HISTORICAL CONSCIOUSNESS AMONG THE ROMA

We cannot begin to understand Roma culture without first knowing something of the history of Roma communities. Much of this history, however, is invisible, as much of Roma culture is a non-written culture. A leading historian once asked me why the Roma, unlike other European peoples, have little or no historical consciousness. “Because”, I told him, “they have an oral culture in which memory and the approach to time and space take a different shape, and this determines inter alia the conception of history among people of the culture in question.” I was thinking, in the meantime, that the question itself illustrated how once again an erudite expert raised and socialised in a written culture is surprised by the existence of a perception of time and a form of collective memory different from that of his cultural background.

In written cultures, remembrance is the apperception of the past. As part of the experienced events, actions are denoted as text and attached to dates, becoming then further points of orientation. This is how history is born. As Marc Bloch writes, “Where calculation is impossible we are obliged to employ suggestion. Between the expression of physical and of human realities there is as much difference as between the task of a drill operator and that of a violin-maker: both work down to the last millimeter, but the driller uses precision tools, while the violin-maker is guided primarily by his sensitivity to sound and touch”. The technique of the driller progresses, becomes increasingly precise and efficient, while in violin-making to this day Stradivari (who lived in the 17th century) wins hands down. The violin-maker’s work corresponds to ideational learning activity, which is built primarily on the biological sensors of oral cultures and conserves their structures for centuries. The work of the driller, on the other hand, resembles the processes of the evolution and rise and fall of written cultures, which can be measured by the accelerated pace of technical civilization.

The new environments into which the Roma entered on their arrival in Europe must have prompted them to adopt new life strategies. It may be impossible for us to fully realize the modalities of this change of strategy, since we have little knowledge of the earlier structures, systems, and relations of these communities, or the strategies adopted elsewhere. It seems likely that the Roma, who journeyed all over Europe in the first half of the 16th century, spent a longer amount of time in the Balkans, approximately one hundred years. (A large percentage remained there, and to this day the region is home to Europe’s largest Roma community. Romania, Macedonia and Bulgaria, i.e. countries of the Eastern Balkan region, are remarkable from this point of view, but there are still nomadic and semi-nomadic communities in Greece, Albania and some of the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Large numbers have since come to Italy, which is perhaps why today the most colourful Gypsy population lives in Italy, and this is essentially the origin of the conflict that developed after Romania and Bulgaria entered the European Union.)

It took barely fifty years for the Roma to migrate haphazardly from the Balkan peninsula to virtually every corner of Europe, which considering conditions of travel in the early 15th century indicates remarkable mobility. Supposedly, in France their paths crossed with the Kalos of Northern Africa, but this is little more than a hypothesis in support of which no archival data has yet emerged. Indeed in my view the descriptions of the circumstances of the Roma’s arrival in Europe are themselves not entirely reliable. There are too many uncertainties and too much a-critical acceptance of earlier narratives. Many of the allegations that have been accepted as reliable hardly harmonize with our knowledge of Romany culture today. The closer we come to the present, the greater the likelihood of the authenticity of the descriptions relevant to our history. This is natural in the case of a culture characterised not only by the lack of writing, but also, as a part of its survival strategy, by a hesitancy to communicate information about itself. “Let’s find out as much as we can about gadjos, and let’s expose as little as we can about ourselves.” This credo continues to surface today, especially where trust is stinted.

At the end of Middle Ages European culture, which of course was dominated by religion, was relatively hospitable to the new arrivals, who introduced themselves as pilgrims. The conflicts began when the deep gap between the two cultures came to light, an elementary difference that even Christian Europe found itself unwilling to tolerate. This was the seed of much of what has befallen the Roma ever since. In the western half of Europe, deportation became common, though it soon became apparent that this would at most exacerbate but certainly not solve the tensions. (The states often deported undesirable persons or groups, which contributed in large part to the development of invisibility strategies that later proved to be successful.) After imprisonings, executions followed, sometimes en masse. Sometimes ten thousand people were hanged at once. There were places where gentlemen organised sport hunts to “bring down” (in effect slaughter) Roma. When this proved insufficient as a means to meet their ends, many Roma were deported to the colonies, apparently solving the issue. The majority of the Roma deported ended up in South and North America. Some had been relocated ab ovo and some had come over from Africa. This exodus must have involved a huge loss of people, though we can only guess how many. The life of a Roma was considered worthless and no reliable accounts of the deportations survive. To date, there are significant Gypsy populations in Brazil, Mexico, the United States and Canada. The situation in the USA is remarkable. Nowadays, there are two kinds of Roma community living there. One is made up of the descendants of the deportees. They continue to lead nomadic lives, wandering across the country in caravans fitted with all the conveniences and living mostly off trade or short term by-jobs. The other group is comprised of the more or less assimilated communities, who were brought from Europe to the new world by the waves of emigration in the 20th century. A good many of them are Hungarian Gypsy musicians, who were able, in part because of the communities of Hungarian emigrés, to continue to pursue their traditional lines of work in the New World.

