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The Gypsy Court in Eastern Europe


The Gypsy court is one of the central and most elaborated subjects in Romani studies.
Its nature and origin have been widely discussed. The article presents, for the first time,
rich comparative material on Gypsy courts gathered from Gypsy groups in Central,
South-Eastern, and Eastern Europe. The data form the basis of a description of the
main characteristics and types of Gypsy courts, dispelling, in the process, some scien-
tific myths and erroneous assertions made on them.
Keywords: court, kris, slavery, New Vlax, Old Vlax, marriage, justice, Gypsy law

The Gypsy court is an important feature in the lives of many Gypsy/Roma

groups in Central, Eastern, and South-Eastern Europe. We do not use the term
‘Gypsies’ in the sense of different traveling communities, but in the way it is
understood in these regions, namely, as a designation for an ethnic population
(among the terms used in these regions are Cigáni, Cikáni, Cigányok, Цигани,
and Цыгане) which migrated from India to Europe about 1,000 years ago.
Most of the data used in this article represent participant observations
collected over a period of more than thirty years and oral testimonies from
participants in Gypsy courts in the region. This statement is necessary because
there have been many attempts at analyzing the Gypsy Court based on
‘accounts . . . given by ethnographers who have concentrated just on the group
with which they happened to be doing fieldwork, treating that as typical, and
explaining other accounts derived from other groups as variants of their own’
(Acton 2003: 640). Worse, in other cases they are just loose interpretations of
random and even unreliable information, including some provided by Roma
intellectuals from Gypsy groups unfamiliar with this phenomenon. It is our
firm belief that scholars should interpret phenomena and formulate theories in
ethnology only after collecting a large amount of original material. In order to
avoid misinterpretations, any secondary sources of information and material
collected by colleagues should be used only after these sources have been veri-
fied against their own field observations. We agree with Thomas Acton (Acton
2003: 639) that to ‘make a general theory of the variations in the administration
of justice’ among all Gypsy groups (Roma and non-Roma world-wide) ‘gather-

Elena Marushiakova and Vesselin Popov are members of the editorial board of Romani Stud-
ies and Associate Professors at the Institute of Ethnography and Museum of the Bulgarian
Academy of Sciences. Correspondence address: kv. Emil Markov, bl. 110, vh. G, ap. 64, Sofia
1404, Bulgaria. Email:
Romani Studies 5, Vol. 17, No. 1 (2007), 67–101  issn 1528–0748
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ing the necessary empirical data is beyond the capacity of any one scholar.’ This
is why we concentrate here on the Gypsy court in the groups in the regions of
Central, Eastern, and South-Eastern Europe.

1.  Designations used for the Gypsy Court, its members, and its decisions
Gypsy courts appear in a number of varied Gypsy groups which live in the
areas mentioned earlier; different terms are therefore used by the various Gypsy
groups to refer to Gypsy courts. The most common designation is kris (Romanes,
meaning ‘court’); sometimes, in Slovakia for example, we see the form krísi. The
term popular in academic literature and fiction, Romani Kris, is actually a cre-
ation of researchers and contemporary Roma intelligentsia; it is hardly used by
Gypsies. Gypsies add Romanes only when addressing outsiders, which could
be Gypsies from other groups. Ordinary Gypsies (in contrast with activists)
usually do not use kris to refer to the court in general, preferring the terms used
in the majority languages, so the specification ‘Romani’ is not necessary.
The designation kris is characteristic mainly for Gypsy groups of the Kel-
derari (Kăldărari, Kalderaš, and so on) and the Lovari/Lovara in Eastern and
Central Europe (as well as in many other countries in the world). The Kelderari
and the Lovari nowadays live in Rumania (mainly in Transylvania), Hungary,
Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, in the countries of the former USSR
(mainly in Russia, the Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, and Lithuania), and in the
countries of the former Yugoslavia (more specifically, in Serbia, as well as some
Lovari kins in Croatia). The term kris is also used by their closely related groups
or separated (more or less) subgroup divisions, for instance Čurari (who live in
Rumania and the Republic of Moldova as well), Posotari, Kherari, Khangljari,
Colari, Drizari, Mašari, Cerhara, and others in Hungary, as well as Bougešti,
Drizari, and others in Slovakia and the Czech Republic (who, in academic lit-
erature, are usually referred to collectively as ‘Lovari’). In the last few decades
some of these groups (mainly from former Yugoslavia) migrated to different
countries of Western Europe, such as the Kalderaš to Austria and the Lovari
and Khajnjara to Italy.
1.  Perhaps that is why in Slovakia and the Czech Republic the form Romano Kris (masculine)
can often be heard when the conversation is not only in Czech or Slovak, but also in Romanes,
which probably reflects the influence of Czech and Slovak, in which the noun ‘court’ is masculine.
Similarly, in the Balkans one can hear (or even read in Roma publications) romano [sic] čhib
for the Romani language, which is also a new combination, created under the influence of the
neighbouring languages.
2.  During our fieldwork with the Bougešti in Slovakia, they firmly stated that they are close to
the Lovari, but different. Recently, a young Bougešti woman in Prague explained to us that she
learned that she herself is Lovari only during her Romani studies under Milena Hübschman-
nová. Similarly, all Romani-speaking activists in Hungary claim to be Lovari in spite of the fact
that their groups do not use this term.
the gypsy court in eastern europe 69

Other designations for Gypsy Courts among the different Gypsy groups in
the region are common. In Bulgaria, the segmented community referred to with
the common, generalizing terms Kardaraši/Kaldaraši uses the terms mešere,
mešare, and mešarjava; more rarely, the terms žudikate (from Rumanian) or
dalavjara are used in north-eastern Bulgaria. In closely related communities,
frequently called Lâješi or Čori (and the self-appellation ‘Rrom Ciganjak’) in
the Rumanian region of Dobrudzha, the term žudikate is used. The same term
žudikate is also used by a segmented community known in the Republic of
Moldova under the general name Lejaši, called Katunarja in Bessarabia and
in southern Moldova, in northern Moldova (the region of Soroki) Čokenarja/
Čukonarja, and in Russia and the Ukraine—after moving there—Kišinjovci.
The self-appellation in all cases is Rrom Ciganjak (‘the true, proper, Gypsies’)
which is met among a number of Gypsy groups in Rumania as well—not only
in Wallachia and Moldova, but sometimes even in Transylvania.
In a number of different Gypsy groups in an area that nowadays comprises
Rumania, and which use Gypsy courts (for example Kortorari, Kazandži,
Džambaša, Zlatara, Aržentari, Korbeni, Modorani, and Tismanari), usually
called Pletoši or Lâješi both designations, žudikatе and kris, are used together.
Along with this, a certain territorial division exists when using these two
terms; in Wallachia and Moldova, žudikate is the more common, in Transyl-
vania (even among the same groups) the situation is exactly the opposite: the
usage of the term kris prevailed. Sometimes the term divano is met, used as a
second or third term in different groups, as well as the term stabor (probably
of Slavic origin). The latter is used in some groups, such as Kortorari from
Rumanian Moldova (region of Botoșani), only to refer to the judges taking
part in the kris. In other cases, in some places in Transylvania, for example,
the term stabor is used in the more general sense of ‘community meeting’
(Bobu 2002: 76, 78).
The situation in the countries in the former USSR is different. There, kris is
used only by Kelderari and Lovari, while žudikatе is used only by Kišinjovci.
The term most commonly used by the Ruska Roma, a group which is widely
spread throughout the former Soviet Union, is sendo/syndo (from Polish) or,
more recently, sudo (from Russian). The same terms are used by Servi in the
Ukraine and Russia and by the Vlaxi and Plaščuni in southern Russia and the
eastern Ukraine. Today, among various Gypsy groups that settled in the coun-
tries of the former Soviet Union, the terms syndo/sudo, sxodka, and razborka
are gaining ground.

3.  According to some linguists (Lev Cherenkov, Victor Friedman) the word could be of Arabic
or Persian origin and entered into Romanes via Turkish (pers. comm.).
4.  The terms sxodka ‘gathering’ and razborka ‘conflict resolution’ stem from the so-called vorov­
skii yazyk, Russian criminal jargon, the secret language of thieves.
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There are also rarer designations for the Gypsy Court. Among the Ursari in
Moldova the term used is globa (‘penalty’). The Krimurja, who migrated from
the Balkans in eighteenth century to the Crimea and are today live throughout
the Ukraine and Russia, use the designation davija (‘lawsuit’, of Turco–Arabic
origin). Some Roma groups in Kosovo (e.g. Gurbeti, Maljoko) use the word
plečnija (from Albanian).
As to the court members, a number of terms are used to refer to them, such
as krisnitori/krisitori (Yugoslavia); krisinatori (Transylvania), krísiňake Rom
(Slovakia), mešarjavadži, žudikatori/žudikatorja; syndari; plečinari/plečnari/
plešnjarja; stabor; and davijadžis. However, no separate terms exist for refer-
ring to individual members of the court, as there is no separation in their
functions. In most cases, one court member has to announce the decision of
the court members to all people present. Usually this right is given to the most
experienced person, but there is no term for this position (though sometimes
Šefo, Predsedniko, Generalis, o Baro, and Angluno Rom could be heard).
Some groups also have special terms for court decisions. Among the Ursari
in Moldova the term coincides with the general notion for the court, globa
(‘penalty’). The word štrafo, which has the same meaning (‘penalty’ from Ger-
man Strafe), is used partly by some Kalderaš from former Yugoslavia who now
live in Western Europe. Some subgroups of the Bulgarian Kardaraši use the
term kazna (‘punishment’, from Slavic).

