe. 

The date of the appearance of Grellman’s book fortuitously coincided with the emergence of linguistics as an academic discipline, and this no doubt contributed to the new interest in the Romani language.  Just three years earlier, Sir William Jones had given his groundbreaking talk before the Royal Geographical Society where he argued that languages such as Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, German and others were not independent of each other, as the biblical explanation found in the Tower of Babel account in Genesis chapter 11 would have it, but were related like members of a family, having descended from a single, earlier common ancestor.  From this revelation grew the study of comparative philology, and the attempt to classify the world’s languages into related sets, or families and to reconstruct their so-called protoforms.  Because the early philologists were all Europeans, most emphasis was placed on the interrelationships of the European, or as they were called Indo-Germanic—to include Sanskrit—languages.  The fact that a population speaking a language descended from Sanskrit existed right there within Europe was of immense interest to the philologists, and linguistic studies of the Romanies during the 19th century far outnumbered works on their origin, history and culture.

The 19th century Romanologists, while overwhelmingly interested in linguistic matters, also tried to account for such a widely-dispersed Indian presence in the West.  While several hypotheses were advanced in an attempt to explain who the Romanies were and under what circumstances they had left their homeland, and when, some of them quite imaginative, it was an article by a British military captain named James Harriott which appeared in The Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1830 that seemed to provide a plausible answer7.  Here, he recounted an episode found in the Shah Nameh or Persian “Book of Kings,” written by the 11th century Ghaznavid poet Firdausi.  It told of a visit in AD 439 by Rao Shankal, Maharaja of Sindh, to his son-in-law Bahram Gur, who was the Shah of Persia.  Shankal noted that the Persian citizens seemed morose, and needed to be cheered up, so he sent along a gift of twelve thousand Indian musicians, called Luri, to entertain them.  Evidently they did not meet Bahram’s expectations, however, because he dismissed them at the end of the first year.  There is no record of what happened after that, whether they returned to India or not, but it was assumed that they continued to move westwards eventually finding their way into Europe. 

This story is by far the best known and most often repeated, though Jan Yoors wisely avoided any mention of it, since it does not make a good case for itself under scrutiny.  For one thing, Romani and Domari (the language of the Dom) are considerably different from each other; Romani has more in common with Hindi than it does with Domari—and Lomavren (the language of the Lom), being now just a vocabulary has retained none of its original grammar, which seriously hampers any attempt to compare it with other Indian languages.

If we assume that the “single race speaking a single language” remained intact until it had passed through Persia, then we would expect the Persian words it picked up during that period to be shared by Romani, Domari and Lomavren; but they are surprisingly few: just 16% between Romani and Domari, 7% between Romani and Lomavren, and 12% between Lomavren and Domari8.  By way of comparison, on the other hand, over 50% of the Persian words in Romani are shared by Urdu.  We may further argue that Domari is a three-gender language (with masculine, feminine and neuter nouns), while Romani is a two-gender language (masculine and feminine).  Just as modern French, Spanish and Italian have lost Latin’s third neuter gender, the Old and Middle Indo-Aryan neuter nouns likewise became reassigned to the other two genders with the passage of time.  This only happened at the beginning of the New Indo-Aryan period, however, which dates from about AD 1000.  If the language that was to become Romani had left in the fifth century with the Luri musicians—and the Persian dictionary lists Luri as “remnants of the tribe of Hindu musicians who came to Iran during the reign of Bahram Gur”—or even during Sampson’s ninth century, it would have taken its three genders, and somehow have redistributed all of its neuter nouns to the masculine and feminine sets later on, outside of India and presumably randomly.  But a comparison of what genders the specific neuter nouns were subsequently reassigned to with what the same nouns became in the language left behind in India—Hindi, Panjabi, Gujarati and so on—shows an almost 100% correlation.  We must conclude, therefore, that pre-Romani was still in India while this shift was taking place.  It, and its speakers, were still in India around the year AD 1000, and could not have left any earlier.

Having established a date for a continuing presence in India, we need now to look for the earliest documentation of a Romani presence in the West, because the window of time between both dates must cover the timespan during which their exodus took place.  There are two possibilities, the first, dated AD 10689, from Byzantium reports the presence of “Lors” in that city but that may mean Luri, i.e. Dom, an unrelated people of Indian origin in the Middle East rather than Romanies, though the second10, dated some time in the late 1100s clearly refers to Atsinganoi and Egyptians, then as now the most usual names for Romanies.

