The Roma In The Romanian Medieval Imaginary

The Roma Study Center, the History Faculty of the University of Bucharest
I. The Roma's first contacts with the natives of the Romanian space
The Roma are a people hailing from India and their migration to Europe, in successive waves, spanned several centuries from the 9th to the 14th century. Once they arrived in the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century, they spread rapidly throughout Europe. The first document attesting to the existence of Roma in Walachia dates back to 1385, yet there is no doubt that the Roma had been present in these parts at least a few decades before. As there is an obvious lack of domestic sources regarding the Roma's presence in the Romanian space, we will have to resort to a definition of this ethnic group by relation to the Other, to the Romanian culture. Unfortunately, no documentary testimonies survive as to the first contacts between Walachians and the nomad communities of Roma. In order to be able to draw a picture of these "meetings" we must use the patterns of the medieval imaginary, a very interesting method, despite certain ambiguities. The first half of the 14th century coincides with the early formation of the medieval states Walachia and Moldavia, of their institutions, and the relative authority of their reigns. These were states in their swaddling days, with new Christian Orthodox churches the hegemony of which was threatened by Catholicism and Bogomilism. At the same time, we must take into account that the local society was sedentary, and for the greatest majority "the known world" was reduced to the state boundaries. The space "beyond" was unknown, chaotic, spelling fear. The entire European medieval society was xenophobic. The natural tendency of medieval man was to live on the native soil where he boasted historical continuity, provided by the tombs of the forefathers, by old kinship and neighborly relations. Fear of strangers was not even limited by Christian hospitality. In other words, the stranger was not wanted. Besides being ex-solum, the Roma were also nomadic, thus in a more accented state of marginality, outside the accepted social and behavioral pattern. The ramblers' contact with areas not mastered by man, their life in woods (spaces of evil spirits, of demons) generated fright and, from a Christian vantage, expressed a negation of social life. The fact that they perceived voyaging as a way of living, socially rejected though it was, made them appear excluded in the eye of the settled. No doubt, the most powerful influence on the natives' mental frame came from the color of the Roma's skin. The negative perception of black is typical for the peoples who worship the Sun and the Sky (clear), like the Romanian people do (see the incantations to make the sun rise to be found in Herodotus, the religion of the Getae, and more, down to writer Ion Creanga). In the Christian world, the symbolism of colors consecrated by the Church turned black into the color of sin, while in the Romanian folk belief the devil and other evil spirits are also black. Besides, for most of the North-Danubian natives, a "black" was a "Tartar" or a "Saracen" (two of the names under which the Roma would to be known later in the European Occident). At the same time, the contacts with these people, very recent or under way, proved mostly violent. Moreover, the Crusades, the time of which was not yet gone, played a decisive role when it came to influencing medieval mentalities in the sense of turning "blacks" into heretics, enemies of the Christian world (which, even in the 14th century, continued to live profoundly the sentiment of siege). Some anthropologists and psychologists speak of the universality of the "black shock", which has a constant character and a symptomatic value of "angst of angst". We are dealing with an inborn infamous stigma – the color of the skin, aggravated by the conception according to which physical characteristics (hence black as a negative value) are defining for the moral profile. In short, these are some of the premises of a cohabitation begun more than 600 years ago. The subsequent evolution of the autochthons' perception of the Roma stayed within the limits of what E. Goffman called "anticipative otherness", a cliché initially established for both the groups arrived late and for the following generations. Unfortunately, Christianity, which could have been a "mediator" cushioning the impact of these two cultures' meeting, had an opposite effect. By and large, its teachings tend to eliminate differences by promoting equality among people. But then it was still Christianity that deepened these differences to the extent "the others" did not abide by what was socially and religiously acceptable (Lucian Boia). The evolution of the state, of the Church, of social structures and sidelining tendencies can be said to be converging.  II. The period of slavery After 1385, with rare exceptions, documents speak of Roma in Walachia and Moldavia and give them the juridical status of slaves. Slavery causes the only significant mutation as regards the imaginary vis-à-vis the Roma in the Romanian space, until the late 19th century. At the same time, the maintenance of this juridical status until 1856 had the effect of conserving, of perpetuating medieval mentalities concerning the Roma. But what are, in general, the guises of "the imaginary gypsy"? The most important fact in point of the chronological limits referred to regards the perception of the Roma as non-Christian. Leaving aside the stories of Western, Catholic travelers, most revealing are a few documents coming from Orthodox clergy of the time, be they native or traveling through the Romanian lands. Thus around 1746, Neophyte the Cretan criticized and listed some of the pagan habits in Walachia. He says: "…a pig head with which the Gypsies go around on the eve of the great Saint Basil." The same year, Neophyte, the metropolitan of Hungaro-Walachia, in a document pleading for the abolishment of slavery, underlines the contradiction between the Orthodox dogma and "the yoke of slavery": "In the Holy Gospels, our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us to love one's neighbor as we love ourselves. We should readily obey this command and teaching, and therefore we should not put our brothers unto Jesus Christ under the joke of slavery… "And more, as we generally all know that to hold in slavery rightful believers, that is people of the same faith with us, is not a Christian deed, but a formidable blemish on our souls, we thought that the Romanians whom we had until now in bondage… those of us who will want, out of good faith, should forgive them unto eternal remembrance, for they will thus do good" (August 5, 1746). The facts that among "our brethren unto Christ" in the document there are only Romanians (and among them, only Walachians), and that the slavery of the