1.1  A scientific mystification

When we speak about the Gypsy court, we should pay attention to a scientific
speculation —mystification, rather—that has appeared in the last few years.
This concerns the so-called institution of Baro Šero, which, according to
T. Acton, can be observed among the ‘Baltic Roma, such as Polska, Xaladitka
and Ruska Roma’ [sic] (Acton 2003: 647). Under the heading of ‘Baltic Roma’,
Acton includes the related groups Polska and Ruska/Xaladitka Roma, who speak
similar dialects but are in fact two endogamic communities which have long
been separated. The institution Šero Rom (which is only very rarely called Baro
Šero) among Polska Roma has often been described in the literature (Ficowski
1981: 15–25, 1985: 175–98; Kowarska 2005: 27–43), but in the numerous descrip-
tions of Ruska Roma no one has ever mentioned the presence of a similar

5.  In Albanian, the nouns are pleç ‘elders’ (pl.), plak ‘elder’ (sg.), and pleqnia ‘council of Elders’.
Though Albanian terms are used, among Gypsies this institution has the form of and functions
like a Gypsy court and differs from Albanian Councils of Elders. Here we should mention that
we disagree with Piasere’s (1983: 17) position that it is borrowed by the Albanians who they have
been in contact with for many years. Formal similarities can be found between Gypsy courts
and the justice systems of many different stateless people and/or local communities all over the
the world. On the Albanian Council of Elders, see Baxhaku and Kaser 1996: 207–15 and Durham
1909: ch. 2)
the gypsy court in eastern europe 71

institution. On the other hand, in Soviet fiction and cinema (for instance in
the film Last Tabor from the 1930s), in many newspaper and magazine articles,
and especially in the past few years in Russia, the myth of the so-called ‘Gypsy
barons’ has been circulated widely. Sometimes these mystifications are fed to
journalists by the Gypsies themselves. In our example here, Acton bases his
findings on data from one (!) informant, an emigrant in Great Britain (Acton
2003: 647). However, in Acton’s informant’s own book (Kalinin 2005) there
is not a single reference to Baro Šero, nor did we find any allusion to such an
institution during our fieldwork with the Ruska/Xaladitka Roma, although we
collected alot of material (oral histories and personal observations) on sendo/
syndo/sudo (Gypsy court), and so we can safely ignore this fictional, non-exist-
ent, institution of Gypsy justice.

2.  Gypsy groups with and Gypsy groups without a Gypsy Court
Notwithstanding the wide distribution of the Gypsy Court among different
groups in Central and Eastern Europe, there are many other Gypsy groups
in these regions that do not have such an institution and have no memory of
anything like it. Roughly speaking—because it is difficult to get firm figures on
the total number of Gypsies in the region—two to three times as many Gypsies
unfamiliar with Gypsy Courts than those who do know them. This proportion
covers the whole region; it is different in different states and smaller regions.
For instance, in the Balkans, in the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, only 5–10 per
cent of the Gypsy population have a Gypsy Court; in Rumania and Hungary
it is between a quarter and a third; in the countries that formed part of the
USSR, practically all Gypsy communities have a Gypsy Court—exceptions
in this latter category are the Hungarian-speaking Madjari in Transcarpatia
(annexed by USSR after the World War II), the Armenian-speaking Boša/Poša
(who call themselves Lomavtik) in the Transcaucasus, and the Tadjik- speaking
Ljuli/Džugi (who call themselves Mug’at) in Central Asia.
There is no need to describe the Gypsy communities in Central, Eastern, and
South-Eastern Europe who do not know Gypsy Courts. It is more important to
see if there is anything that distinguishes the communities that do know Gypsy
Courts from those that do not and have no recollections of them.
The first factor that may distinguish Gypsy groups is their way of life—
nomadic (or semi-nomadic) or permanently settled. All Gypsy groups who

6.  We should note that the stereotype about the Gypsy Barons is also found in films made by the
Gypsies themselves. Examples are the blockbusters of the producer, director, and actor Dufunya
Vishnevskii—I am guilty (1993) and I am guilty II (2000). The latest movie in this regards is a
popular comedy, The rabbit over the precipice (2005), in which the ‘Baron of the Gypsies of all
Bessarabia’ acts as a matchmaker between Leonid Brezhnev and Queen Elisabeth II.
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do not know the Gypsy Court are permanently settled (or have been for at
least several centuries, if not from the time when they entered these lands). On
the whole, in Central, South-Eastern, and Eastern Europe, the Gypsy Court
appears in Gypsy groups that were service nomads in the past and led an
active nomadic way of life up until the 1950s and 1960s. These communities,
whether or not settled at present, have preserved their mobility in its different
dimensions (territorial, trans-border, in the sphere of economical activity, and
so on) as an important characteristic of their way of life.
However, there are other cases of Gypsy groups in which the Gypsy court
does not exist. These are groups that were not only nomads in the past, but
continue to lead active travelling lives and still adhere to the traditional forms
of service nomadism (or adapt to its more or less modern forms). Gypsy
groups such as the Burgudži (who also call themselves Parpuli—from Parpul
Roma ‘true, proper, Roma’), who live mainly in the north-east of Bulgaria; the
so-called Thracian Kalajdži (self-appellation ‘Vlaxurja’), who live in the south-
east of Bulgaria and the Thracian plain; the Rumanian-speaking Rudari/Ludari
(or Lingurari) in Dobrudzha, Bessarabia, Wallachia, and Moldova in Rumania,
and in the Republic of Moldova; the Kalajdži in western Rodopes; several
groups of Košničari in Bulgaria; and separate groups of the so-called Gurbeti
in the former Yugoslavia.
The data from the different regions in Central and Eastern Europe which we
examined does not offer a conclusive answer to the question whether or not
there is a direct relationship between the Gypsies’ way of life and the presence
of the Gypsy court, but, at any rate, it is certain that most (but not all) Gypsies
who are or used to be nomadic have or had a Gypsy court, while the court is
not known among permanently settled Gypsy groups.
Some authors have looked at the Gypsies’ marriage traditions, which are
connected to their way of life. Allegedly, the two possibilities are (a) nomadic
life style + elopement = feud system of private vengeance, or (b) settled way
of life + arranged marriages = kris (Acton, Caffrey, and Mundy 2001: 89–100;
Acton 2003: 646). However, our data refute this model and show that the reality
is much more complicated, not allowing such simplified conclusions. To give
7.  The term ‘service nomadism’ (after Hayden 1979: 297–309) means ‘nomad or semi-nomad’ (i.e.
with permanent residence and longer or shorter periods of nomadic life), and intends to cover
Gypsies who offer certain types of service and merchandise to the surrounding population. We
think that this term describes most precisely the mobile way of life of the Gypsies.
8.  It is not clear whether among the groups of Rumanian-speaking Lingurari/Rudari/Ludari/
Banjaši/Beaši Bojaši, who live in almost all countries of Eastern and Central Europe, Gypsy
Courts have ever existed. There are some indications that it existed with some related group,
the Rumanian-speaking Beaši in Croatia and probably in Hungary, who recalled the institution
being called liege di beaşa (‘Beaši court’) (Kovalcsik 1996: 80; Marushiakova 1998: 200).
9.  ‘Gurbeti’ is a generalised cover term often used for diverse groups, speakers of the so-called
Old or South Vlach dialects in the former Yugoslavia
the gypsy court in eastern europe 73

just some examples, the nomadic Burgudži and Thracian Kalajdži in Bulgaria
practice arranged marriages and have no Gypsy court; the nomadic Ruska/
Xaladitka Roma, the nomadic Servi, the Kelderari, Lovari, etc. have arranged
marriages and have a Gypsy court; the nomadic Kišinjovci practice marriages
through elopement and have a Gypsy court; and the settled Erli practice mar-
riages through elopement and do not have a Gypsy court. In some groups,
both forms of marriage can be observed; elopement can occur in tandem with
arranged marriages. So we can conclude that the mode of marriage is not con-
nected to way of life or to the existence or non-existence of a Gypsy court.
The second factor, one which at first sight really appears to be connected
to the absence or presence of a Gypsy court among the different Gypsy com-
munities is the language of the group or the dialect of Romanes used. Many
groups (but not all by any means) who do not know the institution of the
Gypsy court have lost Romanes as their ‘mother tongue’ and turned to such
languages as Turkish, Greek, Albanian, Rumanian, and Hungarian—even to
Tatar (in the Crimea and in Dobrudzha). In many cases these communities
are also characterised by the ‘preferred ethnic identity phenomenon’, that is
to say that they publicly declare their preferred ethnicity, often also perceiving
themselves as Turks, Walachians/Rumanians, Hungarians, Tatars, and so on.
As another variant of negating their Gypsy identity, some attempt to search
for neutral categories such as Muslim or Millet (in the meaning of ‘people’);
others may even try to create completely new identities. Our data shows that
all groups who have a Gypsy court speak Romanes, but not all groups which
speak Romanes have a Gypsy court. This leads to the next hypothesis about the
connection of the presence of a Gypsy court and the dialect of the group, to
which we now turn.

