Beiträge zur Minderheitengeschichte

Klos, Narratives of Otherness, S.3

Who said what in the fifteenth century?

After having pointed out the controversial research discussions on ethnogenic processes and agency, it becomes apparent that the early sources need to be revisited in order to find clues on either a self-proclaimed lie, respectively trick, or an externally ascribed identity. The strongest argument for the latter is the fact that Romani history in the 15th century is only accessible through external sources.[xliv] In order to argue either for a trick or a lie it is necessary to assume that Romanies were well informed and acted in a self-determined, purposeful, and organized way.

According to Fraser, Romanies learned about Western European culture and internal affairs, as well as the privileged status of pilgrims and the means how to adopt and adapt their stories while living near Modon, a Romani settlement in today’s northern Greece where many pilgrims, crusaders and other transients passed through on their way to the Holy Land in the east.[xlv] Until 1417 Romani migrations to the West had been brief, rare and on such a small scale that evidence remains scanty. In 1417 however, a major turning point occurred:

“Suddenly, we find Gypsies behaving in an unprecedented manner. They are no longer unobtrusive, but almost court attention. They are no uncoordinated rabble, but move in an apparently purposeful way under leaders with impressive titles. And at first they are not hounded or harried, but treated with a measure of consideration. It was as if some unsung genius, stimulated perhaps by all the pressures in the Balkans, had realized the potential advantages to be drawn from the religious environment of the time and had devised a strategy for exploiting it and enhancing the prospects of survival.”[xlvi]

A survey of the early 15th century sources will sound out whether Fraser’s hypothesis of a masterplan by a charismatic leader has an empirical foundation. To operationalize the analysis the main focus will be on coherence, indication for self-statements or external assumptions, coordination, and repeating motifs within and between the texts.

The earliest[xlvii] written chronicle that mentions a “certain larger crowd of vagabonding people from oriental parts of the world”[xlviii] was written until 1430 by Hermann Kornerus, town clerk of Lübeck. According to Kornerus “they called themselves Secanos.”[xlix]

“It was told that the reason for this vagabonding and travelling in a foreign place was their estrangement from faith and their relapse after conversion to paganism. To continue this peregrinating abroad for seven years was inflicted upon them by their penance imposed by their bishops.”[l]

The alleged endonym “Secanos” could be read as a hybrid term standing chronologically between the Byzantine Ἀθίγγανος and the Hungarian cigány, respectively the Latinized Cinganos. While the Greek term certainly was an exonym[li], it is possible that this Romani group had turned it into a self-description.[lii] The reason for their appearance in Lübeck, though, is given in the passive voice (dicebatur), not specifying who provided this piece of information. However, as it described a wholly internal affair – a penance imposed by their own bishops – there is no reason to question that this explanation was provided by the group itself. The people described were good Christians on a holy mission, who would soon be gone back to their faraway homeland. The narrative follows familiar Christian patterns, which could have partly been made up by the Dominican monk Kornerus, or entirely told by the Romani group already accustomed with Western conventions and Christian mores. Lastly, the explanation cannot be ruled out that the travelers did in fact consider themselves as sincere Christian penitents from the East.

The next earliest record was written sometime between 1436 and 1449 by an anonymous “bourgeois of Paris,”[liii] as he called himself. He gives a detailed account of the arrival of “twelve penitents” from Lower Egypt, as they ostensibly identify, in 1427.[liv] The period under review is a decade later than Kornerus’ account. In the meantime, one group has been seen in several Hanseatic cities, the same or another group was seen in Swabia on their way south to the Council of Constance where they received a letter of safe conduct from King Sigismund from Hungary, later to become emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Before long, numerous letters of safe conduct were circulating – some of which might have been forged. Afterwards a group came through several Swiss cities before heading to Italy, where they were recorded in Bologna and Forli, but not in Rome, where they were supposedly headed to. When they came to Paris, they already had some more experience how to introduce and present themselves to a Western audience. Likewise, the citizens of Paris might have already heard stories about the foreign people travelling through Europe. The story shows a number of striking similarities with the one Kornerus recounts. In Lower Egypt they were once baptized by Christian invaders. After some time, Saracens (Sarrasins) conquered the region and while some died as martyrs, others finally converted to Islam (devinrent Sarrasins).[lv] When the king of Poland heard of this, he liberated the subjugated Christians but delegated them to the Pope in Rome to beg his forgiveness for giving up so easily against the Saracens. They did so but were sent on a seven year pilgrimage before they could return to their homes. It was already their fifth year when they arrived in Paris. The author claims that they told him all of this when he was visiting them three or four times himself.[lvi]

