The Romani — the Sinti, Manouche, Bohemians, Roma, Gitano, Gypsies — were a well-known presence in Europe during the Regency. They would have been a familiar sight, travelling the road or camping in woodlands, from Scotland to Hungary.
We meet them from time to time in Regency Romances, sheltering the runaway heroine in their wagons, being colorful as they dance around the campfire, or welcoming the hero, who owns the land they're allowed to camp on.
As a people, they originated in northern India. Educated Regency folks might well be aware of this. The idea would have been floating around scholarly circles.
The German scholar Grellmann published a ground-breaking linguistic study in 1783 that demonstrated similarities between the spoken language of the Romani and Sanskrit.
For those of you who do not have the information just at your fingertips, Sanskrit is an ancient language of India in which classical Indian epic poems, like the Rigveda, are written and from which many northern Indian languages are derived.
Modern genetic studies suggest the Roma originated from a single group in northwestern India. Rom living today are closely related throughout Europe. Over seventy percent of males belong to a single genetic lineage that is unique to the Rom.
They seem to have left India about 1500 years ago and spread both east and west. That's 500 CE more or less.
500 CE is the time of the fall of Rome, the old empire given its final push by invading Huns. The Huns stopped off to invade northern India on their way west, making this a good time for north Indian locals to get out of Dodge.
Whether the ancestors of the Rom were your average refugee peasants, defeated soldiers, or travelling groups of musicians and performers who were already itinerant in India … this is when the proto-Romani seem to have hit the road.
Basically. I would have left too.
What path did they take?
There are scattered references to "foreign" wandering groups in the Middle East between CE 500 and CE 1000. Some of these may well be the Romani people.
Going at the question linguistically, borrowed words and grammatical structures from Persian, Armenian, and Greek show up in modern Romany dialects across Europe. That's likely the path the Rom took from India.
Written records show them in Eastern Europe in the early C14.
… a 1378 law passed in the Greek Peloponnese confirming privileges for the "atsingani" is "the first documented record of Romany Gypsies in Europe". Similar documents record them reaching Transylvania in 1416; Hamburg in 1418; and Paris in 1427. A chronicler for a Parisian journal described them as dressed in a manner that the Parisians considered shabby, and reports that the Church had them leave town because they practiced palm reading and fortune telling.
(paraphrased from Wikipedia, but that's okay because I contribute money to them every year)
In Scotland, in April 1505, a payment of £20 is authorized from King James IV to the "King of Rowmais". And in 1530, a group of Romanies danced before the Scottish king at Holyrood Palace and a Romani herbalist called Baptista cured the king of an ailment.There's evidence of continual migration into Scotland by Romany through the 1500s and 1600s. Romani people in the south of Scotland enjoyed the protection of the Roslyn family and made an encampment within the Roslyn castle grounds.
And Gypsies in England?
"One of the earliest indicators of Gypsies in England appears in Thomas More's Dialogue concerning heresies, published in 1529. More refers back to the notorious scandal fifteen years earlier when the anti-clericalist Richard Hunne was found dead in the Lollards' Tower in London. Amid much speculation about how Hunne came to die, More introduces the character of a gentleman who claimed to know a neighbour who in turn knew a remarkable woman who was able to ‘tell many marvelous things…and therefore I think she could as well tell who killed Hunne as stole a horse’. The wise woman's insights evidently came from palmistry – the Gypsy style of fortune-telling – though one party to the dialogue suggests that her powers came from the devil. Though never identified by name, the fortune-teller was said to be ‘an Egyptian’, lodged at Lambeth, who had recently ‘gone over sea’ Most accounts of Gypsies in England cite this dialogue to mark 1514 as the foundational year of their presence."
Trouble with Gypsies in Early Modern England, David Cressy, The Historical Journal, 25 November 2015, pp. 45-70.
The arrival of the Roma in most countries of Europe was followed in short order by statues to control, imprison, evict, expel or execute them.
In 1530, Parliament, under Henry XVIII, passed the Egyptian Act:
"an outlandish people, calling themselves Egyptians, using no craft nor feat of merchandise, who have come into this realm, and gone from shire to shire, and place to place, in great company; and used great subtlety and crafty means to deceive the people–bearing them in hand that they, by palmistry, could tell men's and women's fortunes; and so, many times, by craft and subtlety, have deceived the people for their money; and also have committed many heinous felonies and robberies, to the great hurt and deceit of the people that they have come among….
"… the Egyptians now being in this realm, have monition to depart within sixteen days…. from henceforth no such person be suffered to come within this the King's realm and if they do, then they and every of them so doing, shall forfeit to the King our Sovereign Lord all their goods and titles and then to be commanded to avoid the realm within fifteen days under pain of imprisonment…."
And always, everywhere they went, the Romani would be subject to the general laws against vagabondage, begging, and just generally annoying the powers that be.
Fortunately, by the Regency period most laws on the books in Britain aimed at the Roma were poorly enforced. We have any amount of contemporary paintings that show Gypsies camping in the countryside. They're represented as romantic and exotic folk, maybe a bit raffish, but a familiar part of the English landscape.
So the Rom have a place in our Regency books.
The iconic, gaily painted, Romani wagons?
Not so much.
These are called vardos, the word originating from the Ossetic or Eastern Iranian word for cart, vurdon. Obviously one of the words the Rom picked up on their long wandering to the British Isles.
The lovely vardo would come late in the Regency period,if at all. The painted-wood, curved-top, live-in gypsy wagon evolved roughly between 1810 and 1830.
Dickens describes one in 1840
One half of it…was carpeted, and so partitioned off at the further end as to accommodate a sleeping-place, constructed after the fashion of a berth on board ship, which was shaded, like the windows, with fair white curtains… The other half served for a kitchen, and was fitted up with a stove whose small chimney passed through the roof. It also held a closet or larder, several chests, a great pitcher of water, and a few cooking-utensils and articles of crockery. These latter necessaries hung upon the walls, which in that portion of the establishment devoted to the lady of the caravan, were ornamented with such gayer and lighter decorations as a triangle and a couple of well-thumbed tambourines.'
In the Regency, near as I can tell, the Rom mostly travelled with their goods carried on pack horses or in a cart or wagon not much different from the ordinary farm carts of the era. These could be open carts like the ones in the frontispiece of Guy Mannering, above, or carts covered with canvas like the one in this Van Gogh painting to the right.
Some of the tents they slept in were set up with a pole in the middle and looked very much like the tents I slept in as a Girl Scout.
I want to go live in a vardo. I want to take it and my trusty horse and my dog and my cat and travel the highways and byways of the world.
Who's with me?