Peripatetics - History and Cultural Relations



History. The presence of itinerant groups that lived by trade and handicraft in medieval Europe is fairly well documented. Certain mangones and occiones, horse dealers and metalworkers, were itinerant in Charlemagne's empire (eighth century). In twelfth-century Ireland, certain tynkers were to be found, and at the beginning of the fourteenth century nomads by the name of sculuara were the subject of one of the king of Sweden's decrees. In addition to the continual presence of these groups of presumably autochthonous origin, medieval Europe would seem to be scoured now and then by foreign groups: "Egyptian" acrobats visit Greece, Macedonia, and Spain, while an "Ethiopian" group given to magic artistry visits Italy, Spain, France, and England during the thirteenth century. However, undoubtedly at the start of the fifteenth century Western exotic nomads began to invade western Europe. Their presence in the Balkans had already been noted during the previous two centuries. Although Europeans used many names to describe these foreigners, two are by far the most common: "Egyptians" in the Atlantic Regions, which was to become "Gitanos" in Spanish, "Gitans" in French, "Gypsies" in English, etc.; and "Cigani" (a term whose etymon is dubious—perhaps from the Greek word "Atsinganoi") used in central-eastern Europe with several variants: "Zigeuner" in German, "Zingari" in Italian, "Cingani" in modern Latin, etc. The two terms overlap in many regions. The relationships established between the newcomers and the local peripatetic groups do not appear to have been always univocal. Although it may be true that Modern literature notes several cases of "counterfeit Egyptians," that is, people of the so-called "dangerous classes" joining bands of Gypsies or passing themselves off as Gypsies, it is equally true that foreign peripatetics often kept their identity distinct from that of the local ones. As far back as the sixteenth century, one anonymous author compared the two groups and demonstrated their diversity through Ethnographic and linguistic data. Language research, in fact, dates back to the end of the eighteenth century and plays an Important role in the study of the history of the exotic peripatetics' migrations, by making the connection between Romani (the language of the Gypsies) and the neo-Sanskrit languages of India. The race to discover the Gypsies' Indian origins (the region of India they came from) and the era of their departure was, thus, initiated. Different interpretations of certain phonological and lexicological features have resulted in moving the "country" of origin, from central India either to Northwest India or to the region of present-day Afghanistan. The date of departure is still uncertain; the date currently proposed is A.D. 1000, though some scholars date this as far back as the seventh or eighth century A.D. Linguists maintain that the numerous terms in the Romani language of non-Indian origin (above all Persian, Armenian, and Greek) are proof of the journey undertaken from India to Europe. According to a recent hypothesis, however, during the Middle Ages, the Romani language could have been a sort of lingua franca, used along the trade routes connecting Europe to the East. This hypothesis implies that the present-day European Gypsies, albeit speakers of neo-Indian dialects, may not be the Direct descendants of peoples living in India today. According to linguists, however, the Gypsies who came to Europe spoke an essentially unitary language, which then became more and more diversified as a result of the borrowings from the Languages of the European people among whom they settled or among whom they practiced their nomadism. On the basis of these borrowings, the linguists identify six or seven major Romani dialectal groups, still in use today or spoken up to the last century.

