Beiträge zur Minderheitengeschichte

Klos, Narratives of Otherness, S.4

The grammar of a discourse: Perception and imagination of Romani ethnicity

Using concepts of ethnicity to structure Romani history has important advantages, most important of which is the reduction of complexity. In order to write a history of Romani agency like the ‘Great Trick’ it is necessary to presume that Romanies were well informed and acted in a self-determined, purposeful, and organized way. The empirical survey, however, did not reveal sufficient evidence of ethnic cohesion or planned actions. In order to better understand this variety of perceptions, descriptions, and the narrators’ efforts to conceive and comprehend ‘the other’ seems to demand a less teleological and deductive approach but a closer look at the contexts in which these discourses were formed and transformed.

In order to identify such contexts of Romani discourses, a few theoretical thoughts on how ethnicities can be described seem indispensable. Even the unfamiliar and strange can only be articulated through an already pre-existing, familiar language. Although neologisms can be created additionally, they need to be explained through linking or comparing it to something familiar, otherwise they will not hold significance to a sufficiently large group of people in order to enter into common vocabulary. However, language does not simply reflect the world as it is, it is a medium of its construction.[lxxxii] The performative aspect of an utterance and its reflection of power imbalances should not be underestimated when reading 15th century external sources on Romani migrations. To be precise, in every statement about ‘the other’ a statement about oneself is included. The narrator is a central subject in every story. He exerts his authority by the mere fact of selecting a certain topic, using his own culturally specific language, or creating new ethnonyms thus setting the parameters of a certain discourse on identities.

As events like the arrival of a group of foreign people need to be explained by framing it in a narrative that will be understood by a larger group of people, it is usually structured according to familiar patterns. Pohl calls this structure the “grammar”[lxxxiii] of a discourse. The ‘grammar’ does not define the contents of a narrative, as they are bound to change over time, but it determines the ways in which knowledge is organized or which questions are important to ask. As it is perceived as ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ to describe one’s ethnicity according to certain ‘grammatical’ rules, this process usually occurs unconscious. Changes occur only very slowly and it is not within an individual’s power to reverse those rules.[lxxxiv]

The study so far has shown that there could be various different ‘grammars’ structuring one overarching, intercultural discourse on Romani identities. Several authorities compete and negotiate their power to set the rules of this discourse. As demonstrated, it is not only the in-group versus the out-group, because firstly, both depend on and impact each other by validating or disregarding certain pieces of information, and secondly, performances of ethnicity do not only exert one’s authority towards the out-group but towards the in-group as well. While before text-immanent congruence and intertextual coherence was the focus of this analysis, the negotiation processes within the out-group are now to be more closely elucidated. Two possible approaches are suggested for this purpose: firstly, the comparison with other medieval migrants from the East, and secondly, the contextualization within a late medieval lower class.

First of all the comparison with other vaguely known Asian peoples stands to reason as in the discussed sources, Romanies have been related to Assyrians, Indians, Nubians, etc.[lxxxv] Even the common reference to Egypt can be read as an orientalizing cipher.[lxxxvi] While Romanies might have referred to their settlement in the region called “Little Egypt”[lxxxvii] when being asked where they came from, the out-group validated this information because an oriental origin from the “land of the magicians”[lxxxviii] seemed plausible. More interesting than the actual list of alleged countries of origin, is the fact that the early sources only mention Eastern origins. Only later emerged the idea that the Romanies were in fact Europeans that pretended to be Eastern pilgrims.[lxxxix] On contemporary ‘mental maps’ or imaginative geography the East belonged to the clearly marked-off sphere of ‘them’ in contrast to the familiar ‘us.’[xc] The East was laden with mythical associations and framed by a distinct crusade rhetoric and legends about Tamerlane. The encounter with Mongols in the 13th to 15th centuries had a great impact on contemporary geographical knowledge about Asia, as can be seen in the transformation and expansion of maps of the world.[xci] Depictions of Egypt and other North African regions, however, seem to be less in a state of flux. An early 15th century description of the world regions by the bourgeois Ulrich von Richental protocolling the debates at the Council of Constance from 1414 to 1418 comprises an excursus about mythical places and their political organization. In it the Kingdom of Egypt (Egipten) adjoins to the Kingdom of Ethiopia, the Kingdom of Ydemnea, “where the Negros live” (do moren in sind), and the Kingdom of Ninife, “all the land which the Great Chan owns, as well as the Soldan of Babylon and all of India” (alles land, das der groß Chan in hat und der Soldan von Babilony und gantz India).[xcii] Similarly, a textbook for young students from 1475 Lübeck includes a world map that shows Egypt (Egiptius) close to Ethiopia on the north-east coast of Africa.[xciii] The African lands are vaster and less crowed than Europe in the depiction; they seem like islands protruding from the oceans, but have similar castle-like buildings and towers. The map demonstrates a striving for order, symmetry, and balance between the four continents. The proximity of Egypt to mythical places like Ethiopia and Ninife shows how vague geographical knowledge of this part of the world was. At the same time it is an important reminder that geographical accuracy might not have been the primary function of a world map. Europe was illustrated in a very stylized way as well. More important seemed to be a balanced and universal world view. Even politically these regions were said to be organized similarly to Europe, as Richtental’s enumeration of kingdoms shows. This context indicates that it was not only the Romanies’ status as pilgrims, but that they were believed to have their own power base in a faraway country to which they will return. Their Christian leaders carry recognized noble titles – duke (dux) and counts (comes) are named frequently – and thus according to medieval social order they are entitled to letters of safe conduct independently from any tricks or lies about a penance.

