Who are Gypsies? Hunters, entertainers, potters, horse traders or knife sharpeners? There has been intense stereotyping about Gypsies’ lives over the years.
Fortunately, Jan Yoors, an outsider from Belgium lived with these people long enough to confirm or reject the stereotypes. Born in Belgium, Jan Yoors ran away from his family at the age of twelve and stayed with the Gypsies for six years before returning home at the age of eighteen. His father then allowed him to spend time with the Gypsies once a year thereafter. As a member of a wandering band, Kumpania, which was part of the Gypsies, Jan Yoors stands the best chance to confirm or discard some of the claims that have been made about the Gypsies by many writers.
There are many reasons that underlie the low position that the Gypsies occupied in the mainstream society. They did not have concrete religion and most of them led nomadic lifestyles. Moreover, the Gypsies had different body features and stature. All these factors set them apart, making them to stand out in a crowd and this may have contributed to their segregation and stereotyping.
One of the stereotypes is that the Gypsies were lonely and gloomy. According to Bellman, “If the author needs loneliness and gloom, this is what the Gypsies represent” (76). This is not true. According to Yoors, these people were friendly, social, and hospitable. “We all sat merrily together. The suggestive scratching had ceased and there were no Gaje left among us. Not suspecting the ruse, they had fled before the implications of vermin” (Yoors 26).
How would lonely and gloomy people sit together and exchange pleasantries as indicated in the above excerpt? Jan Yoors comes out clearly to point out that these people were friendly contrary to what many writers have tried to imply. It is a common phenomenon that the minority groups in society are in most cases overlooked. The mainstream society does not take time to study and understand the values and principles of these minority groups. Consequently, a lot of misinformation abides and as new generations come and go, the misconstrued information becomes a fact. This is the case with the Gypsies; however, credit goes to Jan Yoors for relating his own experience with these people. Another stereotype is that the Gypsies were criminals and immoral. For instance, in his work, Bellman says, “If a threatening criminal class is called for, particularly where theft is concerned, the Gypsies can always serve; if one simply needs a group of wonderers, the Gypsies come immediately to mind.
They also do yeoman’s duty, as the personification of sexual infidelity; particularly, in cases where circumstances have led one’s characters into temptation” (76). In this case, Jan Yoors approves these allegations of immorality and refutes them. For instance, in a move that refutes the claims of sexual immorality, Yoors notes, “The following morning, after the display of the bridal bed linen, the mother-in-law assisted the bride in knotting her kerchief after the fashion of the married women” (75). Again, Yoors points out that, “Malicious gossip would have it that so and so had taken a pigeon along on her bridal night; for it was necessary that there should be blood for all to see as proof of virginity” (39). In these two cases, Jan Yoors indicates that there had to be a proof of virginity when a man slept with his wife for the first time. There had to a ‘bridal bed linen’ that had to be stained with blood the following morning to prove that the woman was a virgin. This fact eliminates the possibility of sexual immorality. In early days, it was a common dream of every young girl to get married.
Therefore, it would be expected that every girl would conserve her virginity until marriage not to fail the ‘virginity test’ the morning after marriage. Therefore, sexual immorality was not as ripe amongst the Gypsies as Bellman and others would want to put it. However, on another occasion Yoors seems to support the issue of sexual immorality among the Gypsies. “There was a slight fullness in the way the ample faded lilac skirt and the low cut yellow blouse were draped around the well rounded but still slender shape of her young body, which I had never noticed before. Somehow, it was the first time I had ever paid any attention to her at all, even though we lived side by side in the same kumpania. In her colorful if ragged and faded dress she struck me incongruously as a tender Gypsy Madonna, as seen in a dream” (Yoors 65). He also adds, “once in a while I looked in our compartment, finding it hard to resist staring at sweet little Mozol” (66).
The woman in this excerpt seems to be seducing Jan Yoors who also confesses that he could not resist the temptation of ogling. Even though this does not indicate direct sexual immorality, these events precede sexual immorality. Finally, there has been the stereotype that the Gypsies were violent, uncivilized and criminals. Polansky points out that, “the gypsies therefore were regarded as rude, wild, and dangerous strangers” (para. 9). From Jan Yoors book, The Gypsies, these allegations are true. “They were going to enact a scene of abduction. For, even though the parents had agreed upon the marriage and paid the bridal price and the union had been celebrated with a festive meal, the bride still had to surrender to her new husband.
…when we approached the spot, we witnessed a wild fight that nobody could have anticipated. In the half-dark a handful of young men were trying to disentangle three youths fighting in a blind frenzy. We were told that Tsinoro’s son had half heartedly pretended to abduct the bride, who appeared more willing to go than was proper for a virgin. She had sighed to convey alarm, but those present claimed it was almost a sigh of pleasure. Upon which her younger brother; Fonso, took offence…” (Yoors 69).
These are violent behaviors. Despite the fact that parents had agreed bridal price and settled everything, they had to abduct the bride. A short distance from where Jan Yoors and his friends were standing, a fight had broken out following a foiled abduction. These acts portray primitivism that permeated the Gypsies lifestyles for a long time.
The Gypsy life has long been stereotyped. Some of these stereotypes are true while others are not. Jan Yoors, having spent enough time with these people confirms this. It is clear that the Gypsies were not gloomy and lonely as many writers depicted them to be.
They would marry and socialize and this eliminates the myth of loneliness and gloominess. Moreover, these people were great musicians, a profession that cannot be occupied by lonely and gloomy hearts. Concerning immorality, one would conclude that it was unacceptable before marriage but thereafter people would tolerate it to some extent based on Jan Yoors accounts.
Finally, the claims that the Gypsies were violent are true. The way they would get their brides depicts sheer violence and primitivism. Therefore, Jan Yoors finds some of the stereotypes as true while others as false. His work is amazing as it gives new insight into the life of Gypsies without bias.
His is a true story based on experience not fiction.
Bellman, Jonathan. “Stereotypes: The Gypsies in Literature and Popular Culture”. The Style Hongrois in the Music of Western Europe. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993. Polansky, Paul.
“Original Research on Gypsies”. 2006. Web. 1 Feb. 2010.http://www.
paulpolansky.nstemp.com/gypsies.htm Yoors, Jan.
“The Gypsies.” Waveland Press, 1967.