The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 17/Number 100/The Origin of the Gypsies

Featured in Volume 17, Number 100 of The Atlantic Monthly. (February 1866)

THE ORIGIN OF THE GYPSIES.

For more than four hundred years the Gypsies have been one of the riddles of European history. Much deep study and learned research have found plentiful employment in the endeavor to point out the land of their origin; and the views taken have consequently been many and various. It appears to the writer that all the well-known views on this subject are far from the truth; and he desires to assert for the Gypsies an origin quite different, as he believes, from any ever yet suggested: at least, what he believes to be the real origin of this singular race is not even hinted at in the more celebrated treatises. Conscious of the diffidence with which any one should approach a matter which so many learned men have labored over, he advances the plea of the proverb, that they who study the stars will stumble at stones,—a plea, that much learning and genius may fail, where less would not be at fault.

It has been maintained that the Gypsies are Egyptians, and even that they are the followers of Pharaoh, perhaps not yet gotten home from that Red Sea journey. Otherwise that they are the descendants of the vagabond votaries of Isis, who were in Rome just what the Gypsies are in modern Europe. It has been argued that they were Grecian heretics; that they were persecuted Jews; that they were Tartars; that they were Moors; and that they were Hindoos, Grellman accepted (as it suited his theory) the assertion that they entered Germany from Turkey, though he rejected, without examination, the assertion, made on equally good authority, that they entered it from Spain, from Italy, from Denmark, and from Sweden. We find, by comparison of accounts, that they appeared within the space of a few years at every point of a circle of which Germany was the centre, and everywhere they were regarded as foreigners,—even in Egypt.

Later times have concluded that the Gypsies are Hindoos, and it is generally acknowledged that Grellman and Borrow have proved this. The evidences adduced are, that the Gypsy tongue is strikingly like some Hindoo dialects and the parent Sanscrit,—that the races are similar in complexion, shape, disposition, and habits,—distinguished by the same vagrant nature, the same love of idleness, music, dancing, and thievery. In this course of argument, that founded, upon the language is of course the really strong one.

Without denying any of these evidences,—assenting, indeed, to every one of them,—I yet assert that the Gypsies are not of Asiatic origin, and not, as the sturdy Dutchmen call them, the "heathens,"—unless we refer to the original use of that word, and call all heathens that dwell on the heath. I assert that they are Europeans, and one of the results of the religious wars of the fifteenth century. Bohemia is the land of their origin; and when we consider that one of the most enlightened nations of Europe has called them Bohemians for four hundred years, it is remarkable that that name has been so little considered in attempts to penetrate this mystery. John Ziska or Tschischka, the greatest of the Hussite leaders, in the brave struggle of that sect against the Roman Church, is the man who may be looked upon as the father of the race. Though a clumsy attempt to pronounce Tschischka by a foreign tongue might well result in something farther from it than Gypsy, there is, perhaps, nothing in that resemblance. The word gypsy, which is only the English name for this remarkable people, is, no doubt, a consequence of the ancient error that called them Egyptians; but it is odd to see English writers using the resemblance between those words as an argument in favor of that origin, and thus endeavoring to perpetuate error by the results of error.

Ziska became prominent as a leader in the year 1418, and in that year was authorized to raise forces. Probably he had been busy in that way even earlier; and so, from the first, secrecy and deception would have been necessary in the organization of his innumerable small bodies, so suddenly made one great body when he extorted the royal authority. He carried on hostilities with great success until his death in 1424. By this event, the Hussites were divided into three bodies, one of which was called the Orphans, or orphan children of Ziska. These dwelt in their camps in the open country, and were under a vow never again to sleep beneath a roof. They also refused obedience to any sovereign. Driven out of Bohemia in the disasters to which the death of Ziska led the way, and still more effectually driven out in the expatriation of all non-Catholics, the whole sect became fugitives and wanderers; and it is easy to see what kind of wanderers the "Orphans" particularly would be, with their wagon-camps and their oath against houses.

It is a remarkable coincidence, (if it shall prove to be no more,) that the Gypsies, a race of wanderers, peculiar by reason of the very characteristic that would have resulted from the Hussite oath, made their first appearance in Europe at this very period,—between 1418 and 1427,—and in those very countries in which the Orphans ought first to have been seen. But the earliest circumstantial notice of a company of Gypsies relates to the one that visited Paris in 1427. Pasquier gave a particular account of them, and remarks, that, though they had a very bad name, and though he was with them a great deal, he "never lost a coin."