Romani has a large vocabulary which, like that of English, is made up of words drawn from many sources.  Its earliest are Indian and Persian, with more acquired from Armenian, Greek and other languages along the way.  After arrival in Europe, still more were adopted into the dialects as their speakers spread out across the land, though here, because of this separation, the new words were different for each group.  Over the centuries this has resulted in considerable lexical differences from dialect to dialect, making the creation of a single standardized written Romani a major issue in the reunification movement11.

An examination of the earliest words suggests a number of things: firstly that there is little in the original, ‘first layer’ Indian vocabulary that reflects a nomadic or itinerant population, but rather it points to a settled one; and secondly that while there are not many original words for e.g. artisan or agricultural skills, there are quite a few military terms.  There are Indian words for soldier and attack but not for farmer or harvest; there are words for sword and spear but not for plow or hoe; there is a word for horse but not for buffalo and so on. Words for all those concepts exist in modern Romani of course, but they have been taken from other languages subsequently, just as English didn’t have the words vote or physics in its original Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, but acquired them later from other languages. Given these lexical clues and the likely time period, and given that the Indian words and grammar in modern Romani point to the languages spoken in the north-western part of India and to nowhere else, an examination of Indian history for evidence of any military activity during that time and in that area is a natural next step.

For roughly the first quarter century of the second millennium, north-western India came under a series of attacks by Muslim troops led by General Mahmud from his headquarters at Ghazna (today called Ghazni and located in Afghanistan).  Between AD 1001 and AD 1026 these Ghaznavids, as they were called, made seventeen forays into the Hindu-Shahi kingdom as far as Kashmir with the intent to spread Islam; they were successful and with only a couple of exceptions were able to win each confrontation with the Indian armies, sometimes taking many hundred of prisoners, as in the encounters at Kabul and Peshawar.  It is to those Hindu soldiers that we look for the ancestors of the Romanies.

The Indian military detachments were made up of the fighters and their camp followers, the people recruited to tend to the duties associated with war.  They generally outnumbered the soldiers themselves, and like the soldiers came from many different backgrounds and spoke many different languages.  The soldiers themselves, whatever their social backgrounds, were given honorary warrior, or kshatriya, caste status and were called Rajputs, or “sons of princes.”  The administrative language of both the government and the military in the Hindu Shahi kingdom during that period was medieval Persian, though the local population spoke different Indian and Dardic languages natively; it is well documented that such a situation gave rise to the Urdu language as a military lingua franca, combining elements from Persian and a number of different Indian languages (its very name Urdu in fact means “battlefield”), and we can speculate that Romani began to emerge under the same circumstances; for want of a name this hypothesized contact language has been called Rajputic elsewhere12.  It shares over three times as many of the same Persian words with Urdu as it does with Domari, and it includes numbers of synonyms traceable to separate Indian dialect groups, i.e. it cannot be linked with any single Indian language but has features from several of them.

If this provides an explanation for where the Romani population may have begun, we are left having to explain how it reached the Byzantine Empire, the period of its history barely ever addressed in the scholarship.  The link may well be another military people, the Seljuqs, who defeated the Ghaznavids in AD 1038 and who took their prisoners of war to use as their own fighting force.  Seljuq historian Edmund Bosworth writes that “Indian troops passed from the Ghaznavid to the Seljuq armies; troops, if not formally made prisoners of war, often joined the bandwagon of the winning side” very willing to turn against their captors, while Leiser surmised that “after the Seljuqs defeated the Ghaznavids they ‘appropriated’ their prisoners of war; such action was fairly commonplace in those days,” and citing the work of the Turkish historian Köyman, which provides several sources, goes on to say that “after the victory at Dandanqan, soldiers from throughout Khurasan, ‘some of whom may have served the Ghaznavids,’ joined the Seljuqs.”13

The Seljuqs, a Turkic people, were not only successful in their attacks to the south but also attacked and defeated Armenia to the north.  Located to the south-east of the Byzantine Empire, Armenia fell to the Seljuqs in AD 1071 and the foundation was laid for the establishment of a new sultanate called Rum, occupying former Armenian and some Byzantine territory in Anatolia—the area that is today Turkey. Fraser14, supporting the conclusion reached in the important earlier work of Soulis15 wrote that “the appearance of the Gypsies in Byzantine lands is undoubtedly connected with the Seljuk raids in Armenia.”  But while it is documented that “Indians” were brought into Byzantine territory by the Seljuqs “usually in a military capacity,” nowhere are those Indians referred to specifically as either Rajputs or Rom.  We would not expect the former, since it is an Indian word and only a minority of the Indians would have been Rajputs in any case, and if, as is proposed here, the Romani population did not come into existence until the Byzantine period, then Rom had not yet become a label.

