Vlach Gypsies of Hungary

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Vlach Gypsies of Hungary

ETHNONYMS: Rom or (occasional plural) Roma; also known in Hungarian by Magyar (Hungarian) compatriots as Olah Cigany


Identification. Vlach Gypsies are one branch of the Romany-speaking Gypsies who lived for several hundred years in Romania until they began migrating to other parts of the world in the middle of the nineteenth century. The majority of Vlach Gypsies now live in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. In Hungary they are mostly found in the Eastern and northern regions of the country. The origin of the ethnonym "Rom" is obscure, though one Hungarian scholar has speculatively suggested it might derive from the north Indian Dom caste. The term "vlach" (Hungarian olah ) derives from the association of these Gypsies with the old Romanian principality of Wallachia. The Hungarian word cigany (Gypsy) is found in the Hungarian language from the Middle Ages and is cognate with terms for Gypsies in other European languages such as German zigeuner. "Cigany" has negative connotations of deceit and laziness. The term "Rom" distinguishes Vlach Gypsies from other Gypsy groups in Hungary such as Romanian-speaking "Boyash" Gypsies and Hungarian speaking "Romungro" Gypsies.

Location. Gypsies tend not to rely directly on the natural environment for their livelihood; instead, they are dependent on human environments, so they live wherever the non-Gypsy environment provides them with the human resources they need to carry out their economic activities. Since at least the early 1960s, when nomadism was suppressed in Hungary, the Rom (like most Gypsies in eastern Europe) have been more sedentary. Today, Rom are as likely to be found in towns as in villages, but almost always in the poorer areas. Large concentrations of Rom reside in the inner cities of Budapest, Pecs, and Miskolc.

Demography. Approximately 100,000 Rom live in Hungary today; this figure accounts for 20 percent of all the Gypsies in the country. When the Rom migrated into Hungary after their liberation from slavery in the Romanian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, some moved on to western Europe and even to the New World. The majority remained in the countries that came under Russian control after World War II. We do not know what percentage of the world's Rom live in modern Hungary.

Linguistic Affiliation. Rom speak Romany (also spelled "Romani") or Romanes as they say. The vocabulary items of the Romany spoken by any one group of Rom are deeply Influenced by the country where they happen to reside. The syntactical structure remains more constant. Romany spoken in Hungary belongs to the Balkanic Language Group. Some 800 words or so of its basic vocabulary (words that are shared throughout all variants of Romany spoken around the world today) are of north Indian, Persian, and Armenian origin. Romany spoken in Hungary seems to have become recently homogenized, with the merging of alternate dialects, possibly as an expression of growing ethnic self-awareness. Scholars disagree about the extent to which Romany across the world may be treated as one languagecertainly Rom manage to communicate in it wherever they find one another.

History and Cultural Affiliations

Intense scholarly dispute persists regarding the "origins" of the Gypsies. On the basis of one interpretation of the linguistic evidence, Gypsies clearly came from north India sometime after the Mogul invasions, perhaps in the tenth century. Another theory propounded by Dr. J. Okely in the United Kingdom suggests that Gypsies are the result of indigenous people marrying into a trading diaspora population speaking a trading pidgin of north Indian derivation. On the basis of their Romanian-influenced dialect, scholars presume that modern Hungarian Rom were slaves to feudal lords and monasteries in Moldavia and Wallachia from their appearance in the Middle Ages until the mid-nineteenth century. Rom have cordial relations with other Romany-speaking Gypsies in Hungary and elsewhere but for the most part scorn those Gypsies who have attempted assimilation into Hungarian society (such as the Romungro Gypsies). Non-Gypsies are known as gazo (plural gaze ), which Rom translate as "peasant" whether the non-Gypsy concerned is a peasant, a teacher, or otherwise employed. Non-Gypsies are known as "peasants" because of their involvement in productive labor. Gypsies, by contrast, are involved in trade and exchanging the products of non-Gypsy laborers. Relations between the two groups are for the most part hostile.


