UNLIKELY as it may seem, the word 'Gypsy’ derives from ‘Egyptian’ - the original assumption was that these travelling people had come from the Middle East. Elsewhere in Europe they have been called ‘Bohemians’, ‘Saracens’ or ‘Tartars’ for much the same reasons. Indeed the whole exotic image of the Gypsy rests on the vague belief that he or she comes from somewhere else.
Another theory was that they were an Indian race that had migrated to Europe a thousand years previously. This was because links had been found in the nineteenth century between Gypsy languages and a form of Sanskrit that dated from before 1,000 AD, Their exotic origin was thus apparently confirmed and scholars then moved on to puzzle over why this mysterious people should have ‘followed the sun’.
But the origins of Gypsies - or Travellers as they are also called - are probably much less romantic. Gypsies first appeared in Europe in the fifteenth century with the collapse of feudalism- when many people in Europe itself had to take to the road. Such people would have found it profitable to band together for a number of mobile occupations and their various vocabularies and sub-languages might have been brought by just a few persons who had travelled along the trade or crusade routes. The exotic identity may, in fact, have been assumed as a way to justify their nomadic existence to the communities through which they passed. I have met Travellers from Ireland who even today make use of a similar strategy; they describe their movements through England as part of a pilgrimage to Lourdes.
People who are passing through - or stay for just a while - are seen as threatening and beyond the control of the state: strangers living lawless, free and easy. In reality the history of the Gypsies has been far from easy; they have always been moved on and persecuted. In the British Isles up to 1793 you could be hanged just for being a Gypsy. The Nazis eliminated a quarter of a million Gypsies in concentration camps because they were seen as a ’foreign element’. And in communist states today travelling by Gypsies has been banned and their wagons have been seized and destroyed.
But what precisely is a Gypsy? People think of them as a distinct race, perhaps because of their supposed Indian origin. But this is misleading. Gypsies do form an ethnic group but this is only because they base their membership on descent and normally only marry within the group. They are also careful to define themselves in opposition to non-Gypsies - for whom they have special names. Non-gypsies are ‘Gorgios' in England. . 'Flattiet’ in Scotland. . 'Payos’ in Spain and ’Gadjes’ in France and the United States.
Ideally a Gypsy should always marry another Gypsy, though virtually all groups will accept ‘Gorgio’ spouses. These will be accepted into the community once they have shown they are prepared to adopt Gypsy ways and reject their ‘dirty’ non-Gypsy origins.
But Gypsy identity rests also on a commitment to a specific way of life and certain values. They prefer self-employment; wage-labour - especially under the orders of a Gorgio - is considered degrading.
Travelling, too, is important, though the opportunities vary from country to country. In the United States, for example, Gypsies live in houses. But a recent study in California showed that they moved around for about a third of the year either by shifting lodgings, staying in relatives’ houses or motels or flying off to Miami to work as fortune tellers.
Modern technology has certainly enhanced their travelling, with horses and wagons largely exchanged for motor transport; railways and aeroplanes are used as needed. In Eastern Europe, where nomadism is out-lawed, a number of Gypsies travel around within national boundaries by train And Gypsies in parts of Spain spend two or three months of each year working in South America.
The ‘real’ gypsies are usually held to be only those considered of ’foreign’ origin. The Tinkers in Scotland and Ireland are described as 'merely’ victims of the descendents of the Highland Clearances and the Great Hunger, whereas the 'Romanies’ who look no different are said to be of Indian descent. India, in fact, seems to have its own Gypsies. When I visited Rajasthan I was told about some 'Gypsies’ who were originally of the Rajput caste who had taken to the roads in the last few hundred years. The Indian government is trying to settle them.
But even though there may be no racial differences between Gypsies and the local community the boundary between the Gypsy and the Gorgio can often be maintained symbolically. While moving through space owned and controlled by Gorgios the Gypsies will use their bodies and homes to mark out their own space. Especially important is the ‘inside/outside’ division.
The Gypsies make a clear distinction between the inner body - the secret ethnic self and inner retreat - and the outer body. which is potentially a source of pollution and must be kept separate. So you will find no sinks in Gypsy caravans because these could be for mixed use - for washing the body and for washing crockery. Similarly Gypsies will not have toilets inside their caravans- which they call trailers- because the trailer must be kept pure like the body’s inside.
These inside/outside divisions can also be extended to territory over which Gypsies feel some form of control. So on land which they own or rent - and where they might leave aged relatives when they travel- the trailers are set out in a circle. Everyone can see everyone else in the group with a central space where they meet. The ground of the inner circle must be kept clean and toilets placed outside it. At the same time the circle offers privacy from the outside world.
The Gypsy lifestyle might seem to have been made redundant by the increasing urbanisation of recent years. But to think of the Gypsies only in the countryside is misleading. They have always been in the capitals of Europe - negotiating with popes, kings and others in power. The myth that places them in 'nature’ is probably another attempt to place them as outsiders, while in fact they have always had to relate to the dominant culture.
So as the world has become more urbanised the gypsies too have become more urbanised. The problem they face nowadays is access to land in or near the cities from which at times they can move away. But their difficulties are caused not so much by an absolute shortage of urban land as by objections from housedwellers who don't like seeing Gypsy caravans and campsites and also dislike having land near them used for ‘unsuitable’ occupations like scrap- metal breaking.
As a result, Gorgio planners in both Gypsies away from towns and ‘spread them thinly’ in the countryside. The Dutch government in 1947 banned travelling by the local Gypsies - called ‘Woonwagen-bewoners’. The argument was that their travelling was the cause of their poverty. Regional 'centres’ were set up for the ex-Travellers, each containing as many as 120 families. But the Gypsies found they couldn’t earn their living in the place where they had been put. The controls on their movement had helped create poverty and the majority finished up on welfare. The Gypsies pleaded for smaller sites and freedom of movement and finally in 1977 the planners decided to scrap the centres.
In England and Wales succeeding Acts of Parliament have made whole areas legally impassable for Gypsies; many Gypsy-run sites were closed in the 1960’s and their occupants forced onto the roads. In 1968 a policy of 'official sites' was introduced. But in London, for example, each borough need only offer a site for 15 families, and some have got away with providing for less or even none. Westminster - the House of Commons’ own borough- was one of the first to be exempted and to get the power to chase away any remaining Gypsies. There are no plans to allow them to rent or buy land which they could use as stopping places and which would be under their control.
The official sites offered in Britain have made few concessions to the Gypsies’ use of space. A site that was cost-effective for a local authority, I was told, should contain at least 15 families to enable efficient rent-collection, plumbing and welfare provision- a number which goes against the Gypsies preference for smaller groupings of kin and allies. Site layouts also reflect the architects and planners’ point of view with caravan pitches in straight lines as ifeach family were self-contained and seeking privacy from the others - when what the Gypsies want is privacy from the rest of the world.
On one site that I saw the planners had respected the Gypsies’ circle but the architect had ordered high beech fences between each tenant. I watched these screens being broken up for communal gatherings round the fire.
Gypsies move through space while the authorities want to keep them in one place or drive them into some else’s. ‘They think they’ve got us pinned down,’ say the British Gypsies. And, seeing a future comparable with that of the American Indians: 'When’s the next reservation opening?’