gypsies and cousin marriage

i know you’ve been wondering.

well, obviously the gypsies are a highly endogamous group — they mostly marry other gypsies. the actual cousin marriage rates vary though from (as you’ll see below) ca. 10-30% first cousin only marriages amongst gypsies in slovakia to 29% first+second cousin marriages amongst gypsies in spain [pdf] to 36% first+second cousin marriages amongst gypsies in wales [pdf]. these rates are comparable to those found in places like turkey (esp. eastern turkey) or north africa…or southern india. tells us that the rates of first cousin marriage (that includes double-first cousin marriage) amongst slovakian gypsies ranges from 10.1% to 14.7% [pdf – pg. 10 – i think the reference is to this 1994 paper].

another study of gypsies in slovakia (in svinia) found that the cousin marriage rates have actually increased over time since the early twentieth century, the researcher guesses due to the increasing population size (the more cousins around to marry, the more cousin marriage – maybe?). from Svinia in Black and White: Slovak Roma and Their Neighbours (2005) [pgs. 84-85]:

“Analysis of the marital choices made by local Roma shows that 75 per cent of the children born here between the 1930s and the early 1970s had a least one parent who hailed from elsewhere, whereas that ratio fell to 25 per cent during subsequent years. This dramatic shift doesn’t mean that young people no longer leave Svinia for spouses in other settlements — some continue to do so — but it does mean that of those who remain behind, which is the vast majority, far fewer end up with spouses from outside the community than used to be the case with their parents and grandparents.

“I don’t know how to explain this remarkable shift toward settlement endogamy. The people who are responsible for it don’t indicate any significant changes in their preferences, and the most plausible conclusion one can draw in the absence of evidence pointing in a different direction is to correlate the shift with the dramatic increase in Svinia’s population size, which translates into a corresponding growth of the local marriage universe. Unlike their parents and grandparents who lived in a small community that imposed strict limits on their choice of partners, the people who have reached maturity in more recent years have faced a much expanded pool of potential local partners, enabling them to make a selection within their own settlement.

“The result of this shift has been a decrease in the amount of traffic between Svinia and other Romani communities. Every marriage with a resident of another settlement brings about increased contact between the two communities. Relatives and friends travel to and fro as they attend baptisms, birthday parties, funerals, and other important events…. The shift from choosing mostly spouses from other settlements to marrying predominantly one’s own neighbours has gone hand in hand with a remarkable increase in the rate of unions between relatives. It is certain that common-law marriage involving close relatives did exist among Svinia’s first- and second-generation Roma. Indeed, there is strong evidence that the common-law spouse of Bartolomej (1912-73), one of Juraj and Hania’s sons and the founder of one of the lineages of *jarkovci*, was his biological niece. And of Hania and Juraj’s 27 grandchildren who remained in Svinia and found partners there, seven chose first cousins or first cousins once removed. But this rate of roughly 25 per cent pales in comparison with the situation among the third- and fourth-generation: people who have reached maturity during the last 30 years or so and who have remained in their ancestral settlement. Of the 159 persons in this category, 101 (or close to 65 per cent) opted for a biologically related partner. Roughly one half of these unions involves close cousins — first and once removed — while the other half consists of more distant degrees of consanguinity….

“Interestingly, local Roma profess avoidance of cousin marriage, and few of those who have broken this norm will disclose it voluntarily. Confronted with genealogical evidence, most will shrug their shoulders and declare pragmatically that affection overrides conventions. On the other hand, many people have such a vague grasp of their own ancestry that they cannot establish the identities of all four grandparents. This means that more distantly linked spouses, such as second or third cousins, are often not even aware of their relationship.”

and here about gypsies in albania from Roma and Egyptians in Albania: From Social Exclusion to Social Inclusion (2005) (egyptians??) [pg. 18]:

“Most marriages, especially among Roma, are intra-ethnic and arranged through match-makers. In fact, 95 percent of Roma and 74 percent of Egyptians preferred members of their own ethnic group as marriage partners.

“Traditional Marriage Partners. Most Roma and Egyptians still marry within their own ethnic group. More Egyptians than Roma would accept a marriage between a family member and an Albanian.

Among many Roma families, moreover, marriage partners must be members of their own primary *fis*. Many Cergar and Bamill Roma in Delvina, Gjirokastra, Levan, Fier, Fushe Kruja, and Korca arrange marriages between first and second cousins. Endogamy is practiced by some Roma in isolated localities, or by Roma that recently migrated from the country, and is explained by the limited access to available marriage patterns there. Roma explain endogamy through such metaphors as ‘The good horse should be sold within the village’ and ‘Why should the good apple get eaten by someone else?’