Despite the similarities to the Lübeck group that had already mentioned a seven year pilgrimage to atone for they interim unfaithfulness, this group seems to be a different one since they mention the king of Poland, Władysław II. Jagiełło, an enemy of King Sigismund and the Teutonic Order. Władysław had never been on crusade to the East, but they could have met him on their route through Poland-Lithuania. The group passing through Italy, however, had letters of safe conduct from Sigismund with them, which seems unlikely if they had formerly been protected by Władysław. Also, they do not show the author any papal letter proving their story, although they supposedly claimed to have met him.

Hence, there are multiple communication and exchange networks to be considered operating here. On the one hand, the Romani groups travelling through Europe could have been in contact with each other, exchanging best practice knowledge as well as individuals moving between the various groups. On the other hand, the information exchange networks between the different narrators should not be underestimated. For example, the author remarked that never in those three or four occasions when he met those people something was stolen from him or he saw someone stealing something – “contrary to what the people were saying everywhere.”[lvii] These popular beliefs illustrate that there must have been multiple narratives running parallel. Aside from Romani beliefs and strategies, scholarly discourses provided motifs influenced by public opinions. Even so-called Romani self-statements could have been formalized wordings for the purpose of credibility while in truth being a more or less consolidated composition of various sources of information.

Similarly, in the next source to be discussed the formation of a public opinion predetermines the author’s wording as well. Andreas, a Presbyterian monk from Regensburg, compiled his journal-like, nonetheless revised observations some time before 1442 in his opus “Diarium Sexennale.” As a contemporary witness he describes how “the gypsy people” (gens Ciganorum) have emigrated from Hungary (Ungarie) “as a sign or in remembrance of the Lord’s flight to Egypt” (in signum sive memoriam fuge domini in Egyptum) and their arrival in Regensburg (Ratispona) in 1424.[lviii] Grellmann’s misinterpretation of this passage is well known. In his translation, the pious migrants from Hungary are refugees from Egypt, expelled by God for refusing to host the Holy Family.[lix] This version of the story, however, appears only in later sources. What Andreas describes is a simple imitatio Christi, a common motif of the time. Since the 13th century folksy apocryphal writings on the popular theme of Jesus’ childhood increased the interest in tales about the Holy Family in Egypt.[lx] Again, within the sources there is no clear evidence, whether this biblical motif was added by the Romani group itself or by the narrator. In case it was indeed a strategy employed by the in-group, today’s mental image of a group of travelers kept outside the city walls and being denied integration must be transformed. The accomplishment of recognizing and adopting current trends and narratives requires a lot more interaction between Romani and non-Romani society than becomes apparent from the few surviving sources. Interestingly, until 1522 there is no mentioning of any language or communication barriers which means that in Lübeck the Romanies must have been able to speak Low German, in Berne Alemannic, in Paris French, and in Bologna and Forli Italian.[lxi] This is not unlikely but it would indicate a higher level of interaction and integration than formerly observed in research.

Alternatively, it could have also been Andreas or rumors in the streets and town markets that had invented and interposed this element in the story. There are two even more explicit references to popular opinions. First, Andreas mentions a folk name by which the foreigners are popularly known besides gens Ciganorum, namely Cigäwnär, an early form of Zigeuner.[lxii] As this name was not specific to the region of Regensburg but spread all across the German-speaking lands, it is likely that it was not coined to designate this specific group of people alone, but that it came close to a common ethnonym for Romanies in general. At the latest in 1442, when the Diarium Sexennale was completed, Romanies were described in ethnic terms.