These were called Bohemians, and the French have adhered to that name ever since. Doubtless the French of that day, who conversed with these people, and looked at them with very wide-open eyes, had as good reason for calling them Bohemians as they had for calling other men Spaniards, Italians, or Russians. Bohemia then formed too important a part of Europe for Frenchmen to confound men of that country with Hindoos just from Asia. The Bohemians were not strangers in France. Nearly a hundred years before, a king of Bohemia, with a large retinue, was present on the French side at the battle of Crécy, and Ziska himself fought at Agincourt. But writers on the Gypsies treat very slightingly the fact, that the French called the first party that visited Paris, as mentioned above, Bohemians, and merely say that they use that name for the Gypsies, "because they first heard of them from Bohemia."

Various circumstances point to the probability that the Gypsies were, at their first appearance in different countries, fugitives from religious intolerance. They always called themselves pilgrims, which Egyptians or Hindoos would scarcely have done, but which would be quite natural in that age to Europeans desirous of concealing their real character and of commending themselves to strangers in whom their difference of faith made them expect to find enemies. They called themselves Christians also, and declared ostentatiously their conformity to the Roman Catholic rites; but they carefully kept away from the churches. This assumption of a character which they knew would protect them is in keeping with the whole craft of their lives.

Another notable fact is, that they showed everywhere passes of safe-conducts from the Emperor Sigismund. Ziska's followers could not have got authentic passes, but they could forge them easily; and Hindoo stragglers, on their first appearance in Europe, would hardly have known the value of such pieces of paper. In all the original Gypsy parties there were dukes and counts, and these men called themselves Lords of Little Egypt; and from this fact seems originally to have arisen the notion that they were Egyptians. But this seems less like an assertion of their origin than like a piece of Scriptural phraseology. The Hussites used in that way a Biblical imagery, like the Puritans of a later age. Like the Puritans, they called their opponents Moabites, Amalekites, and so on. With the Puritans, Egypt was always "the house of bondage," and that name was the common designation of any place of persecution.

Grellman refers to the name Polgar as Indian, and as common with the Gypsies; but he does not notice that the men in all the original Gypsy parties bore such sufficiently Christian appellations as Michael, Andrew, John, and Peter. Rommany is the Gypsy name for a Gypsy, and this is referred to the Sanscrit Rama, man, by one author, and by others to the Coptic Rom. Either is possible, but sufficiently remote. By the kind of deception referred to above, which made the Gypsies call themselves Catholics when in Catholic countries, it is probable that they may sometimes have gone so far as to say that they were Romans,—that is, adherents of Rome,—and habit may have fastened the name. This derivation is as good as either of the others.

But the language of the Gypsies has been most relied upon to prove their derivation from Hindostan, both by Grellman and Borrow. Remarkable similarities have been shown to exist between the Hindoo dialects and the Gypsy tongue. But the argument of language is better for Bohemian than for Hindoo origin. The Bohemians were Cechs, a branch of the great Slavic race of undoubted Asiatic origin; and the Cech language descended from the Sanscrit almost as directly as the Hindoo dialects did. Here is a good reason why the Hindoo dialects and the Gypsy tongue—if the Gypsies were Bohemians—should closely resemble one another. They were from the same parent stem. The learned Büsching said, "The Gypsy language is a mixture of corrupt words from the Wallachian, Slavonian, Hungarian, and other nations." These are the cognate languages of the Slavic race, all descended from the same source, and that also the source of the Cech. The first list of Gypsy words ever made was cited to prove an Egyptian origin, and they were Slavic. That was, perhaps, the best list ever made, as later ones show the results of the use of the languages of the various lands in which the Gypsies wander.

The complexion, habits, and character of the Gypsies resemble those of the Cechs as nearly as they do those of the Hindoos. The Cechs are an eminently gay and musical race. As regards complexion, it is found that the Gypsies in the Austrian army, who have been compelled to relinquish their wild life and dwell in houses, are as white as Europeans generally.

Assuming that Grellman has disproved all the other suggested origins in favor of the Hindoo theory, and considering the question as simply between India and Bohemia, it appears to me that the argument is altogether in favor of the derivation of the Gypsies from the latter country.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.