The history of the Roma communities of Hungary dates back to the safe-conduct issued in 1422 by King Sigismund at Szepesváralja. The circumstances under which the safe-conduct was issued and delivered, which have been cited by historian Sir Angus Fraser, led to the conclusion that its beneficiaries are not the ancestors of the Roma now wandering throughout the West. On the basis of the names and practices mentioned, the author assumes that this group had a long-established relationship with Hungarians. In his assessment one cannot exclude the possibility of them being the forerunners of the wave of larger masses, but it is also probable that the first wave of this group to arrive was numerically large. This would suggest that conjectures concerning the very early arrival of Roma in Hungary might well be true after all.

The safe-conduct guaranteed unique rights to free movement and work for the Gypsies living on the territory of the Kingdom, and this in turn prompted a strong and extended migration influx from every direction toward Hungary.

At the end of the Middle Ages the borders of the feudal States were practically fully traversable. The feudalistic government power kept guarded trade routes and toll-collector spots, but otherwise more extensive controls were only implemented in case of war or epidemic. Largely due to this fact, the migration of different ethnic groups, mainly those fleeing the devastation of wars, was considerable. Similar groups settled in Hungary as well, among them the Roma, who allegedly were escaping Turkish invaders. This population did not arrive in one mass. Rather they arrived in different clusters, spread over time and space, thus already in the framework of small group community structures that have remained characteristic to this day.

This is substantiated by the fact that these communities settled not in one or two European states, but rather in all of them. The safe-conduct of Sigismund, though it influenced the itinerary of migration, did not drastically alter this. Some groups stayed, some moved on. Some returned and departed several times, a pattern of migration that can be discerned in the traces of the Hungarian language and other cultural patterns present even among Roma living in South America today.

The most important consequence of this situation, a consequence that was to have far reaching effects, was that the intergroup relations were constantly rearranged. Unfortunately we can no longer re-enact the inner relations of Roma communities at the time. The authors of the narratives and descriptions that have survived focused only on the majority and on its relations with the authorities, without paying any attention to events within the Roma communities themselves.

The situation of the Roma was decisively influenced by the fact that Europe’s western half was already more developed than the eastern half. As early as the 15th century the feudal monarchs of the West had begun to organise their societies around centralized bodies of government. They found themselves unable or unwilling to tolerate the presence of Gypsies who, constantly on the move, resisted the authority of the state and refused to surrender their autonomy. The irreconciliable opposition lead to conflicts, usually a losing battle for the Roma. This is why the majority of the Roma communities settled in Eastern Europe, where the distance between the two forms of life – and with it the degree of rejection – was smaller.

In European societies at the time order was the utmost requirement. Naturally “order” meant the dominance of someone over some others. This someone specified what others must and must not do, meting out rewards for conformity and punishment for resistance. Inevitably conflicts of interests emerged, followed by struggles for positions and the possibility of diposing of available resources. The system of order thus established was hardly in accordance with the laws of nature.

One condition of survival for Romany is to know as much as possible about the law, customs, and manner of thinking of the majority, but given the increasingly arbitrary and high-handed measures taken by the opposing side, even the appearance of acquiescence became difficult to feign. Cooperation tactics proved successful only where contact had been made, social integration had started, and the two sides had gotten to know and accept each other’s costums and values.

Those who for some reason remained outside the majority culture systems lived under very different circumstances. They lived within a culture of outsiders in Hungary, which was centered on minimising external relations (they left their own safe spaces only when it was absolutely necessary). This way of life became sustainable for the long term, however, because of the minimal demands and expectations. It represented, in short, a predictable, economically viable way of life. There were no power structures. Order was guaranteed by the customs and standards of coexistence in accordance with the laws of nature. This situation prevailed until the forced assimilation of the mid-20th century brought it to an end. Reflexes, ancient habits, and taboos, however, have survived under the surface and continue to emerge even today, generating tensions seemingly inexplicable and impalpable anomalies and conflicts.