“The tradition of marrying members of one’s own primary *fis* is, however, undergoing change. One Roma leader in Tirana explained: ‘Many marriages happen nowadays between members of different Roma *fise*, whereas before they didn’t. Everyone wanted [to marry someone] from his own *fis*. My father and my wife’s father belong to the same *fis*; therefore my wife and I married…Today, however, the youth don’t care about this tradition, and they’ve even started marrying whites, Egyptians, or Roma from other *fise*.’

“Marriage with a member of another ethnic group is sometimes punished with ostracism….”

we’ve heard about these *fise* in the balkans before. here’s more about the gypsy *fise* (i think we can just call them clans) [pgs. 21-22]:

“Roma social organization is based on the *fis*. Members of one *fis* are usually persons who patrilineally descend from a common male *fis* name. The main branches of the *fis* — large families — serve as the bases for the creation of new *fise*.

“Arben, a Roma who enjoys a high standing within his *fis*, explained: ‘My *fis* is made up of all cousins [first, second] that have my last name, Demir.’ When a *fis* extends for several generations into a few dozen families, *fis* membership can reach into the hundreds. Now into its third generation, the Demir *fis* is composed of approximately 70 families and several hundred individuals.

“*Fis* structures can take several forms. Many Roma only consider persons with a common last name as *fis* members. But some Roma think that the children of female *fis* members can still be considered *fis* members although they have different last names. The concept of the *fis* is relative and dependent upon the outlook of *fis* members and the point in the family tree from which the *fis* begins. Patrilineage indicates an ongoing social change. But while patrilineage has, up to now, been a rather stable form of kinship social organization of the Roma *fis*, forms of matrilineage have become less common.”

and, finally, on some gypsies in romania — Exploring Gypsiness: Power, Exchange and Interdependence in a Transylvanian Village (2007) [pg. 79]:

“The only restrictions of marriage among the hamlet Roma are between members of the immediate family, between uncles and nieces, aunts and nephews and between Roma and gaže [that’s us]. These restrictions are, however, not expressed as rules, but as a self-evident question of morality and practicality. As the gaže ‘have no shame’ and do not speak Romanes, and as such mixed marriages are also rejected by gaže, they will not generally happen. As marriage to gaže does not create alliance, and thus kinship, it is not strategically interesting. When such marriages did occur they were the result of individual choice, but were not rejected if they were seen as prosperous for the family household or familia in general. The hamlet Roma preferred to marry Roma of their own subgroup, generally Roma to whom they were already related. Although most Roma told us that it was bad to marry too close, first- and second-cousin marriages were common, both between cross and parallel cousins (vero/verisoara). These were regarded as true Roma (Roma cace), people one knows and can trust because they already belong to one’s kin network and speak Romanes properly.

how long have gypsies been marrying close cousins at these rates? who knows. long time probably.

*edit 10/24: anonymous points out that the “gypsies” on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding are actually irish travellers — or mostly irish travellers. thanks, anonymous! the irish travellers marry their cousins A LOT.


apparently, a couple of the principles on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding who got married were first cousins. caused a bit of a stir among some non-gypsy viewers i guess. i must’ve missed that episode. (~_^) interesting to see here the restrictions on women — related to reproduction, of course — just like in other inbreeding groups — like the arabs, for instance:

“‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ stars believe in incest, not pre-marital sex”

“…The show’s stars add that they also embrace traditional values and distinct gender roles.

“‘We don’t believe in sleeping with men before we are married,’ Annie explained. ‘The woman’s role in a gypsy family is to stay home, take care of kids, clean, get your nails done, and take care of duties at home. The kids, especially the girls, are learning to clean the house and parents are very strict on them. Growing up I was not allowed to stay at friends’ houses even when I was 15 or 16 years old, I was not allowed to go to parties or have a boyfriend or do anything. I just cleaned the house.’

“Nettie continued that the ‘normal age for a girl to get married is between 16 and 18,’ and that females are allowed fewer freedoms than their male counterparts.

“‘It is just the way we were brought up,’ she insisted. ‘A girl has more at risk with her reputation than a boy does. A girl has to go a little further than a guy to protect her reputation. A girl is to be looked at as a decent young girl, where a boy can do whatever and nobody is going to look at him in a bad way….'”

(note: comments do not require an email. puffin alert!)


  1. On the other hand, many people have such a vague grasp of their own ancestry that they cannot establish the identities of all four grandparents. This means that more distantly linked spouses, such as second or third cousins, are often not even aware of their relationship.”

    I wonder how often that happens in “the ghetto”.


  2. @ihtg – “I wonder how often that happens in ‘the ghetto’.”

    yeah. if you don’t know who your daddy is, you won’t know who your paternal grandparents are. =/


  3. These people are degenerating before our eyes. Granting them the benefits of the European welfare state is practically a crime. It’s like spoiling a child, writ large.