This example also indicates that there was probably more than one competing ethnic discourse: within Romani groups, internal discourses which are the most difficult to grasp, a scholarly discourse centering around the Latin term gens Ciganorum, and a popular one using a folk name such as Cigäwnär or similar. The second reference Andreas makes on popular opinions is mentioned after the story of the Romanies’ emigration from Hungary as a biblical commemoration pilgrimage: “Amongst the people it is said, however, that they are secret land scouts.”[lxiii] Public opinions thus seem more skeptical of the newcomers than Andreas and the academic opinion.

As if in response to this skepticism, Andreas reproduced the entire letter of safe conduct by King Sigismund that the Romanies had shown him. In it no other reason why they (Ciganos) deserve his royal protection is given than the address with “our stalwarts” (fideles nostri).[lxiv] This letter shows another dimension to the ethnicity discourse, namely the political one. Policy makers can be influenced by popular and academic opinions but may place their focus less on the Romanies’ placement in salvation history than on the group’s loyalties. At this point King Sigismund does not seem to listen to those who call Romanies spies, but by the end of the century the often quoted imperial recesses from 1498 onward in which Romani groups can legally be expelled when suspected of espionage[lxv] indicate a “turn of the tide,”[lxvi] as Fraser put it. Hence 1498 is generally regarded as the end of the ‘golden age.’ Hund even draws a direct line from these imperial recesses to the Holocaust: “In Germany, [a path is marked] leading from the Freiburg imperial recess from 1498 in which the gypsies are outlawed into the fascist death camps.”[lxvii] More than half a century earlier, however, suspicions had already been raised and one could argue reversely that it took relatively long until these popular rumors entailed legal consequences. Was it because Romanies were such good liars or tricksters, or because external factors caused a shift in focus?

In the following source at least, the chronicle of Berne, the Romanies do not seem to be very good liars. It is an important source for Fraser’s argument that “the Gypsy tale of a seven-year pilgrimage, perpetually renewed, brilliant in concept though it had been, inevitably lost its magic with the passage of time.”[lxviii] “Baptized pagans”[lxix] the chronicler skeptically calls the people arriving at Berne. While Fraser quoted Conrad Justinger as “the one chronicler who was contemporary with the events,” he must have overlooked the fact that Justinger only wrote until 1416, whereas the last five years of the chronicle were continued by Benedicht Tschachtlan some time before 1466 and Diebold Schilling before 1484. These chroniclers did most likely not meet the Romanies in person and even mistakenly recorded the event under the entry of 1419 instead of 1418. Their sources of information rather seem to belong to the realm of hearsay and skeptical popular opinions about the “uncreated” (ungeschaffen), “black” (swart), pretentious Christians that “steal everything they like” (si stalen waz inen werden mocht) a few decades later.[lxx] Their place of origin, Egypt (egyptenland), was presented as an objective fact, a part of common knowledge.[lxxi]


Spiezer Chronik, 15. Jahrhundert, Ankunft von “Zigeunern” in Bern (Hinzufügung AB Minderheitengeschichte)

But there was no consistent basis of ‘facts’ throughout the 15th century whatsoever. What was their country of origin? Kornerus speaks of an oriental origin, the Parisian clerk of Lower Egypt, Andreas mentions Hungary, the Bernese chroniclers Egypt. Egypt, respectively Little Egypt, soon became the most often named localization of Romani origins and became eponymous for many regional ethnonyms, like ‘gypsy’ or ‘gitanos.’ Little Egypt most likely refers to the Romani settlement near Modon that many travelers, pilgrims, and crusaders had described.[lxxii] However, at the same time there never was a consensus on the Egypt theory. Brother Hieronymus from Forli said they came from India[lxxiii], Aegidius Tschudi named a town called Igritz in northern Hungary[lxxiv], by his own studies Polydor Vergil was brought to the conclusion they were Assyrians[lxxv], the anonymous author edited by Bonaventura Vulcanius thought they were Nubians, and in Tournai, Belgium, the author was sure that they were not from Egypt, as they said, but from a town in Germany, Epipolensis[lxxvi], which could refer to Würzburg, Herbipolis. Scholarly interest seemed incessant, and new theories emerged constantly. For once this could be due to changing or incoherent details that the various Romani groups provided. Another source of doubt could have been the consolidating narrative of the seven year pilgrimage itself. In Paris there were said to be already in their fifth year. The validity of the story expired increasingly when those seven years were stretched too far. This lapse of time became the main argument for critical evaluation of the Egypt theory:

