Outline Of The History, Customs And Language Of The Gypsies

excerpts All chronicles show that this nomadic people appeared first in Moldavia; indeed, in order to come to Europe from India, they had to cross the Black Sea, which Moldavia used to border on at that time. In 1417, in the 19th year of the rule of Alexander the Good, several groups appeared in Moldavia. From here, the Gypsies spread to Walachia, Transylvania, Hungary and the rest of Europe. Taking advantage of the reverence for the occult arts, they claimed to be of Egyptian origin, that is why the Hungarians called them the race of the Pharaoh and the French, the English and the Spanish named them Egyptians, Gypsies and Gitanos. Since they had no culture of their own, they pretended to belong to that of the country they wanted to enter and this is how they managed to make themselves tolerated everywhere. In 1417, the same year they arrived in Moldavia, they appeared in Germany, somewhere near the North Sea and in 1418, five months after the council of Constance, they entered Switzerland as well. A huge crowd of an unknown nation, mentions Jean de Muller in his History of Switzerland, dark skinned, with strange facial features, poorly dressed, endowed with passports from spiritual and laic authorities, presented themselves at the gates of Zurich: their leader's name was Michel, duke of the land of Egypt; his companions were called Gypsies. Four years later, in 1422, another duke, called Andrew, who claimed to come from Egypt, appeared with his gang at the gates of Bologna, while another leader showed up at the gates of Bale. According to chronicler Strumpf, the number of Gypsies who had entered Switzerland was of about forty thousand. Although they claimed they came from Egypt, they came in fact from Hungary, where they had entered from Moldavia: it is here and in Walachia that the greatest number of Gypsies remained. After having crossed Germany, a sub-division of the Gypsies from Hungary went to France, England and Spain. The greatest number of Gypsies who settled down was in Walachia and in Moldavia, where Alexander the Good gave them air and land to wander around, fire and iron to forge; but they lost their freedom, the greatest asset they had; they and their descendents became slaves, and have remained so to this day; as a consequence of this, the noun Gypsy is a synonym with "slave". The Moldavian civil code of 1833 uses the following terms to present their status:Chapter 1.27: Although slavery is not in the nature of man, it has been a reality since Antiquity in this principality, but very different from the Roman times. Here the authority of the master cannot, under any pretext, be extended to the life of the slave, but only to the latter's fortune, and that only if there are no legal heirs, or if they run away and never come back, or if they cause damage to their master through stealth or other malevolent action. It results clearly that the slave is not regarded as a thing, but inasmuch as their actions, engagements, rights and obligations concern the others, except their master, they are considered persons and thus defended and punished by the laws of the country. (…)Chapter 2 .154 Legal unions between free persons and slaves are forbidden. In Moldavia and Walachia, the Gypsies are either slaves of the crown or private property. Those belonging to the former are as many as 3851 in the first principality and 3300 in the second one. The Gypsies of the Crown are divided in four classes: 1) "Rudari" or "Aurari" (goldworkers), who are the only ones who have the right to look for gold in the rivers and in the sand of the mountains, and for that each of them pays to the princess three or four dramuri for her fasteners, that is 3/400 or 4/300 of an "oca", that sometimes means two ounces and a half, sometimes three. In Prince Cantemir's time, the princess of Moldavia received a tribute of 1600 "dramuri", or 4 ocas of pure gold, and in 1764 the wife of the Walachian prince, Steven Racovitza, received from her Aurari (who were about two hundred forty) 1254 "dramuri" of pure gold. Today their job is not that frequently taken up anymore. 2) "Ursari", or bear leaders, wander from village to village with bears that they captured when cubs in the Carpathians, which they tamed and taught to dance various dances. In order to prevent accidents, the Gypsies lime the teeth and the claws of the bears and burn their eyes slightly so that their eyesight be poor. These Ursari pay to the government an annual tribute of twenty to thirty piastri, that is seven to ten francs. 3) The "Lingurari", that is the makers of wood spoons (from which they got their name), craft all sorts of wooden and coal vases; they pay the same tribute as the Ursari do, and they are the most civilized of all four classes; they even start building themselves stable dwellings. 4) The last category is one of the "Laieshi", people without faith and steady job; sometimes they are masons, some other times they are ironmongers, and then again, some other times, they are comb manufacturers. They are the most corrupted Gypsies and yet the most independent, since they have the permission to wander around in the entire principality. They pay a tribute of thirty piastri annually and thus they buy their right to graze their horses in the vicinity of any village or country road. Most of them live on theft and pillage; although they are very skilled in everything they do, they hardly ever work: they sleep at daytime and steal at night. When and if they work, they prefer iron handicrafts; they make locks, keys, nails, earrings, rings for peasant women; in order to be able to concoct all these rough objects, they always carry around a mobile forge. Once a upon a time, the Gypsies were those who made the rifles, the spears, the swords, the bombs and all the other arms used in wartime. While their men work or sleep, the women saunter in