If it took only some thirty years for the move from India to Anatolia, the stay there lasted for over two centuries and was crucial to the emergence of the Romani people.  As an already ethnically and linguistically mixed population, bound together by former occupation and now social circumstance, the Indians not only intermarried with each other but with the local people as well.  Byzantine society was itself ethnically diverse and included many different peoples and languages, though the lingua franca was Greek and the national religion Orthodox Christianity.  Children newly-born into this community must have been exposed to a variety of languages, including the Rajputic of their own parents and the Greek being spoken all around them.  The influence of Byzantine Greek in the makeup of the Romani language cannot be underestimated; not only does it constitute the second largest percentage of the vocabulary after the Indian words, being found in every semantic area (even in the numerals), but it has also contributed to fundamental areas of the grammar, such as the different words for ‘the.’  We may well suppose that the Romani language, and the Romani people, came into existence in the Byzantine Empire during this time.   Interestingly, a “press release” from the Romani P۰E۰N Centre in Berlin dated 25 January 2003 just announced that Romani is the oldest living language in the world, dating back to before the time of Christ.

The subsequent move up into Europe was also the result of Islamic expansion, this time initiated by the Ottoman Turks, who eventually sacked Byzantium in AD 1453 and extended their influence up into the Balkans, though it would be wrong to think that this migration happened all at one time.  The bubonic plague (the “black death”) had reached western Anatolia by 1347 for instance, and this forced a general migration across into Europe that surely included some Romanies.   Linguistic evidence points to the Romani language existing in three distinct overlapping strata across Europe16, and even before it left Armenia for the Byzantine Empire, the Lom Gypsies seem to have gone their separate way, since while Lomavren shares enough similar Indian words with Romani to point to one migration perhaps as far as this, it includes no Greek words at all.  And there are likewise very few Greek words in at least one European Romani dialect (Istriani, spoken in Slovenia), suggesting an early move out of Anatolia before the heavy lexical impact of Greek had affected it.

Not only was Islam a key factor in the move into Europe, as it was in the move out of India, but both events also shared a military aspect, since the Ottoman Turks used the Romanies “as direct participants (in their armies), mainly as servants in the auxiliary detachments or as craftsmen servicing the army” as Marushiakova & Popov have written17.  By the 1300s, there were specifically military garrisons of Romanies at  Nauplia and at Mount Gype in Modon, both in Venetian Peloponnesia, today southern Greece.  The Romanies had arrived in Europe.

Reception in Europe

Three salient, and hitherto not considered, aspects of the contemporary Romani condition rest upon the facts of their history: firstly that the population has been a composite one from the very beginning, secondly that while their earliest components originated in India, Romanies essentially constitute a population that acquired its identity in the West, and thirdly that their entry into Europe was not as a single people, but as a number of smaller migrations over perhaps as much as a two-century span of time.  Together these account in part for the lack of cohesiveness among the various groups self-identifying as Romani.  We might see each major post-Byzantine group as evolving in its own way, continuing independently a process of assimilation and adaptation begun in north-western India.  Thus the descendants of those who were held in slavery until the 19th century, and those whose ancestors entered Spain in the 15th century are today very different, as Yoors has noted; the former—the Vlax Romanies—have been heavily influenced genetically, culturally and linguistically by Romanian and the Romanians; the latter on the other hand—the Calé Romanies—have been influenced in the same way by Mozarabic and Spanish, and both populations have furthermore been separated by six centuries.  Thus any original characteristics they might still share, the genetic, linguistic and cultural so-called “core of direct retention,” are greatly outweighed by characteristics accreted from the non-Romani world.  The reunification movement urged by such organizations as the International Romani Union or the Roma National Congress seeks to emphasize the original, shared features of each group rather than those acquired from outside which separate them; yet for some, that original material is now scant, and creating for them any sense of a pan-Romani, global ethnicity would require the kind of effort that is, sadly, very far down on the list of day-to-day priorities and, pragmatically, would be difficult to instigate.

We do not know how the various groups of Romanies first entered Europe. Most presumably crossed the isthmus at Constantinople, though it has been suggested that others left Anatolia by boat across the Aegean or even the Black Sea.  In whatever way they reached the Balkans, they continued to move on in all directions, being reported in almost every country in Europe by 1500.  The earliest accounts describe large companies of travelers making their way across the land offering artisan services to the public, entertaining them and telling their fortunes.  Widely separated reports told the same story—that the newcomers were on a religious pilgrimage and were to be given unhindered passage, and the Romanies had the documentation to prove it; writs for such a purpose were already in use at that time by various European groups such as the Rubins and the Convertis, and were for the most part almost certainly forgeries.  In 1427 a Parisian journal recorded the appearance of Romanies at the gates of that city thus: “[they] claim to have come from Rome, where they had seen the Pope . . . the men are very dark and their hair crisp; the women the ugliest and swarthiest ever seen.  Despite their poverty, there were sorcerers among them who looked at people’s hands and revealed the past and predicted the future.” 

