Europe invents the Gypsies:The dark side of modernity

Might not the history of the Roma, a group marginalized like none other, reveal a less auspicious aspect of Europe's grand narrative of modernity? 

The tendency of existing research to treat the Roma as having first entered European political history with the Nazi genocide disregards a unique six-hundred-year history. It is indeed the case that the Roma, who over long periods of time lived nomadically and possessed no written culture of their own, have left almost no historical accounts of themselves. The heritage and documents therefore do not permit a history of the Roma comparable to that, for example, of the persecuted and expelled French Huguenots.

What is available to us, however, is evidence – in the form of literature and art – of the way in which the settled, feudally organized European population experienced a way of life that it perceived as threatening. Despite consisting solely of stories and images that are defensive "distortions", this evidence provides a far from unfavourable basis for an examination of the six-hundred-year history of the European Roma, insofar as it is a history of cultural appropriation characterized by segregation. We encounter the traces of the reality experienced by the Roma almost exclusively through depictions by outsiders, and must use these to imagine those parts considered impossible to represent. The extraneous cultural depictions of the Roma – variously referred to as gypsies, zigeunertaterncigányçingeneler, and so on – have created heterogeneous units of "erased" identity and cultural attributes. The "invention" of the Gypsy is the underside of the European cultural subject's invention of itself as the agent of civilising progress in the world.

The Roma occupied a unique position from the outset. They belonged to those who were not there from the beginning, who were not expected and who therefore had to disappear again. They were seen as sinister because they "lurked everywhere" and "came and went" according to inscrutable rules. This gave rise to
a uniform moment of perception and encounter: the ambivalence of contempt and fascination. A repository of stereotypes, images, motifs, behavioural patterns and legends developed early on, at the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern period. Repeatedly, exterminatory fantasies turned into exterminatory practices...

Secrets of origins
The Roma arrived in Europe by various means in around 1400. One barrier to their acceptance was the uncertainty regarding their origins. While groups such as the Germans, Gauls, Angels and Saxons had developed national myths of foundation and origin in order to corroborate their arrival in and occupation of a particular territory, the first legends about the Roma told of their mysterious and distant origins and failure to settle. Speculations as to their genealogy led to the first attempts to categorize them. If it was true, as the Roma themselves sometimes claimed, that they came from "Egypt", where they had lived at the time of the birth of Christ, then, argued the European countries to which they had immigrated uninvited, the "Egyptians" should return to the country of their ancestors.

The matter of descent was also directly tied to the – for the period – fundamental question of religious affiliation. Since Roma communities did not practice institutionalized Christianity, with its parishes, priests and churches, three theories emerged as to the Roma's religion. The first was that they adopted the various Christian confessions merely superficially. Many – for example Martin Luther – believed it to be typical for the Roma to undergo multiple baptisms in order to acquire presents and documents. Second was the allegation that the Roma were Turkish spies, which in turn made them Muslims. Third, there were those who seriously believed that the Roma practised heathen or satanic cults. Their soothsaying, healing charms and curses seemed to provide evidence for this. For similar reasons, the charge of cannibalism re-occurred repeatedly. All three theories persisted into the twentieth century...

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