ETHNONYMS: Romanies, Travelers, Traveller Gypsies
The Rominche, Romanies, or Travelers are the Gypsies of Great Britain. It is estimated that there are well in excess of 20,000 individuals, possibly 8,000 to 9,000 families, of Rominche stock in England and in Wales. The languages spoken by the Rominche include Anglo-Romany, Romani, Shelta (Gammon), and "Cant."
History and Cultural Relations
The Rominche appear to have arrived in Britain in the early sixteenth century, and from the start they were associated with exotic occupations such as fortune-telling. As was the case elsewhere in Europe, deportations began soon after their arrival, at least by mid-century, where it was decreed lawful that those who would not leave the British Isles could be imprisoned or executed. They were prosecuted as vagrants, with punishments ranging from forced labor (to cure them of their supposed "idleness") to the death penalty until as late as 1783. Even those who associated with Gypsies were subject to punishment, up to and including imprisonment. Banishment policies on the part of the British government resurfaced in strength in the twentieth century.
Rominche settlements of preference are temporary encampments of caravans (trailers), pulled up into a circle to form a single entrance to the space thereby enclosed. The main Windows face inward into the circle. Waste is disposed of outside of the circle and well away from the settlement. Government policy, embodied in the 1968 Caravan Sites Act, has tried to make the Rominche sedentary. The approach has been to set up caravan parks, screened from public view by bushes, trees, or other such barriers, but this runs contrary to Rominche preference.
The Rominche economy is largely independent of wage labor, relying instead on the sale of goods and services. Traditional occupations include the following: (1) sales of goods that may be either bulk-purchased manufactured items or secondhand merchandise, fruits and vegetables from barrows, horses and dogs, or items of their own manufacture such as baskets, wood carvings, and charms; (2) sales of services such as trash and scrap clearing, gardening, wagon construction, knife grinding, or fortune-telling. The preference for self-employment is strong, because it permits greater flexibility and mobility. However, some wage labor is taken, particularly for seasonal work on farms. Work that takes one away from the encampment usually is considered to be the province of adult males, with the exception of "calling" at houses in search of cast-off items that may be repaired and resold. Most stringent of all is the restriction of horse trading to men. Women may also earn for the household by fortune-telling and by sharp trading at fairs.
A Rominche is considered as such by reference to parentage—that is, at least one parent must be Rominche. "Didikois" is the usual term applied to "half-breeds," while non-Rominche are called "Gorgios." Kinship is recognized bilaterally, but it is usually reckoned rather shallowly: for most purposes, only the grandparental through grandchild generations are counted. First, and possibly second, cousins are considered too closely related for marriage. One's recognized circle of kin have moral obligations to provide assistance and loyalty in times of trouble. Naming practices are used to emphasize personal associations—for example, a woman can elect upon marriage to retain her father's name, to take on her husband's name, or to reject both in favor of her mother's surname.
Average age at marriage is 16-17 for women, 18-19 for men. Elopements are common. The permanent, monogamous union is the ideal, but separation and remarriage are easily achieved and do not involve legal action. In such cases, the children usually stay in the care of the mother. There are prohibitions against marriage to a Gorgio, to a first or second cousin, and to a much older or much younger mate. Violations of these prohibitions do occur, however. In the case of marriage to a Gorgio, the status of the "outsider" spouse will always be ambiguous—acceptance is never complete. Weddings are celebrated with a party to which the close cognates of the bride and groom, plus additional kin and affines, are invited. Many fights occur during weddings. Upon marriage, the new couple sets up a separate trailer unit from that of their parents, but they may choose to live near either set of inlaws. A good wife is expected to be submissive and helpful and to follow her husband. Children are highly prized, but they are not romanticized. At a very early age they are presumed to be capable of helping out, particularly by caring for their younger siblings and by accompanying their mother when she goes "calling." Rominche rarely willingly send their children for formal schooling, which has frequently caused conflicts between the Rominche way of life and the expectations of the state. Children are fully involved in adult society, except with regards to sex—there is a strong cultural denial of children's sexuality.
Groups of Rominche are formed according to principles of territorial proximity, shared experiences, and economic Cooperation. Such groups are extremely flexible, and there is little or no formal system of leadership beyond the level of the household. Deference is accorded to elders, but advanced age does not guarantee authority. Among adults, the practice is to offer advice, rather than to issue commands. If a leader of sorts arises, his authority is based on charisma. There are larger organizations that have formed in recent decades to look after the interests of Rominche in Great Britain: the Gypsy Council; the Association of Gypsy and Romany Organizations; the Association of Traveling People; the Romany Guild; and the Southern Gypsy Council. These groups exist largely to minimize confrontations with Gorgios.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Rominche culture is in many ways influenced by their opposition to Gorgios. Pollution beliefs are a strong example of this: food is "dirty" or "polluted" if even the shadow of a Gorgio falls upon it. The Rominche believe in and fear mulo, or ghosts, and much funerary practice is dedicated to confound the mulo of the deceased and speed him away from the living. Death should ideally occur away from the encampment—Rominche are most willing to send the terminally ill to hospitals to ensure that this is the case. There is also a very strong aversion to handling the corpse, which is a job they consider more suited to a Gorgio. Any Rominche in the vicinity of a death may attend the funeral, but there is a prohibition on all discord, so either rivalries must be set aside or the parties to such rivalries must stay away from a funeral. The day before the ceremony, the body is brought in an open coffin to a trailer in the camp. Traditionally its clothes are put on inside out, in an attempt to confuse the mulo. Two fires are lit to frighten off other mulo—one for men, one for women—around which groups of people keep vigil. Only postmenopausal women may sit up with the corpse in the trailer itself. Periodically someone will enter the trailer to look at the body and touch its face "so that it can be forgotten." When the corpse is brought out of the house, the attendees, all dressed in black, form a circle around the door, to witness the start of its final journey. The widow (er) and close cognates are expected to display dramatic expressions of grief, but affines are expected to maintain decorum and remain in the background. When the Rominche still traveled in wagons, the tradition was to burn it upon the death of its owner and to give the eldest son the iron frame left behind by the fire. Today it is the practice to purchase a cheap trailer into which the body is brought, and that trailer, rather than the one that had served as the deceased's residence, is what is burned. The procession to the grave site is solemn, conceived of by the mourners as the deceased's "last time to travel." Favorite possessions are traditionally buried with the corpse, so that the ghost won't be tempted to return for them.
Adams, Barbara, Judith Okely, David Morgan, and David Smith (1975). Gypsies and Government Policy in England. London: Heineman.
Okely, Judith (1983). The Traveller Gypsies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
NANCY E. GRATTON