The term "gypsies" refers to an ethnic group of people called the Roma or the Romani (also spelled Romany). The Roma are not to be confused with Romanians or with the Romans, both of which are distinct ethnic groups from the Roma.
The Romanies follow several different faiths, adopting the predominant religion of their particular country of residence. Some Romani follow a Christian denomination while others are Muslim.
Genetic research has shown that the Roma descend from a single group of people who left northwestern India 1,500 years ago. In the centuries that followed, Romanies spread throughout Europe and, by the 19th century, had migrated to the Americas.
Today, the Romani are a diverse people living in every inhabited continent in the world. The language of the Romani is also called Romani. Romani includes various distinct dialects, all of which derive from Sanskrit and are closely related to India’s Hindi language.
The word “gypsy” originated in the 16th century and meant Egyptian, since Romanies were initially believed to be from Egypt. The word “gypsy” is often considered derogatory due to its usage to connote illegal behavior and a wandering lifestyle, instead of as an identifier for a particular race of people.
Historians believe that the original Romani population who migrated to Europe were distrusted by the Europeans as a displaced people with a strange, nomadic lifestyle.
The Romani people (gypsies) have been discriminated against in Europe for centuries.
Europeans have long portrayed the Roma/Gypsies as cunning outsiders who steal from local residents before moving on to the next town.
Because of this distrust, European nations over the centuries have enslaved, expelled, imprisoned, and executed Romani people. Other European nations used their legal system to oppress the Roma, passing laws prohibiting Romanies from buying land or securing stable professions.
Some believe that these legal restrictions placed on the Roma necessitated the continuation of their itinerant lifestyle, forcing Romanies to live on the perimeters of settled society for centuries. These nomadic Roma (gypsies) traveled in horse-drawn, brightly-colored wagons and sought jobs conducive to a transient lifestyle. Such jobs included working as livestock traders, animal trainers and exhibitors, entertainers, fortune tellers, and metalsmiths.
The Roma’s (gypsies) traveling culture has historically hindered education.
Based on discrimination against the Roma coupled with their migratory culture, school attendance and literacy rates among Romanies have traditionally been low. In fact, most of what we know about the Romani culture has been passed down through oral histories because the Romani language remains largely unwritten.
Traditional Romani and Gypsy culture upholds family, customs, and self-governance.
As a displaced people targeted by popular society, Romani culture focuses heavily on family, customs, and self-governance. In Romani communities that remain itinerant, the groups travel in bands made up of ten to several hundred extended families traveling together in caravans. Each band elects a male leader to govern the group, and a female leader to ensure the welfare of the band’s women and children.
Romanies/gypsies are also expected to support the larger Romani community by attending events within the community such as weddings, christenings, and funerals. Not attending these events could be viewed as disrespectful and may eventually lead to isolation from the broader Romani community.
Many Roma also follow traditional Romani customs. For example, once a Romani/gypsy girl reaches puberty, she’s expected to wear long skirts and dresses. Further, some Romani groups still follow the practice of arranged marriages, teen marriage, and "bride prices" paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s family.
The Roma also have their own internal system of self-governance to address accusations of misconduct. In particular, community leaders and courts of elders are responsible for adjudicating conflicts and administering punishments within their particular Romani group. Punishment can include a loss of reputation and, in extreme cases, expulsion from the Romani community.
Europe has the largest Romani/Gypsy population, home to an estimated 10 to 12 million Roma, most of whom live in Central and Eastern Europe. Some European Romanies remain nomadic, living in camps or caravans and moving from town to town in cars and RVs.
Today’s Roma (Gypsies) in Europe
However, many of today’s Roma lead settled lives. Despite settling down, the Roma remain one of Europe’s most disadvantaged ethnic groups, with 80% of Romanies living below the poverty line as of 2016. Moreover, government policies in certain European nations have sought to prevent Romani integration by hindering the Roma’s access to housing, education, and employment.
