THE GYPSIES HOLD A STRANGE ATTRACTION FOR SOME ANARCHISTS. One constantly hears them praised for their law-less way of life, for their roaming Stateless existence, for their contempt, which has now achieved an almost unique timelessness, towards our civilisation.
The picture of the gypsies as a romantic tribal people, with quaint customs and an impetuous love of freedom, has survived all the more serious attempts at analysis, just as has the contradictory image of them as rogues, charlatans and thieves. Both attitudes are superficial as this admirably objective, well-informed and highly readable book shows.* Jean-Paul Clébert dispels most of the romantic myths and gives an excellent account of the customs, traditions and history of the various tribes and sub-tribes. The book, though expensive, is beautifully illustrated and produced, and is essential reading for anyone who has any views on the gypsies.
The gypsies, like the Jews, came to Europe as a result of a vast diaspora (racial dispersion). To start with they were treated with tolerance and respect. Documents as recent as a 1493 Letter of Protection from Sigismund, King of Hungary, bear witness to this. This letter enjoins non gypsy subjects to allow the gypsies the right to practise their own beliefs and customs, including their laws. This respect soon collapsed and the later history of the gypsies, like the Jews, is a long battle for freedom from persecution.
One of the first recorded appearances of gypsies occurs in "Le Journal d'un Bourgeois de Paris" in 1427. Even at this period the
* The Gypsies by Jean-Paul Clébert, translated by Charles Duff (Vista Books London, 42s.).
gypsies made themselves unpopular by telling fortunes. They created havoc by telling husbands and wives that their partners were being unfaithful! An account of the gypsies in Bologna (1422) puts on record the gypsies' accomplishments as thieves. A gypsy woman shattered local calm by giving birth to a child in a public square and the local Bishop threatened excommunication to anyone having commerce with gypsies. It is fair to point out that this chronicler (Muratori) wrote in the eighteenth century and when he said "these vagabonds are the cleverest thieves in the world" he was confirming a popular contemporary prejudice.
The 'official' persecution of gypsies began in France in the early sixteenth century and reached a peak with Louis XIV, the seventeenth-century precursor of Charles de Gaulle. His decree of 1682 ordered gypsy men to serve in the galleys in perpetuity, women to have their heads shaved, or, if persistent, gypsies to be flogged and banished, and children to be ensconced in poor houses. Fortunately the decree was largely ineffective. In Rumania the gypsies suffered considerable persecution in the seventeenth century and many retreated into the mountains between Rumania and Hungary rather than live as slaves to local boyars. These gypsies (netosi) lived as an undercover resistance movement, supported by local woodcutters, healers and peasants hostile to the regime, and emerged from hiding only only for provisions and resultant skirmishes with government troops. When slavery was abolished and amnesty given to outlaws, the netosi showed admirable scepticism towards the State's sense of honour, and most stayed in the mountains.
In Hungary they were treated less harshly, though in 1782 forty-one gypsies in one area were barbarically executed, on charges of cannibalism which there was no attempt to prove, and the remainder were driven into marshes where they perished. From 1761 Maria Theresa, then Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, a monarch renowned for her good intentions and appalling execution of them, attempted to make the gypsies respectable citizens. However the means of executing her integration policy were misguided, as an account left by one contemporary woman observer shows. This woman tells how simultaneously, all over Hungary, soldiers captured gypsy children and young couples and dragged them off, oblivious to the pleas of distraught parents, many of whom committed suicide in their despair. "The use of these vigorous measures was hardly calculated to convince the Zigains of the excellence of the morality preached to them and was not of a nature to inspire in them consciousness of the superiority of the institutions which the authorities wished to that serious and truly religious good results to the education of impose on them … But one may add measures have never been applied with this people."
It was left to the Germans under Adolf Hitler to attempt a serious solution of the gypsy 'problem'. No less than 400,000 of a race, calculated to be a mere four or five million strong, were slaughtered by the Nazis.
In Spain the gypsies also suffered persecution. Many were legally murdered on ridiculous charges and, in the eighteenth century, even the sanctity of the church as a refuge was declared void in the case of gypsies.
The gypsy dispersion spread as far as Scandinavia, where they found remarkable similarity with the Finns. (The Lapps — the successors of the then-Finns — also show a surprising similarity with the gypsies though Clébert does not mention this).
Throughout their history gypsies have been metal-smiths, horse dealers, animal leaders, diviners and 'prophets'. Despite the fact that these are the occupational prohibitions contained in the Indian divine Laws of Manu, it must not be thought that the gypsies are of low caste or even more recalcitrant to external authority than their reputation already suggests. It is simply that these professions are those most suitable to a nomadic existence. It should also be noted that gypsies take no note of the predictions of gypsy palmists, not because they are un-superstitious but because they are too superstitious to put faith in such predictions.
