Who Are the Romany or Gypsies?

Romany child in head scarf
A Romany girl about 5 years old. Tara Denny via Getty Images

The Romany, also known as Gypsies, are associated in popular culture with fortune-telling, with a nomadic caravan lifestyle, and with music and colorful dances.  They live all across Europe, but usually remain distinct from other local populations.  Who are the Romany, and where did they come from?

Origins:

The Romany are actually a people of Indian origin. They emigrated from northern India into Europe, likely beginning in the 11th century.

By the 1500s, Romany people had reached the British Isles and Scandinavia.  Some of their European neighbors believed that they had come from Egypt - thus the rather disparaging and less than politically correct name "Gypsies."

Some sources suggest that the Romany people's ancestors were forced to flee India because of the violence associated with raids by Mahmud of Ghazni, who ruled Afghanistan from 998 to 1030.  However, linguistic and genetic evidence suggests that the Romany had already left by the time of the Ghaznavid incursions.

A Persian legend about the origins of the Romany, recorded in the Shahnameh, states that the Sassanid ruler Bahram V (406 - 438) invited ten thousand lute players from northern India to come to Persia and provide entertainment for the poor.  He gave each family an ox, a donkey, and a cart full of wheat so that they could begin farming and playing music for their neighbors.

 However, the musicians simply ate the oxen and wheat, and then returned to ask for more food.  Enraged, the king banished them from his kingdom, and they eventually moved west into Europe.

Interestingly, the dates of this story line up well with the genetic evidence, which shows that the ancestors of the Romany left India around 1,500 years ago.

 However, the Romany did not move directly from Persia into Europe; they did not show up in the Balkan region for about 400 to 500 years after their supposed expulsion from Sassanid lands.

Discrimination and Persecution:

Romany in Europe have faced discrimination throughout their history. In the Middle Ages, they were identified with the "Saracens" - Muslims who resisted the European Crusaders' invasions of the Holy Land - despite the fact that the Romany were originally Hindu. Traces of their Hindu origins can be seen today in the remaining divisions of Romany in Europe, which seem to be based on their ancestors' caste affiliations.  Indeed, the word "Romany" or "Rom" comes from the Sanskrit domba, meaning a man from a low caste group of musicians. However, most Romany in Europe quickly adopted the prevalent religions of their new countries, whether that was Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism, or Islam.

Throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern era, Romany in Romania and other European countries were often enslaved.  When Romany fled what is now Turkey and the Balkan states during the Ottoman conquests in the 1500s, they were often attacked by the residents of western European countries, who mistook them for invading Turks.

During the Holocaust, Hitler targeted Romany as well as Jews for extermination. An unknown number of Romany were murdered in German concentration camps; estimates range between 250,000 and 1.5 million.

Romany Music:

Amazingly, some 1,500 years after they left their homeland and began wandering as itinerant musicians, the Romany people are still famed for their musical talent.  From Romanian wedding music to the Spanish flamenco, Romany music has changed the soundscape wherever they have settled.  Their traditional melodies and rhythms have also inspired imitation from such renowned European composers as Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt.  

In the 1930s, a new type of "Gypsy jazz" became wildly popular in France and around the world.  It was kicked off by the famous jazz guitarist Jean "Django" Reinhardt (1910-1953), who was of Romany descent.

 Reinhardt combined traditional Romany melodies and chord progressions with the swing rhythms that were becoming popular at the time to create a new and wonderful musical form.

After an estimated fifteen centuries in exile, the Romany people continue to exist and their culture thrives, despite discrimination and persecution from their neighbors.