Roma does not represent any dogmatic contradiction in the opinion of the metropolitan, suggest that the Roma were perceived as outside the Orthodox community. From the vantage of the Orthodox clergy at the time of the Roma's slavery in the Romanian principalities, this seems to be the motivation that legitimates slavery, added to the economic one, obviously, since slavery is a significant source of income. The problem of the Roma's religion came to the attention of the lay authorities that collaborated with the Church to disseminate Christianity among the prince's slaves. The reason for this interest was the integration of the Roma in the Romanian society and their assimilation from a religious point of view (as a first step towards full assimilation). Thus on August 13, 1786, N. Mavrogheni passed a law for "the Gypsies of the princely domain: the Prince has sent priests to baptize them and to enjoin them to go to church, because until now they have not had any faith and discipline. The priests will be remunerated by the treasury to teach them the true faith, to baptize them and minister to them at no cost." In the 19th century the problem was still unsolved, the legislation of the Principalities pursuing "the improvement of the Gypsies' condition," including by their becoming Christian. Thus the Organic Regulations feature special provisions along this line: "Art. XIII. – Whereas the remoteness of the Gypsies from the dogmas of our holy faith is one of the causes of their waywardness and their unlawful deeds, His Holiness the Metropolitan, and the eparchy bishops, will purposefully instruct the parishes as to how to act for the Gypsies' spiritual salvation and for the fulfillment of their duty to their neighbors. Art. XIV. – In the wake of these sacred dogmas, the Gypsies will be obliged to partake of the holy services of baptism, marriage and funeral rites, and for them the village roll will feature a special page where the parish priest will write down, according to the custom, who is born, who is wed and who is dead, which inscriptions will be used for documents…" The position at the outskirts, or even outside the Christian community, underwent various changes in the opinion of the contemporaries, including "waywardness and unlawful deeds", in other words, living outside the order of society. Given that religion stood foremost at the basis of medieval solidarity, and that the Roma were regarded as outside the community based on this criterion, their marginal perception is in a way explained. After this brief history of the preoccupations evinced by the lay and ecclesiastical authorities, we must also be reminded here that the Roma's witchcraft and "paganism" have gone down in folklore as well. The folk belief that brick-making Roma can command rain, through spells and charms, took various forms in the 19th century. (In 1884, in Mihai Viteazul commune of Ialomita county, the village community accused two brick-making Roma women that they had prevented rain from coming down by nesting on bricks for two months. The ensuing trial found the "witches" not guilty. Still, to this day in children's rhymes we encounter incantations devised to make the sun come out of the clouds.) (Andrei Oisteanu) Nomadism as a condemnable way of life and expression of lack of sociality is yet another feature of marginality. Perceived as a threat to social order, the eradication of the Roma's nomad ways has always been one of the state's major concerns. Although it has interior resources pertaining to the ethnic structure, nomadism is also conjectural, because it excludes interdictions. In Western Europe, nomadism has, in the outlook of society, a positive side, an equivalence between nomadism, freedom, exoticism, romanticism) and a negative one (nomadism as savagery, primitivism, anarchy, espionage, disease transmission). In the Romanian principalities, the positive side of nomadism could be found only here and there with some of the representatives of the abolitionist trend in the 19th century. Taking as model the sedentary communities of assimilated farmer Roma, not speakers of Romany, this manner of life has been constantly imposed on the nomads. "Hearth Gypsies have settled in houses and do not resemble the other Gypsies; they have forgotten their language and lost their customs… hearth Gypsies are the most civilized and fully deserve their freedom." (Mihail Kogalniceanu) Among the defects attributed to nomad Roma the most visible are: theft, disease dissemination, and nakedness as a manifestation of their savagery. Travel notes by foreigners express indignation, fear and the civilized man's revulsion when confronted with the nomad: "There are 'camp' Gypsies who are not stable and roam throughout the country. They are extremely poor, and live mostly in forests; they carve a few items in wood, they roam here and there in groups, half naked, they beg from the people they see on the road." Nakedness as a sign of "otherness" is in sheer contradiction with religious education and moral rigor, and life in forests represents an extreme denial of social life, an impure isolation as a result of the contact with the wild beasts and the spirits of the forests. In the 19th century, several attempts were made to settle the matter of the nomads. The main method was sedentarization, for which numerous circular letters, orders, and provisions were passed, in this sense orders being also found in the Organic Regulations. The extreme modality of solving the nomad question was the expelling by the authorities of the netots in the Romanian principality and in Turkey, an operation that did not meet with success because of the opposition of border pashas.  III. Conclusions I have tried in these lines to draw up a story of Roma slavery from the vantage of the imaginary. It is important to specify that most of the stereotypes created during the period of slavery have survived to this day, with slight modifications and different social implications. Besides the different changes the marginal status implied within the ethnic group, decisively influencing its evolution, there remains to be studied the functional role of marginals from the viewpoint of the society where they live. At a certain moment, the existence of a sidelined group can become an anti-model, an argument of the respectability of the others (see E. Cioran, Romania's Transfiguration). If in the West otherness was radical, leading to exclusion, in the Romanian principalities, because of slavery as well, it caused declassing. This phenomenon is apparent in N. Iorga's writings: "Strange or grand human types… the Gypsy, under all his aspects of a human monkey, compared to the resolute dignity of the Romanian peasant, compared to the restlessness of Oriental races…" This favored the dissemination of extreme-right ideas, culminating with the Holocaust, and is still tingeing contemporary mentalities.

by Petre Florin Manole