Beiträge zur Minderheitengeschichte

Klos, Narratives of Otherness, S.5


When in 1992, Sir Angus Fraser formulated his theory of the ‘Great Trick’ he shifted the paradigms through which Romani history was perceived. Rather than being the victimized objects in a long history of persecution after the destruction of the fifteenth century ‘golden age,’ the Romanies in Fraser’s historical understanding were the subjects that shaped history by means of their own agency. While previous historians like Gronemeyer in 1987 tried to eliminate or relativize Grellmann’s ‘golden age’-thesis for the purpose of emphasizing heteronomy and systematic discrimination from the Romanies’ first arrival in western Europe onward[cx], Fraser needed the idea of a favorable situation in the beginning to prove and legitimize the existence of Romani agency before it was contained and tragically undermined by an intimidated non-Romani society, the “gullible dupe.”[cxi] This renaissance of the ‘golden age’-theory was a decisive blow for the emerging constructivist approaches that reacted against notions to re-brand old and discriminatory ethnographic exonyms with newly polished, yet still ‘ethnicizing’ umbrella terms for the sake of reducing complexity, declaring unity, and thus legitimizing transnational political activism.[cxii] Fraser’s idea of putting agency back into an one-sided historiography of Romani persecution was popularized by the international political activist Ian Hancock who provocatively named two of his chapters “How Westerners learnt the Romanies’ true origin” and “What the Europeans thought.”[cxiii] Most recently, Wolfgang Wippermann framed the 15th century as an instructive example of “successful integration” of migrants into medieval German society – not without adding a warning of rapid mood swings.[cxiv]

While the political advantages of writing a history of a self-determined and self-conscious people that is held together by more than a shared experience of persecution and discrimination seem obvious, this brief study has pointed out some empirical difficulties to find sufficient conclusive evidence for this theory, yet has also suggested some new, more interdisciplinary research questions. To begin with, for a period without Romani ego-documents any statements on the in-group’s perceptions or feelings of a quasi-natural, immutable ingrained common nature must be highly speculative. Fortunately, early medievalists have proposed certain evasions for this problem: Firstly, since ethnicity is more than a statement of identity but also a performance of it, evidence of ethnicity performances might still be comprehensible. Secondly, discursive analytical approaches can deconstruct the meanings attached to ethnographic terms – which can eventually turn into self-descriptions. Finally, since any self-statements need to be validated by an out-group, the historical contexts and possible contemporary points of reference can be analyzed to narrow down the spectrum of possibilities that the out-group would accept as plausible. The first idea has been bracketed since the example of the Arabic source in which the musicians have been identified as Romanies has demonstrated methodological difficulties of ex post assumptions of ahistorical behaviors. Later references to black magic, soothsaying, vagabonding, stealing and so on can thus not be equated with performances of ethnicity but can also be read as meanings attached to a historical discourse. The analysis of such a discourse, on the other hand, or more precisely its ‘grammar,’ has revealed further theoretical weaknesses. First of all, the survey of the early 15th century sources has pointed out that there are multiple synchronously and interdependently developing narratives to be considered. The most graspable insight we have of the communication network of scholars. They organize knowledge in relation to salvific history, geopolitical world views, and other contexts of knowledge. Academe informs and is informed by political discourses, as well as by popular opinions. Scholarly and political opinions are strongly dependent on individual identity concepts and personal networks, while the populace is generally perceived as an anonymous collective. For example, letters of safe conduct and imperial recesses are evidences of political decisions, whereas popular opinions only become evident when referenced explicitly, i.e. when considered newsworthy or when the author wants to conceal own stereotypical opinions.

With regard to Romani agency and self-determination in a period of successful integration, these findings lead to ambiguous conclusions. On the one hand, Fraser’s hypothesis of an “unsung genius”[cxv] who singlehandedly came up with a brilliant idea to fool all Westerners and lead a deliberately coordinated venture from Modon into Europe, seems highly unlikely. While there are certain repeating elements in the records, the narrative where the Romanies originated from and why they came to the West are far from congruent or always entirely positive. Various sources of information and interpretations need to be considered. On the other hand, these results do not deny either Romani tactics and contributions to the discourses or a certain degree of integration and interactions. They seemed to have known the local languages and Christian customs. Perhaps they learned from other vagabonds and beggars some strategies and exchanged best practice knowledge among each other. For the most part, however, both the in-group and the out-group were exceedingly diverse communities, while the sources only show a very small percentage of all forms of interactions and networks.

This complexity blurs the stark line drawn between the 15th and 16th century marked by the first imperial recess on Romanies in 1498. Rather than a sudden mood swing, gradual macrostructural changes at the transition phase between the two epochs influence a number of discourses and attitudes while others remain the same. One of the rather significant changes concerns the ethnographic terms that were used to describe Romanies. The rather event-oriented types of sources like chronicles, annals, or account books indeed tend to use terms like Zigeuner or cingari to describe a specific group of foreigners that arrived at the town gates. However, as soon as they appear in non-event-based essays and treatises of theology, magic, cosmology etc., these terms seem increasingly detached from ethnic affiliations but describe a more or less consolidated set of associations with these terms. Once these associations could have corresponded to actual observations, but were exaggerated and developed further aloof from empirical reassurance. They could stand for a certain modus vivendi whether or not the majority of Romanies in fact fulfilled any of those stereotypical behaviors. Likewise, it seems like it almost did not matter anymore whether the person called or compared to a Zigeuner ethnically belonged to the Romani community or not. It would have been conceivable that those terms disappeared again after a while, just like the names Christianer and Calmierer from the first Liber Vagatorum. But they remained, not only because the ethnic group of Romanies stayed in Europe, but because the terms describing them were constantly reproduced and recharged with meanings.

Statements about bilateral relations therefore have to be complex in nature, consider different narrative lines and historically transformable ethnonyms. Not always is it advisable to think of Romanies in strictly ethnic terms. It can be useful, for example, when integrating Romani studies in a broader context of comparative ethnicity studies. Alternatively, Romanies can be understood in social terms as part of a multiethnic and multireligious lower class, or in discursive terms to reveal communication networks, means of knowledge transfer, or scientific practice and exchange. Studying social outcasts can extend our understanding of systems of power and social order, as well as their integrative power or rigidity. The romanticizing effects of a ‘golden age,’ a ‘Great Trick,’ or a ‘successful integration’ might suffer a loss, but more light is shed on the complexity of ethnic and social realities of this epoch.