Carneys and Street Artists

The Roma are carneys, artists, fortune-tellers, merry-go-round holders, circus artists, bear-trainers and musicians and up to now they are present on public festivals and fairs all over Europe even if their number is decreasing. As entertaining artists they were considered as main proviters of popular culture up to the beginning of the 20th century.

Nevertheless the carneys and street artists could never rely on their social position – irrespective of which ethnic group they belonged to. On the one hand, they were treated as highly appreciated guests, on the other hand they were defamed as "idlers" and charlatans. In many German speaking areas they were counted among the "dishonest ones", where consequently they were declared to be without any laws and unable for any actions in court. They were also not allowed to work in city authorities or to become members of craftsmen's guilds.

Documents give evidence that already in their Indian home country the Roma offered their services as entertaining artists. The Persian poet Ferdousi writes in his "Šāh-nāme" ("King Book") that around the year 1000 A.D. a Sassanindian prince called for 12,000 jugglers and street artists (Luri [Rom-Ḍom-Lom]) to entertain his people. Nikephoras Gregoras reports that in 1321 a group of Ägyptici (Roma) worked as foolhardy tightrope walkers, jugglers and acrobats in the Byzantine Empire. He describes their artistic performances as " astonishing and full of miracles. Since their tricks were dangerous, they would not live in safety. Often it happens that one of them falls down and loses his/her life. In fact, they were forty people when they left their home country, but less than twenty were still alive when they reached Byzantium." One century later the Magdeburg Chronicle writes that " Thatares called Gypsies " were performing as travelling entertainers on the city fish market in front of councillors and showed " wondrous moves."

Roma groups who traditionally were working in this field are for example Lautari (musicians), Ursari (bear-trainers) and different Sinti-groups. In part the latter are working as circus artists and musicians even today. Sinti and Manoush musicians like Django Reinhardt or Schnuckenack Reinhardt have reached the heights of fame all over the world; the circus "Romanes" conducted by the French Manoush counts as one of the most famous ones currently around Europe. Today many Sinti hold motor racing circuits, merry-go-rounds or carousels. [Index of appellations ]

Most contention was caused by the Roma bear-trainers, who irrespective of their language and region called themselves Medvedara, Ričkara, Ursari, Mechkara or Ayjides. [Roma – Sub Ethnic Groups] They are, however, not to be considered as a common group as they differ considerably in terms of ethnicity and language. The bear-trainers caught the young bears either in the Alps or in the Carpathians, or purchased them from mountain farmers. They trained the bears to walk upright on a signal, to lean on a shepherd’s crook with their forepaws, and to make dancing moves to a drumbeat. The owners of these trained dancing bears went from village to village and performed at public festivals or looked for engagements at circuses.

Until the period between the two World Wars they also performed in western European cities. The associations for the protection of animals, however, increasingly objected to the training of animals. In fact, the bear trainers also used hot iron bars in order to train the animals to walk upright. Already in the 1920's in Germany, it was prohibited to lead bears since it was considered cruelty to animals. In the former countries of the eastern block, the state enforced assimilation policy prohibited to exert this nomadic trade. In single cases even today, bear trainers can still be seen in the Balkan area.


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Image Printable version
Bear trainer (Macedonia), 1900
Mozes Heinschink with family R. working as holder of a carrousel (Turnisče [Slovenia]), 2002
Gomilica (Slovenia), 2002
Gypsy Entertainer leaping through rings of knives and fire (Cairo [Egypt]), 2000