In recent years, there have been alarming reports of anti-Roma discrimination in Europe, including the systematic demolishing of Roma camps and deportation of thousands of Roma at a time in France, and the horrific forced sterilization of Romani women in countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
In addition, in March of 2019, Amnesty International filed a complaint before the European Committee of Social Rights against the Italian government, alleging international violations against Romanies in Italy, including “widespread forced evictions…use of segregated camps featuring substandard housing and lack of equal access to social housing.”
The plight of the Romanies is also a major concern of the children’s rights organization UNICEF, which is currently working to increase literacy among Romani children in Europe through home-visitation programs that connect new parents with child education and social services.
Today’s Roma (Gypsies) in America
There are an estimated 1 million Roma living in the United States, arriving here from different countries and speaking different languages. The U.S. has played a role in discrimination against Romanies in the past, as some states have on their books repealed laws that limited where Romanies could rent property, where they could entertain, and what goods they could sell.
However, precise statistics about American Romanies are limited due to:
In an effort to remedy the lack of statistics on American Romanies, Harvard University has recently launched a study to assess the structural, social, and economic status of American Romani communities.
Any Christian partial to the classical music of Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Haydn, or Brahms, or any Christian awed by the beauty and rhythm of flamenco can thank the Romani, whose acclaimed musical heritage heavily influenced these musical styles.
Further, although Christians will find some Romani traditions offensive—such as arranged marriages and bride prices—there are other Romani traditions worthy of emulation. Among these traditions are the Roma’s inclusion of extended family members, respect for the elderly, and sense of solidarity.
It’s important to note that many of the nations criticized for discriminating against the Romani are largely Christian nations, i.e. Italy, France, and Slovakia. Recently, as an important gesture to help heal the wounds and undo the division caused by Christian oppression of Romanies, Pope Francis met with a Romani community, asked for forgiveness, and apologized that Christians have historically regarded Romanies “with the look of Cain rather than Abel.”
Christians should respond to the Romani community in the same way that they would respond to any other child of God—by doing unto others as you’d have done unto you (Luke 6:31), and by remembering that whatever you do for the least of your brothers and sisters, you do for the Lord (Matthew 25:40)
The word “gyp,” which means to swindle, is also offensive to Romanies because the word likely derives from the word “gypsy” and stereotypes all those thought to be “gypsies” as swindlers.
also gipsy, c. 1600, alteration of gypcian, a worn-down Middle English dialectal form of egypcien "Egyptian," from the supposed origin of the people. As an adjective, from 1620s. Compare British gippy (1889) a modern shortened colloquial form of Egyptian.
Cognate with Spanish Gitano and close in sense to Turkish and Arabic Kipti "gypsy," literally "Coptic;" but in Middle French they were Bohémien (see bohemian), and in Spanish also Flamenco "from Flanders." "The gipsies seem doomed to be associated with countries with which they have nothing to do" [Weekley]. Zingari, the Italian and German name, is of unknown origin. Romany is from the people's own language, a plural adjective form of rom "man." Gipsy was the preferred spelling in England. The name is also in extended use applied to "a person exhibiting any of the qualities attributed to Gipsies, as darkness of complexion, trickery in trade, arts of cajolery, and, especially as applied to a young woman, playful freedom or innocent roguishness of action or manner" [Century Dictionary]. As an adjective from 1620s with a sense "unconventional; outdoor."
It comes as a surprise to many Egyptians that the word “Gypsy” originates from “Egyptian”: a medieval misconception linked to the mysterious Eastern travelers to Egypt. It continues to amaze Egyptians today that there are Egyptian Gypsies – or at least, that there are groups of people who are sometimes identified as Eastern Gypsies, or Dom, who are often viewed as possessing the psychic and magical powers often attributed to European Roma, and who have experienced similar marginalization and pariah-like status.
Eastern Gypsies are called Dom; different sub-groups are identified in Syria, Turkey, Israel and Egypt. However, whereas Doms and the Roma people have been dramatically stigmatized in most of Europe and some Middle Eastern countries, Doms in Egypt are not officially recognized, in part because religion is the main identifier in Egypt. The Egyptian national identity card, which identifies the religion of its holder, offers a choice between three religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Up until very recently, people who were of a different religion than the official ones were simply denied access to a national identity card. Since religion is the official marker, other markers, such as ethnicity, are not used; groups whose identity would be defined in ethnic terms – the Bedouin, the Nubians, and, of course, the Doms – are socially ignored.
