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“Gypsy World” by Patrick Williams


In Patrick Williams’ work entitled, Gypsy World: The Silence of the Living and the Voices of the Dead, he was able to show how the Manus Gypsies of France navigate a hostile world. At first it seems that his anthropological study was focused on describing their traditions when it comes to their dead but a closer analysis of the book will reveal that Williams was simply using the framework of how Manus deal with their dead loves ones and relatives as a means to understand how they deal with the outside world. Williams asserted that the Manus Gypsies tried to distance themselves from outsiders while at the same time maintaining their silence, by ignoring non-gypsies, the Manus were able to establish their identity.

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The mention of the term Gypsies evokes an image of a wanderer, a traveler, a nomad, a fortuneteller. It is a person who has no permanent home, no permanent occupation, unskilled and illiterate. The common idea is that they survive by doing odd jobs. A harsher assessment is that they are a bunch of thieves and lowlifes bent on becoming parasites to society. There are even those who contend that they have no value in terms of nation building; they are lazy, does not pay taxes and summing it all together it is no wonder why they are persecuted. Thus, forced by opportunity and hardships to wander, moving from place to place.

Yet an anthropological research on the Gypsies will reveal that the aforementioned description is without basis, the result of ignorance and assumption. But there is more, based on the commentary of Williams, the Gypsies are partially responsible for this kind of negative view, simply because their traditions and rituals forces them to dissociate with non-Gypsies while at the same time force them to be silent about their culture. In revealing nothing and seeing no incentive in explaining themselves to outsiders, Gypsies will always be viewed with suspicion, with caution. For the most part of their existence they are viewed as mysterious – evoking fear and curiosity.

In a similar study conducted by the researcher was able to provide a general description of the challenges faced by Gypsies and he wrote that they faced the following problems:

…poor sanitary conditions, deriving form lack of basic facilities, such as hot and cold water … electricity, refuse removal and prevalence of rodents; inconvenient locations for acess to shops, education, medical care, and other services; and proximity to sources of air/or sound pollution, in the for, for instance, of main roads, dual carriageways, motorways, airbases, factories, refineries, power stations, chemical plants … Some were on wasteland, some marshland (Levinson, p. 7).

The Gypsies are scattered all over Europe but aside from challenges faced in the realm of healthcare and education, these modern day nomads are also feeling the pressure from governments intent on limiting their movement (James, p. 367). Patrick Williams is well aware of the Gypsy world particularly when it comes to the hardships they had to face on a daily basis just so they can survive and maintain a way of life that existed for centuries. Williams could have gone the usual route of describing the nomadic lifestyle of the Gypsies and provide yet another commentary on their eccentricities but he transcended these stereotypes and was able to discover a wealth of information that will allow many to see Gypsies in a new light.

The Dead among the Living

Williams believed that there is no easy way to penetrate the world of the Gypsies and yet through his persistence he was able to have an insight into this amazing community; he therefore proposed that they can only be understood in the context of:

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  1. The dead among the living – how the Gypsies behave in relation to their dead loved ones and relatives; and
  2. The Manus among the Gadzos – how the Gypsies behave in relation to the broader society.

Beginning with the first assertion, Williams pointed out that when a Manus Gypsy dies, his or her family adheres to a strict code pertaining to wealth and belongings of the deceased. Williams discovered that with regards to the material wealth left behind by the dead, nothing should be kept. There are different types of activities that can be used to dispose of the objects linked to the deceased and these are listed as follows:

  • Burning the valuables;
  • Selling jewelry and other valuables;
  • Valuables are given away before death;
  • Buried with the dead;
  • Sold and proceeds used to pay for funeral or decorate graves;
  • Destruction by other means; and
  • Keeping the items to be used for ordinary purposes without markings or any means to distinguish it as belonging to the deceased.
A dead Gypsy
Fig. 1. A dead Gypsy was buried together with appliances, furniture, and presumably with some of his favorite items and his favorite wines/liquor (Source: Gypsy Grave, WordPress Blog).

The goal is to eliminate any trace of the departed person. Secondly, the destruction of the valuables by setting it in flames e.g. trailers and cars are burned like a funeral pyre is one way of ensuring that the deceased person’s material possession will never be used in a manner that will bring dishonor or disrespect to the original owner. While burning these items will ensure that the living did everything they can to show respect, sometimes it is not practical to obliterate every material object through burning.

