Romanian Historians Owe Us a Different Telling of the Past

It takes political will, books on slave-owning societies and exhibitions to heal the wounds still traumatizing the present.

Translation by Anca Bărbulescu

Historian Petre Petcuț is the author of Romii. Sclavie și libertate (The Roma. Slavery and Freedom). He is a university professor in France and has focused his research on Roma history as early as his student years, when he analyzed the prices of enslaved Roma based on archive documents, and converted them into silver and money based on current value. He wrote this essay because, he says: “I write for those who want to read, to know, to learn. I write a different kind of history, an unwanted one that hasn’t yet found the place it deserves in the universe of those who preserve the memory of the past.”

This essay is part of a project called The Way of the Land, a journalistic initiative documenting the impact of 500 years of Roma slavery on relationships between Romanians and Roma today.

Roma slavery is generally considered an interesting, even conflictive subject, because it associates two terms that violently shake any debate and lead to drastic polarization. The first term, sclav, -ie,“slave, -ry” is denied by historians and other intellectuals due to the strong image it evokes, which is believed to bring dishonor to the Romanian people.  They prefer to use the old Romanian synonym, rob, -ie, which has two main meanings: that of “servant of God” and that of “slave”. [Editor’s note: in Romanian, the term robie (“bondage) while a synonym for “slavery” doesn’t connote the idea of holding persons as propriety or the violence associated with it, as its often used to refer to mostly economic dependency on rulers or the rich.]

The second term, “Roma” (even more so when the word ț*gan / g*psy is used instead of rom) generates instant mistrust and contempt – a consequence of the five centuries of violent social division. This is often expressed through the question: “Are you interested in the subject because you are Roma?”

For these two reasons, Roma slavery is a foreign body in Romanian historiography as written by local historians, and the Roma are seen both as inferior and as outsiders among Romanians. At first ignored, this alterity became disturbing as the economic and social nearness of former enslaved Roma started to threaten the social status quo.

A century ago, it was unimaginable to have a village without a blacksmith or a wedding without lăutari musicians; the brickmakers by the river did a day’s work for cheap and were good at making bricks for the house of the newlyweds – examples of “integration” through work can continue well into the present. But being useful to society and being wanted by it, being a part of it, are not the same thing. You can be useful and, at the same time, doomed to always remain at the outskirts.

After hundreds of years in which the enslaved, namely the G*psy, had been a sort of aide to human society, their entry into it did not take place at the request of the peasant masses or even of their masters, but was rather the idea of a number of intellectuals, schooled in the capitals of Europe and increasingly detached from local values.

When, in the mid-19th century, these intellectuals decreed the equality of enslaved Roma with Romanians, the level of understanding and acceptance of the reform varied between individuals – for most peasants and boyars, yesterday’s slave was the same as today’s G*psy. If we examine other examples in history, such as racial segregation in the US or South Africa, it is easy to understand that Romanian society, which was in the middle of building its national identity and modernizing its institutions, lacked the will and the level of development needed to integrate former enslaved people.

In a healthy society, social development is achieved by improving the living conditions of each citizen and helping them become economically self-sufficient and reach their full human potential. In post-slavery Romania, both peasants and emancipated former slaves worked for the wealth of landowners and the consolidation of the State, to the detriment of their own livelihood.

If slavery created a deep rupture, the continued post-emancipation association of G*psies (Roma) with everything worthy of rejection and contempt, at times mingled with pity and curiosity, turned the social divide into an inter-ethnic one. We do not need to search too far to observe this in history, regardless of the century we focus on; it is experienced even at present, in relationships with schoolmates or work colleagues.

The portrait of a Roma sculpted on the inside walls of a well at Cozia Monastery. Image from The Roma. Slavery and Freedom, a book by Petre Petcuț.

This is not some distant concept, but rather a reality I encountered in my fourth year of university, at a conference at the Archive Studies Faculty in Bucharest. The subject of my presentation,  Evoluția prețurilor robilor țigani din Țara Românească între anii 1593–1653 (The Evolution of Prices for Gypsy Slaves in Wallachia Between 1593 and 1653), sparked discussion on my ethnic identity. A colleague, shaken by the racist comments, later told me about the observations of that part of the audience. I did not pay any special attention to the episode, but today I understand that, without a determined plan for changing mentalities among young students, universities in Romania train future opinion-makers who are incapable of overcoming the dated structural limitations of Romanian society.

The change around the half of the 19th century reached the Romanian Principalities on the wings of the Western European revolutionary impetus. Today’s intellectuals, much like those of yesterday, learn, imitate and adapt innovations from the Western French-Anglo-Saxon states. This is not a critique and certainly not meant to diminish anyone – originality is a rare thing even among inventors. We are all the product of globalization and use other people’s reflections and accomplishments in our own endeavors. It is the shortest road to what we set out to do. It is the easiest option when you don’t want to lag in the back of your generation.

Except one shouldn’t take sides and keep one foot in the past, attempting to put a new patch on an old coat. Renewal is more than mere imitation; it involves adopting a new way of thinking. This is what allowed the members of the 1848 movement to aspire to the same ideals, whether they were in Paris, Vienna, or Bucharest and to proclaim, a few years later, the abolishment of slavery in the Principalities, before the American abolitionists and without a civil war.

This brings me back to the question I have been asked repeatedly, which can also be interpreted as an affirmation: Why are you interested in Roma history? Are you a Roma yourself? In other words: Aren’t you by any chance a G*psy hidden under an intellectual mask? A slave who stole his owners’ clothes? An identity usurper? Fortunately, since current law defends us, that history ends here.

But where is the way out of this impasse reminiscent of long-gone times? The door leading to the light is the same as the one in the past. I can overcome my limitations by examining what others do. The mirror must be replaced with the horizon. It would be pointless to quote myself in my own writings and believe in their uniqueness, value and pertinence.

Romanian historians owe a revolution to the intellectuals in 1848. Not a geopolitical revolution – Europe has already accepted us within its body. They owe them a different kind of telling of the past, one that would crush the fetters made of words which, intended to contain former slaves, have ended up holding down the owners.

There are enough examples. In North American and Western Europe, following pressure from the civil and academic society, political will is manifested, volumes are published on slave-owning societies, exhibitions are hosted by museums, and many other such initiatives are undertaken to heal the wounds of the past that continue to traumatize the present. Since technology has rendered distance irrelevant, and the number of Romanian students in Paris is higher than ever, what is still holding back change? Can Romanian society, from its leaders to the general population, release itself from the stains of the past?

This essay was also published in print in DoR #46, as part of a series curated by Margareta (Magda) Matache, the director of the Roma Program at Harvard and a Roma rights activist. Because healing the wounds of the past has to start with recognition and reconciliation.