Lacking either identity-based categorization or statistical representation, it is almost impossible to estimate the size of Egypt’s Dom population. The main providers of data are evangelical organizations, who estimate the group to include between one and two million people, most of whom are Muslim. Doms in Egypt are divided into different sub-groups or tribes, a concept which is also more meaningful in a Middle Eastern context. Among the tribes names are the Ghagar, the Nawar, the Halebi – words which are also insults in Arabic. Evangelical organizations suggest that Ghagar, which means “vagrant,” may be the largest group of Egyptian Doms.
Since the Doms do not exist officially, there has been no attempt to either eradicate or assimilate them. In Europe, forced integration and marginalization seem to be the only two possible outcomes for the Roma groups, whose nomadism has often been perceived as defiance, or affinity with adverse allegiances. In Egypt, by contrast, nomadism has been historically an integrated aspect of the Egyptian society, even if nomads have been throughout the twentieth century regarded as anachronistic; furthermore, nomadism in the Middle East has mostly been associated with Bedouins and nomadic pastoralists, not with Gypsies.
The Egyptian state, then, seems oblivious to the existence of Gypsies, but are they nonetheless present in collective representations and imagination? The late Nabil Sobhi Hanna conducted ethnographic research about 50 years ago among the semi-nomadic Ghagar communities in the area of Sett Ghiranaha, in the Nile Delta region. The Ghagars he described often lived on the edge of villages, and had very specific occupations: horse and donkey dealers, iron workers and entertainers. More recently, many have established themselves in neighborhoods of downtown Cairo, Sayida Zeinab or the infamous City of the Dead, where they are metal workers, blacksmiths, “tinkers,” wool traders, shearers, saddlers, musicians and dancers or engaged in small trade as peddlers. They sometimes resort to begging, like many poor urban dwellers. Their neighbors in the City of the Dead are the Zabaleen, Orthodox Copts who are often trash collectors. While the vast majority of Doms are in fact sedentary, their contemporary activities are still linked to short-term spatial mobility: they work at short-term jobs, they occupy rented houses, they may move from place to place within a neighborhood. They still seem to exist on the margins of Egyptian society.
While most Egyptians are not aware of the presence of Gypsies, upon giving it more thought. many acknowledge there are indeed Gypsies in Egypt, mentioning that they may have encountered women telling fortunes, travelers in rural areas, thieves or entertainers in religious festivals. Although Doms are not fully identified, they seem to exist at the margins of people’s subconscious, and can easily materialize in specific contexts and by fragments.
The figure of the “Gypsy” is often more present in the countryside: they may belong to yet another tribe in the complex rural system. Gypsies are known in a fragmented way for their contribution to Egyptian music or through the Ghawazee, belly dancers of the Nawar tribe known as beautiful temptresses. The Ghawazees were Harem dancers, who were banished from Cairo in the nineteenth century – later to be romanticized in movies such as the 1950s blockbuster, Tamr Hindi, in which a wealthy young man falls in love with a Ghawazee and tries to make a respectable person out of her. He fails, and the Ghawazee stays where she belongs. Some boundaries cannot be crossed.
Gypsies also perform as entertainers during Moulids – part pilgrimage, part carnival and part mystical Islamic ceremony. In Egypt, Moulids are not limited to the Prophet’s birthday (Moulids en Nabi), but can also refer to the celebration of local Sufi saints, often attracting the attention of Egyptian authorities because Moulids are approved by Shia and Sufi authorities but not by the Sunni, the Egyptian majority. Despite official disapproval, Moulids are widely practiced; they are similar to Christian carnivals, a time of anarchy and license, where usual norms can be broken: gender segregation is discarded, sexual taboos are forgotten, people dance in a state of general hysteria. Doms are very much part of the Moulid, which is not surprising given their association with entertainment and immoral arts. Women dance and men play music. Dom women do what respectable females may not, that sort of middle role that keeps them in the Simmelian stranger category.