Reception in western Europe was somewhat more tolerant than it was in the north and the south.  In the north, particularly in the German and Dutch speaking coastal territories, the Romanies were associated with the Ottoman invasion and were harshly persecuted, establishing treatment that was to worsen over the centuries and which was to culminate in the Baro Porrajmos or Holocaust, which ended Jan Yoors’ idyllic period of travel with the Romanies.  He writes about the Romani experience in the Holocaust in his book Crossing (1971).  In the south, in Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania, large numbers of those accompanying the Turks were held in bondage, a condition which developed into legalized slavery by the 15th century and which lasted until the 1860s18. It is from those slaves that the Lovara descend, the Romanies with whom Yoors lived for ten years.

While the attitude towards the Romanies differed from place to place, it was universally suspicious and often cruel even though they were useful, either performing remedial tasks such as metal repair and blacksmithing, manufacturing tasks such as pot or trough or kettle-making, or else entertaining or doing some of the unsavory jobs avoided by the Europeans.  The fortune telling mentioned above was an occupation brought from Asia, and was reported from all over Europe. It was both easily conveyed from place to place, and it afforded some protection to its practitioners, who were believed to possess magical skills and therefore the ability to ‘curse.’  Yoors discusses palmistry in The Gypsies on pp. 55-57.  Another ‘transportable’ occupation, so necessary when being constantly moved on by the authorities, was—and is—horsetrading.  Yoors describes this in The Gypsies on pp. 101-104.

It was because Romanies occupied an economic, and to an extent social, niche in pre-industrial Europe that their presence was borne, though it rarely extended beyond mere tolerance because of the barriers erected by both sides.  This double wall separating the Romani and the non-Romani worlds has had centuries to establish itself, and it is because of it that antigypsyism is so rampant today; so rampant in fact that in 2001 a United Nations report called it “Europe’s most serious human rights problem”19 and The Economist could write in the same year that the Romanies were “at the bottom of every socio-economic indicator: the poorest, the most unemployed, the least educated, the shortest-lived, the most welfare dependent, the most imprisoned and the most segregated.”20

Discrimination has been a constant factor in the Romani experience in the West, and Yoors mentions it repeatedly throughout his writings.  For the Europeans, it grew out of a number of different threads intertwining into a general institutionalized prejudice: fear of the non-white, non-Christian outsider, fear of supposed skills with sorcery, resentment towards any people not wanting to partake openly in the Europeans’ own established societies, and scorn for the landless and the weak.  It is this last which is a major factor today, since post-communist Europe has seen the emergence of nation states bent on promoting their own identities and loath to incorporate their minority populations.  When Serbia expels its ethnic Bosnians they can find refuge in neighboring Bosnia; when Romania mistreats its ethnic Hungarians they are welcomed in Hungary—which, furthermore, can protest the situation in the United Nations and the European Union.  But Romanies, easily the largest and most widespread minority throughout eastern Europe, numbering between six and eight million, have no geographical territory to call home; nowhere to go and no means of defense whatsoever.