It was the gypsies who introduced the skilled working of metal into Europe but the wanderers have been hard hit by the advent of centralised, industrial society. A modern gypsy, deprived of his metal working monopoly, often works in boiler-making, a trade where his physical hardiness is much appreciated. Others find jobs in garages and some are involved in making war material plating for the French government! Despite the gypsies' reputation as horse-handlers they are not particularly good horsemen; their skill consists in the care of horses. Using methods described by Clébert the gypsies can make a beaten-down nag appear to be a frisky young horse. Though their honesty is doubted, gypsies still make many sales to peasants who acknowledge their skill in horse care and recognise the gypsies' knowledge of the market. Many gypsies are now involved in the secondhand car trade — their faking ability is easily adapted to circumstances! Another animal which plays a large part in the gypsy life and mythology is the bear. Gypsy bear-leaders (ursari) are still to be seen in Europe.
It is as musicians that the gypsies' reputation stands highest. They have produced magnificent singers, dancers and players (among them the late Django Reinhardt, whose mother still lives as a gypsy). The originality of gypsy music has been defended by Franz Liszt and W. F. Bach (eldest son of J. S. Bach) among others. Bach actually lived with them for many years. Whether gypsy music is purely original is open to doubt but the fact remains that they have produced the most remarkable musical virtuosi. Their talents also lie in making instruments and many people who should have known better bought Stradivarius violins from gypsies only to discover that the faking ability extended to musical instruments. The gypsies play many instruments; the most magnificent is the cithara, a stringed instrument of pure Indian origin. When they play at their best they are obsessed with what the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca called duende, the spirit of life and imminent death, which comes through clearly in their music. Gypsy dancing has an erroneous reputation for eroticism, a sort of European belly dance. This is false and the dance has no direct sexual significance, although it has ritual importance.
The gypsies are not anarchists. Should there be any doubt Clébert's excellent chapter on Tradition would soon dispel it. In this he traces the origins of many gypsy legends, including the famous one of Sara the Black Virgin. I do not propose to state the basis of gypsy belief here since it is adequately dealt with by Clébert and is relatively complicated. They gypsy religion, like the gypsies, has proved highly adaptable. They have managed to accept, superficially, the tenets of the dominant religion wherever they have been, avoiding at least one pitfall open to a minority group. The gypsy accepts, more or less, the Jewish/Christian idea of God who is known as o Del. They also believe in Christ (Cretchuno). O Del is everything: earth, sky, fire, wind, rain. (Water is not part of the gypsy deity and neither do they like it in any form but rain — Clébert deals very succinctly with water). It is interesting to note that the gypsies have preserved almost intact the Hebrew names of Biblical personalities — thus Moi'shel (Moses) is an exact transcription of Hebrew*. In most cases the gypsy modifications of the biblical legends makes them more poetic!
A lot of rubbish has been written about tribal structure among the gypsies. We have been regaled with idiocies about Kings and Queens which are the result of gypsy secrecy, preconceptions and inadequate research. Gypsies refer to themselves as Hom† (men) and non gypsies as gadjé (a derisive term meaning approximately 'peasant'). The contempt they have for the gadjé is shown in many parts of Clébert's book and particularly in the gypsy legend about the Genesis of Man. This legend, which is similar to a Red Indian legend I was told as a child, tells that God made man by making clay models, baking them in a kiln and breathing life into them. First he underfired a model — the result was the white man. Next he overfired a model — the result was a black man. But the third time he fired the model perfectly and the result was the nut-brown man — the gypsy.
Many young men have set out to be adopted by the gypsies but it is doubtful whether the gypsies would consider an adoption ceremony as anything more than a symbolic act of friendship and there appear to be no recorded cases of a gadjo marrying a gypsy without both the couple and their progeny being banished from the tribe. Without marriage a gadjo could hardly enter the tribe as anything more than a symbolic phral (brother). (Prostitution incidentally is apparently unknown among the gypsies). Banishment is the most severe punishment the gypsy can suffer. No one may speak to the victim. Objects he touches, however valuable, are immediately destroyed and he will die and be buried unattended by the tribe (vitcha).
The gypsy has inherited a caste system (casto) from India. Caste is essentially a system for the preservation of undefiledness, membership is open only to those born members of the community and an inflexible law forbids marriage outside the group. Rigid authority is used to
* My generalisations do not apply to those gypsies who are Mussulmans.
† A habit common among 'primitives'; the eskimoes refer to themselves as Inruit (men).
implement the system.
I have pointed out that there are no Kings or Queens. Neither is there any form of hereditary system. The chief of a vitcha is usually a man of some years, renowned for his fairness and knowledge. He presides over the council of elders and answers to no one. Each tribal chief, no matter the size of his tribe, is deemed an equal of the other, among the gypsies. The "queen" of the gypsies is in reality the phuri dai, who is a tribal wise woman, whose power is cloaked and unofficial but nonetheless real, particularly among the women and children. Gypsy society is still to a great extent matriarchal but it so 'close' that it is difficult to clarify the situation. Lineage still runs through the mother in many families. Granny Lee, the famous English gypsy, is, for example, a matriarchal figure, but not a queen.