So, who are the Gypsies of Egypt? Not officially recognized, they are known by the population as nomads and horse dealers in rural Egypt, or as entertainers, Moulids dancers and Ghawazees, fortune tellers and plain beggars in more urban areas. All in all, they are mostly part of poorer Egyptian communities, marginalized and ignored. Much as Edward Said suggested the Orient was shaped by European Orientalists in the nineteenth century, Gypsies were “othered” and constructed as exotic (oriental) others within the European boundaries. Ironically, in Egypt Gypsies have also been orientalized: the characteristics attributed to them are strikingly similar to those associated with the Orient, or with Gypsies inside Europe. The trichotomy of danger, revulsion and attraction, that was associated with Arab males (dangerous fanatics, etc.) or women (sensual Harem creatures, etc.), is also associated with Gypsies. The males are seen as untrustworthy and thieves, the women as mysterious, dangerous (fortune tellers, spell casters) and tempting, as belly-dancers, Ghawazees or prostitutes.
The title King of the Gypsies has been claimed or given over the centuries to many different people. It is both culturally and geographically specific. It may be inherited, acquired by acclamation or action, or simply claimed. The extent of the power associated with the title varied; it might be limited to a small group in a specific place, or many people over large areas. In some cases the claim was clearly a public-relations exercise. As the term Gypsy is also used in many different ways, the King of the Gypsies may be someone with no connection with the Romani.
It has also been suggested that in places where their crimes were prosecuted closely by local authorities the "King of the Gypsies" is an individual, usually of low standing, who places himself in the risky position of an ad hoc liaison between the Romani and the "gadje" (non-Romani). The arrest of such a "King" limited the criminal liability of the Romani.
The Gypsy King is associated with mythical powers of being able to part water with his sword, a spade, and his head, after it had been cut off, according to tales collected in 1981 from the Romani people in Bulgaria.[2
The Boswells were for centuries one of England's largest and most important Gypsy families. The Boswell clan were a large extended family of Travellers, and in old Nottinghamshire dialect the word bos'll was used as a term for Travellers and Romani in general. Hence, many claiming the title King of the Gypsies come from the Boswell family.
Was the son of Francis Boswell.
"Alias king of the Gypsies", from the St Margaret's Westminster, was tried at the Old Bailey on 28 August 1700 for theft with violence and highway robbery. It was alleged he had robbed "one Rebecca Sellers, near the High way, . . . taking from her 3 Gold-rings, and 9 s. in Money" in January of that year. The Jury found him Guilty of theft, but not Robbery, as "It appeared that he juggled [tricked] her out of it." He was sentenced to penal transportation.
Is buried in Rossington, near Doncaster in Yorkshire. Langdale's "Topographical Dictionary of Yorkshire" (1822), says: "In the church yard, was a stone, the two ends of which are now remaining, where was interred the body of James Bosvill the King of the Gypsies, who died 30 January 1708. For a number of years, it was a custom of Gypsies from the south, to visit his tomb annually, and there perform some of their accustomed rites; one of which was to pour a flagon of ale upon the grave." This is similar to the ritual of "stalling the rogue" mentioned by Thomas Harman and in The Beggars Bush and by Bampfylde Moore Carew.
A tradition was reported of annual visits to the grave of Charles Boswell near Doncaster for more than 100 years into the 1820s, including a rite of pouring a flagon of hot ale into the tomb. This may be same person. the grave is situated by the main door leading to the church, shaded by a dark oak tree. It is now covered in moss, but is still readable. The words "King Of The Gypsies" will lie there for ever more, whereas the mystery of the black cat is still unsolved. – information on the grave by A. Needham – P. Needham, of St Michaels church.