Gypsy settlements tend to be formed from clusters of related Rom. In rural areas settlements are most commonly located on the edge of villages. Traditionally Gypsies used to make their own sunken mud houses and cave houses. Today, prosperous Gypsies may buy old peasant cottages. Poorer Gypsies will still live in hovels. In towns Gypsies are normally placed in municipal housing. Whenever Gypsies move into an area the Magyar residents tend to move out, thus creating de facto if not de jure ghettos.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The most important fact about the Rom economy is that they have never used land productively; this they leave to the non-Gypsies. In feudal Europe, Rom had a reputation as blacksmiths and musicians; both professions were considered tainted or "infamous," construed as either polluting or socially dangerous. Now Rom engage, if possible, in various forms of trade, especially with horses, antiques, and (most recently) secondhand cars. Other goods (e.g., nylon sheeting) may be scavenged from municipal rubbish heaps and then sold back to the gaze (non-Gypsies). For most Rom, trade provides an insufficient income to support a family, and, therefore, they take wage-labor jobs in factories and collective farms. When Hungary had a Socialist government, all citizens were obliged to have a registered workplace. This law had been introduced, it was said, to prevent middlemen from "sponging off society," and Gypsies were at times persecuted for trying to avoid "honorable work." A Rom family will often keep a few (two to six) piglets for fattening and later sale to the slaughterhouse,. These piglets, fed on bread and other garbage scavenged from urban housing estates, provide a crucial extra source of cash income. Food is always purchased in shops, though a particular type of unleavened bread (bokholi ) is made by Rom women and thought to be truly Gypsy food.

Industrial Arts. Gypsies produce little apart from metalwork either for their own use or for sale. Rather than make, for example, brush brooms himself, a Rom will buy the Material and employ a gazo to make them for him before selling them back to gaze in the markets of rural Hungary.

Trade. Rom trade is primarily in horses. Cart horses are needed by Hungarian peasants to work their "household plots," and Rom are the middlemen who organize the circulation of these animals. Horses play an important symbolic role in the self-definition of the Hungarian "proper peasant," and so, by controlling the trade in these animals, Gypsies have acquired a position of control in the Hungarian marketplace. Rom more recently have begun to take over the secondhand car market in Budapest, the capital of Hungary. Rom say that they can dominate in the market because they have the ability to "talk people into parting with their money." The wit and personal skills of the Rom trader are celebrated in contrast to the plodding ardor of the peasantlike non-Gypsy. Trade is an activity that Rom engage in together, and the spoils of trade tend to be split equally between those who cooperate on a deal.

Division of Labor. Both men and women from the age of 14-16 engage in wage labor. Horse trading and other symbolically elaborated marketing activities are the preserve of male Rom, as it is considered unlucky for a (fertile) woman to interfere in such. Rom women tend to be more involved in scavenging industrial refuse, which they sell alongside their husbands at the horse fairs. They also raise the piglets that provide income for subsidizing the horse trade, which is itself by no means always profitable. There are no formal occupational specializations according to age or sex.

Land Tenure. Rom own no productive land. Houses, however, may be owned and sold to other Rom or non-Gypsies.


Kin Groups and Descent. There are no formalized kin groups among the Vlach Rom, nor is an ideology of shared descent important in conceiving social relations. Rather, shared identity is talked of primarily in terms of shared activity at the present time. If one lives like a Rom, sharing one's life with other Rom, one is a Rom. In line with this ideology of identity through shared activity, Gypsies think of themselves as a "brotherhood" open to anyone who fully participates in the communal rituals.

Kinship Terminology. In traditional terms Rom terminology is of the Eskimo type. However, men of any age or relation to the speaker are most commonly referred to and addressed as "boys" and women likewise as "girls." This use of kin terms seems to accord with the antidescent ideology of "brotherhood."

Marriage and Family

Marriage. There are no explicit marriage rules; rather, a Rom expresses a series of preferences: spouses should be Rom, known to the family, not first cousins, and from good families, etc. Most marriages are within a small circle of kin, and, despite articulated preferences, many marriages are now among first cousins. Postmarital residence tends to alternate for several years but becomes virilocal after several children are born. Divorce and remarriage in the early years of Marriage is frequent, although previous marriages are a taboo subject to discuss in public.

Domestic Unit. Two-generation households are the norm. Once all the children have left the parental home, they are often replaced by grandchildren, so old people rarely live alone. Families of eight or more children were traditionally common, with three to five offspring now being the norm.

Socialization. Children are the focus of Rom communities and are treated with great tolerance and generosity. Male children are treated preferentially, and values of autonomy, independence, and agonistic display are cultivated, especially in them. Girls are taught to acquire a sense of "shame." Children are taught a brazen, even aggressive stance with non-Gypsy children; girls, for instance, may appear to drop their "shame" with the "shameless" non-Gypsy to "fool" them. After the purificatory rite of baptism there are no initiation rites. All Rom children receive some formal education in state schools, where they have often suffered from discriminatory practices.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Rom communities are extremely egalitarian in values, despite marked economic inequalities among households. To be "proud" and appear to stand above one's fellow Rom is unacceptable and is interpreted by fellow Gypsies as a desire to leave the community and assimilate into the non-Gypsy population. Economic inequalities have developed primarily from success in manipulating the second or "black" economy, but they have not given rise to social stratification of Rom into different classes. Rom tend to look down on other groups of Gypsies.