As it was mentioned before, another migrating Asian people, the Mongols, impacted the classification schemes of late medieval narrators. Very successfully Tatars had invaded Europe in the 13th to 15th century and the stories about Tamerlane had become legendary. Especially after the Battle of Tannenberg in 1410 when Tatar contingents had supported the victorious Polish-Lithuanian army, the Teutonic Order instigated an enormous propaganda war against the Tatars.[xciv] They were therefore known well enough in Europe by the time the Romanies had arrived. A good example of this is the fact that Kornerus uses the Tatars as a benchmark to explain Romani characteristics: They were “black like Tatars” (nigri ut Tatari).[xcv] The word like (ut) seems important in this context. The Romanies were not confounded with Tatars but compared to them. The latter were already sufficiently known and located on the maps in Central Asia whereas Romanies were still unknown, located in most cases in Africa or around the Levantine Sea, and most importantly perceived as clearly distinct from Tatars. Only later, in the late 16th and early 17th century, when they entered northern European countries, ‘Tatars’ could indeed mean Romanies. One important difference was the fact that Romanies were Christians while most of the Tatars were considered pagans. For example, the indignation by many of the lords assembled at the Council of Constance against the Polish king for having hired Tatars, respectively pagans against Christians, i.e. the Teutonic Order, indicates that still in the late Middle Ages religious differences might be starker than ethnic ones.[xcvi] This does not render the ethnic category meaningless but can be instructive for understanding contemporary perceptions.

Another noteworthy difference was that Romanies came unarmed and were not organized as war bands. This could have been part of their strategy to pass as pilgrims but even before they came to western Europe, in the eastern European, Byzantine, or even earlier sources, they do not appear as warriors. Although the sources remain silent about their reasons not to wear armor, it can still be noticed that it sets them apart from Tatars and the second group to be discussed in this context, the Ottoman Turks, as well.

The Turks need a special notice here because the Romanies have, as was mentioned above, been on several occasions associated with them. For instance, the right for municipalities to expel them granted by imperial recesses was based on the accusation they could be scouts for the Turks. This accusation was dependent on their religious status and their credibility as Christians. If they were beyond any doubts recognized as genuine Christians, any insinuations of them maintaining loyalties to the Turks would have been ineffective. Yet some evidence found in the sources resonate certain misgivings. The complex and to some extent elaborate narratives tell how Romanies were being conquered first by Christians, who forcefully baptized them, then by Saracens, who again forced conversion on them, and finally by a Christian lord that ‘liberated’ and re-baptized them but ultimately had his concerns about them being genuine in their pleaded beliefs and sent them on a pilgrimage.[xcvii] Pressure from the rapid Ottoman advance on the Balkans inspired the imagination of fearful minds asking how anyone could know if the Romanies really returned to Christianity and were not feeding the Turks intelligence.

Aggravated religious tensions on the eve and at the peak of the Reformation added pressure on everyone to prove their religious loyalties. Romanies in particular attracted attention, firstly, because of their apparently never-ending pilgrimage, and secondly, because of the association with sorcery, soothsaying, and other sorts of magic. In 1510, a thin pamphlet called Liber Vagatorum was circulated. It was meant to uncover and warn people about the tricks and strategies of vagabonds. In it there is a chapter on “Christiane[r] & Calmiere[r]” which describes Christian imposters stocked with purchasable pilgrim symbols like scallop shells.[xcviii] The fact that there were already names coined for this particular kind of fraud and that Romanies were not mentioned in particular seems to indicate that suspicions were not unjustified, but rather that such strategies to fake a pilgrim status were widespread, even commercialized. This is an important point, not only regarding Fraser’s thesis of a grand plan by an “unsung genius,”[xcix] but also more generally speaking regarding discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity.