the street, interpret dreams and promise those they consult money or young, faithful spouses; then every Sunday and other holidays, which are plenty in Moldavia and Walachia, they just sit at the doors of the churches and try to make the believers pity them by showing them their babies, which are sometimes dressed dummies held to their breast and said to be ill or even dead. After the sermon, they enter the boyars' palaces or the bourgeois' mansions; they shamelessly enter apartments under the pretext of begging; but if they don't find anyone there, they steal everything they lay their hands on without being seen; they are in fact real grasshoppers of Egypt, in the words of the hermit from Tour-Roland in Victor Hugo's masterpiece. None of these four classes mentioned above has stable dwellings; in the summer they camp in tents, in the winter they live in huts under the ground, which they dig in the forest, near villages, in order to have work to do or opportunity to steal. Ten to fifteen families are under the jurisdiction of a man whom they choose themselves; the people in Moldavia and Walachia call him judge; these judges report to a bulubasha, called voievod in Hungary and Transylvania. They have the right to choose him themselves: the eligible candidate has to belong to a family who has already given a bulubasha, to be better dressed than the others, middle-aged and of imposing poise and build. The elections are held in the open air: the one who is appointed bulubasha is lifted on the others' shoulders in the loud cheers of the whole assembly, just like they used to do when Franc kings were anointed. At the end of the ceremony, they disperse so proud as if they were electing princes that have just chosen an emperor. The judges and bulubasha are acknowledged by the arms master of the principality. He is the one to whom bulubasha or the king of the Gypsies pay the tribute gathered by the judges; he is the one who establishes the taxes; and he is the one who delivers them the government's messages, he is the one who is their ultimate judge; that is why the Gypsies fear him more than they fear the arms master, and the prince himself. In order to stand out from the crowd, the judges and the bulubashas are mounted almost all the time, they have the right to grow a beard and wear a long purple robe, yellow or red boots, a bonnet made of lamb skin similar to the Phrygian bonnet, and a small whip with three strips they wear at their belt, which they use to punish the Gypsies who steal or make other mistakes. The bulubashas' authority is quite great among their fellows; they are the latter's judges, receive two piastri for every hundred they gather as a tribute, have the right to punish those who are guilty, and have to report to the government on the whereabouts of their subjects. Not only do they play instruments very well, they also compose nice pieces of music: the names of Suceava, Anghelutza and Barba are famous throughout Moldavia and Walachia, while the one of Cihari who lives in Pest echoes in the entire Hungary. The Gypsies always accompany their instruments by their voices when they play folk music, and I have to stress that they generally have beautiful, powerful voices; sometimes the audience is so charmed that they get up from their tables and place some coins on the musicians' forehead. During the beautiful summer nights, the musical instruments and shouts of joy echo in all the neighborhoods of the town of Jassy. On the one hand, we have the boyar who socializes with his own kind and who is preceded by European music, because even in our country everything that is native starts being despised; on the other hand, we have the honest merchant or the frank peasant who want to make merry after having sold his chariot with hay or wood; after having drunk until ten in the evening in a cabaret, he gets out preceded by two musicians who sing and play the songs he orders at full blast, and during these short moments of joy, the peasant, bare-chested, his hands at his back or leaning against a party-fellow, forgets his misery and the humiliation he had to suffer from his tax inspector. These nocturnal walks, when you hear nothing but laughter, when the songs have something poetical about them, can't be found anywhere else but in the towns of Moldavia and Walachia. To a certain extent these Gypsies are also actors: from Christmas to the end of the festival, the nights resound with their shouts: the puppets, the puppets. If you receive those who shout about, you will find yourselves in front of two men carrying a small lit theatre, seven to eight feet long and three to four feet wide: they put this theatre on two chairs and you immediately see on the stage a puppet that plays the role of a shepherd who dances with his sheep; then a Gypsy comes in, accompanied by his bear; soon they are chased by Mr. Vasilachi, who woos two beautiful ladies, while his wife looks for him in all the neighborhoods of the town; then the Turk and the Cossack enter who, after several provocations, start fighting: when the Turks were in Moldavia, the Turk was the one who severed the Cossack's head, while when the Russians were the masters of the principality, it was the other way around, the Cossack cut his enemy's head. Who is the winner today? Throughout the performance, the Gypsy who handles the puppets without being seen, speaks on behalf of the Turk sometimes, on behalf of the Cossack some other times, in a serious tone when impersonating the former, in a lively and sharp voice when impersonating the latter.The men in the class of Vatrashi (sedentary) are of a strong build, tall and fine-featured: their girls are even more beautiful; dark-skinned as they are, they have combined the purity of the Greek and the fervor of the climate of their ancestors: flames dart from their big black eyes, shaded by beautiful arched eyebrows. That is why it is not a rare thing to