A minister in the Conte government, as soon as he took office after the 2018 elections, said publicly that he wanted to take a census of the Roma; and added that it would be nice to be able to kick them out of our country. This minister was in a way “right” – if by “right” we mean the ability to interpret the most widespread popular sentiment and therefore to gather consensus – in fact it is undeniable that there are many in our country who resent the Roma, and/or are afraid of them.
Yes, but which Roma are we talking about? There are at least two different stories about them: the one in the Balkans and the one in Western Europe. As far as the Balkans is concerned, it’s a simple story: they were all enslaved, or made to work just to pay taxes. There were Roma chiefs who acted as mediators with the local lord, guaranteeing him respect for the most elementary model of submission: power goes from the top to the bottom (the lord dominates the people), while goods go from the bottom to the top (from the people to the local lord). In return they bargained for certain advantages: they could manage justice internally, and they kept the right to nomadism. When one is subservient, there is no problem.
In Italy and in the Christian lands, the Roma have been branded a “cursed people” since the Middle Ages – like all infidels – but there is another reason: a nomadic people in a continent of settled peoples is in itself a loose cannon, and always perceived as a threat (just like that other people there). Official history, moreover, has no doubts: the entire evolution of mankind, as we learned in school, is due to the emergence of sedentary civilisations. It began with the first agricultural kingdoms that guaranteed stability, peace and rules for social coexistence. The home is the very symbol of civilisation, along with our family model. The standard of living over the centuries has risen to unimaginable levels for those who fit the model. It is the sedentary who leave permanent traces, from written culture to architecture. Conversely, people who did not become sedentary are considered inferior, or ignorant, or parasites. It is really surprising to see how stories from 700 years ago are still so firmly rooted in our imagination today: this story is a kind of manual on how a stereotype is born.
Here at the beginning, the Roma leaders pretend to be counts and dukes of a people of Egyptian pilgrims, converted and on a journey of atonement. During this journey, they get donated goods from local lords to distribute to their people and thus escape the dominance/subjugation model. Several chronicles between 1417 and 1430 (independent of each other and therefore plausible) report the same story: “We are Egyptians but Christians, we must atone for our apostasy which condemns us to a pilgrimage of seven years before we can return to our land. Help us. These are our letters of introduction. Letters signed by the Pope or the Holy Roman Emperor. The same scenes in Italy, in Holland, in Provence. Of course, the letters were forgeries, and after seven years the Roma continued to wander quietly.
By presenting themselves as pilgrims, the Roma fitted into the accepted ways of mobility in the territory. In this way, they were able to ask for and receive alms from Western Europeans. These alms were accompanied by other activities: divination, horse trading and street shows.
They are often accused of stealing, and in several cases there are episodes of tension with the local communities. A friar from Bologna describes them as “the finest thieves you will ever see”. They claim to be pilgrims but behave like predators, they exploit the credulity of the natives, they dress badly but without being poor, they ask for alms as if it were a tribute to be collected. They conquer a continent without using force, but with cunning.
In the course of the century, alms changed their meaning: they were given so that the gypsies would leave, or so that they would not enter the city at all. In Tuscany, even in the 19th century, sinte rosengre regularly presented themselves to the local lords to collect their due (in the form of ‘alms’). When the pilgrimage is passed on to the next generation, it ceases to be such and becomes the wandering of beggars.
From this moment on, they also become the target of repression. Modern, post-feudal Europe was built through a bloody struggle against the vagrants and the poor. The attempt of the cursed people to escape the mercantile logic through the gift economy clashes violently with the new system.
Basically, the Roma are persecuted because they refuse to submit to wage labour. They are bearers of an irreducible otherness, destabilising and seen as diabolical. Examples of anti-Gypsy legislation first appeared in Switzerland and northern Italy from 1471 onwards, and since then they have spread like wildfire to the most remote parts of Europe within about 70 years.
Listen to: Franco Battiato, Nomads (1988).
Even among scholars, however, there are a few heretics who question our common sense of ‘settled superiority’. For example, the American political scientist James Scott in his book Le origini della civiltà (Alessandro Vanoli wrote about it in La Lettura on 28 October 2018): ‘What if we were wrong? What if we are exaggerating the importance of such forms of sedentarisation?” he wondered. “In terms of human well-being, field work very often proved to be anything but beneficial. Moreover, we are beginning to realise how fragile ancient states were in the face of disease, famine and war… After all, from the Gauls to the Sioux, history is full of examples of whole populations who fought to the last to avoid being controlled by a state. Seen in this way, history would seem to be a continuous challenge between those who move and those who stand still, and even if those who stand still tend to prevail, this does not mean that those who move stop doing so.
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