There are times when funds are low and instead of burning every valuable item connected to the deceased person, it is better to sell these items and then use the money to pay for the funeral. Sometimes, the funds generated from the sale are used to decorate the grave and if there are valuables not sold or burned, these things can be buried with the deceased person. There are also times when a poor Gypsy family will benefit from the use of a trailer or a truck left behind by the dead husband.

Thus, it is acceptable to keep some items to be used as an ordinary object that in turn will help a struggling family. But there conditions for keeping or selling the items. In case of sale, the seller must not profit exceedingly from the transaction and that the Gypsy can only sell the said items to a non-Gypsy. If valuable items such as a knife or guitar will be spared from the bonfire then it must be treated as ordinary objects without special markings that will designate it as belonging to the departed.

Taken together the whole exercise is geared towards showing respect while at the same time eliminating any evidence that the departed once dwelt among the living. This silence and the effort exerted to eliminate all traces of the departed are difficult to understand. Williams did not elaborate much on the rationale behind such actions. It was enough for Williams to describe how they behave toward their dead and it seems that he is overly anxious to get into the second part of the book which describes the parallelism between the ways the Manus treat their dead, with the ways they interact with the outside world.

In the World of the Gadzos

By ignoring the dead, by not talking about them and by destroying or parting away with objects associated with them, the Manus of France intensify their absence made it plain and simple for them to grasp that their dearly beloved already passed away. In the context of their relation to the Gadzos or the non-Gypsies, the Manus gave the silent treatment and refuses to interact with them using the rules of interaction acceptable to the Gadzos such as sending their children to school, politics, involvement in social issues etc. The Gadzos wanted the Manus to integrate into society but the Manus refused to do so and in so doing preserve their way of life.

By refusing to integrate into the world of the non-Gypsies the Manus were able to carve a place they can call their very own. Their inability to communicate using acceptable terms creates friction between the two groups but for the Manus this is the way to ensure that they will not get swallowed up by the system and suffer the fate of those who were willing to assimilate into the world of the Gadzo. In so doing they make their presence known but not without provoking the Gadzo to label them as eccentric, lazy, and useless in terms of helping the nation become a much better place for all the citizens. The Manus Gypsies will not be easily swayed to change their rituals, traditions, and beliefs. They are so confident that their way of life can benefit many.

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The Manus Gypsies of France are a minority group that is difficult to study. A typical anthropological examiner doing research work on these people will reveal the fact that there is very little that can be derived from this people for they are always on the go, without access to facilities that would have help outsiders describe their way of life. But the Manus of France are living off the grid so to speak and they do not engage in meaningful and long-term relationships with someone from the outside world.

As a result the Manus Gypsies are often viewed with suspicion. There are also many negative connotations when one describes this community. But according to Williams the Gypsies will continue to behave as if Gadzos are not in the same region. They will continue to behave as if Gadzos are not there. They will ignore the Gadzos and do everything to ensure that they become invisible, in the same way that they are doing everything in their power to erase every trace of the dearly departed.

When someone in the family dies, they will discard of ever physical object that would remind them of the dead. After disposing of all material things by burning, selling or mixing with other stuff in the home, the Manus will refuse to speak about the deceased. In so doing they create an atmosphere wherein the dead are treated with utmost respect. But there is a need for more research to clarify the reasons behind such bizarre actions. Williams pointed out that these actions were accomplished to show respect but there seems to be another reason for doing so.

It seems that the Manus are superstitious and that they not only respect the dead but they fear the unknown and everything associated with death. Therefore their silence can be a means of protecting themselves from the possibility of disturbing the dead through the interaction with the things owned by deceased person. Thus, it makes sense for them to burn these items or to sell the same. If this is true then there is a need to reinterpret the way Williams see the “silent treatment” used by the Gypsies to interact with Gadzos. If it is due to sheer terror that they refuse to talk about the dead then their refusal to interact with the Gadzos can also be attributed to the same fear and not because they are so proud of their culture and traditions, as Williams suggested in his book.

Works Cited

Gypsy Roma Traveller. “Gypsy and Traveller Culture and History – the Myths and the Truth.” Web.

James, Zoe. Policing Marginal Spaces: Controlling Gypsies and Travellers. 2007 Sage Publications. Criminology and Criminal Justice 7(4): 367-386.

Levinson, Martin. Literary in English Gypsy Communities: Cultural Capital Manifested as Negative Assets. 2007 Sage Publications American Educational Research Journal 44(1): 5-35.

Life, Hacks, Internet. “Gypsy Grave.” Web.

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