Sometimes, for instance, a thirteen or fourteen year-old Roma girl gets pregnant, causing something of a stir among the general public, which tends to think that this girl would be better off in school. Justice calls the “perpetrator” to account, a process reported with delectation and an abundance of details by the sensationalist press. The real situtation is nonetheless as follows: to treat a child as an adult, so to speak, from the day he or she was born is an integral part of Roma culture. They aren’t sent to another room or to the yard while adults talk (meaning that adults do not regard any theme as not proper for children ) and castigation is an unknown concept to them. Compared to adults, children have additional rights, in turn the respect of natural dominance rapports is dictated by a nature-motivated law. This establishes the grounds for the upbringing of one’s offspring. It is crucial to provide role models, a task in which parents, older siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts and – according to my personal experience – above all grandparents play an important part. This leaves an indelible impression on the personality of the members of the younger generation, who by thirteen or fourteen years of age have mastered the methods of acquiring the resources needed for survival. At roughly the same time, since this is a Mediterranean population, young people become biologically mature, and with the explicit or anticipated approval of their parents, they couple, anticipating the forming of sexual backgrounded complexes, deemed the root of all evil by Freud. With the birth of the first child the process of growing up is completed, and the cycle begins again. A thirty-year old person can have as many as ten healthy children. As far as I can recall, infant mortality is minimal in this community.

One can distinguish three groups of taboos in Romany culture. Their functions can be defined separately, but this would be pointless, since they all make up part of the survival strategy. The first of the three groups is hygienic taboos.

The various interdictions associated with the value of cleanliness, of keeping the body, clothes, and living space clean, can be considered universal taboos, since in one form or another they exist in every culture. The same applies to certain interdictions or obligations related to eating habits, which also serve to safeguard health. But among the Roma one finds a distinctive taboo, characteristic of this culture, which has the explicit function of protecting group boundaries.

The notion of common meals as a means of affirming community is a norm present perhaps in all cultures, but among the Roma it entails specific exclusions that may seem paradoxical at first sight. The force of the interdiction against common meals is inversly proportional to the physical and cultural distance of the two groups concerned. If group A and group B are close, a member of group A cannot eat a meal prepared by a member of group B. The closer a group is either physically or culturally, the stronger the ban. This may seem counterintuitive, but in fact it is based on a logical imperative to maintain group cohesion in the face of a genuine danger, since a group that is close, either culturally, physically or both, constitutes the most serious threat to the other group’s integrity. The third category is taboos relating to sex and relationships between men and women, which also have an impact on family law. This group has an interesting duality. On the one hand, inter-group relations are maintained as mentioned above, but on the other there is a new function not examined until now, namely group cohesion and the circumvallation of the unquestioning faith in a manner that excludes even the slightest possibility of ambiguous situtations. One such taboo stipulates that an adult woman can only talk to a man other than her husband in the presence of a witness. For instance, when a housewife is alone at home (which is often the case) and someone arrives whom she is obliged to receive (such as the postman or an administrator), she invites the woman from next door or a child old enough to judge the situation. Another option, considered less preferable, is to receive the visitor in the yard in a visible spot, and if this isn’t possible, she leaves the door open and is careful to remain clearly visible from the outside.

Patterns of coexistence dating back hundreds of years produced on the one hand a partial social integration, completed in the 20th century, unparallelled in Europe. On the other, the specific cultural evolution of Gypsies (or Roma) created a community structure unique in every way.

Inter-group solidarity and the strict defence of group boundaries sometimes lead to endogamy. Peculiar bone diseases developed and many people had to use crutches or wheel-chairs, but interestingly the disease only affected the male population. This is where the family name ‘Bangó’ (originally “Bango,” meaning “crooked” or “lame”), very common among us, comes from. The group or community incapable of altering this practice quickly died out or dissolved.

