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Reimagining Gypsy life in Mediterranean Europe

A groundbreaking project has given a voice to historic Gypsy communities that lived and worked in the western Mediterranean region. By tapping into new sources, a vivid picture of what life was really like has emerged.

Society

Historic representations of Gypsy life in the western Mediterranean tend to be selective, relying on official sources and documentation. These often cannot adequately capture the richness and diversity of what community life was really like. The MediterraneanGypsies project, which was undertaken with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme, was launched to rethink the way in which the history of Gypsy people has been framed.

Prioritising primary sources

The project focused on Gypsy mobility in three western Mediterranean areas – Andalusia, Sicily and Sardinia – in the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries. It set out to address three key objectives. The first was to counter the traditional diasporic representation of Gypsies as perpetual travellers. The second was to document and analyse the continuity of the Gypsy presence in the western Mediterranean area. Finally, the project sought to understand how Gypsies kept their ethnic identity while also being part of Spanish and Italian society. “Traditional historical reconstructions have mainly been based on using certain institutional documents,” explains Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow Massimo Aresu, visiting research fellow at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom. “These include royal ordinances and decrees, synod proceedings and acts of the Inquisition. These tend to privilege a reductive vision of Gypsies.” Building on his previous research, Aresu analysed a broader range of primary sources, mostly unpublished, from custom records to notarial deeds and parish funds. This enabled him to reconstruct a map of movements and settlements of individuals and extended family groups.

Part of Europe’s story

This research successfully showed how, between the 16th and 17th centuries, Gypsy relations with civil and religious institutions in the Mediterranean regions were highly complex. “These relations extended into the economic and social fields,” says Aresu. “For example, the documents collected highlighted the importance of ritual events that marked religious life, particularly baptisms and marriages.” These were important moments that cemented the Gypsies’ belonging to the local communities, through a vast network of relations, economic exchanges and social interactions and alliances. The archival research also brought to light one unexpected and remarkable category of documents: safe-conducts, formally granted to Gypsy leaders in Sicily in the 16th century. These allowed Gypsies to freely travel, in contradiction to anti-Gypsy legislation introduced in 1499. “These findings provide evidence of the hiatus that existed between official laws and their actual application, and of the variety of contexts in which Gypsy groups operated,” notes Aresu. “We were also able to show that the process of Gypsy population settlement in Andalusia, Sicily and Sardinia was not only diasporic but part of a broader Mediterranean circulation.” Such mobility involved not only Gypsies, but other social groups such as sailors, soldiers, merchants, craftsmen and pilgrims. Documents testify that Gypsy women were weavers, yarn spinners and even entrepreneurs, challenging the image of the Gypsy fortune teller and enchantress. The findings strongly suggest that most Gypsy families were fully accepted by the societies they interacted with, and eventually belonged to. “This paints a different picture from traditional representations of Gypsies as a marginal group that does not belong to European history,” says Aresu. “I hope this work can help to counter some worrying anti-Gypsy discourses that still have currency in parts of contemporary European society.”

Keywords

MediterraneanGypsies, gypsy, diasporic, Inquisition, ethnic, religious, Mediterranean, pilgrims

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