2.1  Gypsy Court and ‘Vlaх’ Rom

The problems connected with the institution of the Gypsy court have frequently
been described in Gypsy/Romani studies (Cotton 1955; Gropper 1975; Ficowski
1981; Ficowski 1985; Sutherland 1986; Yoors 1987; Weyrauch and Bell 1993; Lee
2001; Weyrauch 2001). However, to date these studies have been based chiefly on
material from Gypsies who speak the so-called New Vlax Dialect of Romanes
(above all Kelderari and Lovari). The Gypsies of these communities speak Rom-
ani dialects which have been classified differently by linguists, such as New Vlax
(Igla 1997: 163) or Northern Vlax (Matras 2002: 225–37; Boretzky 2003), or even
‘the third strata of the Balkan dialects’ (Cortiade 1985: 2, 8). We prefer not to use
the ‘consensus’ term (Matras 2002: 5–13, 2005: 7–22) ‘Northern Vlax’ because the
geographical principle on which the division is based is unclear; for example,
the criteria for the south–north division are unclear. We prefer the term ‘New
Vlax’ because from a historical perspective there is one very simple historical
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criterion, namely, the timing of the exodus from Wallachia and Moldova. In
this sense, for us the historical basis of the division of the dialect communities
is more important than the territorial and geographical ones; we therefore
distinguish ‘New Vlax’ and ‘Old Vlax’. The communities that left Wallachia
and Moldova in earlier periods speak the Old Vlax dialects of Romanes. We are
aware that the terms South and North Vlax, like the terms Old and New Vlax,
are provisional, and it is possible that new data, yet to be collected, will correct
all these terms (we do not exclude the possibility that geographical as well as
historical impressions could be changed on the basis of newly collected data).
Speakers of the New Vlax dialects are usually known by general names, given
to them most often by the other Gypsies (and often settled by the researchers who
were writing about them); some examples are Vlax Rom in the US and Canada;
in Central Europe, Olah/Olašskí; in Rumania, Pletoši or Lăjеši; in the Republic
of Moldavia and in Bessarabia; in Ukraine, Lejaši, in the former Yugoslavia
(mainly in Serbia and Vojvodina), also Lejaši; in Bulgaria, Kardaraši/Kaldaraši.
Some of the designations of these group referred to their nomadic way of life
and are used as synonymous of the above mentioned, for example, Katunari for
the Bulgarian Kardaraši/Kaldaraši, Kišinjovci, Lăjеši in the Republic of Molda-
via and in Bessarabia in the Ukraine; Korturari for Pletoši or Lăjеši in Rumania;
Cerhara/Čergaši for the Roma from Hungary and the former Yugoslavia.
In many works of Romani Studies scholars (repeating Yan Yoors’s 1987
model), the internal division of this community, the New Vlax, which can be
united provisionally into one group based on close dialectal and cultural traits,
is limited usually only to three groups—Kelderari, Lovari, and Čurara. However,
in the US and in Canada a fourth group, Mačvaja, has been added.10 Much less
attention has been paid to the numerous subdivisions of this community—in
Hungary, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and in the countries of the former
USSR—who belong to this community even though they have been studied
and described (or at least some of them) by local researchers.11 The speakers
of these dialects are the descendants of Gypsy groups who migrated from the
former principalities of Wallachia and Moldova and the surrounding regions
during the second half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the
twentieth century. This was the Great Gypsy migration wave, which spread
massively all over Europe, and, ultimately, reached the New World. As a result of
these migrations—sometimes called ‘the Great Invasion of the Kelderari’—the
10.  There is not enough space here to quote all publications (including the internet) in which
‘the ideology of the four Rom natsia’ (Acton 1993: 79) is reproduced.
11.  Again, there are too many publications to mention here, so we mention just a selection:
Gjorgjević (1932); Horvathová (1954); Erdös (1958); Horvathová (1964); Vukanović (1983);
Kovalcsik (1985); Remmel (1993); Marushiakova and Popov (1997); Bari (1999); Kiralyi (1999);
Demeter, Bessonov, and Kutenkov (2000); Holub (2000); Kyuchukov and Mladenov (2004);
Tcherenkov and Laederich (2004).
the gypsy court in eastern europe 75

overall picture of the world-wide distribution of the Gypsies changed signifi-

cantly within just a few decades.
T. Acton’s speculation about the Gypsy courts starts with the presumption
that this institution emerged in Wallachia, ‘showed similarities in etiquette and
practice to Rumanian village assemblies . . . and was functionally appropriate
to an enslaved community, who had to create structures parallel to those in
the masters’ society to protect their community integrity from their masters’
interference as far as possible.’ (Acton 2003: 645). The problem is that Acton
misunderstands the details of slavery in the Danubian principalities and
whether it was at all necessary to ‘create structures parallel to those in the
masters’ society’ for the Roma groups in question. Acton’s speculation is illogi-
cal also because the Rumanian villagers who should serve as model are not an
enslaved ­community.
Other authors, too, found it difficult to ‘understand how the Rom . . . man-
aged to be what they are today after so long a period of slavery’ (Williams 1984:
418–19) and how they succeeded in preserving so many ‘intricate features of
Rom social organisation and family relationships like the bride-price, the kris
and the mahrime code’ (Fraser 1992: 139). We therefore need to address the
questions specific to Gypsy slavery in the Danubian principalities, namely, ‘To
which categories of slave did the Gypsies belong?’, ‘Who are the speakers of
the New Vlax dialects?’, ‘Who were the forces behind the Great Invasion of the
Kelderari?’, and, finally, ‘Who knows and preserves the institution of Gypsy
The conditions and status of the Gypsies in Wallachia and Moldova during
the period of their slavery were described in detail by Michail Kogalniceanu
(1840). This description was later retold by many authors more than once,
and has been frequently synthesised (even if not always correctly), so a brief
description will suffice here. There were three main categories of slave which
were clearly distinguished according to ownership: principal ownership (or ‘the
crown’), ownership of the monasteries, and ownership of the boyars (for more
details, see Achim 1998: 31–75).
The Gypsies in the first category, that of principal ownership, were mainly
nomads. They were divided into four categories (except for a small part of them
who lived in the principal’s yard as servants)—Lâješi, Rudari and Aurari (in
Transylvania Beaši), Lingurari, and Ursari. A common element among these
categories was that they had no other duties but to pay an annual tax to the
state treasury, usually twice in a year—on St. George’s Day on (24 April) and St.
Michael’s Day (8 November). This was also the usual practice concerning treaty
relations for other similar cases. The Gypsies in these categories lived a nomadic
life and were free to travel whenever and wherever they liked—they could even
go abroad.
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The second and third categories, the slaves of monasteries and boyars, com­
prised two kinds of Gypsies, namely, the Lâješi (nomads) and Vâtraši (domes-
tic, i.e. settled). The Vatraši worked in the fields of their masters or as house
servants. Some Lâješi were considered possessions of the Monasteries and the
Boyars, and their way of life was not significantly different from that of the
Lâješi who were slaves of the principal; they paid yearly taxes to their masters
and had the right to wander freely.
The nomadic Gypsies had their own internal autonomy, and not only for-
mally, but quite widely extended. Consider, for example, the royal decree of
the Moldavian prince Michael Sutsu, dated 25 March 1793: ‘. . . every kind of
quarrel among them [the Gypsies, the slaves of the prince] and its judgement
so as giving and carrying out the sentence is in the power of their leaders, who
are to find justice according to their own old customs [sic], and the governors
and other dignitaries are not to interfere unless there is a death case’ (Potra
1939: 327–31). The state interfered only when conflicts arose between the
Gypsies and the population in the surrounding principalities. Murder was
punished severely (with the death penalty), as were some specific crimes (such
as printing counterfeit money). In many other cases, however, the laws were
liberal towards the nomadic Gypsies (the other Gypsies were the responsibility
of their owner). For example, the collection of laws Rumanian Book of Moral,
issued by the Moldovan prince, Vasile Lupu, in 1646 provides:

The male or female Gypsy, or their child, if they steal once, twice or three times a hen,
goose or other small matter, are to be discharged, if they steal something bigger, to be
scolded [sic] for the theft.  (Carte 1961: 68)

Generally speaking, the slaves of the prince (Lâješi, Rudari/Aurari, Lingurari,

Ursari, and the Lâješi, who belonged to the monasteries and boyars), do not fit
the stereotypical image of Gypsy slave conditions in Wallachia and Moldova
in the way it is often presented in Romani scholarship. Not only were they
not badly treated, they were not sold as merchandise, punished cruelly, or
humiliated, nor were they exploited by their masters (as was the case with the
other Gypsy slaves), but they had much freedom and even privileges, which
most other levels of society at the time (mainly the peasants) in Wallachia and
Moldova did not have. From this point of view, there is hardly any doubt who
exactly the Gypsies in Wallachia and Moldova were who had preserved their
ethno-cultural norms and customs—such as the nomadic traditions and their
own court (kris, žudikate, mešariava/mešare, dalavjara)—and who had been
the main force behind the huge Gypsy migrations in the nineteenth century.
Moreover, the names of the category of slaves transferred unchanged over time,
showing clearly that the Lâješi are the ancestors of the present speakers of the
the gypsy court in eastern europe 77

New Vlax dialects all over the world. The interesting question arises why today’s
researchers haven’t made this connection12 when there is such an abundance
of clear data on the subject.13
As to the assumption that the Gypsy Court originated under the influence
of the traditional laws of the Rumanian village (Acton 2003: 645, 651), it can
be said that this influence is definitely stronger on settled Gypsies. However,
it had no influence on the nomadic ancestors of the Gypsies. In addition, the
traditional Rumanian rural community does not significantly differ from the
rest of the Balkan people and there is no reason to assume that it was the exact
Rumanian village model that influenced the Gypsies.
Some authors have even claimed that the Gypsy court does not exist in
Gypsy groups that have never lived in the Danube principalities (Acton, Caf-
frey, and Mundy 2001: 95; Acton 2003: 651), but that claim has been disproved
in the light of new data from other regions that clearly show that regardless of
the different terms used for ‘Gypsy court’ in the different Gypsy groups, the
phenomenon is one and the same structurally and functionally. Gypsy courts
exist not only among the speakers of the New Vlax dialects, but also among
speakers of other dialects. As we mentioned earlier, Gypsy courts are seen
quite often, also among groups which have no past of slavery in the Danubian
principalities. For instance, the phenomenon is found in the big community
of Ruska (or Xaladitka) Roma and in the closely related Polska Roma,14 as well
as among the Servi in Ukraine (including in the subgroups that have lost their
mother tongue and now speak Ukrainian) and among Krimurja, and even
among the Rom Abruzzesi in Italy (Moreli and Soravia 1998: 85–102). More-
over, the Gypsy court also exists in Gypsy communities which do not identify

12.  A possible (but not the only) explanation here is methodological. Nowadays, in the spirit
of post-modernism and misunderstood political correctness, very often everything written
by authors of Gypsy origin is accepted as a fundamental truth. Only with this in mind can we
explain why scholarship on slavery in Wallachia and Moldova or the Gypsy migration in the
nineteenth century considers the novels of Mateo Maximoff as a main source of information.
Maximoff ’s novels are a clear example of ‘invention of the tradition’ (Hobsbawm 1992: Introduc-
tion). For other examples of ‘invented tradition’, that is, ‘secondary’ creation of legends based on
other sources presented as ‘reliable’ oral history of the community, see Marushiakova and Popov
(2000: 81–93) and Matras (2000: 73 n. 4).
13.  See above for the widespread names Lâješi in Romania and Lejaši in former Yugoslavia, the
Republic of Moldavia, and Bessarabia. It is worth mentioning that one of the subgroups of the
Kardaraša in Bulgaria call themselves Laeš/Lajneš. The claim that the Bulgarian Kaldaraša/
Kardaraša are not true Vlach Rom and are only influenced by them (Acton 2003: 646, 650) looks
rather strange to us. Numerous scientific works show clearly their Vlach ‘Rom’ connections (see
e.g. Kyuchukov and Mladenov 2004). The fact that they do not use the term ‘Kris’ does not make
them ‘less real’, nor does it make the institution of the Gypsy Court among them any different.
14.  The situation among the Polska Roma is much more specific because, except for the sjondo,
there are different forms of internal self-government and regulation of the problems of the com-
munity. This is especially the case with the so-called Šero Rom, but there are also more common
gatherings of members of the community (cielo) (Kowarska 2005: 27–43).
elena marushiakova and vesselin popov

themselves as Roma, such as the Sinti, where the Hermanacia15 has a similar
function (Fuchs 1991: 103). If we have to draw a general conclusion, then, it is
that Gypsy courts exist among all the Gypsies who are speakers of the New
Vlax dialects of Romanes, and that Gypsy courts occur also in a number of
subdivisions of the Gypsy community who use other dialects of Romanes.