  4. Add in the fact that they, many of them (how many?) are a nomadic people moving among settled populations, which is a total anomaly in this day and age, and the probability of conflict grows exponentially. Inbreeding + nomadism = unpopularity


  5. I should have said inbreeding + nomadism = unpopularity (unless you are honest). That last qualifier is what distinguishes the Jews, however imperfectly. Thus “to jew” is not the same as “to gyp” (in once common parlance). See my The Torah and the West Bank, which you can find on the web.


  6. And of course there have been many other differences between Jews and Gypsies historically. For one thing Jewish communities in Europe were never truly nomadic — just loosely rooted. To say nothing of greater intelligence and a much more vital role in the larger economy. Don’t get me wrong please.


  7. A lot of gypsies supposedly drop out of this lifestyle. You can see them here in Sweden, you can see that they are gypsies but they live in nuclear families in even change to Swedish names sometimes. At the same time, this means that those stick with their traditions will have an even higher frequency of gene variants for familial altruism.

    Maybe there is something similar going on with Jews, splitting into secular and Orthodox?


  8. I’m thinking that might just be variation within the population Staffan. Even in a highly inbred population you’d expect to see some individuals born who feel a little differently about the old ways, those people might feel more at home in the Swedish culture than their own… but they will bring along some of their unexpressed genetic heritage. Stiil, in my mind that’s a good thing. I think these universalist European societies like to import new blood as a way to strengthen the society through genetic diversity (lots of positives there, higher chance in a diverse population of surviving epidemics, etc.) It’s just that when we have global travel and massive refugee resettlement what was a trickle of new blood becomes a flood, then the predilection to treat everyone the same comes back to bite.



  9. That sounds about right. The Finns who firmly reject mass immigration, are probably blessed with a clannish/tribal Sami admixture that innoculates them from the Blank Slatism of the rest of Northwestern Europe. You want the vaccine, not the disease.


  10. Just a clarification for those who haven’t seen the show, most of the gypsies on Big Fat Gypsy Wedding are Irish Travellers, as opposed to Roma. They’ve got no relation to the Roma, and are pretty much purely Irish (though they split off at some point in the the past 500 years, nobody knows when or why exactly)


  11. I was wondering what is so different about the British Romanichal gypsies. Relative to Irish travellers, and east European Roma Gypsy migrants here in the UK, the Romanichals share many characteristics of both other gypsy groups, yet in seem to be considerably better educated, and considerably less criminally inclined. Perhaps better assimilated due to having lived here so long, and more admixed with the native population? I expect they also practice consanguineous marriage to some degree, or have done so.


  12. @anonymous – “Just a clarification for those who haven’t seen the show, most of the gypsies on Big Fat Gypsy Wedding are Irish Travellers, as opposed to Roma.”

    thanks! i was actually wondering that to myself last night — it occurred to me late (after going to bed!) that the Big Fat Gypsy Wedding “gypsies” didn’t look very gypsy (roma) like. thought i’d look it up today, but you’ve saved me the trouble. (^_^) (i’ve never seen the show.)


  13. This hurts less every year, but it still stings. I had friends in four gypsy villages in Transylvania, plus some in Beius, and am quite clear about both Roma pathology and discrimination against them. My Romanian sons, especially #4, likely have at least some Tsigan heritage. They are friendly but hate us, the Gadjo. They trust only each other and even that, not so much. I have lost touch, and perhaps should no longer care.

    The communists tried to force them into the cities and settled living, with some success at brutal cost. I don’t know how to describe this to you. There is an outflow each year from the Roma into the general population, at least in Romania and Hungary. There is also a willingness to accept gadjo children born to prostitute mothers into the group without prejudice. There is always a willingness among some Tsigani to incorporate some aspects of Western culture. And there has always been a willingness for even the most recalcitrant members to adopt the dominant music, food, and religion of whatever area they are in. On their own terms.

    Yet the desire to remain separate is absolute for some, who consider the rest of us to be non-human and not worthy of any fairness or consideration whatsoever. This is true of some extreme clans in Eastern Europe anyway, but at a much smaller percentage than among the gypsies. If you get back into the mountains you increasingly encounter a sense of difference and of danger. What is an American aberration in Deliverance, described for its novelty, is matter-of-fact in Maramures.

    Stick to the main roads, please. You are an outsider, of no value.


  14. “I wonder how often that happens in “the ghetto”.”

    Yes, especially as mothers can have kids from multiple fathers and nobody knows who the real father is. Although I think the total randomness of it all – in large ghettos anyway – is likely to prevent anything coming of it. However I do wonder about smaller ones like little underclass housing projects with just a few hundreds of residents tucked in amongst middle class housing. I think that environment could possibly create little mafia kindreds after a few generations as even totally random they’d still all be pretty closely related.


    “you get back into the mountains you increasingly encounter a sense of difference and of danger”

    Yes. There’s people looking at you with hostility and then there’s people looking at you like you’re food – weird and very difficult to forget.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s