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The Roma in Romanian History

Viorel Achim


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1In traditional approaches, the history of Romania could be written without reference to the Gypsies

  • * The terms “Gypsy” and “Roma” are both used throughout the book in compliance with the historical r (...)

2* For a long time, history was regarded as being about those who were in the centre of historical events. The Gypsies, however, have never been a part of “History with a capital H”. For centuries, on Romanian territories they were kept in a state of collective slavery. Emancipation from slavery in the mid-nineteenth century did not secure their complete integration into modern Romanian society, due to the nature of the conditions in which it took place. They have continued to occupy, even until the present day, a marginal social position. Even when writers of Romanian social history came to regard the masses as being in the vanguard of history, they paid but little attention to those on the margins of society, where the Gypsies were largely to be found. Similarly, not even the study of ethnic minorities and inter-ethnic relations has paid attention to the Gypsies. As a result of historical conditions, the Gypsies have almost never expressed themselves in the public domain as an ethnic group, and have consequently failed to awaken any particular interest in their past. The chapter about the Gypsies in the ethnic history of Romania is yet to be written.

3Nonetheless, the Gypsies have been a permanent presence in Romanian history. From the second half of the fourteenth century onwards, this population of Indian origin has been present in the social and ethnic landscape of the Romanian lands. For four and a half centuries the Gypsies were kept in a state of slavery on Romanian territory. They were consequently a marginal element in society and had no impact on social developments, in which they were not included. Their status as slaves marked their destiny. The legal emancipation of the mid-nineteenth century was not accompanied by social emancipation. The authorities’ failed attempts to tie them to the soil and to an agricultural occupation only succeeded in perpetuating their marginal status in society. The history of this significant segment of the population of Romania cannot, however, be ignored. At the time of their emancipation in the middle of the ninetheenth century, the Gypsies represented approximately 7 per cent of the population of the principalities, while according to the 1992 census they account for 1.8 per cent of the population, although the most credible estimates give a figure of approximately 5 per cent.

4For a long time interest in the Gypsies was linked to the picturesque aspects of their existence, something that remains valid to a large extent today. In my case, I should acknowledge that what awakened my interest in the history of the Gypsies in Romania and convinced me to study the subject was the need to understand the current situation of this population. In my opinion, the Gypsy population in Romania is an illustrative case for the relationship between the past and the present—a relationship in which, according to the well-known formula, the past explains the present and the present explains the past. This factor strengthens the social value of the present historical study. The history of the Gypsies in Romania is marked by the survival over the centuries of certain characteristics, cultural patterns etc. Their inferior and marginal social condition, their particular symbiosis with the majority population, their distinct way of life, the discrimination on the part of the majority population and other features have persisted to the present day. The fact that the Gypsies were slaves for a long time has marked their way of life in a definitive fashion and explains the inferior social status that they have held until the present day. The separation of the Gypsies from the majority population is a legacy that derives from the social and legal status as slaves that they possessed until the middle of the nineteenth century.

5It has been my intention to produce a work that reconstitutes the history of the Gypsies in Romania from the time of their appearance at the north of the Danube until the present day. I have above all traced the defining elements of the evolution of this population and the most important moments in this evolution. In the organisation of the work I have paid special attention to the long-term aspects of the history of the Gypsies, such as slavery or the processes of integration and assimilation within the majority population. Similarly, I have paid attention to the emancipation from slavery of the Gypsies, which is important in terms of its consequences, as well as the evolution of their social position after emancipation. I have equally examined the tragic fate of a part of the Gypsy population of Romania during the Second World War. The work in hand is almost entirely one of social and political history. I have referred only in a strictly tangential manner to the cultural specificity of the Gypsy population over time. If, for example, I have referred to the attempts during the 1930s of certain Gypsy intellectuals to have the term “Gypsy” replaced with that of “Rom”, I have done so because this instance constitutes an element in the Gypsy emancipation movement of the time.

6It was not at all easy to proceed with this scientific inquiry. Genuine contributions to the history of the Gypsies in Romania are few and far between. The history of this population has been neglected in Romanian historiography, while those studies that have been written are, in general, far from meeting contemporary research standards. For a long time in Romania, as it was indeed everywhere, the approach to the question of the Gypsies was dominated by a preoccupation with the sensational. Not even today has this state of affairs been completely overcome. Romology, the generic name attributed to those disciplines that deal with the study of the Gypsies, is a field in which dilettantism continues to be present.

7There are, of course, some works which deserve a mention: I am indebted to the first Romanian study devoted to the Gypsies by Mihail Kogǎlniceanu, a work published in 1837 in Berlin under the title Esquisse sur l’histoire, les mœurs et la langue des Cigains, which in 1840 was translated into German. The writings of Kogǎlniceanu on the subject are typical of writings on the Gypsies that began to appear in the eighteenth century and which continue to the present day, combining historical data with linguistic, ethnographic, statistical and other data. The author adds his own observations on the Gypsies in the Romanian principalities to the general data he provides on the Gypsies, selected with discernment from the works of the time. The author’s own observations, even if they do not reach the standards of scientific research, are very important when it comes to understanding the history of the Gypsies in Romania, since they reflect their situation on the cusp of emancipation. The work of Kogǎlniceanu constitutes a genuine contribution to this field of research. It was widely used at the time and remains a work of reference even today in the field of Romology.

8In the 1840s and 50s, there was a very high level of interest in the “Gypsy question” in Romanian society. At a time when the emancipation of the Gypsies was gradually taking place, the problem of slavery occupied an important role in the discussion of ideas. Western-trained intellectuals argued against the old state of affairs, fighting for the abolition of slavery. The press of the time was preoccupied with the subject, which was equally present in political debate. However, preoccupation with the Gypsies remained com­pletely within the domain of the social problem that it represented. At that time, no research discipline developed that would examine the history, lan­guage or folklore of this population. Of course, the priorities of an incipient Romanian science lay elsewhere, but the neglect of the Gypsies from a scientific point of view was also done out of motives of image: at the time, history was conceived as a factor contributing to the cultivation of national sentiment and the slavery of the Gypsies was not a reason for patriotic pride.

9A particular interest in the Gypsies only appeared in Romanian science during the inter-war period. It was then that George Potra’s Contribuţiuni la istoricul ţiganilor din România [Contributions to the History of the Gypsies in Romania] (Bucharest, 1939) was published. This work constitutes the first ever synthesis of the history of the Gypsies in Romania. It is built around numerous pieces of documentary data and covers some of the aspects of this problem. Approximately half of the work is composed of a collection of previously unpublished documents dating from the period 1600–1848 containing information on the legal, social and occupational conditions of the Gypsies in Wallachia and Moldavia. George Potra’s work remains useful today.

10However, the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s are particularly important in the Romanian scientific study of the Gypsies, because of the ethnographic and sociological studies carried out at that time. The surveys of rural communities carried out by teams from the Romanian Social Institute, led by Dimitrie Gusti, did not avoid families or communities of Gypsies living on the edges of Romanian villages. Particular attention was paid to the Gypsies’ relations with the majority population and their economic and social function within the community. There are even a number of studies devoted to these aspects: Domnica I. Pǎun, “Ţiganii în viaţa satului Cornova” [The Gypsies in the Life of the Village of Cornova] in Arhiva pentru Ştiinţa şi Reforma Socialǎ, X (1932), nos. 1–4, pp. 521–527; Aurel Boia, “Integrarea t,iganilor din S,ant, (Nǎsǎud) în comunitatea româneascǎ a satului” [The Integration of the Gypsies from Şant, (Nǎsǎud) into the Village’s Romanian Community] in Sociologie Romǎneascǎ, III (1938), nos. 7–9, p. 351–365. The chief preoccupation of these studies was to examine the process of integration of the Gypsies into Romanian rural society. The studies were deeply committed and subordinated to the imperatives of Romanian sociological science, namely to influence the development of rural society. The work that is most representative of the interest accorded to the Gypsies during this time is that of Ion Chelcea. He carried out a large number of rigorous ethnographic studies of the Gypsies that were based on fieldwork. His book Ţiganii din Romǎnia. Monografie etnograficǎ [The Gypsies in Romania. An Ethnographic Monograph] (Bucharest, 1944) is a sizeable ethnographic work of a high standard and of exemplary methodological rigour. The work brings together practically all of the data of this nature in existence at the time, and, in spite of certain shortcomings due to the ideological climate of the period, it remains the reference book on the subject until today. The sociological and ethnographic literature in Romania about the Gypsies produced in the 1930s and 1940s enables us to gain a fairly good understanding of the social, employment etc. conditions of the Gypsies at that time.

11After the Second World War, however, this direction of research was abandoned. During the Communist period, very little attention was paid to the Gypsies, with only a handful of studies devoted to their history. Only after 1989 has the preoccupation with the Gypsies been revived in Romanian science. The difficult social conditions endured by a significant part of this community and the movement for political organisation and public affirmation have affected a rethinking of the place occupied by the Gypsies in the current range of problems of the Romanian society. Tens of articles and even a few books have been published on the current state of the Gypsies (Roma) in Romania. However, we are still awaiting the appearance of historical research into the Gypsies.

12Due to the state of history writing on the Gypsies, even if this work is formally a synthesis, it has only to a relatively small extent benefited from older studies. As it will be seen, I make frequent reference to sources: that is to say to collections of documents and archive material. It should be understood that many of these sources are being used for the first time in historical research. Certain sub-chapters within the work are based entirely around such sources. For this reason, in certain parts the work takes the form of documentary research.

13This scientific investigation is not only addressed to historians and to members of the public interested in this subject, which I believe is of some importance in the history of Romania. Today the Gypsies have been brought to our attention by the acute problems, particularly of a social order, that they present to Romanian society. These problems make it necessary for those studying the past of this population to find explanations for their current situation. Without wishing to be too categorical at this stage, I should like to state that an initial explanation may be found in the way in which the emancipation of the Gypsies was actually carried out in the Romanian prin­cipalities in the middle of the nineteenth century. Due to the socio-political conditions of the time, the legislation pertaining to the emancipation of the Gypsies was restricted to the legal side of the problem, paying too little attention to the social and economic aspects of their situation. Emancipation did not also mean the granting of land and for this reason a substantial part of the Gypsies were not integrated into rural communities. Many of them remained within their ancestral trades as a distinct social and occupational category, even after they had settled into a sedentary way of life. Those that did manage to integrate from an economic perspective at the time of emancipation or at a later stage, whether through the acquisition of land or the adoption of an agricultural occupation, lost their Gypsy identity and became assimilated from an ethnic point of view into the majority population. The inferior social status of the Gypsies today can be explained by the perpetuation of their marginality. Even if there have been significant changes from emancipation until the present day with regard to this population that has been forced to give up the majority of its traditional trades and adopt occupations offered to it within the framework of the modern economy, its marginal position in society has persisted. The Gypsies have taken up the worst paid jobs in society; jobs that the rest of the population has refused to carry out. Their reduced level of education and their lack of a predisposition towards modern professions have lead to this situation. The marginal status of the Gypsies has prevented them from occupying positions in the new hierarchy of industrial society (including in the Communist period) similar to those taken up by other ethnic groups. The Gypsies have occupied and continue to occupy almost en masse the lowest level in society.

14Of course, such historical explanations cannot account for the problem of the Gypsies today in all its complexity. (It should be recalled that even in those countries where in recent decades there has been special concern for the social problems of the Gypsies and where policies designed to integrate them into society have been employed, such efforts have resulted in failure.) It is, however, without question that the current situation of this population and the specific problems it faces are to a large extent the result of history. It is for this reason that I believe that the current work, by offering a diachronistic analysis of the presence of the Gypsies in Romania, can contribute to the understanding of the present situation of this minority.


15This book has been developed from the work entitled Ţiganii în România. Privire asupra istoriei unei minoritǎţi etnice [The Gypsies in Romania. A Glance at the History of an Ethnic Minority], devised in the years 1993– 95 with the support of the Research Support Scheme of the Central European University. I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the leadership of this institution. The interest shown in my project provided me with the impetus to expand my research in this field. Without it, this book would not have been possible. Equally, I should like to thank my colleagues at the Nicolae Iorga Institute of History for the bibliographical and other information offered to me, which was always done in a pleasant and helpful manner, as well as all those who encouraged me in undertaking this piece of work that has proved to be difficult, often discouragingly so.


* The terms “Gypsy” and “Roma” are both used throughout the book in compliance with the historical reality. “Gypsy” is mostly applied for the past, referring to how those placed in this category have been treated within Romanian society. The term “Roma” represents the new emerging ethnic identity of this population.

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