3.  Essential characteristics of the Gypsy Court

Various definitions of the Gypsy court have been provided in the literature,
such as traditional law or Volksrecht, primitive or tribal law, micro-law, tribunal
system of justice, autonomous private law-making, and autochthonous legal
system (Weyrauch and Bell 2001: 11–87). Some authors go so far as to say that
the kris, or the tribunal system of justice, can be seen as a form of prefiguring
a state form, that is to say, an embryonic form of a state body (Caffrey and
Mundy 2001: 104). Other authors, by contrast, state that the Gypsy court could
not be ‘representative of some abstract system or idea of justice’ at all and limit
the Gypsy court ‘to nothing more than the advice of one or more men, which
no one was compelled to heed’ (Stewart 1997: 57). All these characteristics of
the Gypsy court, however, are based on its formal, outward, features and on its
functions, without bringing out the main conceptual idea behind it.
Above all, the basic idea that determines the form and the functioning of the
Gypsy court is the concept of consensus. Every ruling of this court would have
been adopted unanimously not only by its members, but by the entire commu-
nity, including the defendants. Without consensus, the very institution of the
Gypsy court could not exist, as no other mechanism exists that could carry out
its rulings. Consensus also determined the similarity between the numerous
Gypsy courts, and, as a result, only slight differences have occurred in its forms
and its functioning in the regions where it was investigated.

3.1  Settling out of court

When a problem arises, initially, attempts are made to resolve the problem
on the spot in order to avoid convening the court. This is usually done when
the parties engaged in a dispute approach some respected person (or several
respected members of the community) for assistance, who then make their
pronouncement on the spot. We were present at such a resolution concerning a
dispute in Ismail (in the Ukraine), where Gypsies came from another town to
trade at the market, undercutting the prices of the local Gypsies.

15.  According to some Sinti, the older designation of the Gypsy court is celo; harmonacia means
‘the gathering of the respected representatives of the community for solving of important issues’;
thus, according to them the notion ‘harmonacia’ originates in the wish to reach ‘harmony’ in the
the gypsy court in eastern europe 79

We observed an example of a similar solution of the problem in Bulgaria. A

married man was accused of having a liaison with an unmarried girl and was
contacted by a mediator, who passed on to him the demands of the family of
the unmarried girl, which came to paying them 20,000 Levas (approximately
10,000 Euros). He did not agree, denying that he had dishonored the girl.
Because the accused did not summon the mešare, which involves the stand-
ard formula for such cases, ‘let us call two people from each side for them to
decide’, the case was solved by long debates in the local community, and not
by the Gypsy court. The city’s Kardaraši gathered in front of their homes for
several days. Relatives and acquaintances arrived from the countryside. They
talked about the case, argued, and in the end they agreed (not on the court’s
authority, but on the community’s) that the accused was guilty and had to give
his car and one of his houses to the family of the girl. This met the requested
No specific term is used for such cases. Exceptionally, they are called raz-
borka among the different Gypsy groups in the countries of the former Soviet
Union, and it is always pointed out that this is not a real Gypsy court.

3.2  Institutional solving of the problems: the Gypsy court

When no agreement can be reached and when a dispute becomes more inten-
sive and is seen as a threat to normal life in the community and/or relations
within the community, the affected party officially turns to the ‘authoritative
people’ in the community and a Gypsy court is called.
The composition of the Gypsy court is more or less the same in the various
Gypsy groups in the investigated regions. It includes the most authoritative
and respected people from the group (called krisnitori, žudikatori, syndari,
mešarjavadži, and plečinari in addition to the terms mentioned earlier). As it
takes years for someone to gain a position of authority, the courts consists of
the older adult members of the community. This does not mean, however, that
there is a system of elders; this was wrongly interpreted by Acton (2003: 650).
We should make clear that among the Gypsy communities what is understood
by the notion phuro (‘adult’, ‘elder’) is married men who live in separate families,
away from their parents, and have grown-up children (often old enough to be
married), so usually they are over 30–35 years old. When they are labelled by
the Gypsies themselves, terms such as Pativale manuša and Avtoritetno Rrom
are used (in the Ukraine we even heard the expression Meždunarodno Rom
used in the same meaning). Or to quote one of our informants from Peč/Peja
in Kosovo, Plečinara si purane manuša, so si svestno, domačinore, so si prešunde
‘The judges are old people, who are decent, heads of family, who are well known’.
Moreover, in the whole investigated region we did not find hereditary Gypsy
judges who are ‘holders of a permanent office for their entire lives’, which,
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according to Acton (2003: 648), is a characteristic feature of ‘eldership system’.

Judges in Gypsy courts in the region are appointed on an ad-hoc basis for each
new court session; we return to this later.16
It is mandatory that the members of the Gypsy court be men, although it
has been reported that, against tradition, some respected women have been
invited to participate, but this is exceptional. Though our informants mention
that women could in principle participate in a Gypsy court—sometimes they
speak about such legendary women—they could not give us any contemporary
The composition of the Gypsy courts we examined in Central and Eastern
Europe is not consistent. It is always created ad hoc and participation is on
a case-by-case basis. Naturally, the most respected members of the commu-
nity are invited to take part in the court much more often, but this does not
make them permanent members and their position cannot be inherited. The
number of judges is not fixed, it depends on the complexity of the case, and
during a case the number of judges can be changed. Various figures are known,
from a minimum of three, usually between 11 and 15, up to a maximum of 25
people. This maximum common with the Servi in the Ukraine; among Mašari
in Hungary, the usual number is between 15 and 25 (Loss 2002: 15). The larger
courts, however, are more a thing of the past, and the trend today is to keep the
number of judges low.
The composition of the court is determined in a similar way by the different
Gypsy groups. The plaintiff announces that he will ‘gather the people’, in other
words, call a court hearing. Respected people are invited to resolve the issue,
and the person being called before the court is notified. The defendant has the
right to invite respected people, too. Though today the tradition in Bulgaria
has seen some formalisation, it still functions in the spirit of consensus—both
parties agree to invite the same number of people, then they agree on a final
member of the court to ensure an odd total number of members to avoid a hung
court. In Rumania, both sides should agree on the number of judges and ‘if one
of the parties disagrees one of the judges chosen by the other party, the latter
one will propose another person agreed by the former one’ (Bobu 2002: 72).
Usually the problems in any given Gypsy community are resolved within
the community, that is to say that the people invited to take part in the court
are members of the community. In Bulgaria, every subgroup of the Kardaraši
community calls its own mešere, which is composed of its own members. Only
when complicated cases have to be heard, respected people are invited from
the subgroup or region which is farthest away, since the view is held that ‘when
16.  Of course, usually (but not always) a person’s wealth and respect are passed on to the next
generations, which, however, as mentioned earlier, does not mean that the members of the Gypsy
court have inherited their positions, nor that they can keep the position for the rest of their life.
the gypsy court in eastern europe 81

they are outsiders, their judgement is more just’. The same principle is valid
with various Gypsy groups found in the territories of the former Soviet Union.
However, it must be mentioned that in the latter countries, in very serious
cases of conflict and when the community is concerned about any bias of the
judges, members of other groups can be invited to become judge. This, how-
ever, occurs relatively rarely.

