Under the Cloak of Begging?

Abstract

This review of 'gypsy occupations' in the period 1815-1940 has made clear that there is no such thing. Almost all the professions mentioned (including fortunetelling) were also practised by sedentary people. Even itinerancy as such was not a monopoly of gypsies. Tens of thousands of people were itinerants, without being labelled as gypsies. Finally, all the characteristics listed in the second section (the family as working unit, mobility and self-employment) are general phenomena and can therefore in the end not be explained by reference to the 'gypsy culture'. The specific feature of gypsy occupations only lies in a combination of the three: being self-employed and travelling with one's family. People who chose such a way of life were very likely to be labelled by authorities as 'gypsy' (or similar labels) in Western Europe. This 'power of definition', that had been in force since the 15th century, was so strong that it was very difficult for people to escape from it. Moreover, it easily led to the development of ethnicity: people began to feel that they were different from others and to cultivate their own way of life and the symbols attached to it. The fact that within the general category of 'gypsies' some call themselves 'Sinti' or 'Roma' believing their origin to be Indian and often speaking some Romani dialect, does not automatically prove that this claim can be upheld in view of historical research. In order to understand the groupformation of gypsies, we have to take into account the long process of stigmatization and labelling.

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Lucassen, L., (1993) “Under the Cloak of Begging?”, Ethnologia Europaea 23(1), p.75-94. doi: https://doi.org/10.16995/ee.1209

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Leo Lucassen (Leiden University)

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