Born c1735 in Wiltshire, buried at Loders, Dorset in January 1806, with his monument reading 'King of the Gypsies'. Robert is likely the father of Lucretia/Lucy, the wife of Josiah Smith. Lucretia died at Halton, Chester, however her burial took place in Beighton, Derbyshire for unknown reasons. Lucretia's grave bears in inscription 'Queen of the Gypsies' which has resulted in numerous folktales surrounding her life. In 1998, a pub was constructed nearby and was given the name 'The Gypsy Queen'.[9
"King of the Gypsies" died in 1760 at the age of 90 and was buried at Ickleford near Hitchin, Hertfordshire at the church of St. Catherine, as were his wife and granddaughter. Royal National and Commercial Directory and Topography of Herts, Pigot & Co., London, 1839
Was noted as King of the Gypsies upon his death, aged 60, in 1826 in Twyford, Leicestershire. His funeral on the 10th of February 1826 saw over 60 gypsies in attendance. The Manchester Times reported he had been elected as King in the first half of the 19th century and was accorded special burial rites, with the ceremony attended by traveller families from twelve camps. He was a well-known fiddler in the local area, often playing at wakes and celebrations and had a daughter, Beatta Smith, a renowned beauty whose portrait was displayed at Belvoir Castle.[20
Today and throughout history gypsies have received ‘bad press’, in part due to the nomadic lifestyle they led, but also for the fact that when things went missing the finger was immediately pointed at the local gypsies, often quite rightly so, as the press of the day confirmed. Given the amount of publicity their antics had it could be argued that it should make these nomadic people easier to trace for gypsiologists, sadly though, on the whole, quite the contrary is true as they prove to be a complete nightmare to track down.
Gypsies were renown for changing both their forenames and their surnames as well as using names that were almost unpronounceable making tracing their family history even more complex and difficult to track down than tracing your average family. There were several main groups that travelled around the countryside using the surnames Smith, Boswell and Grey (Gray), changing their names as quickly as the weather, presumably to avoid detection.
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Many of the men were given biblical first names such as Elijah, Nehemiah, Absalom, Moses and Wisdom whereas the women had some beautifully exotic sounding names such as Cinnamenta, Trezi Ann , Lamentana or names taken from nature such as Ocean or Evening. One thing we have learnt about the gypsies through the numerous years we have spent researching our own families apart from their unique lifestyle, culture and language was their propensity for the re-use of first names which helps greatly when trying to link members of the same ‘tribe’ but equally provides gypsiologists with an immense headache when trying to untangle who the possible parents were.
Baptisms – the vast majority of gypsy children were baptized and it was quite common for them to be presented for baptism on more than one occasion and at more than one church. The reason for this being that it was accepted tradition for the ladies of the parish to give the children gifts, so the gypsies soon learnt which were the best parishes to get their offspring baptized at, having had the child baptized and received gifts, they swiftly moved on to another parish where they promptly repeated the exercise, thereby receiving more ‘goodies’ – a crafty scam if you could get away with it!
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Their marriages were of course a great cause for celebration and equally their funerals were treated with much pomp and ceremony.
FAREWELL TO THE KING OF THE GYPSIES
Died on the 15th inst of February 1826 aged 60 Absalom Smith better known in the neighbourhood of Nottingham as “King of the Gypsies”, leaving behind him a wife and 13 children (to whom he is said to have left 100 pounds each)and 54 grandchildren. He was attended in his last illness in his camp in Twyford Lane, by doctor Arnold and two surgeons. He was followed to his grave in Twyford churchyard by a large retinue of gipsies on Friday last. He was interred in his coat the buttons of which are silver and marked A.S, lest his circumstance should be a temptation to disturb his body. His followers caused alternate layers of timber and straw to be put into the grave with the earth.
As well as their often unusual names their ‘occupations’ remained largely unique to their community – basket maker, besom maker, bone gatherer, cutler and grinder, clothes peg maker, cane chair mender, skewer maker. The vast majority made objects they made were created from things produced by nature, they then sold them around the towns and villages, making their other occupation that of hawker or seller of goods.
They were also renown for being horse dealers, though quite where they acquired these animals remains something of a mystery, or at least better left unsaid! At the beginning of June each year gypsies would travel from far and wide to the village of Appleby, Cumbria to trade their horses, this small village having being granted a Royal Charter to do so by James II in 1685.
