As most of you know my Inzared series is about a Gypsy Circus set in the mid-1800’s in America. I thought you might like to know a little about this often-misunderstood culture.
Gypsies, sometimes called Travelers, originated from India and emigrated to Europe around 1300. Because of their dark skin and odd language they were mostly shunned from well-populated areas. At the time, the Europeans thought they might be scouts for an Ottoman invasion and shunned them. Thus began the Gypsy nomadic journeys of moving from place to place. These people were highly trained craftspeople but those in Europe wanted nothing to do with them at first.
The Gypsy way of life was not so different as modern-day people who choose to retire and live in a motor home, other than their beliefs and culture. Gypsies were musicians, fortune tellers, healers and skilled at household repairs, circus acts and spreading gossip from one town to the next. They were good with animals and before the onset of Veterinarians were highly sought after for animal care and healing. Grudgingly the European people accepted the Gypsies and hired them to work on farms and do other itinerant jobs. However, as Christians, the Europeans did not allow the fortune telling, even though is was part of the Gypsy religion and highly sought after within their own people.
As the Travelers roamed Europe in family caravans, they became used to the way of life. They parked their wagons (called a Vardo) outside of towns and cities. Also because of distrust, acceptance and even death, the Gypsy people had no respect for the Gaji (anyone other than a Gypsy) and stayed away from them, other than to do the jobs they were hired for.
There was (and still is) an interesting hierarchy in the clans. From 10 to two hundred families would band together and choose a kumpania to rule the tribe. This elected official was a lifetime commitment. There were many other breakdowns of the governing body but too many to write about here.
Romani, the name most used for Gypsies, had very different rules than the Gaji and they didn’t even try to fit in. For instance, they did not believe in sending their children to school and taught them within the family unit. The most popular way was to teach the children the songs and poems that had been written and passed down through the ages about their ancestors. Adults taught their offspring by doing rather than studying. This was the only accepted form of learning for the youngsters.
Marriages were only within the Gypsy culture and were arranged by the elder in the family. These marriages could begin as early as ten or twelve years old. The entire family stayed together as a unit and the young took care of the old. One of the reasons these people were shunned from mainstream society was their language, which was close to Sanskrit and had many different dialects.
Note: In my book Inzared is a white mountain girl who marries a Gypsy but since his parents were deceased and he was on his own it was acceptable (although still frowned upon) by his clan. It took a long time for the clan to even accept Inzared because she was Gaji, but because she was a hardworking girl and learned quickly she soon found herself riding the elephant in the circus.
Travelers had their own religion, even though it was thought they were pagan. They believed in a higher being and heaven and hell.
Because of such a long saga of persecution and misunderstanding Gypsies are still a country unto themselves, with their dark skin, unusual customs and language. Like their forbears, most still choose to travel although there are some who have actually settled in one place. Some have become con artists and they are the people who give Gypsies a bad name and make people afraid of them. This is not the norm. Most of these people are generous and caring, doing good work and are fair and honest.
I hope this will help you understand this interesting culture a bit. While I chose to go with Romanians who were skilled in the circus trade, as you can see there were many clans. Both men and women were involved in the circus, from creating costumes, fortune telling at shows, working with the animal acts, cooking for the troupe and making their own repairs. Many of the women were acts in the circus as were men. They were exacting about their craft, spending many long hours practicing and teaching their children the trade.
During World War II the Nazis persecuted the Romani people. They were hauled off to concentration camps or shot on sight. After the war in some countries Gypsy women were sterilized from 1973 to 1989 to “control the birth rate in the Romani culture”. In 2008 two Gypsy children drowned at a beach in Italy where beachgoers heard their screams for help and ignored them. In 2010 France began to demolish Romani camps and repatriate them to their country of origin. There has been much persecution in Europe even to this day of an unwanted, misunderstood people.
I was very fortunate to be in contact with museums in the US, Germany and Poland who were more than happy to help as I researched my books. If you’d like to find out more, here are a couple of links you may be interested in.
National Geographic: Roman Culture and Traditions
The Romani People:
And a just-for-fun flashback:
Books by L.Leander:
You can also find L.Leander here: