In the nineteenth century, although scientific investigation had already
provided the answer, the most fantastic myths were still being made.
This jumble of ingenious superstitions and shaky hypotheses did not
survive serious study of the language of the Gypsies. As early as Renaissance
times scholars had some notions of this language, but they did not connect
it to any linguistic group nor locate the area in which it originated.
At the end of the eighteenth century, however, scholars were able to determine
the origin of the Gypsies on the basis of scientific evidence.
Since then eminent linguists have confirmed the analyses of these early
scholars. The grammar and vocabulary of the language of the Gypsies are
close to those of Sanskrit and to such living languages as Kashmiri, Hindi,
Gujarati, Marathi and Nepali. Modern scholars no longer doubt that the
Gypsies originated in India, but many problems concerning ethnic group,
social class, and the period of their earliest migrations still need to
Linguistics is the discipline best able to locate the origin of the
Gypsies, but anthropology, medical science and ethnology also have a contribution
Documentation on the period that may be called
"the prehistory of the Gypsies" is extremely limited. The writers of ancient
India were only interested in gods and kings, and paid scant attention
to the people known as the Zott, the Jat, the Luli, the Nuri, or the Dom.
From the time of their first migrations westwards we have somewhat more
accurate information about the Gypsies, primarily in the form of two Persian
texts in which legend and history are mingled. Writing in the mid-tenth
century AD, Hamza of Isfahan describes the arrival of 12,000 Zott musicians
in Persia. The same story was told half a century later by the Persian
chronicler and poet Ferdowsi, the author of The Epic of the Kings.
The story may be to a large extent legendary, but it informs us that
there were many Gypsies from India in Persia; they were already noted as
musicians, allergic to agriculture, inclined to nomadism and somewhat given
These are the only ancient texts to speak of the wanderings of the Gypsies
across Asia; the story can be filled out by linguistic evidence.
In Persia the Gypsies enriched their vocabulary with words which would
later be found in all the European dialects. Then, according to the British
linguist John Sampson, they split into two branches. Some continued on
their way towards the west and the southeast, the others headed northwest.
The latter journeyed through Armenia (where they picked up a few words
which have been preserved as far away as Wales but which were not known
to the first branch) and through the Caucasus where they borrowed words
from the Ossetes.
Finally they reached Europe and the Byzantine world. From then on texts
referring to the Gypsies are more numerous, especially the accounts of
western travellers on their way to the Holy Land.
In 1322 two Friars Minor, Simon Simeonis and Hugh
the Enlightened, noted the presence in Crete of people who were considered
to belong to the race of Ham; they observed Greek Orthodox rites and lived
in low black tents like the Arabs or in caves. In Greece they were known
as Atkinganos or Atsinganos, from the name of a sect of musicians and fortune-tellers.
Modon, a fortified town and leading port on the west coast of Morea,
was an important port of call on the voyage from Venice to Jaffa and the
main centre where Gypsies were observed by western travellers. "As black
as Ethiopians", they tended to be metalsmiths and to live in huts. The
place was called "little Egypt" perhaps because, like the Nile delta, it
was a fertile area in the midst of dry terrain. This is why the Gypsies
of Europe came to be known as Egyptians, Gitans, or Gypsies. Their leaders
would often be called Dukes or Counts of Little Egypt.
Greece was a source of new words for the Gypsies but above all the presence
of a host of pilgrims from all the countries of Christendom revealed to
them new ways of living. The Gypsies realized that pilgrims enjoyed the
status of privileged travellers and when they took to the road again they
also succeeded in passing themselves off as pilgrims.
After a long stay in Greece and such neighbouring countries as the Romanian
principalities and Serbia, many Gypsies continued their journey westward.
In provinces which had been fought over, captured and recaptured many times
over by Byzantine and Turkish armies, their situation was not a comfortable
one. Evidence that this was so can be found in the accounts they produced
later in their exodus, when attempting to win the confidence of the spiritual
or temporal authorities. They would tell how, after leaving Egypt, they
were at first pagan but were then converted to Christianity, lapsing back
into idolatry before becoming Christian again under pressure from monarchs;
they were forced, they said, to make a long pilgrimage throughout the world.
In 1418 large banks passed through Hungary and
Germany, where the Emperor Sigismund agreed to give them letters of protection.
They appeared in Westphalia, in the free cities of the north, and on the
shores of the Baltic, then turned south once again and travelled to Leipzig
and Frankfurt-am-Main before entering Switzerland.
In 1419 they crossed the frontiers of what is now France. It is known
that they showed passports from the Emperor and the Duke of Savoy at Chatillon-en-Dombes
on 22 August, at Macon two days later, and at Sisteron on 1 October. Three
years later other groups visited the Low Countries, provoking the astonishment
of the citizens of Arras. But there as at Macon it was explained to them
that they were on land belonging to the king and that their imperial letters
of protection were of no value.
