The Gypsy identity.

Henriette Asséo, EHESS

27 april 2001

The Gypsy world as a wholeůthe romanipe (ŽRomahoodŪ or Gypsy lifestyle)ůcorresponds neither to specific territorial borders nor to the present-day interweavings of nationalities in movement. Whatever the type of society, however, a kind of principle of mental extraterritoriality seems to surround the Gypsy family in its relations with others, and this apparent arrogance gives rise to a profound misunderstanding. If the Gypsies share a common way of seeing the world, their universe is marked by the diversity reflected in the multiple variations on their names. We may, for example, distinguish the external denominations which have been imposed since the end of the Middle Ages:

External denominations


In Western Europe, they first received the name of Egyptians, because they claimed to be making a worldwide pilgrimage to expiate for an apostasy provoked by the expansion of the Saracens into the south of the Peloponnesus in a region known as žLittle EgyptÓ. This gave rise to the names Gypsies in England and Gitanos in Spain.


The name Tzigane (or Tsigane as they are known in France) is derived from that, in Greek, of a sect known in Asia Minor in the eleventh century, the Athingani, which became Cingani in Eastern Europe, Zingari in Italy and Zigeuner in Germany. The reason this name was attributed to them remains unknown, but the presence of the Tziganes is clearly attested in Constantinople in 1150 and a long period in the Byzantine Empire subjected their language to a significant Greek influence.


The name Bohemians is due to the prestige of the letters of protection accorded during the Middle Ages to drivers qualified as “dukes” or “counts” of Little Egypt from “Egyptian households” by the princes of this region (who were in fact the kings of Hungary and the princes of Bohemia and Poland). One perplexed chronicler even described them as “Saracen Bohemians of Little Egypt”.


The highly pejorative term Romani or Romanichel appears only in the nineteenth century and is probably derived from a deformation of Romani Chave (Gypsy guys).

Internal denominations

The denominations within the Gypsy world itself are even more complex:
If there is no doubt about the kinship between the Romani and Hindi languages, the Gypsies have retained no trace of an Indian country of origin; indeed, the reference to India is a recent intellectual construction. On the other hand, to distinguish among themselves, the Gypsies often refer to the region where their family has lived for the longest period of time. This practice corresponds to the distribution of the dialectal variants of the Romany language.
Families may thus identify with one or another of the following groups:


The Roma or Rom, coming from Central and Eastern Europe since the nineteenth century. This group often adds regional, religious or occupational distinctions to their names which are in fact mootůthe Kalderash, Lovara or Churara Rom were, in other times, smiths, horse merchants or sieve makers; the Xoraxane Roma are Muslim Roms who came, for example, from Macedonia.


The Sinte or Sinti have been present in Western Europe since the fifteenth century. In France they call themselves Manus (Manuches).

Gitans and Yenishes

The Gitans and Catalans, sedentarised quite early, belong to the Iberian world or the south of France. Their presence also dates from the late Middle Ages.

There are also the Yenishes, who simply call themselves Voyagers.
The mastery of the language is the touchstone of the familial denomination; relations between parents and children are always expressed in Romani even if its daily use has been reduced by a certain loss of vocabulary. For as Patrick Williams writes, “All the Gypsy communities are faced with the same problem: how to construct and maintain an autonomy in a situation of immersion and, for the majority of them, dispersion?”
Williams and several others, including Leonardo Piasere, Alain Reyniers, Michael Stewart and Bernard Formoso, have brought out the variability and inventiveness of the Gypsy family systems. In the case of marriage, for example, the Manuches from the Vosges do not practice strict endogamy but rather “reorganisation of alliances” which places members of allied families voyaging between the Netherlands and the south of France in a dense maze of social relations. In this respect, they are repeating a play of alliances established since the era of their arrival in the northern Vosges between the French Revolution and the Second Empire.
The researcher can in fact reconstitute the longevity of these matrimonial networks with the help of pre-Revolutionary public records, but the genealogical memory of the Gypsies does not operate differently from that of others—they only retain the recollection of the two or three preceding generations. It is clear, however, that the slow redeployment of the Sinte in Western Europe got underway at the beginning of the nineteenth century in these areas in the Vosges (Reipertswiller, Lihtenberg, Baerenthal, Wimmenau or Wingen).

Periods of implantation

The Gypsies of France have thus undergone three periods of implantation:

Ancien r»gime

The Ancien Régime, through the arrival of the Dukes and Counts of Little Egypt who, through royal and seigneurial protections, became “captains of Bohemians” employed in private and foreign wars. Remaining faithful to their initial region of arrival, these families became ruralised in the nineteenth century.


From 1770 to the end of the nineteenth century, there was a redeployment in France and the New Worlds of families established in Germany, Alsace and the northern Vosges.

Later modern period

From 1860 to 1930, a new migration was provoked by their gradual liberation from feudal bonds of servitude in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. With this development, families identified as žHungarianÓ, žBosniacÓ, žRussianÓ, žAlbanianÓ or žMoldo-WallachianÓ depending on the sources, took to the road with collective Austrian or Turkish passports seen as very exotic. This imaginary žinvasionÓ fed the fear of the žwandering perilÓ at the origin of FranceŪs 1912 law žon the exercise of itinerant occupations and the regulation of the circulation of nomadsÓ.

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