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Another Darkness, Another Dawn: A History of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers

This post was contributed by Dr Becky Taylor, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology.

The Roma are back in the news: the Daily Mail has published an article claiming that a Bulgarian Roma woman has schooled ‘hundreds of children’ in the art of pickpocketing; government promises to clamp down on ‘welfare tourism’ in the wake of the dropping of border controls from Bulgaria and Romania have been tied sometimes implicitly, often explicitly, to expected ‘invasions’ of Roma. Once again, it seems, society’s wider insecurities about social change have found a scapegoat in Europe’s most marginalised and vilified minority. This is nothing new: in 2014 scaremongering about Bulgarian Roma may be a way of expressing deep seated fears over migration, the expansion of Europe and the lack of a democratic voice; in early modern Europe repression targeting ‘Egyptians’ and ‘counterfeit Egyptians’ was means for regimes trying to control the rapid rise in vagrancy and the social uncertainty caused by wars and religious upheavals.

Romani peoples are rarely seen as having a place in a country, either geographically or socially, no matter where they live or what they do. Part of their marginalisation stems from the fact that they are excluded from mainstream histories. At the same time, they are rarely granted a separate history, but rather seen to exist in a timeless bubble, unchanged and untouched by modern life. If some Roma or Gypsies are seen as deviant, thieving and untrustworthy still others – often existing more in the realm of story books and imagination – are depicted as living a timeless life of constant nomadism; innately exotic, musical, most likely living in bow-topped caravan, ‘here today, gone tomorrow’, untouched by the cares of modern life.

Another Darkness, Another Dawn A History of Gypsies, Roma and TravellersMy recent book, Another Darkness, Another Dawn: A History of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers (Reaktion, 2014) is an attempt to move beyond such stereotyping and to write not only a history of peoples most often known as Gypsies, but also to write their history into the mainstream. Understanding their history means tracking the gradual migration of peoples whose descendants became Romani, from India across the Persian empire and into Europe via Byzantium. It also means reflecting on the vast array of ways in which they have lived: while some groups may have been perpetually nomadic, large numbers – across history and place – often travelled for the summer and settled in the winter; still others settled permanently in particular villages or parts of towns. Central to Romani experiences has been their ability to find gaps and spaces in which they might continue to exist and even sometimes to thrive. Their economic activities often exploited niches which settled communities were unable to fulfil; and their resilience and willingness to live on the margins has enabled them to survive waves of repression.

Writing this history was also to take in the founding and contraction of empires, Reformation and counter-Reformation, wars, the expansion of law and order and of states, the Enlightenment and the increasing regulation of the world – it is as much a history of ourselves as it is a history of ‘others’. So long positioned as outsiders, in fact genetic mapping as much as the genealogies constructed by the nineteenth-century Munich police, show the extent to which, whether settled or mobile, Romani peoples’ heritages have long been as intimately bound to the European population as they are to an original Indian ancestry. Evidence from the Venetian as well as Ottoman empires shows how they rapidly became integrated into their social, feudal and military systems. And indeed, that the Ottoman empire was quite capable of managing nomadism and taxing nomads is revealing of the paucity of imagination of modern bureaucratic states with their insistence on a fixed address as a key indicator of citizenship.

If exploring the history of Romani peoples was a way of holding up a mirror to the societies in which they have lived, it was also a salutatory lesson into the dangers of believing in a progressive view of history: things don’t always get better, especially if you belong to a marginalised ethnic group. But neither were they always necessarily as simple as they first appear. Carrying out the research for this book showed how the enslavement of Gypsies coexisted under the Ottomans with remarkable cultural diversity and autonomy; how branding, mutilations and ‘gypsy hunts’ occurred at the same time that Gypsies established themselves across Europe; and how despite developments in education and attitudes towards minorities the modern world has failed to bring anything like acceptance of the place of Romani peoples within its societies. The book takes its name from the words of Ilona Lacková, a Slovakian Roma and Auschwitz survivor: ‘It’s the end of the war, we’ve survived. After darkness comes the dawn. But after every dawn also comes the darkness. Who knows what’s in store for us’.