Back to Main Category

American Historical Review, Fall 1995


David M. Crowe, A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia.
St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1995. HB pp. xvi + 317; map. ISBN 0-312-08691-1.

Since the fall of Communism in 1989, there has been a proliferation of academic works on Romanies (“Gypsies”). Suddenly Roma have become real people. Prior to that time, almost everything generally available on this, Europe’s largest and most widely dispersed ethnic minority, was unscholarly at best, and at worst presented the population in embellished terms as one of mysterious origins defined by its exotic appearance and way of life; serious studies were not easily accessible to the ordinary public.

It has been this “exoticization” of Romanies which has, in large part, hindered academic studies of the population and which has caused their situation not to have been regarded with much seriousness by governmental, human rights, academic and other agencies. The appearance of David Crowe’s book gives the lie in no uncertain terms to this popular notion of the “Gypsy” people.

Romanies arrived in Europe during the second half of the 13th century, having left India, their ancestral homeland, some two and a half centuries earlier as a result of Muslim incursions into the Subcontinent. Their entry into Europe was also due to the spread of Islam, this time into the West, and it is because of their perceived association with the Islamic conquerors that they were identified as Egyptians (hence Gypsies”), and it is here, together with the factors of race prejudice and their non-territorial status, that we must seek the beginnings of the bigotry which plagues them to this day. It is the latter factor in particular—non-territoriality—that underlies much of the discussion in Crowe’s book. Their outsider status is compounded by the fact that Roma came from Asia, and speak an Asian language through which a set of cultural values and a world view rooted in Asia are expressed. The Romani population, despite nearly eight centuries of coexistence and genetic mixing with white populations, remains at its core a people of Indian origin in Europe, marginalized in each country it inhabits.

David Crowe divides his chapters geographically, which for contemporary American political scientists who tend to be concerned with events in specific countries, is useful. But Roma are a diasporic population, and their various ethnic subdivisions cross national boundaries, thus the discussion takes on a Eurocentric perspective. Indeed, the book relies wholly upon written sources and makes no concession to any primary input from Romani spokesmen or scholars. Only gadje (non-Romanies) are thanked in the acknowledgements, for example. Nor has the author succeeded in presenting the specifically Romani point of view. Roma are talked about, not with, and were given no opportunity to speak for themselves in the preparation of the book. Despite this weakness, and it is one that characterizes practically all academic writings on Romanies, Crowe is to be highly commended for emphasizing history, as the very title indicates. It is impossible to begin to understand the contemporary situation of Roma without examining the historical roots which underlie it, yet writers from eastern Europe especially, schooled in an ideology which discounted history, routinely seek to explain the situation of the Roma in wholly synchronic terms.

The book consists of a five-page introduction that touches uncritically upon theories of Romani origins, some of which have no place in serious Romanological studies, and it makes the point that, despite centuries of oppression, Roma have in some instances been able to acquire status in the larger societies, though the only example given is that of entertainers. The main part of the book consists of six chapters arranged by country (with the omission of Greece, Albania and Poland, the last especially significant since it was here that an incipient monarchical dynasty began to emerge prior to the Second World War, unique in European Romani history). The Conclusion, just three and a half pages long, claims that Romani history in Europe has been a “bittersweet tale,” though a perusal of the volume reveals no taste of sweetness there, merely one of unrelieved oppression. The author’s frequent use of the terms “tribe” and “lifestyle” should be questioned; Romani social structure is not generally tribal, and it diminishes an entire way of life somewhat to call it a “style” of living. Also disconcerting is the statement that “despite the general dislike for the Roma . . . there was also a grudging admiration for their special talents and skills. Their value to the boyars of Moldavia and Wallachia helped pave the way to their enserfment” (p. 236); this suggests that by making themselves grudgingly admirable, Roma were somehow themselves responsible for being made slaves, and furthermore that this was somehow a good thing for them.

Despite its inevitable Euro-American perspective on Romani history, David Crowe has done a remarkably thorough and compassionate job, and his book should be, along with Angus Eraser’s The Gypsies (Basil Blackwell: Cambridge, 1992), a basic research tool in any Romanologist’s library.

Ian Hancock

The Romani Archives and Documentation Center
The University of Texas at Austin