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Romani People: Culture & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Romani are a distinct ethnic group that have been a constant feature of European history, and simultaneously largely ignored. In this lesson, we'll talk about Romani history and culture and see what this group is up to today.

The Romani

A lot of times, when we think of an ethnic group we tend to associate it with a nationality. The Finnish live in Finland. Somalis live in Somalia. Romani live in…the world. The Romani people, historically called Gitanos, Kale, Manush, or (pejoratively) Gypsies, are a major ethnic group. There are an estimated 12 million Romani people, but rather than being confined within specific political borders, the Romani are stateless people, or an ethnic group that does not exclusively identify with any country. This has made them subject to a fair amount of persecution over the years. But just because they're not associated with any specific country, don't make the mistake of thinking that they're without a home. Their home is simply wherever they are, and that seems to work just fine for the Romani.

The Romani have been known as many things across Europe
Romani map

History of the Romani

As a nearly nomadic society, Romani have popped up throughout the historical record for centuries. However, since the Romani have been frequently marginalized and ignored as outsiders, this record is sporadic at best. Genetic and linguistic evidence strongly suggests that the Romani ethnic group developed in northwestern India, near the modern-day state of Punjab. Either voluntarily or as slaves, the Romani seem to have left India around 500 CE and migrated into Central Asia and the Middle East. Genetic evidence suggests that nearly half of their population did not survive the migration. From the Middle East, the Romani slowly made their way north and west, reaching Bulgaria around 1100 CE and from there spreading across Europe.

A Romani family in Southern France
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As the Romani entered Europe, they maintained a cultural preference for wandering and frequent relocation maintained by Romani networks that stretched across the continent. Many of their customs were not indigenous to Europe, their language was not European, and they moved around a lot, all of which resulted in the Romani developing a reputation of being outsiders. They became highly marginalized, excluded from mainstream cultures and governments. During times of stress, many European communities openly blamed the Romani, accusing them of various acts of malicious magic throughout the centuries. Even into the post-industrial world, the Romani are often viewed with prejudice or suspicion and blamed for bringing poverty or crime into areas. Nevertheless, many Romani have had major impacts on European cultures over the centuries, both genetically and culturally. Traditions like flamenco music in Spain, or street performance in France and Italy trace their roots back to Romani populations.

Distribution Today

So, where are the Romani today? The majority live in Southern and Eastern Europe, stretching roughly from Spain and France across the Mediterranean and into the Balkans. One of the largest and most concentrated populations live in the nation of Romania. However, being a highly-mobile culture means that Romani can realistically be found throughout the world. There are an estimated 1 million Romani in the United States, and Brazil also hosts a large population.

Romani Culture

Romani culture varies by location, but everywhere is characterized by a mixture of traditional Romani customs and practices of the people around whom the Romani live. For example, it is believed that the Romani originally practiced the Hindu religion, but modern populations in Europe are generally Catholic while those in the Middle East as Muslims. In both cases, religious practices are infused with traditional Romani rituals and beliefs that bear many similarities to Hindu practices in northwestern India. The Romani have adopted Catholicism so widely that they even have their own patron saint, the Blessed Ceferino Giménez Malla, a Spanish Romani activist who was killed during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

The Romani language is another great example of how their cultures tend to adopt local customs. The overall Romani language is grammatically very similar to Hindu, however there are up to twelve distinct dialects that each incorporate vocabulary from other European languages. These dialects can be somewhat hard to define at times as all Romani are bilingual at least.

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