The second part of the double wall separating Romanies from gadñe21 is kept in place from the Romani side.  Romani culture, with its roots in the Indian caste system, is centered on fundamental notions of what is ritually clean or pure, and what is ritually defiled, or contaminated.  For Romanies, and for the group to which Yoors’ Lovara belong especially, the division between the two determines every aspect of daily life; one must be ‘clean’, and in order to maintain this state, strict behaviors must be followed in cooking, eating, washing, speaking, interacting with others and so on.  Not maintaining this brings negative consequences, particularly in one’s luck and health.   There are a number of ‘defiled’ conditions one may find oneself in, the most serious being marime22, and one can become defiled by associating with others who are already that way.   Since gadñe do not follow the required behaviors, they are defiled and defiling—hence the effort not to socialize too closely with them.  It should be emphasized that this is not an inherited condition, since a non-Romani (such as Jan Yoors himself, and gadže who have married into Romani society) can become ‘clean’ by observing the cultural mores of the Romanies.  But it is quite easy to see that any population that keeps itself to itself, for whatever reason, is not going to endear itself to the wider world.   Romanies generally find non-Romani behavior puzzling or amusing, and while aspects of the non-Romani world are attractive and sometimes enviable, they are just as frequently seen as offensive and unsanitary.  Deliberately offensive behavior also serves to maintain a distance between the two worlds; in Chapter Three of The Gypsies Yoors provides a vignette describing these attitudes, and relates how a fake ‘coughing attack’ or vigorous scratching can drive away inquisitive outsiders.  Anne Sutherland has also described how, during her early attempts to make contact with the Romani American population in order to gather material for her book Gypsies: The Hidden Americans23, she approached. . . a young woman of of my own age who smiled at me, talking soothingly and ingratiatingly, but when I asked to speak with her father, she lunged at me, grabbing my face with her fingernails, screaming and cursing “what do you want?!”.  The second Gypsy I talked with vehemently denied that he was a ‘Gypsy’—what better technique for not answering questions!—and the third feigned imbecility, mumbling to herself and staring wildly into space . . . this and subsequent experiences [included] polite imperviousness, pretence of mental retardation, deafness or blindness, mocking lies [and] simply disappearing from sight.

Yoors also draws attention to the difference between speaking Romani, which he says is used for telling the truth, and speaking any other language, which he maintains “forces [Romanies] to lie” (p. 51).  This isn’t true, of course; one can lie perfectly well in Romani too; but the language does reflect the insider-outsider barrier nevertheless, in its words for ‘man,’ ‘woman,’ ‘boy’ and ‘girl’, which make it clear whether a Romani or a non-Romani is being spoken about.

Another characteristic of Romani behavior often referred to is that of using multiple names (Yoors describes this on p. 210 of The Gypsies); concealing identity in this way is used to avoid involvement with the establishment, among other things—it may serve to get rid of truant officers looking for a child being kept out of school, for example. 

Exclusionism is also evident in the Vlax Romanies’ own legal system, called the kris, and which Yoors refers to several times in his works (e.g. on p. 174 in the Waveland edition of The Gypsies, or p. 65 of the Simon & Schuster edition of Crossing).  This is a court of elders, probably having its ultimate origin in the Indian panchayat and later reinforced by similar non-Romani tribunal-like structures formerly found in the rural Balkans.  A Romani leader bringing his people to stay in a town for the first time will approach the local law enforcement agency and attempt to persuade it to allow any infractions of the law by members of his community to be dealt with internally.  Interestingly, this has been the case since the earliest Romani presence in Europe:  a letter of protection signed by King Sigismund of Hungary and dated about 1417 included the order that “if there should be found among them . . . any troublesome incident of whatever nature, it is our will and formal command that the [Romani leader] Ladislas and he alone exercise the right to punish and absolve, to the exclusion of all of you.”  Interestingly, the British government approached Yoors during the Second World War to ask him whether, because of his access to the kris, he could persuade nomadic Roma to serve as spies for the allies.  Yoors declined.

Industrialization has also played a part in shaping the Romani condition.  Not only has it made obsolete some of the traditional occupations, mass production reducing the number of household items needing repair, for example, but it created an Angst in the western mind which led to the emergence of a fictional ‘gypsy’ persona24.  Like other aspects of the Romani people, this was also the result of the coming together of several different factors.  The Industrial Revolution, which began in the late 1700s, moved western European economies inexorably from one that was agriculturally based to one that was mechanized, and created filthy and inhuman urban conditions luridly described in the Victorian literature.  This in turn created nostalgia for a cleaner and simpler time, idealized by artists in their paintings of farmyards, millstreams and shepherdesses.  Romanies were regarded as having been quite unaffected by this, and came to represent an unspoiled, rural, nomadic life, particularly in works of fiction.  The writings of Grellmann in Germany, and especially George Borrow in England, portrayed Romanies in this way: unsophisticated and crude, but children of nature, keepers of a lost time joyously unconcerned with the mundane responsibilities of civilized life.  It has been claimed a dozen times that the concepts of duty and possession are alien to Romanies, for which no words exist in the language25. This assumed characteristics of irresponsibility and wild abandon are often exploited in literary descriptions of Romani life; the children’s magazine Disney Adventures describes the “gypsy spirit” as wanting to “run away from it all and dance among the dandelions” rather than being “a buckle-down, rules and regulations kinda person”26.  It is evident that it is through literature especially that the ubiquitous Gypsy stereotype is sustained.  Yoors presents a far truer picture, e.g. on pp. 90-92 of The Gypsies; that singing and dancing can help to ease the pain of the loss of loved ones and the tremendous emotional strain of being constantly rejected and moved on by the authorities.

