Gypsy Origins

28 Jan 2015

This post came about as we have Roma gypsies camped out in Hyde Park, opposite the big hotels on Park Lane, having arrived on our shores via the EU open doors policy of movement across Europe. Who are they and what are their origins?

At ... is perhaps the least likely version of their travels as it requires a group of nomadic people with artisan skills such as mending pots and pans, wood turning, and earning a living as seasonal agricultural workers, making their way through the 11th to 14th century Islamic world at a time of internecine warfare amongst themselves as well as with the crusaders - and on top of that the Mongol invasions. The assumption is that they fled NW India during the Muslim inroads into what is now Pakistan - where expansion was the order of play. Likewise, a route across the Russian steppe would appear to be difficult at the same point in time as there were Bulgars and various Turkic tribes to contend with, as well as the Mongols. The idea they may  have become slaves to the Mongols also seems a long shot as they were nomadic themselves and probably had no need of metal pots and pans being mended for them - or farm fences and gates being fixed. However, they did come from India - and they were Hindu originally.

From this we can conclude the Roma must have left India much earlier than the 11th century. The Marxist slant on the Gypsies can be read at - ... which by injecting political theory into anthropology manages to mix up the Roma with your ordinary everyday outcast and dispossessed group of people. Gypsy origins in Britain and Ireland differ in that over the years a lot of people were marginalised for one reason or the other and had no choice to live outside the manorial strictures of the time, usually on what was regarded as waste land on parish and county boundaries, a sort of no man's land where the church and parish council were able to remove undesirables such as the disabled, the destitute, those with learning difficulties, and the mentally unstable etc. The reason was that they were a drain on church and parish funds. For example, in the vicinity of Aylesbury, now renowned for cattle pasture, in the 14th and 15th centuries, when gypsies are first recorded here, five villages were demolished and the people were dispersed - in order to accommodate sheep. The wool trade was at it's peak at this time. One reason for this economic turn from strip field culture to sheep farming was the Black Death - it had led to a shortage of farm labour. All sheep required were a few shepherds and somebody fixing hedges and fences to keep them in. Where did the other people go? They either found employment on another manorial estate - or they were rendered destitute, without a home. Gypsy origins are therefore somewhat complicated. On top of that there were the likes of Robin Hood's merry band, living on the commons and in the forest (not necessarily a thick wedge of trees as they had open aspects for gentry to go hunting their deer and other game) - described as outlaws, evicted people, or even religious heretics.

The Roma appear to have differed from these groups and maintained elements of their Hindu customs through thick and thin. Surprisingly, commons and manorial waste provided them with the space to continue their nomadic existence on the edge of the towns and villages all the way into the 20th century (when most of them became part of settled communities as a result of public housing policies and are now largely merged into the general population). As such, most of the gypsies seen today have an origin outside the UK, and are mostly from Ireland - or Eastern Europe. One group is home grown and the other is genuinely Roma in origin. Funnily enough, the Guardian newspaper appears to have hit the nail on the head - see (and there was a similar story at the time in other newspapers). It is based on a genetic study published in Current Biology in 2007 and places the initial migration out of India before the eruption of Islam from the Arabian desert, at roughly 1500 years ago. What was happening 1500 years ago?

What is the catastrophist angle you might ask - and it is this. We have the low growth tree ring event at 536-45AD (a double whammy of some kind) followed closely by the Justianian Plague (an early manifestation of the Black Death, and equally as devastating to populations across the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire). The theory is that India in all likelihood also suffered the same plague - after all it was trading with both empires. Hence, the initial expansion out of India could have been prior to the establishment of the Arab Empire - although they were probably beneficiaries of the vast range of that empire once it had been formed as it provided a big region in which to roam in a nomadic fashion (which the Arabs themselves would not have been against as they had a similar semi nomadic origin). This is not a fact I must hasten to add - but a possibility. Plague killed the upper classes as much as the lower classes. In the case of the Hindus we are talking about castes, and it is the lower castes that do the menial tasks, such as fixing things when they are broken, digging vegetables out of the ground, and so on. The suggestion is that lower caste people, including the Untouchables (the darkest hue of the Hindu population) took advantage of disruption in society as a result of plague - and legged it. They've been on the move ever since. The logo of the modern Romany association is a wagon wheel - indicating their mode of transport (carts driven by horses or oxen).

Wikipedia has 21 pages on the Roma - see ... with a lot of links at the end. It can hardly be bettered from a mainstream angle and provides the possibility they were on the move prior to the 7th century Islamic war of conquest and may have spread into Iran and the Middle East quite early, as outlined just above. It would have the advantage of a new group of people providing labour just at a time when labour had become short in the supply chain. At ... we have another layer in the story. It seems the Rom were known as the Dom (variously the Lom) in the Middle East and Iran, and in the Caucasus and central Asia, and the term Dom, it has been suggested, goes back to the Domba people of India (which may or may not be true). Again, these people left India as early as the 6th century AD - using an analysis of language afiliation. The Dom appear to be those groups that remained in Iran and the Middle East as far as Turkey, and the Rom are those that moved as far as the Balkans and Europe. The Dom were famous for their music and dancing and the origin of the belly dance in Egypt is supposed to be via them. As such, they would have existed as part of the population of the Arab Empire which opened a vast area they were able to roam in a semi nomadic lifestyle. The introduction of Islam brought problems for settled farming communities - but the biggest problem must have been a drop in population numbers as a result of the preceding plague. Once again the Dom were able to fill a niche and eventually they would have migrated all the way into Islamic Spain (and the rest is history as they say). The Rom in Turkey and the Balkans adopted the Islamic faith and in the modern world they are still attached to that religion, even groups in Bulgaria and so on. They lived in Crimea, possibly as slaves of the Turkish and Mongol ruling elite. Others migrated into Russia and Serbia and became Orthodox while those that moved into Romania and the Hungarian Plain became nominally Catholic. This suggests that in the 14th and 15th centuries they had migrated into central Europe to escape the expansion of the Ottoman Turks. However, they fled one kind of persecution (slavery) only to end up persecuted in their newly adopted lands. The fact they appeared on the scene at the same time as the Ottomans were fighting for control of eastern Europe led to the idea they were in some way a fifth column sent to infiltrate behind the lines of the Germans and their allies.

There is of course the possibility that the migrations across Europe once again followed in the wake of plague - the Black Death of late 14th century. The Ottomans controlled large parts of Bulgaria as well as the Balkans, and they eradicated the Genoese and Italian merchants ensconced in the Crimea, converting the Tartar remnant in the process. The Serbs were also subject to slavery at the hands of the Ottomans - which is why animosity still exists between the different parts of the Balkans as a result of the break-up of Yugoslavia. The term slav is where the word slave is derived. Huge numbers of Russian peasants were harvested for centuries - most of them heading into the Islamic world (where manual labour was looked down on). The Vikings grew rich as slave traders, and every one else that followed them had the same idea - capturing peasants on the steppe and shipping them south. The Ottomans were simply the last in a long line of people - which included the Mongols of the Golden Horde. It was natural that the Rom would have been caught up in this trade as they had basic skills the Islamic world required. In due course the Ottomans weakened and the Russians asserted themselves but Rom were still classified as slaves in Romania all the way into the 19th century. They can still be found living in less salubrious surroundings attached to the end of villages and towns - which is why so many are on the move right now, some of which are camped out in Hyde Park.