3.3  Mixed court

When representatives of other Gypsy groups are invited there can be different
preferences. Gypsies in the countries of the former Soviet Union prefer repre-
sentatives of related groups, so that, for example, it is very likely that the Lovari
will invite the Kelderari rather than other Gypsies and that Servi prefer to
invite Ruska Roma. Krimurja are almost never invited by other groups as they
are considered to be ‘wild’, and are Muslim, and Krimurja do not invite other
Gypsies to resolve any problems in their own community either. The Vlaxi are
generally considered to be at the bottom of the scale: They invite others to
participate in their courts, but it is exceptionally rare for them to be invited.
It is interesting to note that respected representatives of the Plaščuni (whose
language belongs to a Central European or Carpathian group of dialects), who
in the past have never had a Gypsy court to resort to in their own community,
are sometimes invited to the court of other groups (who cannot imagine that
the Plaščuni do not have any court at all).
In a dispute between the members of various Gypsy groups, it is mandatory
that the court be mixed. In the countries of the former Soviet Union, respected
people from all Gypsy groups who have a court of their own can be invited. This
substantiates once again that there is no difference between the Gypsy courts of
Vlax Rom (kris among Kelderari and Lovari) and those of other Gypsy groups;
it is irrelevant which word for the court is used in specific groups. Nevertheless,
there are exceptions—namely, those Gypsy communities without a court of
their own, which do not speak Romanes and for that reason are not considered
to be ‘real Gypsies’, will never be invited to take part in a Gypsy court. This
is the case with the Hungarian-speaking Rumungri in the Transcarpathian
region, the Tartar-speaking Dajfa/Tajfa in the Crimea, the Rumanian-speaking
Vlaxija, and the Lingurari in Moldova and the Ukraine, as well as the Gypsies
of Central Asia (most often referred to as ‘Ljuli’), who nowadays often migrate
to Russia.
It is an interesting question whether or not the practice of calling a mixed
court (i.e. consisting of representatives of different Gypsy groups) has been
around in the past. It appears to have been a possibility in cases of active
nomadic life when each group travelled in its own region, but in practice it hap-
pened only rarely. Mixed-court cases became more frequent after the Second
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World War, when nomadism experienced a crisis and the large tabors (Gypsy
camps) began to be concentrated in small territories. Two examples of this are
from the beginning of the 1950s. Near an Ukrainian village, camps were built
by different Gypsy groups (Katunarja, Servi, and Ruska Roma) with only a
small distance separating them. The Katunarja entered into a conflict with the
villagers, a fight started, the Katunarja left, and the villagers burned the tents
of the Servi and Ruska Roma. The latter called the court and the Katunarja
who were directly responsible for the damages reimbursed the loss fully. In
another case, the wandering Kišinjovci stole horses from a village, and in order
to compensate their loss the villagers forcefully took horses from Ruska Roma,
who entered the village a few days later. The Ruska Roma, however, summoned
the court and the Kišinjovci had to reimburse their losses.
The need for a mixed court in USSR grew significantly when Gypsies started
to settle and began to concentrate around bigger towns and richer regions, a
situation where the chances of disputes among members of different groups
were much greater.
To this day Gypsies in Rumania see the idea of a ‘mixed court’ at a theoretic-
al rather than at a practical level. Informants confirmed the principle of hold-
ing such a mixed court, but were not able to give examples. The possibilities
of holding such a mixed court, however, are acceptable only to ‘respectable’
groups, in other words, Romani-speaking nomads. Holding a mixed court
with groups of lower standing, those who are not considered respectable—that
is, settled groups, and/or groups who have lost their language—is categoric-
ally rejected. In Bulgaria, the groups that use Gypsy courts are relatively late
migrants and the very idea of a common court with the Cucumani (all other
Gypsies) is unacceptable. The only Gypsies to which the Kardaraši attribute a
Gypsy court with certainty—because they are nomads and preserve their trad-
itions—are the Burgudži and Thracian Kalajdži. At the end of the last century
an attempt was even made by the Kardaraši to summon a mixed court with the
Burgudži, which failed because the Burgudži did not know this institution and
were unable to understand its meaning.
The situation in the countries of Central Europe is quite similar (especially
in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary), where the local Olah Gypsies
categorically distance themselves from other Gypsies—who they refer to
scornfully using the general term ‘Rumungri’—as well as from the Rumanian-
speaking Gypsies called ‘Bojaš’ in Hungary and ‘Bajaši’ in Slovakia. Thus, for
the Olah the idea of a common Gypsy Court is absurd and unacceptable. Even
in Hungary, where this opposition is relatively softened (the percentage of the
‘mixed’ marriages of Olah Gypsies with people from other Gypsy communities
is higher that in neighbouring countries), the barriers barring mixed Gypsy
courts are insurmountable. The one exception, in Slovakia, is made for local
the gypsy court in eastern europe 83

Sinti, who, because of their small number, mixed with Lovari (through mar-
riages) and take part in Lovara courts.
One interesting case in Hungary, however, shows that it is not possible to
have a mixed court but it is possible at least to speculate about it if needed
(e.g. when relations happen between representatives of different Gypsy com-
munities). A young Olah Gypsy (Kelderari) married a girl from the Ciganyok
(Hungarian-speaking Gypsies, musicians), but after some time the marriage fell
apart and girl returned to her parents. The boy’s father, however, approached
the girl’s father, declaring that the prestige of his family has been harmed by his
daughter in law’s escape and requested a monetary compensation, threatening
that if he will not be compensated he will turn to the Gypsy court. The father of
the girl knew very well that this was just blackmail and that he was not going to
be summoned to appear in such a court, but in order to avoid any problems he
decided to pay the requested amount of money.

3.4  Recent changes in Gypsy courts

The period following the political events in 1989 saw some changes in the
Gypsy court, mostly as a result of the opening of the borders between former
communist countries and the establishment or re-establishment of contacts
between some related Gypsy groups from different countries. The resolution of
some antagonisms led to groups joining in some activities, and in general there
was the influence of new social realities such as political participation and the
NGO movement of Gypsies.
The most famous case of an unsuccessful attempt at a trans-border Gypsy
court was that between Bulgaria and Rumania in the middle of the 1990s in the
town of Levski in Bulgaria. The court had to be summoned to solve problems
concerning business relations between Kăldărari from Rumania (king Ion
Cioaba’s family) and Kardaraši from Bulgaria. The ‘respected people’ arrived
from Rumania, but the Bulgarian side prolonged its gathering of mešarjavadžii
until the Rumanians lost patience and left. The case is famous also because it
was the first and, up to now, last attempt to organise a Rumanian–Bulgarian
Kardaraši mixed court.
In recent years, however, there have been several cases of transnational
Gypsy courts being summoned in order to make decisions on problems among
Kardaraši from Bulgaria and Kelderari from Western Europe (mostly migrants
from Yugoslavia), which occurred as a result of marriages, which became more
and more frequent between members of these groups.
On the whole, groups with a Gypsy court consider it absolutely unaccept-
able that Gypsies should turn to the official authorities in cases of conflict with
other Gypsies. Contact with the official judiciary is possible only in disputes
with non-Gypsies. This a standard practice with Gypsies in the countries of
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the former Soviet Union, while in Rumania and especially in Bulgaria it is

valid only within the circle of ‘real Gypsies’, that is to say, those groups who
hold their own courts. In this case, an official legal proceeding is possible not
only for non-Gypsies, but also when it concerns Gypsies who do not know
the institution of the Gypsy court so that there is no other way of resolving
problems. Naturally, it is impossible for non-Gypsies to start a lawsuit before a
Gypsy court. The same principle applies to those Gypsies who are not regarded
as ‘real Gypsies’ and do not know this institution.
The relationship between the Gypsy court and the official judiciary varies
slightly in different Gypsy groups. In the former Soviet Union it is considered
inadmissible for Gypsies to have any relationship with the official judiciary, let
alone to be employed by them (though there are some Gypsy public prosecutors
and lawyers). In Rumania and in Bulgaria this is not looked down upon—in
fact, there are some curious cases. For example, a Gypsy who is currently a
Member of Parliament in Bulgaria worked for many years as a regional public
prosecutor while actively participating at the same time in the Gypsy court,
thus taking active part in two judicial systems—the internal Gypsy court and
the State judiciary—without either intersecting with or overlapping with the
In the last few years, after the vivid development of NGO sectors among
Gypsies in Eastern Europe, a new ‘project’ discourse was developed concern-
ing the relations between the Gypsy court and the state. In Bulgaria a project
proposal was presented to incorporate the Gypsy court into existing legislation,
but this was not realised. A similar project in the Ukraine did not succeed
either, even when a special Gypsy court was created from representatives from
different NGOs (including a female); allegations were made that it had already
solved alot of cases (including ones between Gypsies and non-Gypsies).17
Needless to say, in both cases it was an imitation the Gypsy court.18
Comparable initiatives are the aspirations to give Gypsy courts a new
community dimension. One example of this is the proposal to make it part
of international Roma activism. At the fifth Congress of the International
Romani Union (IRU) in Prague in 2000, the so-called Court of Justice was
elected and the position of ‘Chair of the Romani Criss’ was invented, though
the Congress’ documents do not mention at all what this position is supposed
to mean (Acton and Klímová 2001: 157­–226). In early 2006, some Roma activ-
ists (from communities where Gypsy courts do not exist), spread accusations
on Roma Internet mailing groups against one of the leaders of International

17.  Described in the Ukrainian Roma newspaper Romani Jag, No. 3 (15), 2000, p. 7.
18.  We do not have data on whether the project for the implementation of a Gypsy court in the
legislative system of California was from the same order, but the case, at least on a typological
level, looks quite similar. For more details see Weyrauch and Bell (2001: 45–6).
the gypsy court in eastern europe 85

Romani Union that he was preparing a documentary film representing the

Roma in an unfavourable light. The international Roma institutions (the Inter-
national Romani Union and the European Roma and Travellers Forum) were
called upon to call procesi ko Rromano kriso [sic] on the case.19 Needless to say,
nothing really followed from such appeals, nor did anything happen with the
so-called Court of Justice.
Creating imitations of Gypsy courts in a context different from the trad-
itional one and among representatives of Gypsy groups who do not know them,
can produce grotesque social collisions, as in the case with a group of Gypsy
students in Bulgaria. Familiarising themselves with Gypsy courts through
academic publications which they read as a part of their university education
(Kyuchukov, Marushiakova, and Popov 2004) on Roma Language and Culture,
they organised their own so-called ‘Student’s Mešare’ that included all students
from the special course ‘Elementary Pedagogy and Roma language’. This body
decided to expel from the university two boys who were accused of having a
negative influence on relations among students and damaging the prestige of
the course. A scandal ensued. The chancellor of the university gave interviews
to the media,20 saying that the Mešare cannot influence university authorities,
and that he shall ignore its decision. The chancellor even organised a meeting
with a famous representative of the Kardaraši community (Tzar Kiro), who
delicately tried to explain to the chancellor that the so-called Student’s Mešare
has nothing in common with the true Gypsy Mešare.