Liber vagatorum, Titelblatt

In 1528, when a new edition of the Liber Vagatorum was published in Wittenberg by a well-known man named Martin Luther, it was already widely read.[c] In his preface Luther explained that he wanted to shed light upon those “false beggar boys” (falsche Bettler Buben)[ci] that abused the civil and ecclesial care for the poor. This is only one example of how Protestant reformers began to religiously charge the vocabulary of condemning non-integrated social outcasts to which many Romanies – amongst others – belonged.

However, Luther also attacked Romanies (Thattern odder Zygeuner) openly. They appear in the contexts of “black magic” and “soothsaying,”[cii] theft, remarriage and re-christening.[ciii] Above all, like Jews, they are “in misery and trapped.”[civ] In all these passages, it is important to note that Luther never seems to care to speak about Romanies directly, but rather he uses them as objects of comparison to criticize adulterers, bad Christians, and Jews. Their sinful modus vivendi was beyond dispute for Luther and apparently even beyond variability. Whether Thattern odder Zygeuner were ethnic, religious, social, or moral categories for Luther remains questionable. Were all members of the Romani ethnicity living in sin, or could all sinners be called Thattern odder Zygeuner? Was the described sinful way of life a performance of ethnicity or are Luther and other external narrators constructing an ethnicity by the performance of their utterances?

A broader analysis of lower classes in late medieval society might reveal some communality between Romanies and other social, ethnic, or religious minorities. One of those were the Jews, a comparison already suggested by Luther but also by modern historians like Donald Kenrick, son of Jewish emigrants from Poland, who highlights the shared but different destiny of Jews and Romanies.[cv] However, the post-Holocaust perspective can be particularly problematic in terms of teleology and competing cultures of remembrance. Often comparative historical research can end up playing off victimized groups against each other. Yet there are a few similarities and differences worth sounding out without writing a prehistory to the Holocaust of century-long persecutions. For example, when reading the chronicle of Forli, an interesting detail comes to mind. In August 1422, a Romani group arrived in Forli and stayed for two days on their journey from Bologna to Rome.[cvi] They were not described in very positive terms but as “animal-like and raging” (quasi bruta Animalia et furentes). In the next paragraph, however, it is described how two months later, the plague came to Forli and killed more than 2,000 people. Remarkably, in the chronicle, the two events have not been related in any way. Neither did any other late medieval source come to my attention that linked the presence of Romanies to the loom of the plaque as it has been recorded manifold in similar situations with the Jews.[cvii] As the vocabulary generally employed to describe the plague was heavily charged with religious overtones, religion rather than ethnicity could have once more played a decisive role.

Another minority group, the Sorbs, respectively the Wends had a similar disadvantaged status in the urban lower classes.[cviii] They were denied access to the guilds and other prestigious positions or privileges. However, their religious integrity or social habitus were not extensively scrutinized. First and foremost, they were perceived as flawed because they did not speak German.[cix] The promotion of regional languages and vernaculars within the context of the Reformation, as well as the transformation of the late medieval polities based on unequal distribution of privileges into a premodern territorial state protecting urban minorities to demonstrate state power, thus benefited Sorbs or Wends but disadvantaged Romanies. Hence macrostructural changes of the social order cast a new light on the end of the so-called ‘golden age.’

Explaining something new and unknown requires the construction of mental bridges to something already familiar and by relating the two objects to each other, i.e. interpreting and interposing elements into the object to be explained. The two types of comparable groups chosen exemplarily in this chapter, other migrating peoples and members of late medieval lower classes, have shown new perspectives but also limits of an ethnicity-centered approach. For instance, it would be conceivable to relate the appearance of Romani groups to the broader context of other medieval and premodern migrations from the East, thus filling a void in ethnicity studies between early medieval ‘peoples’ and modern ‘nations.’ Likewise, it is possible to frame Romani discourse analysis within the context of ‘Orientalism.’ The second category suggested here for further research is late medieval or early modern lower classes. A century after the Romanies’ arrival, it seems that comparisons with Romanies (ut Cingari) carried certain consolidated associations detached from empirical observations. Hence it can be asked to what extent terms like Zigeuner meant a set of religiously condemned or socially ostracized behaviors independent from ethnic Affiliation.