I am a big fan of fairytales. Cinderella, Snow White, and Aurora of Sleeping Beauty were childhood favorites of mine. When I was in high school, I started discovering the darker version of these stories. It was believed that these vulgar versions were the original storylines. It would be safe to say that Disney will never be the same to me again.
I recalled all this when thinking about how to write this blog topic on the real story of bohemians. If you read our first blog ‘What is Bohemian Style?’ you would probably be familiar with their story. However, we never had the chance to delve deeper into the truths and realities of these people.
The bohemian style is a beautiful aesthetic but behind the florals and colors, there are real narratives. Narratives that may not be as pretty as the bohemian symbolisms we see today. Just like fairytales, the bohemians’ story has its share of dark truths as well.
Before bohemian became a well-loved aesthetic and lifestyle, it was first considered a disparaging term. Bohemians were considered social outcasts in Europe around the 1600s.
Discrimination towards the bohemians
In the 1600s, gypsies were named bohemians because they were believed to have originated from Bohemia. Bohemia is believed to be in the west area of modern-day Czechoslovakia (Silesia in the north and Moravia in the east).
Others believe that these gypsies were mislabeled because they possibly came from the farther east areas of either Egypt or India. This theory was later strengthened by genomic analyses that found some northwest Indian semblance in these gypsies. Following this theory, it can be concluded that gypsies came from India and merely traveled through Bohemia to reach Europe.
When the gypsies arrived in Western Europe they acquired the reputation of being wandering traders and craftsmen. Then, the social hostility towards the gypsies may have been due to being outsiders in the area. Their social standing has also been a cause of discrimination especially because they were regarded lower than the dominant whites.
This low social standing, however, did not begin in Europe but is traced back to India. These gypsies were of the Hindu Dalit caste. The Dalit is a caste of people who were subjected to untouchability. Untouchable communities were considered social pollutants and were legally or customarily segregated from the “cleaner” population groups.
It would be safe to conclude that the gypsies were discriminated against both in foreign lands and in their home.
Where do the gypsies come from?
The gypsies were believed to have left India to flee from Islam. But it would also be safe to assume that it was because of social discrimination. Their migration to Europe is said to be around 1500 years ago. Starting by traveling to the Punjab region first and settling for some time there. They reached the Balkans around the 14th century. At some point, their journey brought them to Bohemia thus earning them the name bohemians.
This was not the only route, however. Some gypsies were believed to have migrated from Persia, via North Africa, reaching the southwest part of Europe, Iberia. They reached the Iberian Peninsula around the 15th century and later arrived in France.
The gypsies were often met with initial curiosity turned hostility during their journeys. Many gypsies were enslaved, imprisoned, subjected to forced labor, and even exterminated along the way. Now you may wonder, if this happened to the bohemians, why are they regarded “free people?”
What does free people mean?
The label “free people” may have originated from the unconventionality of the nomadic lifestyle. As the years go by, the term “bohemian” has taken a more romanticized description. This is probably the reason why the dark episodes of bohemian history are not common knowledge. A lot of people are more accustomed to the bohemian description of “living a vagabond and artistic life.”
The bending of the description dates back to the time of William Shakespeare in his play ‘The Winter’s Tale.” In the said play, he described Bohemia as a picturesque and peaceful place. While this slight inaccuracy is fairly harmless. The person who made more impact in changing the bohemian description was William Makepeace Thackeray. He celebrated what seemed to be the carefree and youthful aspects of a nomadic lifestyle. This metaphor has successfully swept the dark aspects of gypsy history under the rug.
This metaphor led to the further misrepresentation of gypsies. Soon gypsies were romanticized and pictured as the perfect examples as to why living a vagabond life is ideal. The public caught on better with this newer description of bohemian. As a result, today’s description takes a more generally artistic, and positive tone. Currently, the word bohemian in the Oxford Dictionary is defined as “A socially unconventional person, especially one who is involved in the arts.”
What is modern bohemian?
Forward to today, bohemian is more popularly linked to fashion and is accepted as an aesthetic category as well. Boho chic, modern hippie, and the music festival look are only some of the bohemian’s fashion influences seen today. As long as adapting the bohemian style or aesthetic is done within the intention of appreciation, I’d like to believe that there is no harm done.
It would be better to spend some time understanding the whole history of the gypsies to be more sensitive in the process. To be informed is the best way to avoid unintentional mockery and offense to the origins of the culture.