4.  Formal characteristics of the Gypsy court

Across Central and Eastern Europe, the procedures involved in organising the
Gypsy court are quite similar. Their description could therefore be confined to
listing the main formal characteristics. This demonstrates once again that we
are dealing with a common phenomenon with some variations based on the
different Gypsy groups and their countries of residence.
The members of a Gypsy court have to be invited with ‘due respect’, which
means that their travel costs are covered (including air travel in the Soviet
Union); they are often taken to the hearing by car. They are invited to a sump-
tuous meal and, if necessary, they are provided with accommodation. Initial
court expenses are covered by the plaintiff although in the end the guilty party
is usually ordered to cover these costs, partly or in full.
There are differences in the region with regards of payment of the judges
for their work. In Bulgaria payment is called denguba and is considered as
19.  From the Yahoo mailing group ‘Roma Network’ [International Romani Union], 3 Feb. 2006.
20.  See for instance an article in the most widely read newspaper (Maksimova and Vaglenov
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­compensation for the days spent at the trial. In Rumania the term used is
vâtrârit and the judges are paid for their decision and the days spent (Bobu
2002: 73). For Roma groups in the former Soviet Union it is absolutely inap-
propriate to pay for the court, only the expenses of the judges are covered.
By contrast, in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the money for the court is
handed over and counted publicly at the beginning of the proceedings in front
of the community with the words:

T’aven baxtale sogodižejne! Sar dikhlan, lem perdal e louve paj Krísi. Me taj la Krísiňake
Rom dentinasa kadi Vorba kadejí, hoď bírinasa te vortáras avri kado bajo, hoď t’avel vi
pe kadi rig taj vi pe kuki rig mišto taj páča. [Be all happy. As you saw I take the money
for the court, me and the judges will decide the case in such a way that both sides are
satisfied].  (Stojka 1997 :123)

The formalities in Gypsy courts are very similar throughout the region cov-
ered by this study. A court may be held in any appropriate location—a big room
in one’s own house, a courtyard, in a meadow, in a restaurant rented for the
purpose, in a specially prepared big tent, and in some cases (in Rumania and
Bulgaria), in a stadium when a case provokes great interest in the community.
Any member of the Gypsy group who so wishes may be present at the hear-
ing, including women and children. The judges sit in a circle, in the past on
lamb skins or mats, nowadays on carpets or at a table. Everybody else stands
around them. When the public discussion of the case begins, the proceedings
are directed by the most authoritative member of the court, though as a rule his
standing is not institutionalized—he is the primus inter pares. In some places
the judges choose him from among themselves at the beginning of the trial
and he is presented to the community (Bobu 2002: 76); in other cases, in Bul-
garia, for instance, this right belongs to the most respected person among the
judges. Among the Slovakian Lovari we are witnessing contemporary attempts
for the institutionalisation of the role of the Angluno Rom as responsible for
internal Romani affairs in both countries (the Czech Republic and Slovakia)
and for summoning the courts and the selection of judges,21 based on legends
about powerful vajdas, also called bíro (from Hungarian) in the nomadic past.22
Earlier, during our fieldwork in the 1980s in Slovakia (among the Lovari and
Bougešti), we witnessed attempts of such institutionalisation when the regional
respected clan leaders tried to govern their communities by accepting the role of
21.  For a detailed description of the functions of Angluno Rom, see Stojka (1997) and Stojka and
Pivoň (2003).
22.  In the town of Romavska Sobota we recorded legends about vajda Lölo and vajda Rundak,
who were very strong men, great horse thiefs, dressed in special Hungarian robes, with a whip
and a gold-plated belt and stick which were buried together with them. According to legend they
called themselves o generalis and their assistents were majori, kapitan, dešengo, tízedeš, čatari,
and hanadi. For other legends see Stojka (2001: 126–39).
the gypsy court in eastern europe 87

Roma representatives in front of the majority authorities (Marushiakova 1985).

When the trial starts, both parties present their position. This is followed by
a discussion of the court participants; circumstances are clarified, witnesses
are summoned by both parties, etc. In the course of the hearings it is mostly
the judges who take the floor, but anyone present has the right to speak, give
evidence, or back his opinion on the question at hand by citing precedents,
traditional practices, life stories, or folklore. The men speak the most. They
try to go into detail, to be eloquent, and speak with authority. To interrupt a
speaker, especially an old man, is considered an offence in all groups in the
region, which in Transylvania could even be punished by the court (Bobu 2002:
77, 78). Women can also take the floor, but some groups (e.g. the Krimurja and
Kelderari) try to restrict their participation. In other cases, however, women
use the occasion and take the initiative in resolving some disputes. Thus, among
the Servi, comments have been made frequently that the court has been taken
over by women who have turned it into a bazaar; that is to say that there is too
much talk and argument, as a way to impose their views.
Discussions are not limited by time, and as everyone speaks for a long time,
especially in difficult cases, the hearing may take a few days. The main aim is
to bring together the opposing parties, and, through a compromise, to allow
consensus to be reached. After the judges decide that a common position has
been established to some extent, they hold consultations (they may also retire),
formulate a decision in the case that is acceptable to everyone involved, and
publicly declare it.
The decision of a Gypsy court always involves money, a specified sum
(which could be in gold or in foreign currency) that is paid to the aggrieved
party. The sentence also carries an air of authority for the party that won the
case. Decisions are always in line with the financial possibilities of the sen-
tenced offender, and he may be given a certain period of grace for paying the
sum. This, however, does not mean that the Gypsy court tries to redistribute
the wealth of the community or to align the differences between the rich and
the poor members, or to realise the concept of ‘brotherhood’ which, accord-
ing to Stewart (1997) occupies an especially important place in the lives of the
Gypsies.23 Actually, the main purpose of this approach is to guarantee the pos-
sibility for the poorer members of the community to continue to live normally
and to develop their own business (whatever it is) and not to be excluded from
the community, which could be the case if they were to be impoverished and
socially marginalised.

23.  Whether the concept of the Brotherhood is relevant for the real situation among Gypsies
in Central and Eastern Europe is arguable. The majority of the author’s examples repeat well-
known forms of traditional social relations in South-Eastern Europe, and their interpretation in
the spirit of the Roma Brotherhood remains open to serious doubts.
elena marushiakova and vesselin popov

In the whole region of Central, South-Eastern, and Eastern Europe there

are widespread stereotypes of Gypsy courts handing out severe punishments;
death penalties, usually for cooperating with the authorities, and cutting off the
noses of women who cheat on their husbands. Such statements can be heard
from non-Gypsies, but also from Gypsies, mainly from those from groups that
do not know the Gypsy court. When challenged, however, none of these people
can give a concrete example of such punishments, showing that these legends
have nothing to do with reality. In more than three decades of fieldwork in
Eastern Europe we have come across just about one real case (in Bulgaria) of
women whose noses were cut off, but on checking the case it became clear that
is was the punishment inflicted by the father in law after a family scandal, not
the result of a decision of any Gypsy court.
Similarly, sometimes connected with the Gypsy court, is the case of Bano in
Slovakia. In the 1950s near Komarno a dead body of a Gypsy was found, sewed
in the carcass of a horse. The investigation revealed that the man, a police
informer known by his Gypsy name Bano, was murdered by several people
from the local Lovari. The case was so extraordinary that a special song about
it was created which can be heard among Lovari even now. (Hajdu 1962: 27;
Hübschmannová 1962: 16–18; Horvathová 1964: 225–6, 328; Kovalcsik 1985: 33,
108).24 Whether this murder was the result of a decision of the Gypsy court is
hard to tell with certainty now.
Rulings of the Gypsy court are considered final, appeals are considered a con-
tempt of court. In practice, however, the court ruling may be appealed against
in all Gypsy groups in the region, without affecting the authority of the judges.
Grounds for appeal are, for example, new circumstances and the appearance
of new witnesses, which may require another hearing. At the second hearing
of the case, the judges who are invited are usually new and there are usually
more persons present, who are considered to have even greater authority. A
third hearing of one and the same case is possible in principle, though not
socially acceptable; a pronouncement by so many people with authority has to
be respected. Although there is no clearly stated rule forbidding it, there have
been no cases of more than three hearings.
As a rule, appeals against a decision of the court are relatively frequent among
Gypsies in Bulgaria, Rumania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia,
while in the former Soviet Union they occur less often. In the former Soviet
Union courts are convened much less regularly than in Bulgaria and Rumania.
The frequency of summoning the Gypsy court should not be regarded as dir-
ectly relevant to its place in community life. For instance, in the countries of the
former USSR, our informants mention that they have personally participated
24.  For the text of the song, see also the section ‘Romano Folkloros’ at http://www.studiiromani.
the gypsy court in eastern europe 89

in a Gypsy court or have heard from relatives and friends that they took part
approximately three to four or five to six times a year, with a maximum of ten;
in Bulgaria it was said that ‘during the last few years’ there is a mešare almost
every week (i.e. in the past they were more rare); in Vienna we heard that there
is a kris almost every week (but there the Gypsy community is much smaller).
Here we can see the influence of factors such as different origins, but in any
case, the function of the Gypsy court and its significance for the community as
a whole is the same.25

5.  The oath

5.1  Taking an oath
In all Gypsy groups covered by our study, if the information gathered is not
clear or when statements by witnesses are contradictory, there is one last
method of establishing the truth—it is also the most reliable. This is taking
an oath in public (xas sovlax, žas te solaxares, etc.) before the Gypsy court and
before those present, in a ritualized form. The main part is the enumeration
of all the terrible misfortunes which would befall on a perjurer and his entire
family should he fail to tell the truth.
There are some differences in taking the oath among the individual Gypsy
groups. In the former Soviet Union the oath is taken before an icon, most often
that of St. Nicholas Taumaturgetos (the Miracle Maker),26 who is considered
to be the patron saint of the Gypsies in the region. Taking an oath is an event
which takes place on the spot, before a household or a church icon which is
taken out into the churchyard. (If the oath is taken in the church, it is believed
the Lord might forgive the perjury.) In Rumania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic,
Slovakia, and Hungary, on the other hand, the oath is taken in a church, usually
before the icon of the Virgin. A priest is often invited for the occasion. The Sinti
from the Weiss subgroup hold hands when the oath (dav lava) is taken, as this
connects them with all their forefathers.
A number of older, more rudimentary, forms of oath taking have also sur-
vived. The so-called Šanxajci (or Kitajcurja) from Odessa (Kelderari Gypsies
from Odessa who lived in China for several decades27) take the oath before an