The imposing of Christianity upon non-European populations as a necessary ingredient of colonialism also affected Romanies, who were regarded as ‘heathens on the doorstep’ conveniently accessible for conversion.  An article in one Victorian magazine drew attention to the fact that there were Romani encampments right there “at the centre and capital of the mighty British nation, which takes upon itself the correction of every savage tribe in South and West Africa and Central Asia”27.  This image is a major barrier to an accurate understanding of the Romani people.  In a recent book on the Romani American population, David Nemeth writes the popular Gypsy motif has been so resistant to change over the decades that recent Gypsy-organized political efforts to erase its influence over the public mind seems wasted. . . some Gypsy activists have been more than anxious to distance themselves from the stereotype . . . [but] the tactic must fail because it only fuels non-Gypsy skepticism28.

 While this was happening, the same colonialism and the European domination of non-western peoples were feeding into notions of a hierarchy of human groups.  From the new sciences of botany and zoology the move to classifying human populations was a natural step, and the idea of “races” and their ranking occupied much of the scientific and nationalistic thought of the day.  Populations resulting from unions of different “races” were believed to inherit the worst characteristics from each, and thus only the genetically pristine or “True Romany” counted for anything.  Of course no such individuals really exist who have 100% Indian ancestry on both sides reaching back over the past thousand years, but it was a way to idealize a whole people, and to dismiss those considered degenerate half-breeds.  Nazi ideology especially targeted Zigeuner-Mischlinge, or “mixed” Romanies, as being a particular threat. The wartime Danish sociologists Erik Bartels and Gudrun Brun wrote that “The pure Gypsies present no great problem, if only we realize that their mentality does not allow of their admittance to the well-ordered general society . . . the mixed Gypsies cause considerably greater difficulties ( . . . nothing good has) come from crossing between a Gypsy and a white person”29. The Nazis had a four-tier system of identification, worn on an arm-patch that distinguished individuals with two Romani parents (<Z>), those having more than 50% Romani ancestry (<ZM+>), those with 50% Romani ancestry (<ZM>), and those with less than 50% (<ZM->).  During the Second World War, Yoors was approached by British Intelligence and asked whether, given his connections within the Romani community, he could organize a Kris in order to persuade European Romanies to engage in espionage for the Allies.

In recent years a virtual “Gypsy Industry” has emerged.  With the sharp increase in antigypsyism following the demise of the communist governments in central and eastern Europe, there has been a desire on the part of many Romanies for the return of communism, not for its ideology but for the relative protection it afforded simply by suppressing ethnic self assertion and aggression.  Given their overall numbers and voting potential, Romanies are therefore seen by some to present a threat to democracy if they continue to think this way, and thus a number of human rights organizations have come into existence since 1989 to combat such a possibility.  It is telling that such organizations did not exist before then, when the Romani situation was equally deplorable, and we might justifiable question whether it was Romani human rights or western politics that has been the main motivating priority for their concern.  Several U.S. colleges now offer new courses in “Gypsy Studies,” provided by faculty members with no qualifications in the area whatsoever; the number of theses and dissertations currently being undertaken which deal with Romani issues (particularly in post-communist Europe) has also increased remarkably, almost all of them supervised by committees similarly unfamiliar with the population being studied30.  There have been at least three international conferences on Romanies since 1995 that have not included any Romanies either in their organization or among the presentations.   Members of itinerant populations such as the Beash in Hungary or the Irish Travellers in Britain who in the past have staunchly maintained their non-Romani identity are now finding it to their advantage to claim a Romani connection, now that it is to their advantage where grants or legal protection have become a consideration.  The growing acknowledgment by immigration authorities that individual Romani asylum seekers frequently have a legitimate case has led to a growing number of non-Romanies from eastern Europe claiming to be Romanies in their bid for refugee status in Canada and the United States. 

Since it was first published simultaneously by Simon & Schuster (in the U.S.) and Allen & Unwin (in the U.K.) in 1967, The Gypsies has reappeared, along with other Romani-related texts by Yoors and other authors thanks to the Westview Press, and the present book now brings Jan Yoors to a renewed public awareness of his experiences among the Romanies and his contributions to a non-Romani understanding of that world and its people.  While his sometimes chauvinistically male-oriented perspective has been commented upon, e.g. by Diane Tong in her Romani bibliography31, and while he makes no mention of the Romani political and intellectual activity which also existed during the period covered in his account, he demonstrates an understanding of, and sensitivity to, aspects of the Romani way of life virtually never achieved by an outsider.  His books will remain essential reading for anyone wanting to know something about Gypsies.