Justice among the gypsies is relatively simple. It concerns itself with inter-tribal, inter-group and inter-family disputes (e.g. kidnapping), as well as with brawling, land rights, injury, insult and non-observance of gypsy law. No woman may be present at a 'hearing' of the kriss (the gypsy word for both Law and Law Court) except as a witness. (The Phuri Dai may be called for counsel, however).
Witnesses are allowed to speak freely, the elders may confer among themselves but the final decision on guilt and punishment is taken by the krisinitori (president of the court/chief) alone. The death penalty is becoming rarer and banishment and corporal punishment are taking its place. The corporal punishment is often of atrocious viciousness (the pulling out of eyes is an example). Duels with whips in the Ukraine, knives in central Europe and boxing gloves in England may be authorised between the rivals by the kriss. If the accused is found innocent there is an elaborate ritual of rehabilitation. If a gypsy offence is dealt with by a gadjo court it will still be dealt with by the kriss and no notice will be taken of the gadjo decision. It will be seen that there is a powerful system of authority among the gypsies, founded on law and tradition.
Clébert examines some of the gypsy myths and folklore but explains that a definitive work on this subject has yet to be produced. This section is quite adequate for the non specialist reader. Clébert explains many odd features of gypsy life in this section: for example why it is that gypsies do not travel at noon or sundown. He tells us that the squirrel (ramen morga or gypsy cat) is a lucky mascot, particularly for love, and that the hedgehog (niglo) is the favourite animal. The gypsies would never kill the animal they most fear, the weasel, but they eat hedgehog and squirrel with relish! This chapter deals with love, sex, birth, puberty, virginity, marriage, pregnancy, baptism, magic and medicine. It would be impossible to attempt even the briefest synopsis of this very concentrated section. Clébert also examines the gypsy language, though he faces the difficulty of gypsies' not writing and having a purely oral tradition.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is that on the gypsy in modern society. It is in Spain that the gypsy has settled most peaceably and where he is recognised as a citizen on almost equal terms with gadjé. In England also the gypsies enjoy a large measure of freedom, (I am now using Clébert's terms, which are non-anarchist), largely because there always seem to have been estimable cranks who support them. Augustus John, a renowned supporter of unpopular causes, was a man with a rare human understanding of, and sympathy with the gypsies. More recently a Labour MP, Mr. Norman Dodds, has given the gypsies support in one of their intermittent skirmishes with gadjé authority. It is Belgium and Switzerland (both countries which have long since degenerated into a shabby gentility) which are most avoided by gypsies.
The situation in the 'communist' word is very difficult to assess. The only accurate figures for gypsies were those taken in Rumania (1939-40) which give a figure of 262,501. Hitler saw to the massacre of tens of thousands of Rumanian gypsies during the war, so the figures are no longer accurate. In the USSR, the Workers' State does not recognise the right of anyone, even a small minority totally unsuited to State collectivisation, to be nomadic. Whether the 'problem' has been solved in the USSR, and — what is rather more to the point — whether it has been solved humanely, or as a result of coercion, or because of a historical tendency for gypsies to cease the nomadic existence, is not known. Czechoslovakia seems to have found a 'solution' relatively painlessly, though Bulgaria has been harsher, with state decrees that those in irregular employment should work in state industry or agriculture. In Poland the gypsies still wander, despite all the efforts of the authorities.
In France the gypsies are still a 'bogey race', a situation little effected by education. In fact education appears to have little effect. It became compulsory for gypsies to be educated in England in 1908. For my part I feel certain that the gypsies will be better off if they remain ignorant of the ridiculous customs and traditions of our civilisation, and do without education.
It is hardly surprising that romantic anarchists in the Augustus John tradition should have felt drawn to the gypsies. They are a picturesque people whose existence is a romantic addition to a world which has set out with grim and unadventurous intent to destroy itself. The gypsies are a small, invincible group who have (I believe rightly) refused to be integrated into a society whose irresponsibility and divorce from natural reality would make it suspect in the eyes of any unprejudiced observer.
For these reasons I hope this book will be widely read. Whilst these people may not be anarchists or libertarians, this story nonetheless records much of what we have lost in terms of human dignity, affection and tradition. They are a noble people and simply to read Clébert and understand, is a small gesture of solidarity with a people, who, in the words of the author, "are united in the same love of freedom, in their eternal flight from the bonds of civilisation, in their vital need to live in accordance with nature's rhythm, in the desire to be their own masters, and in contempt for what we pompously call the 'consequences'."