Gypsies were and still are today regarded by many as ‘curiosities’ for their nomadic and seemingly unorthodox lifestyle, none more so than by the Georgian poet John Clare (1793 – 1864), also known as ‘ The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet’ who frequently met up with and wrote poems about the gypsy community. Clare was not judgmental about them, but merely described their nomadic lifestyle through his poems such as this one:
The Gipsy Camp
The snow falls deep; the Forest lies alone:
The boy goes hasty for his load of brakes,
Then thinks upon the fire and hurries back;
The Gipsy knocks his hands and tucks them up,
And seeks his squalid camp, half hid in snow,
Beneath the oak, which breaks away the wind,
And bushes close, with snow like hovel warm:
There stinking mutton roasts upon the coals,
And the half roasted dog squats close and rubs,
Then feels the heat too strong and goes aloof;
He watches well, but none a bit can spare,
And vainly waits the morsel thrown away:
‘Tis thus they live – a picture to the place;
A quiet, pilfering, unprotected race.
Clare also noted in his diary on 3rd June 1825:
‘Finished planting my auriculas – went a-botanizing after ferns and orchises and caught a cold in the wet grass which has made me as bad as ever – Got the tune of Highland Mary from Wisdom Smith a gipsey and pricked another sweet tune without a name as he fiddled it’. As Wisdom Smith was a direct ancestor he warranted specific mention.
This is an excerpt about Ryley Boswell, born 1798 from the book by George Smith, ‘Gipsy Life, being an account of our Gipsies and their children.’
Ryley, like most of the Bosvils, was a tinker by profession; but though a tinker, he was amazingly proud and haughty of heart.
His grand ambition was to be a great man among his people, a Gipsy king (no such individuals as either Gipsy kings or queens ever existed). To this end he furnished himself with clothes made after the costliest Gipsy fashion; the two hinder buttons of the coat, which was of thick blue cloth, were broad gold pieces of Spain, generally called ounces; the fore-buttons were English “spaded guineas,” the buttons of the waistcoat were half-guineas, and those of the collar and the wrists of his shirt were seven-shilling gold-pieces. In this coat he would frequently make his appearance on a magnificent horse, whose hoofs, like those of the steed of a Turkish Sultan, were cased in shoes of silver. How did he support such expense? it may be asked.
Partly by driving a trade in “wafedo loovo,” counterfeit coin, with which he was supplied by certain honest tradespeople of Brummagem; partly and principally by large sums of money which he received from his two wives, and which they obtained by the practice of certain arts peculiar to Gipsy females.
One of his wives was a truly remarkable woman. She was of the Petalengro or Smith Her Christian name, if Christian name it can be called, was Xuri or Shuri, and from her exceeding smartness and cleverness she was generally called by the Gipsies Yocky Shuri—that is, smart or clever Shuri, Yocky being a Gipsy word signifying “clever.” She could dukker—that is, tell fortunes—to perfection, by which alone, during the racing season, she could make a hundred pounds a month. She was good at the big hok—that is, at inducing people to put money into her hands in the hope of it being multiplied; and, oh, dear! how she could caur—that is, filch gold rings and trinkets from jewellers’ cases, the kind of thing which the Spanish Gipsies call ustibar pastesas—filching with hands.
Frequently she would disappear and travel about England, and Scotland too, dukkering, hokking, and cauring, and after the lapse of a month return and deliver to her husband, like a true and faithful wife, the proceeds of her industry. So no wonder that the Flying Tinker, as he was called, was enabled to cut a grand appearance. He was very fond of hunting, and would frequently join the field in regular hunting costume, save and except that instead of the leather hunting cap he wore one of fur, with a gold band round it, to denote that though he mixed with Gorgios he was still a Romany chal.
Patrick FAE, The first king of the gypsies.
Copyright © 2022 The Royal Dragon Court - All Rights Reserved.The Royal Dragon Court, The Dragon Legacy and The Dragon Cede. By Nicholas Devere & Abbe Devere.
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