The embossed copper title and two laughing Romani women on the cover of I Met Lucky People might suggest a coffee-table book, the kind of book you could safely give most people for Christmas. In fact, this disguises a dense text with an academic tone and a corrective, sociological air. Linguistics professor Yaron Matras’s achievement is to show just how deep the roots of Europe’s phobia of Gypsies are, and how hard it is to propagate a different, more nuanced picture.
The book is arranged by cultural and historical themes rather than by time periods or geographical regions. Other histories of the Roma – such as Sir Angus Fraser’s The Gypsies – have taken the more obvious route of tracking their westward migration, stopping to sketch their changing circumstances along the way. Matras does this too, at points: sections on the Roma in Byzantium, and their subsequent descent into hundreds of years of slavery in Romania, are alternately fascinating and harrowing.
It was in medieval Constantinople that the Roma’s ancestors first arrived from the East (modern Istanbul still has a large Roma population). Sometime between 1283 and 1289, the Patriarch of Constantinople issued an order that ‘Athinganoi and Egyptians’, the latter presumed to mean Roma, should be taxed. Several decades later,