25.  Perhaps the last example is an exception, as the informants themselves say that the reasons
for a kris are not always serious, and it is often merely an occasion to gather the community.
26.  The special attitude towards St. Nicholas as sometimes more important than God is expressed
in a Ruska Roma proverb: ‘Devla dela, Svento Nikolaj na biknela.’ (God gives, St. Nikolaj does not
sell.) A reminder of this special place of St. Nicholas’s can be found in an old ritual song of the Bul-
garian Rom Cinganiak which is sung on Gergjovden (St. George’s Day): ‘O Nikolaj gras čaravel.’
For the text of the song, see the section ‘Romano Folkloros’ at
27.  For information on this group, how it separated from the Kelderari and was established as a
new group, see Marushiakova and Popov (2003: 115–32).
elena marushiakova and vesselin popov

icon, obligatorily before a burning fire. In Bulgaria, in many cases the Kardaraši
(from the Njamci subgroup) take the oath near a monastery and/or a river, as it
is thought that the strongest oath is in still water or a swamp. It is good if there
is an old bridge, and at times to step into the water, sometimes nude from the
waist down. It is thought that O Beng (the Devil) lives there, or even forty-one
devils. As described by one informant,
Maj anglal sъ mešarjava. Amen san tari cъganija, ame maškar amende žas ko manas-
tiry, po-dur, ande balte, keras o trošul, makel pe katrano, katrano tari vudron, solaxas.
Ande balta, tala purano podo, kaj si e benga, kote kiden pe saranda jekh benga. Solaxen,
čumiden trošul, mothon naprimer—ni len, ni dikhlem, ni len tašna. [In the beginning
it is the court. We belong to the Gypsies, we are going to the monastery, far away, in the
swamp, we make a cross, cover it with tar, tar from a car, and take an oath. In the swamp,
under the old bridge, where there are devils, there gather 41 devils. We take an oath, kiss
the cross, saying, for example ‘I didn’t take, I didn’t see, I didn’t take the pocket.’]
In Bulgaria, in some cases the oath is taken over a cross covered with fat, which
is thought to be the strongest oath. For the Rumanian Dobrudža, the strongest
oath was taken on sheep suet, more recently on two wooden sticks in the shape
of a cross with two cigarettes placed on the cross (the cigarette symbolizing tar
and fire); the oath taker has to smoke the cigarettes. In Transylvania ‘the oath is
made on the cross, water, earth, and fire, holding a lighted candle’ (Bobu 2002:
80). The Krimurja in Russia and the Ukraine, who nominally are Moslems, can
take the oath in the yard of a mosque, though it is more often taken over a loaf
of bread. The Roma from Kosovo, who are Moslems too, take the oath on the
holy Koran; as an informant from Peja/Peč described it,
Vov našti te džal ko leste, ko leste te vačerel, ‘Tu čordan man.’ Šaj akharel manušen te xal
leste sovli. Naprimer lol e kurano, te xal leste sovli, isto šaj vičinel manušen—plečinarja,
kaj, te xan leste sovli, naprimer. Taj vov sonlil pe leste—naprimer vačerel, ‘Te bandžarol
man, man te kuravjol man kurano, me ni čordem’, naprimer. [It is not appropriate for
him to go to him and to say, ‘You stole from me.’ He needs to collect the people and
to take an oath. For example, take a copy of the Koran, to take the oath, he also needs
to call on the people—the judges, for example—where to take an oath. And he takes
the oath, saying, for example, ‘I should become handicapped, the Koran will made me
blind, I didn’t steal’, for example.]

Every oath in the region concludes with endless enumerations of the terrible
consequences in the event of perjury. Generally speaking, all Gypsy groups
believe that perjuring oneself while taking the oath leads to misfortunes in the
near future. Informants told many stories of perjury followed by the perjurer
falling ill and dying, or the same happening to members of his family. Often
the culprit will make a confession only when the time comes for him to take
the oath, because he could not find the courage to do so earlier (the last case we
witnessed was with the Servi in Perejaslav in the Ukraine in 2003, where a case
the gypsy court in eastern europe 91

of adultery was being heard). Since the oath is an extremely serious instrument
in establishing the truth, nothing can be disputed after an oath has been taken
and the final decision of the Gypsy court has been made. However, in some
cases even the oath cannot prove the guilt or innocence of the accused. For
instance, at a big family reunion of Serbian Kalderaš and Bulgarian Kardaraši
in Charleroi, Belgium, a Bulgarian Gypsy woman’s money disappeared. A
Gypsy court session was immediately called but it could not be determined
who the guilty party was. Each suspect had to take an oath stating that he had
not taken the money. In such cases the court takes no decision and no one
has the right to raise the question again, as it is believed that everything is in
the hands of God from then on. If someone has given a false oath, God will
personally punish him.
Although a ruling of the Gypsy court is binding, it cannot be enforced.28
But still, a decision arrived at by consensus cannot be ignored as this would
be seen not only as exceptional disrespect for people with authoritaty in the
community, but also for the Gypsy community at large. The inevitable and
unavoidable punishment for someone who ignores the court’s ruling is exile
from the community. This is the main reason why people obey the rules. No
one wishes to be an outcast from his community or his immediate circle; for a
Gypsy this is the equivalent of social death. We have never heard of such cases.

5.2  Changes in respect to the oath

In recent years an interesting detail has been observed in the territories of the
former Soviet Union in connection with the worldwide increase in the number
of new Evangelical churches among the Gypsies. Some of their dogmatic prin-
ciples have changed, including their attitude towards the Gypsy court. ‘Repent-
ant Gypsies’ (i.e. those who have accepted the new religion; the newly baptized)
can, if necessary, take part in the Gypsy court. All that is required of them is to
exclude the enumeration of the consequences in the event of perjury.
Among Bulgarian Kardaraši there are some recent reports of attempts to
cheat the Gypsy court and the oath, among men by putting a stone in their

28.  We cannot agree with Stewart (1997: 57), who states that ‘the judgements given in kris were
no more than the advice of one or more men whom no one was compelled to heed, since the men
who gave the opinions did so as individuals, not as representatives of some abstract system or
idea of justice. [. . .] If they had authority, it as entirely personal and found no support in a system
of power relations or means of coercion, since they had no means, moral or otherwise, to enforce
their decisions.’ In a community like the Gypsies, where power of public opinion social relations
in a community definitely has predominance over personality, the Gypsy court is much more
efficient than any legal institution and means of coercion of contemporary society. In any case,
during about three decades of fieldwork in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Russia,
we have never heard of a single case of unconditional and categorical refusal to apply the verdict
of the Gypsy court. The few cases of refusal to accept these decisions and agreements (formal and
informal) always end in compromise and, in effect, acceptance of the court’s decisions.
elena marushiakova and vesselin popov

pocket and among women by putting a stone in their bosom. This stone should
be thrown away after taking the oath. It is believed that this stone replaces the
person and the consequences from perjury will therefore affect just the stone.
In the case of stealing money, women sometimes try to put part of the money
in their palm and hide the rest in their sleeves and swear that the only money
they have is what they have in their hand. That is why before taking the oath
the judges push the women, shaking their sleeves.
Other unusual oath cases were reported recently from the former Soviet
Union, where the problem with drug dealing among the Gypsies is endangering
the community. There have been several cases where the sxodka had decided
that an oath was necessary, but the participants did not permit the accused
person to take the oath because that person was a drug dealer, which according
to them ‘is equivalent to selling their soul to the devil’.
All these examples confirm once again that the belief in the power of the
oath is still alive among the Gypsies in the region.

6.  Classification of the cases heard before the Gypsy court

Cases heard before the Gypsy court can be divided into a number of basic cat-
egories. This classification is not absolute and in practice the categories cannot
be clearly demarcated.

6.1  Disputes about economic interests

These disputes are the most frequent ones. They are settled by the Gypsy
court, and are found in all Gypsy groups we studied. Both today and in their
nomadic past these court settlements vary greatly. They include a broad sphere
of economic and commercial activities, which is to be expected consider-
ing the exceptional flexibility of Gypsies in search of niches where there is a
potential for gain. Thus, the Gypsy court could be convened in connection
with encroachments into the economic market, unfair competition, undercut-
ting, taking away an order or a customer, unpaid debts, etc. We will give some
contemporary examples to illustrate this. The first is a ‘classic’ example from
Bulgaria. A member of the Kardaraši community, the owner of a building firm,
signed a favourable contract for installing glass and putting a roof on a big
business establishment. However, he did not do the work himself, but hired
another Kardaraš and his firm to do the work. This subcontractor, however,
made a deal directly with the head of the establishment (state firm) and the
contract (after paying the corresponding bribe) was given to his firm. The first
Kardaraš summoned a mešare and wanted his losses to be compensated by the
second one, and after long deliberations the court decided to rule in favour of
the plaintiff (although he was not compensated with the amount he wanted).
the gypsy court in eastern europe 93

The second example, also from the Kardaraši community Bulgaria, is more
traditional. A group of women accompanied by two men—who were their
guards and drivers—were going to steal some turkeys. The police came and
arrested the two men. An official (state) court session followed at which one of
the men was sentenced to prison and the second man was given a suspended
sentence. Later a Gypsy court was summoned to decide how much each family
that was involved in the turkey theft should pay to the arrested man’s family
(to support his family while he was in prison and to compensate him). A long
discussion took place during the session as to whether or not the man who was
given the suspended sentence should also pay along with all others. The Gypsy
court ruled that he should pay, though less, because during the time of his sus-
pended sentence he would not be able to earn enough money, as he would have
to be especially careful not to break any official laws.
The third example involves the Ruska Roma from Russia and is also quite typ-
ical. Two Gypsies defrauded a considerable amount of money trading scarves
on the market. The militia looked for them, but they hid with a woman from
the community. They were found and arrested, but in the end they managed to
avoid the court. The woman, however, summoned sendo, because she thought
that because of them the militia were paying close attention to her. The Gypsy
court accepted her claims, but the compensation she received was much lower
than what she had requested because her losses were potential, not material.
When these kinds of cases are examined, many factors have to be taken
into consideration. For instance, the following concerns a case involving the
Kišinjovci near Moscow. One of them had taken a loan from another in order
to set up his own business. Due to various reasons his plans were not successful
and he was not able to return the money in time. The man who lent him the
money summoned žudikate as he wanted his money back together with a sup-
plement for missed benefits. The Gypsy court found his claims to be justified,
but ruled that the loan and the compensation should be returned over a longer
period of time, the logic being that the man should have time to develop his
own business.
Occasionally these cases can be quite complicated, which we will illustrate
with an example from the region of Odessa. A Gypsy (from the Katunarja) was
visiting a family of relatives when a scandal broke out. As a result, the guest was
thrown out and he called the police. In the meantime, while the police were
on their way, the host threw out an extract of home-made drugs (from poppy
straw), to prevent it from being found by the police in the event of a search. The
host then called for the Gypsy court to be convened, claiming damages for the
loss, and the court ruled that both sides should make payments to one another;
the hosts because of the scandal and insulting the guest and the guest because
he called the police.
elena marushiakova and vesselin popov