I knew groups where the emergence of mixed marriages solved the problem. Other groups achieved the same result by a system of standards regulating the nuptial procedures. First marriages were generally followed by parallel and exchange marriages. Parallel marriage meant that more men from the groom’s group chose brides from the first bride’s group. Inversely, in the exchange wedding a groom or grooms coming from the group of the original bride chose a wife from the original groom’s group. Depending on the size of the groups, two, three, four or even five weddings could be held, but in general the relations founding double group memberships and intergroup alliances developed in various directions. As a result, in the groups concerned usually everyone has become related to everyone, so that the next generation, due to the interdiction against marrying relatives, was compelled to find a mate elsewhere. This has repeated at every generational shift, and since in different groups the generational shifts took place at different times, this was a constant process serving to create a more diverse gene pool and protect group boundaries.

This system may seem complicated and hardly transparent from the outside, but in reality it was an expedient, complex formation organised by simple, clear rules recognising essentially two types of relation: one based on dwelling and one based on relations. The dwelling relationship never outranged indispensable common actions, consequently a transformation could not take place, though due to its immovability it was steady and transgenerational. The other, far stronger type of relationship created systems, and with a bit of luck networks were enhanced by parallel and exchange weddings interlaced with double group memberships. Every group was on the one hand member of a kinship network with close relations, where group boundaries at times were faint, on the other, it was member of a more loosely linked, dwelling-based functional community.

If a group accidentally missed one of the two networks, it either was made part of an integral group or fragmented and integrated in parts. This was a selective principle: only viable, strong communities could stay together. Nevertheless, as an element of the formation of systems rejection was as important as acceptance.

Clearly this system could not be stationary, and depending on shifting circumstances (above all the availability of resources) it had to change. Strategy of life, way of life, and cultural image could change (e.g. in the case of craftsmen, when modern mass-production made their trades obsolete), but one thing couldn’t: the community structure as described above, which impeded the formation of governmental-political institutions and bureaucracy.

This community structure can best be compared to the systems of primitive communal societies. Subsistence-oriented activities focused primarily on resources outside the territory of the community, and this tradition is still present in many places today in the form of gathering fungi, medicinal herbs, wild fruit and berries, and other crops and plants, e.g. acorn used as seed. Where gradual transition was possible, methods of purchasing resources in accordance with the joint ownership customs of the community developed (trade, wage-labour, home craft etc.). Conflicts arose (and arise) when the intolerant majority demands an immediate non-gradual transformation. The settlements hosting the traditional community structure were eliminated and the form of life that evolved over the course of centuries suddenly became obsolete. Reflexes working at the most obscure levels of communal conscience have, however, persisted and continue to exercise an influence in some places today, while methods of resolving the conflicts to which they give rise have not yet been developed.

The contrasts between oral and written culture, collective memory, cyclical and linear perceptions of time and their bearing on questions of possession and economy are different facets of one problem. Public opinion is hardly aware of this phenomenon, which is only now beginning to gain attention among the scholarly community. The lack of historical consciousness is regarded by popular apprehension as some kind of a handicap. The community with no historical consciousness is per definitionem inferior. The verdict has been passed: Gypsies are so inferior that they don’t even have a historical consciousness. There is in fact a growing body of scholarly literature on the collective consciousness of Gypsies, but it is not accessible in Hungarian. Kata Horváth and Cecília Kovai search the imprint of Gypsy collective memory in the “gypsy talk.” Jane Dick Zatta seeks a more profound understanding of contrasting perceptions through contraposition of oral and written traditions. The situation is worsened by the fact that to this day no researcher has had the ability to see this community from the inside. (Perhaps those who married into a Roma community have managed this best.) There is at the moment an ever more urgent need for the ability to perceive Roma communities from the inside in order to arrive at answers to these questions and more nuanced understandings of these concepts. We are perhaps justified in hoping that the study of collective memory may help to further this understanding.

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email

More
articles

LEADERSHIP IN WAR

Winston Churchill had no doubts about the importance of studying history: ‘In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.’ This includes its subset, leadership in war. Great war leaders, as

REFLECTIONS ON ‘A NATION DISMEMBERED’

“But obligations are reciprocal. Those who gained at Trianon have obligations as well. Their obligation is to shape countries with an absolute minimum of injustice so that they can ask

THE ROLE OF THE UNITED STATES IN HUNGARY’S TRIANON TRAGEDY

“The extremely influential pan-Slavic movement and the idea of dismantling Austria–Hungary emerged in Cleveland and Pittsburgh after a long period of Germanization in the nineteenth century, while the quasi-declaration of