If one thing is starkly evident from an examination of the historical experience of the Romani people, it is that this population has shown an incredible tenacity in maintaining its distinctiveness despite the lack of a homeland or government, and despite the passage of many centuries.  For most Romani groups the language and culture remain to a greater or lesser degree intact, and the collective will to survive is evident in the post-abolition emergence of numbers of nationalist organizations.  With no outside support whatsoever following the emancipation from slavery and the end of the Porrajmos, the two greatest tragedies in their European experience, Romanies now have representation in the United Nations and the Council of Europe, and are speaking out for themselves at the highest international levels.


1Borrow’s principal works include Lavengro (1851), The Zincali (1851), The Romany Rye (1857), Wild Wales (1862) and Romano Lavo-Lil (1874).

2 Yoors’ Romani-related works are The Gypsies (1967), Crossing (1971) and The Gypsies of Spain (1974). His articles in The Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society are “Reminiscences of the Lowara I: Lowara children,” JGLS 24(1/2):8-16 (1945); “Reminiscences of the Lowara II: A Lowara camp,” JGLS 24(3/4):81-87 (1945); “A Lowara tale,” JGLS 25(1/2):3-20 (1946); “Lowara law and jurisdiction,” JGLS 26(1/2):1-17 (1947); “O drom le Lowarengo I,” JGLS 38(1/2):44-54 (1959); “O drom le Lowarengo II,” JGLS 38(3/4):94-105 (1959); “O drom le Lowarengo III,” JGLS 39(1/2):51-63 (1960); “O drom le Lowarengo IV,” JGLS 39(3/4):151-158 (1960) and “O drom le Lowarengo V,” JGLS 40(1/2):19-25 (1961).

3 Diane Tong, Gypsies: A Multidisciplinary Annotated Bibliography, Garland Publishing: New York 1995, p. 21.

4 There are many groups of Romanies.  The earliest attempts at their classification was by country, though this gives a very misleading picture.  Current attempts at classification are by dialect, and there are between an estimated sixty and one hundred of these, not all of them still spoken and not all of them well described.  On this basis the overall Romani population is divided into four main groups, viz. Northern, Central, Balkan and Vlax.  The Northern group includes the dialects spoken across the north of Europe and (formerly) in Britain and the Iberian peninsula; the Central groups are represented in Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Transylvania and elsewhere, the Balkan dialects in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, etc., and the Vlax, or Danubian group in Romania.  But every one of these has been taken far from these areas, so that today there are hundreds of thousands of speakers of Vlax and Northern Romani dialects in the Americas, for example, and speakers of Northern dialects in Italy and of a Balkan dialect in Iran.

5 Sebastian Münster, Cosmographie Universelle, Basel, (1550).

6 Heinrich Grellmann, Die Zigeuner: Ein historischer Versuch über die :ebensart und Verfassung, Sitten und Schicksahle dieses Volks in Europa, nebst Ihrem Ursprunge.  Leipzig (1783).

7 John Harriott, “Observations on the Oriental origin of the Romanichal, or tribe miscalled Gipsey and Bohemian,” Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society, 2:518-558 (1830).

8 Ian Hancock, “On the migration and affiliation of the Dōmba: Iranian words in Rom, Lom and Dom Gypsy,” in Yaron Matras, ed., Romani in Contact, Amsterdam: Benjamins, pp. 21-51.

9 In The Life of St. George the Athonite, see George Soulis, Gypsies in the Byzantine Empire and the Balkans in the late Middle Ages,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 15:142-165 (1961),  pp. 148-149.

10 By Theodore Balsamon; see Angus Fraser, The Gypsies. Blackwell: Oxford 1992,  p. 46.

11 For further discussion see Ian Hancock, “Language corpus and language politics: The case of the standardization of Romani,” in Farimah Daftary, ed., Nation Building, Ethnicity and Language Politics in Transitional Countries, Budapest: LGI Publishers (2003).

12 E.g. inIan Hancock, “The emergence of Romani as a koïné outside of India,” in Thomas Acton, ed., Scholarship and the Gypsy Struggle, Hatfield: The University of Hertfordshire Press, pp. 1-13.

13 In personal correspondence with both authors, and see also C. Edmund Bosworth, The Ghaznavids: Their Empire in Afghanistan and Eastern Iran 994-4040, Edinburgh: The University Press (1963) and his The History of the Seljuq Turks, Richmond: Curzon Press (2001), and Gary Leiser, A History of the Seljuks, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press (1988).  Also A. Köymen, “Büyük Selçuklu imparatorluğu’nun kuruluşu,” DTCF Dergisi 15:29-150 (1957).