6.2  Disputes related to family issues

Quite a variety of cases fall under this category. They all chiefly deal with
relations between families who have concluded a marriage; for instance,
compensation if the bride is not a virgin; trying to find out why she is not a
virgin; finding solutions or compensation if after marriage she escapes to her
parents or to another man; conflicts between husband and wife, or between
women and their mothers-in-law, etc. In these cases the court agreement is
about the price which has already been paid for the daughter in law; should it
be returned? If yes, which amount? And should there be if any compensation
for moral losses?
From among the Kardaraši in Bulgaria there are many examples of cases
of this kind. For instance, a daughter-in-law escaped to another man and the
mešare ruled that the price paid for the bride (cash and gold coins) has to be
returned, along with compensation. But since the parents of the woman were
not able to do so, they had to compensate the claimants’ family with their big
Sometimes, in cases about family issues, the whole family must compensate
the wrongdoing, as in the example of a trans-border Gypsy court. At the wed-
ding of a young couple of Serbian Kalderaš and Bulgarian Kardaraši, the bride’s
necklace, made from gold coins, was stolen. It was discovered (through oath)
that a female relative had done it. The decision of the court was to organise
another wedding, because this one was broken with the scandals, to be paid for,
as compensation, by the family of the woman who had stolen the necklace. The
family should also give the bride another necklace, made from gold coins.
Although they are rare, such cases may have nothing to do with monetary
compensation. The last case of this type, which we witnessed in 2004, concerned
the desire of one young Kardaraši family from Bulgaria to separate from the
husband’s family because of continuing conflicts between the daughter-in-law
and the mother-in-law. The court was summoned by the girl’s parents, but the
decision was not in their favour; it was decided that the young family was too
young (they only had one small child) and incapable of living on their own,
without parental control.
Sometimes the cases are much more complicated. Here is yet another example
from Bulgaria. One morning in a Kardaraši family the daughter-in-law told her
mother-in-law that her husband—the mother-in-law’s son—returned home
drunk late the previous night. The mother-in-law, however, knew that her son
was far away from home in another city, and realised that the daughter-in-law
had spent the night with another man. She consequently forced her daughter-
in-law to go back to her parents. The family of the daughter-in-law, however,
refused to return the money they had received for her as dowry and a mešare
the gypsy court in eastern europe 95

was called to deal with the issue. The family of the daughter-in-law claimed
that she was not guilty of cheating on her husband because she thought she was
sleeping with him. The court recess was very long, and the case was reduced to
the question whether the daughter-in-law should have been able to recognise
in the dark whether the man who was with her was her husband or another
man. In the end a compromise was reached, the court ruling that part of the
price paid for the bride should be returned (the greater part in this case).
On such occasion, Gypsies in the countries of the former Soviet Union rarely
turn to a Gypsy court. Their aim is to settle matters between the two extended
families without bringing the issue before the community. It would not occur
to a Krimurja to take such cases to the court, while for other Gypsy groups
in the region this has been known to occur only rarely. The court is relatively
more often summoned by the Kelderari and the Lovari because they have the
custom of paying a dowry, though only within their own group. However,
among Gypsies in Bulgaria and Rumania, court settlements on such occasions
are a regular phenomenon (about half of the cases). Probably the main factor
is that in Gypsy groups in Bulgaria and Rumania, arranged marriages with a
dowry are customary, while among Gypsies in the former Soviet Union such
payments are comparatively rare; they are customary only with the Krimurja,
occur less frequently with the Kelderari and Lovari, and are generally absent in
the other groups.

6.3  Moral and ethical disputes

Gypsy courts on moral issues are called all over the regions that were inves-
tigated, but in general they are rarely held. In principle, cooperation with the
authorities is sufficient reason for a court examination of a case, and this is
especially frequent among Gypsies in the countries of the former USSR. But
for practical purposes the Gypsy court is convened for such accusations only
when people are affected or, above all, when economic interests are at stake.
Actually, such Gypsy courts discuss not only the fact of the cooperation itself,
but also its consequences, such as any economic losses of the community
member who starts the court hearing; the formulation of such inadmissibility
is left at a rather ‘ideological’ level, while in reality things are as always much
more complicated.
The court is convened more often in cases of conflict or in situations in
which someone’s prestige or name has suffered, as the Gypsies of these groups
consider prestige and name as exceptionally important. A case of this kind
happened among the Servi in the Ukraine, when a girl was verbally abused in
public by another Gypsy. A relative of the offended girl called a sudo because
he thought that in this case the whole kin was offended too, and his claims
were accepted and compensation was paid.
elena marushiakova and vesselin popov

Curious examples in this context are the disputes between Kardaraši in-laws
from Bulgaria who wanted to buy the bride’s dress (both wanted to buy the
dress as it enhances their prestige) and among the Lovari in Russia about the
lack of respect shown when a guest was received.
Cases dealing with moral questions are often intertwined with family rela-
tions. For instance, a high-profile case among the Kardaraši in Bulgaria was
the one in which a man called a mešare because his daughter’s father- and
mother-in-law did not allow her to visit her parents. After being fined several
times by the Gypsy court for obstructing normal family relations, the in-laws
called a great mešare, with oath, where the father of the bride was exposed as
having caused the problem on purpose in order to secure some money for the
severe winter, during which he had no income. As a result of this case, the girl’s
parents were sentenced to return the received fines, and were ordered to pay a
fine themselves, and both sides are warned that if they continue this charade
the mešare would propose to terminate the marriage.
Another curious case, this time in Western Europe, concerns the moral cat-
egory of pativ (‘respect’). A Kalderaš from Yugoslavia went visiting a relative,
and the hosts let him sleep in the same room with them. A few days later the
man called a kris, accusing the hosts of making ‘sexualipe’ [sic], damaging
his honour. The debates on this case continued at the time of writing, but the
prevailing public opinion is that he made up the whole story in order to receive
monetary compensation.
Another case concerning the moral category of respect and mutual support
was observed in 1985 in Jesenske, Slovakia, among Lovari. One young member
of the community died in a car accident in Germany; he was there to smug-
gle. His relatives summoned a krísi. The judges arrived from Hungary and the
Slovakian towns Komarno and Bratislava; the court was conducted in the hall
of a local hotel. The court decided that all community members should help to
collect money (which should be donated without obligation to return) in order
to bring the deceased back to Slovakia and to bury him respectfully accord-
ing to the customs. With the money that was collected, 40 people travelled to
Germany to collect the dead man.

7.  Problems of the whole community (or some parts of it)

Calling the Gypsy court to deal with problems concerning the whole community
or whole families is considered possible by all Gypsy groups, but for practical
purposes this is exceptionally rare.29 We found such a case in Moldova, where
29.  The case of the ‘Gypsy court’ in California is in the same category; it had to decide if a Gypsy
woman was allowed to wear jeans. (Weyrauch and Bell 2001: 46, n. 151). The analogy is indicative
of the problems occupying Gypsies in different countries.
the gypsy court in eastern europe 97

an accidental death (an accidental murder; someone was playing with a gun,
another man was shot) happened in a village inhabited by Ursari. Although
the authorities did not press charges against the perpetrators, the Gypsy court
ordered the whole family to leave the village and the house to remain empty, as
a warning to the rest.
Among Bougešti in Slovakia, we came across another case. This one aimed to
preserve the community in which the krísi had decided to break matrimonial
connections. The case was reported to us several times as an extraordinary one
by different people, which is unusual. The case involved a young Gypsy who
had married a Gajži (a non-Gypsy). Later, his parents arranged with another
family, Bougešti, for the the young man to marry their daughter. Because the
young man refused to part with his wife, a Gypsy court was summoned which
decided that the mixed marriage was not valid and the man should consider
the decision of his parents (which he later did).
Recently, several other cases occurred in Russia when Gypsy courts, startled
by cases of drug addiction among young Gypsies, locally ordered a ban on the
sale of drugs, which was a reflection of the community itself.
An interesting variation on the idea of the Gypsy court resolving problems
of the whole Gypsy community was proposed in 2003 by a well-known Gypsy
leader in Russia. He made a statement regarding the creation of different Gypsy
organisations and the election of leaders of National Cultural Autonomy of the
Gypsies in Russia (this was not approved by all Gypsies) proposing that the
respected people from all Gypsy groups should be summoned to a Gypsy court
(sxodka) in order to elect the appropriate people as leaders of the Autonomy, to
lead the Gypsy movement (Bessonov and Reshetnikov (2003: 6).

8.  The importance and perspectives of the Gypsy Court

In summary, the Gypsy court has played an exceptional part in the lives of
many Gypsy groups in Eastern Europe. The presence (or absence) of a Gypsy
court is a clear marker differentiating Gypsies from the remaining settled Gypsy
communities (and from the surrounding population). This is also expressed by
those Gypsies who use the Gypsy court. It is a typical and effective mechanism
in their ethno-social organisation; it is an active social regulator, controlling
and blocking deviant behaviour in communities and guaranteeing their crea-
Seen from a historical perspective it appears that the presence of a Gypsy
court has become the most reliable means for the preservation of the com-
munity’s ethnic identity and ensures the survival of its endogamy. Moreover,
the presence of a common Gypsy court in the countries of the former Soviet
Union has contributed to the development of some kind of consciousness of a
elena marushiakova and vesselin popov

pan-Gypsy unity, which in this region has a markedly stronger presence than
anywhere else in the world. In other words, the Gypsy court is essentially an
active factor for the development of the community.
In spite of its historic character, the institution is subject to change. It is no
coincidence that today one of the most frequent complaints made by Gypsies
is that the Gypsy court no longer functions as it did in the past. Its prestige is
dwindling, which for them is a sign that the community is threatened with
extinction. Such complaints are not only a form of nostalgia towards the ‘golden
past’ but reflect current processes in the Gypsy community. Gypsies, with their
own way of life, are predestined to live among an alien macro-society; it is only
natural that they cannot be completely isolated. In spite of this we could hardly
expect the Gypsy court to disappear, as in many cases it is the only (or at least
the most important) core element that consolidates and preserves Gypsy com-
munities. Nevertheless, the principle of consensus, which is the underlying
concept of the Gypsy court, is increasingly in conflict with the development
in modern civilisation, which is built and functions on other principles and
norms. Thus, the prospects for the Gypsy court remain uncertain, and depend
to a large degree on the prospects of the overall development of the Gypsy

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