“If the end of their [the Romanies’] penance has come already, why then do they use the penance as an excuse until now? It is also a wrong truth then that they originate from Egypt. For the people questioned do not even know what Egypt is, neither the smaller nor the bigger one. From whence, therefore, did they emerge?”[lxxvii]

Such wrote Martin Antoine Del Rio in his investigations into magic (disquisitionum magicarum) in his paragraph on chirology (Chiromantia). Del Rio’s argumentation continues with two hypotheses: Either the Romanies cannot return to their homes and thus need to be “ascribed to any of the nations and live according to those laws” (certæ alicui nationi ascribe, & legib. ibi receptis viuere), i.e. be integrated into non-Romani society, or even after they have returned they cannot stay for long but have to continue wandering or else “calamity and infertility” (calamitatem & sterilitatem) would strike them; the fear of which keeps them from settling down.[lxxviii] Although written long after the period under examination, the old question where the Romanies’ ‘real’ home was and why they would not return there, still seems to be gnawing at scholars.

Studies of magic are a valuable source in the sense that they are more elaborate on the topic, but also because they sometimes present more unconventional ideas. Del Rio, for example, traced back the name Cingalos to cinclus, a genus in bird classifications to which dippers belong.[lxxix] One of Del Rio’s colleagues, Caspar Peucer, who writes his “commentary on the most important forms of divination” (Commentarius de Praecipuis Divinationum Generibus) in the citadel of German Reformation, Wittenberg, attributed ‘heterodoxy’ to the devil who is aided by sorcerers (incantatores) from mainly Egypt and neighboring regions in Africa (ex Ægypto primum & uivinis Aphricæ partibus), who are called Attinganos by the Greeks and Zigeunos in the German lands.[lxxx] Of particular interest in this context is the process of communication. In a publication written against religious adversaries, Romanies appear as soothsayers, an association apparently already naturalized in scholarly discourses, and assistants of the devil. The author shows no actual interest in their real existence but uses them for rhetorical purposes only. Egypt is recognized as the land of the magicians and with this expectation or mental map in mind the arriving Romanies are confronted. Since their perceived habitus seemed to fulfill the non-Romani anticipations, or at least not contradict and challenge them, “they confirm with certainty and finality” (pro certo compertoq; affirmant) that they are from Alexandria, Alkairi, i.e. Memphis, and the vicinity.[lxxxi] In other words, preconceived notions defined the questionnaire and thus the range of possible answers. This case raises the important but ultimately not answerable question what was there first, the question or the answer, the narrative or the reality, finally the stereotype or a certain habitus.

Looking back on the sources discussed so far, it becomes clear that there are multiple narrative lines along different networks of communication. Firstly, there are scholars, their networks, and their access to previously written works. They act as interpreters of the other, as an interface between societies, and as organizers of knowledge into larger contexts like salvific history or cosmographies. Repetitions in wording, biblical motifs, as well as external perspectives on outward appearance and behavior may be read as those elements that the scholars have provided to the narratives they record. Secondly, there are political and popular opinions that can vary and change significantly in relation to external factors, like wars, rivalries, epidemics, collective fears, and more. Those components often seem to be overwhelmingly negative. However, the available sources cannot aptly represent the quantity and variety of interactions, and might favor negative publicity as more newsworthy. Finally, there are the narratives proposed by the various Romani groups themselves. Assuming that they would provide information that would be beneficial to themselves, elements, like their far away homeland to which they will return eventually, their Christian faith and mission, themes of penance or expulsion etc. might be elements that can be attributed to the story they told about themselves. However, the strategies employed or the degree of self-determination seems to be different not only in a chronological order, as the ‘golden age’-then-persecution-narrative suggests, but synchronously. The different narrative lines run parallel, intertwine, and influence each other. Patterns of interaction are versatile and while there are some functional differences between academia, politics, populace, and Romanies, there seem to be equally as many differences within these categories.