14 See note 10, above.

15 Note 9, above.

16 More details are found in Marcel Cortiade, Phonologie des Parlers Rom et Diasystème Graphique de la Langue Romani, unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of the Sorbonne (1994).

17 Elena Marushiakova & Vesselin Popov, “The Romanies in the Balkans during the Ottoman Empire,” Roma, 47:63-72 (1997), p. 63.

18 See Ian Hancock, The Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Persecution and Slavery, Ann Arbor: Karoma Publishers, 1987.

19 The United Nations statement on racism was broadcast on the British Broadcasting Company World Service on 5 September, 2001, in a documentary entitled “Europe’s neglected race: European Roma face discrimination.”

20 Jonathan Ledgard, “Europe’s spectral nation,” The Economist, 12 May, 2001:29-31.

21 That is, non-Romanies; Yoors spells it Gaje.

22 Yoors spells this marhime.

23 Anne Sutherland, Gypsies: The Hidden Americans,Tavistock Publications: London 1975, p. 21.

24 The phrase “small-g gypsy” has come to stand for the “gypsy” most often found in literature—not a member of an ethnic population (which would require an upper-case initial) but an individual so labeled because of his or her behavior and appearance.  While publishers are being persuaded to write the word with a proper noun’s capital letter, it is in fact now being slowly replaced by the more accurate Roma or (preferably) Romanies.

25 See Ian Hancock, “Duty and beauty, possession and truth: the claim of lexical impoverishment as truth,” in Diane Tong, (ed.), Gypsies: An Interdisciplinary Reader, Garland Publishing, London & New York, 1998, pp. 115-126. 

26 Suzanne Harper  & Liz Smith, “Do you have a gypsy spirit?”, Disney Adventures, August 1966, pp. 24-25.

27 Anon., The Illustrated London News, November 29th, 1873, p. 503.  See David Mayall, Gypsy-Travellers in Nineteenth Century Society.  Cambridge: The University Press, 1988, for an account of missionary activity among Romanies during this period, and the emergence of the fictional gypsy image).

28 David Nemeth, The Gypsy American: An Ethnographic Study, The Edwin Mellen Press: Lewiston 2002, p. 189).  David Sibley has attempted to explain the persistence of the “Gypsy myth” despite the availability of resource material by noting that it “serves to define the boundaries of the dominant system” (Outsiders in Urban Societies, Blackwell: Oxford 1981, pp. 195-196).

29 Erik Bartels & Gudrun Brun, The Gipsies in Denmark.  Copenhagen: Munksgaard 1943, p. 5.

30 An interesting reflection of a growing popular awareness of “gypsies” is found on the Internet auction website eBay.  In 2000, keying in “Gypsy” brought a return of about 600 items being offered; three years later the number had grown to over three thousand, though they consist overwhelmingly of  “gypsy” jewelry, skirts and blouses.

31 Op. cit., note 3 above, p. 68.

32 This Chronology has been assembled from a number of existing works, including Jean-Pierre Liégeois, Gypsies: An Illustrated History, London: Al-Saqi Books (1988), Ian Hancock, “Gypsy history in Germany and neighboring lands: A chronology leading to the Holocaust,” in David Crowe & John Kolsti, eds., The Gypsies of Eastern Europe, Armonk: E.C. Sharpe (1991:11-30), Ian Hancock, Siobhan Dowd & Rajko Durić, eds., The Roads of the Roma, Hatfield: The University of Hertfordshire Press (1998), and Donald Kenrick, Historical Dictionary of the Gypsies (Romanies), Lanham: The Scarecrow Press (1998).

33 The original documents are reproduced in Ian Hancock, We Are the Romani People (Hertfordshire University Press: Hatfield, 2001, on pp. 38-40), though in his book The Architect of Genocide:Himmler and the Final Solution (London & Hanover: University Press of New England, 1991, p. 20), Richard Breitman  says “the Nazis are not known to have spoken of the Final Solution of the gypsy problem.”  Gerald Posner and John Ware similarly make no mention of Joseph Mengele’s almost pathological preoccupation with his experiments upon  Romani twins in their Mengele: The Complete Story(McGraw Hill, New York, 1986).  This lack of rigorous scholarship where Romanies are concerned only contributes to the lack of available information, and distorts the details of Romani history by its omission.

34 A list of some of these may be found in Hancock (1987:105-106), note 18, above.