They now realized that if they were to continue freely on their travels
through the Christian world they would need to prove that they enjoyed
a form of protection of universal validity--that of the Pope. In July 1492
Duke Andre passed through Bologna and Forli with a large retinue, declaring
that he was on his way to see the Pope.
However, neither the Roman chronicles nor the Vatican archives contain
any trace of this visit to the capital of the Christian world.
Nevertheless, on their return the Gypsies described how they had been
received by the Pope, and presented letters from Martin V. Were they authentic?
Whether they were or not, for more than a century the papal letters ensured
for the Egyptian companies an extremely favourable reception and enabled
them to go wherever they wished.
In August 1427, the Gypsies appeared for the first
time at the gates of Paris, then occupied by the English. For three weeks
they encamped at La Chapelle-Saint-Denis, where crowds of the curious flocked
to see them.
Certain untoward episodes took place; it was said that purses disappeared
while crafty sorcerers were reading palms. The bishop of Paris reprimanded
the credulous and superstitious faithful. The Egyptians were forced to
move on and took the road to Pontoise.
Soon these companies had travelled the length and breadth of France.
Some of them then crossed into Aragon and Catalonia, maintaining that they
were on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. They traversed Castile
and journeyed to Andalusia where Gypsy counts and dukes were splendidly
treated by the former constable and chancellor of Castile, count Miguel
Lucas de Iranzo, in his castle at Jaen.
Several authors have maintained without the slightest evidence that
the Gypsies reached Andalusia from Egypt after sailing along the coast
of Africa. Yet the Spanish Gypsies had no Arabic words in their vocabulary,
and their itinerary was fully indicated: on their arrival in Andalusia
they claimed the protection of the Pope, the King of France and the King
In Portugal the Ciganos are first mentioned in literary texts at the
beginning of the sixteenth century. Around the same time Egyptians were
landing in Scotland and England; the route they had taken is not known.
Perhaps they attracted less attention than they had on their early stays
in Germany, France and the Low Countries, for since time immemorial there
had been tinkers in the British Isles whose way of life was similar to
The Egyptians who settled in Ireland had a much harder time. The tinkers
who were already there in large numbers considered the newcomers as rivals
and did all they could to repel them.
Count Antoine Gagino of Little Egypt arrived in Denmark in 1505 on a
Scottish vessel. He had been expressly recommended to King John of Denmark
by James IV of Scotland. On 29 September 1512, a Count Antonius, who is
almost certainly the same person, solemnly entered Stockholm to the great
amazement of the inhabitants.
The first Egyptians to appear in Norway, in 1544, did not enjoy the
same recommendations. They were prisoners whom the English had got rid
of by forcibly embarking them. Just as their compatriots had found an indigenous
population of tinkers in England and Scotland, the Gypsies who landed in
Norway came upon the itinerant Fanter.
Some groups of Gypsies emigrated from Sweden to Finland and Estonia.
Around the same time, the kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania
welcomed the "mountain Gypsies" from Hungary and the "plains Gypsies" from
Around 1501 Gypsy bands were travelling in the
south of Russia; others were crossing from Poland to the Ukraine. Finally,
in 1721, the Gypsies of the Polish plain reached Tobolsk, the capital of
Siberia. They declared their intention of going to China, but the governor
did not allow them to continue their journey.
Thus between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries all the countries
of Europe had received Gypsies. But although they settled as far a field
as the colonies of Africa and America, they did not do so entirely of their
Spain sent a number of Gypsies across the Atlantic, followed by Portugal
which, from the end of the sixteenth century onwards, deported large numbers
of Ciganos to Angola, to Sao Tome, to Cape Verde, and above all to Brazil.
In the seventeenth century, Gypsies were sent from Scotland to Jamaica
and Barbados to work on the plantations, and in the eighteenth century
In the reign of Louis XIV, Gypsies condemned to penal servitude were
released on the order of the king on condition that they went to the "islands
of America". Bohemians figured among the colonists recruited by the Compagnie
des Indes for the exploitation of Louisiana. Like other colonists they
were given houses in New Orleans. A century later their descendants who
had settled in Biloxi in Louisiana still expressed themselves in French.
Since the beginning of the nineteenth century large
numbers of Gypsy families have freely emigrated from Europe to America.
They may be found in Canada, in California, in the suburbs of New York
and Chicago, in Mexico, in central America and further south, in Argentina
and Chile. They practise virtually the same occupations as they do in Europe,
follow the same rites, and feel at home wherever they find themselves,
for the place where they happen to be becomes their homeland.