Cultural Relations. The patterns of Gypsy dispersion and settlement within modern Europe are practically unknown and consequently so are the modalities of the ethnogenesis of the Gypsy groups as they appear today. Nevertheless, two factors would appear to be at the basis of such modalities: the external relationships with non-Gypsies and the inter-Gypsy relationships. As far as the former are concerned, we can distinguish, very schematically, two political approaches adopted by European governments towards Gypsy populations: the "western" approach, aimed at the annihilation of the Gypsies, and the "Danubian" approach, aimed at the exploitation of Gypsy labor. The western approach consisted of thousands of banishments, mass imprisonment, deportation to American and African colonies, Gypsy hunting for rewards, with the resulting genocide, and, at the best, attempts at forced assimilation. The culmination of this tradition is the genocide of the Nazi period when more than half a Million Gypsies were exterminated. This figure does not bear true witness, however, to the real proportions of the Holocaust, since the Gypsy presence in some areas occupied by the German forces and their allies was diminished by 80 percent. The "Danubian" approach, in contrast, saw the insertion of Gypsies in the servitude and slavery systems of southeastern Europe. Here the Gypsies were never submitted to the "western" type of mass extermination. Therefore, they have become an important part of the overall population in many eastern European countries—and not only in those countries where mixed marriages between Gypsies and non-Gypsies were formally forbidden by law—and have for the most part become sedentary. The Gypsy disequilibrium in demographic terms between the Danubian-Carpathian Region and the rest of Europe is a result of these two different political approaches. This disequilibrium has had at least two consequences. In the west the Gypsy groups have subdivided themselves mainly on a regional basis, practicing a sort of commercial eclecticism consistent with their resistance to annihilation. The dozens of subdivisions derive from this situation: the Sinti, for example, call themselves "Prussian" Sinti, "German" Sinti, "Austrian" Sinti, "Marchigiani" Sinti (from the region in central Italy called the Marches), etc. In Southeast Europe, on the other hand, the subdivisions, in addition to being regional, have also been of a professional nature. Compelled by public authorities or by economic expediency in the wake of growing demographic pressure to differentiate their professions, the Gypsy groups have often adopted ergonyms with the function of ethnonyms: Kalderaš and its variants (coppersmiths), Čurara (sieve makers), etc. This phenomenon has been seen by certain authors as a survival of the Indian caste system among the Gypsies, whereas we are, in all probability, dealing with a situation that has its origins in the Balkans. Another consequence of the demographic disequilibrium has been the Gypsies' periodic movements from the Danubian-Carpathian region to other parts of Europe, which tend to take place during periods of economic or political hardship suffered by the non-Gypsy population in the region. Thus large groups of Rom arrived in western Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century (after the abolition of slavery in Moldavia and Walachia, in 1865, but above all at the time of the Balkan states' struggle for independence against the Turks) and at the start of the twentieth century. Other groups, after a stay in Russia, took refuge in the West following the events of 1917; others from the south of Yugoslavia began to migrate to Western Europe from the beginning of the 1960s in order to escape from the local economic crisis; others continue to flee en masse from disaster-struck post-Ceausescu Romania.

These great migratory movements have always been accompanied by smaller, virtually imperceptible group movements from one region to another. In all probability, these smaller movements have contributed more than anything else to the present Gypsy disposition in Europe. One example will suffice: the Romaničel are today present only in Great Britain (apart from North America and Australia), yet the same ethnonym has been noted in Spain and France for the nineteenth century. This would lead us to believe that the Romaničel once frequented much vaster zones than they do today. Toward the end of the eighteenth century and the Beginning of the nineteenth, for reasons still unknown, there was a sort of "explosion" of the Sinti present in the Germanic countries, who gradually penetrated into the neighboring states. In some cases, they remained in the minority in relation to the Gypsy groups already present, but sometimes they perhaps "Sinticized" the local Romaničel (this is probably the case for France). In both the greater and the smaller migratory movements, there also appears to be a sort of autoregulation, because of "internal" pressures of a politicoeconomic nature. The settlement in new territories is always, in fact, made simpler when the presence of other groups is scarce or when the newcomers start to occupy "economic niches" that have yet to be exploited. The Gypsy populations, though nowadays largely sedentary, without doubt have constituted and continue to constitute the main "producers" of Peripatetic groups; however, the non-Gypsy populations have always been a potential reservoir. The Jenischen in the Germanic countries and certain Swedish Rasenede appear to have formed a distinct identity only as late as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while Dutch Woonwagenbewoners seem to have an even shorter history, dating from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Peripatetic groups therefore are useful as special observatories for the study of ethnogenesis in highly stratified Societies. Furthermore, given their great capacity to adapt—which requires a structural flexibility that is hard to find in other populations and which enables them to escape any sort of Systematic classification—they should be considered worthy of careful and urgent research.



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