run into Esmeraldas and Preciosas in Moldavia and Walachia; but as soon as they become mothers, their beauty makes room to a disgusting ugliness, and the Esmeraldas turn into Meg-Mervilies.As for the rest, nowadays the Vatrashi are more civilized than the peasants, and they deserve to be given a liberty they deserve: the boyars have the right to free them and most of them, who are enlightened by the civilized Europe, often use this privilege and give them back the right with which nature has endowed all men.The number of Gypsies owned by private persons is more than thirty-five thousand families in the two principalities. Except for the Vatrashi and some Lingurari, all the other Gypsies are nomads, have the same habits, the same language. Now that we have become a little bit acquainted with their history and division, we are going to outline some of their customs. The Gypsies' facial features are generally very expressive, and their forehead shadowed by black, shiny hair shows a deep melancholy: a somber flame lights their black eyes, under the dark eyebrows, and the entire weight of this errant people's sad fate seems to burden their spirit. To put it shortly, there is something painful about this people; nevertheless, the gaze of men often expresses a rough and intrepid spirit. Although they are not tall, they have a strong built, so that one may study anatomy when looking at them. Their chest and back are beautifully proportioned, and so are their arms and legs. When they are naked they resemble the most exquisite Greek statues, and their tan adds to this impression. The nomadic life they live, the fresh air of the mountains or the fragrance of the plains they breathe, enable them to cope with the fatigue and the wildness of nature; they are strong, and their life expectancy is long: often can you find among them centenarians.The Gypsies don't belong to any religion: they support fetishism, that is they transform into a cult whatever is useful to them, for example their tents, their carriages and their ironmongery: when they call themselves Turks, they believe in fatality; in Europe, in the Christian countries they pretend to observe the rules of Jesus, in Turkey they are Mohammedans, and if there were still a kingdom of Judea, they would be the sectarians of Moses. In Moldavia and Walachia they have Orthodox priests baptize their children, but not out of religious faith; they do it for the irresistible argument of Don Basilio, they do it for the money they get from the godparents. That is why they have the same child baptized nine or ten times in all the regions of the principality; you can often meet a young Gypsy aged 20, who comes and ask you to be his godfather. Just as they don't recognize any religion, they don't recognize legal marriage either: they have no religious ceremony for this great event of human life. When a boy turns fourteen or fifteen, he realizes he needs more than bread and water. He takes the first girl he runs into and makes her his woman, even if she is a relative of his. When they get married, the young couple take a mud mug, drop it and they are married just like Grengoire and Esmeralda. They don't care about their children's education; as soon as the latter can walk, they are allowed to wander freely in the forests, or in the streets of towns and villages; these poor naked children, trembling with cold, are obliged to beg or to steel their bread and they are lucky if in the evening they find fire to warm themselves in their parents' tent. Until they turn fifteen or sixteen, they walk around naked, both in summer an winter and, in order to exemplify this miserable state, I will tell you the following anecdote, quite typical: in the middle of a hard winter, a Gypsy naked child complained about cold; his mother told him: "Here, my child, take this belt and put it around your waist, you will warm up." Among this people of nomads, one can find a large number of crippled adults; this is because the fact that, when they are still infants, they serve as fighting instruments; when two spouses have an argument and want to start beating each other up, the father takes a child by the legs and the mother another one and they start hitting each other as if they were sticks. Another reason to account for the large number of crippled Gypsies is the fact that, in order to make other people pity them and be more charitable, they cause themselves plagues on the body which, since they are not treated, end by turning into gangrene and sometimes lead to the loss of an entire limb. When the boyars get off their carriages out of the town, they suddenly find themselves surrounded by a crowd of young boys and girls, five to fifteen years old, all in their birth-day suit. This gang of children runs after the carriage more than half a mile, shrieking incessantly: "Give us a para, give us a para / And we will dance for you the tanana." Tanana is their traditional dance, their fandango; it entails jumping, making lascivious gestures with the arms and legs and hitting their buttocks with the heels. It is to be noted that when they ask for charity they never pray for the health of their benefactor but for that of his or her horses; they never say: "We wish you much happiness", but "Long live your horses." The Gypsies cannot live apart from their family, even when you tempt them into forgetfulness by offering them all the riches of the world; boyars have often tried to civilize young Gypsies; they took them to their palaces, gave them masters but to no avail; as soon as they seized the opportunity, they left the comfortable civilized life, and escaped to their relatives. The nomadic life, the smoke in the tent are indispensable to the Gypsy, just as the water is to the fish and the air to the bird; the life of the tribe is the life of the Gypsy. Librairie de B. BehrBerlin, 1837 Translated from the French by Fabiola POPA

by Mihail Kogălniceanu