Political Organization. In accordance with their egalitarian social philosophy and fierce individualism, Rom strongly resist any official leadership. Occasionally vajda (bosses) arise when non-Gypsy authorities conspire with a prominent Gypsy to control access to some limitable resource, but the authority of such men is always contingent on their ability to "serve up" the non-Gypsies. There are no councils among Rom, nor are there institutions for communal decision making.

Social Control. Lack of "respect" is the most common cause of informal dispute. Trickery in horse deals or other business also features prominently in conflicts. The collapse of a marriage likewise raises such disputes. In these last instances Rom may resort to the Kris, a council of Rom arbitrators who may suggest various forms of recompense. The judgment of such arbitrators is not binding and so disputes that reach a Kris can last many months until both parties accept a compromise.

Conflict. Rom are often in conflict with non-Gypsy authorities and others over rights of residence, matters of school attendance, accusations of theft, etc. In such disputes Rom are at a distinct disadvantage, given their lack of ease with Formal non-Gypsy procedures. During the last years of the Socialist period, Rom formed their own national associations, which are expected to play an increasingly prominent part in future political life in Hungary.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Rom religion, like Rom culture in general, is an elaborate conversation with or commentary on the religion of surrounding non-Gypsies. O Del (God) and Sunto Maria (Holy Mary) are the two main benevolent forces in the universe. Jesus appears occasionally in Rom belief but mostly as a young boy. Pilgrimages provide the most common occasions for public supplication, devotion, and prayer, some of which attract large Rom gatherings. Although formally adherents of the Catholic faith, Rom have a cosmology that is only tangentially related to Catholic doctrine (see later discussion of death).

Religious Practitioners . Drabarni (old female curers) are still found among Rom but otherwise Rom have no mystical/religious specialists. Each Rom relates to God, Mary, and the saints directly. Priests of the official church are unequivocally feared and held in contempt because Gypsies presume their public virtue conceals private vices of lechery, gluttony, and alcoholism. But they are also essential to maintain Gypsy purity since they provide a sort of moral cleansing for polluted Gypsies. To see a priest is unlucky and dealings with them tend to be mediated by Gypsy women.

Ceremonies. Baptism, request for a bride/marriage, and burial are the three major life-cycle rituals, but only the first and last are celebrated in a church. At these rites the impurities associated with natural bodily processes of birth and death are unceremoniously disposed of onto the priest in order for the Gypsies to purify themselves. The priest's and the Gypsies' interpretation of the same ritual event are thus decidedly at odds. The main ceremonial form of Gypsy life is the mulatsago, in which men gather together, eat, drink, and then sing about the trials, tribulations, and joys of being one of the Gypsy brothers. These celebrations help create an integrated image of Gypsy society.

Arts. Individual Rom have established themselves as poets, painters, and dancers of international note. Most Rom pride themselves on their singing and dancing skills. Rom tend to sing in groups, each group singing a song chosen and particularly associated with one of their members. The songs normally are mournful laments. Traditionally, certain ballads were also sung by Rom but these are now hard to record in Hungary. Several records have spread the fame of Hungarian Rom singers. Gypsy dance is known among the wider family of eastern European dance types.

Medicine. Rom have their own cures for a number of minor ailments, especially ones that afflict children. Rom greatly fear treatment in non-Gypsy hospitals, which, because of their association with childbirth and death, are thought to be polluting and therefore unhealthy places. Rom tend to have more health problems than non-Gypsies, partly because Rom often do wage labor under difficult conditions.

Death and Afterlife. At death, a gradual process of separation of the living from the deceased begins. Until burial the soul or "dream" of the deceased remains nearby, attached to the body. A continual wake is held around the body, and at times when the soul is likely to be present (between midnight and dawn), favorite songs and tales of the deceased are performed. At burial the body is, in effect, handed over to the priest and the church for safekeeping, with the soul remaining in the Gypsies' care: a nice inversion of church ideology. For at least one year the soul may return to visit the living as a mulo (dead person/ghost). Gypsies pay for masses to be sung to complete the process of separation. Feasts for the deceased (pomana ) are held at anniversaries.


Kaminski, I. M. (1980). The State of Ambiguity: Studies of Gypsy Refugees. Anthropological Research, University of Gothenburg.

Kenedi, J. (1986). "Why Is the Gypsy the Scapegoat and Not the Jew?" East European Reporter 2:1.

Stewart, M. (1989). "True Speech: Song and the Moral Order of a Vlach Gypsy Community." Man, n.s. 24:79-102.

Stewart, M. (1990). "Gypsies, Work, and Civil Society." In Market Economy and Civil Society in Hungary, edited by J. Hann.

Tomka, M. (1984). "The Gypsy Craftsmen of Europe." Unesco Courier, October 1984 (special issue on the Gypsies).