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How Bohemians Got Their Name

Greenwich Village ‘bohemians.’

On April 17, 1423,  an event took place which, implausibly enough, lead to the creation of the modern notion — or at least nomenclature — of ‘bohemia.’

‘Bohemian,’ as commonly used in the West for the last two centuries, means a person who lives an unconventional lifestyle, often with few permanent ties, involving musical, artistic, or literary pursuits.  It is a notion which has come to in many ways define and transform neighborhoods like the East Village and Greenwich Village, which are more strongly associated with the term than almost anyplace else on earth.

As illustration, in January, 1917, artists Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude Drick, and John Sloane climbed to the top of Washington Square Arch, started a bonfire, and declared that Greenwich Village had seceded from America, forming the Independent Republic of Bohemia.  About eighty years later, the musical Rent, about life in the East Village in the late 1980’s, was actually an updated version of the opera ‘La Boheme,’ about ‘bohemians’ living in Paris in the 1840’s.

John Sloane et al atop Washington Square Arch

It was in fact in Paris in the early 19th century that the term “bohemian” came to be associated with people living an artistic and unconventional lifestyle.  But how did a term which literally referred to a medieval kingdom in Central Europe, part of today’s Czech Republic, come to define a lifestyle which so transformed western culture?

In the modern era, “Bohemian” came to be used to describe Roma people, or gypsies as they were also called, in much of Western Europe.  The Roma were a wandering people, who lived communally, generally did not posses  permanent or stationary jobs or homes, and for whom music, storytelling, and mystical arts were a central part of their lifestyles.

In countries like France, and eventually the United States, some people who were drawn to this unconventional lifestyle came to live with or interact closely with these Roma communities, in both cities and towns.  But many more, by simply  adopting a freewheeling, unfettered lifestyle associated with gypsies, came to be known by the term applied to this wandering, counter-cultural people — “bohemains.”

So how and why did Roma people, or gypsies, come to be called “bohemians?”

Roma people in the present-day Czech Republic, ca. 1938

It is now believed that about 1,500 years ago, for reasons not fully understood, the Roma people were uprooted from their homes in northwestern India and began a migratory existence which lasted for centuries.

Unfortunately for the Roma people, they were often unwelcome wherever they went, and were almost always considered outsiders and ‘others,’ not infrequently forced from location to location.  As nation-states developed throughout Europe, the Roma were a people without a nation.

One notable exception, at least for a time in the 15th century, was the Kingdom of Bohemia.  When the Roma people arrived there, they were given a letter of protection and other privileges, which amounted to rare state recognition and acceptance.

In many ways the defining document of this genial but impermanent relationship between the Roma people and Bohemia was a letter issued on April 17th, 1423, at Spissky Castle by the Holy Roman Emperor and Czech King, Zikmund.  The letter stated:

Lithograph of “gypsies,” travelling across Europe, ca. 1880.

“We, Zikmund, King of Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, …, Our loyal Ladislav, Duke of his Gypsy people, humbly beseeches us for affirmation of our special leniency. Receive then his civil appeal and don’t refuse this letter. In the case that the aforementioned Ladislav and his people appear in whichever place in Our Empire, in any town or village, We recommend that you show to him the loyalty which you would show to Us. Protect them, so that Duke Ladislav and his people may live without prejudice within your walls. If some one among them is found drunk, if they should cause a quarrel of any kind, We desire and decree that only Ladislav himself, Duke, has the right to judge this person, punish, give pardon and absolution, or cast him out from your circle …”

From 15th century Central Europe to 19th century Paris to 20th century East Village.

Few if any other kingdoms gave the Roma people such privileges and acknowledgement, and usually when they arrived in a new land, they had no official recognition from any other country.

But the Roma people apparently brought this letter with them when they arrived in France, creating the rare exception to their typically stateless existence.  Because the letter was issued in the Czech Lands, known to the French as La Boheme, the French referred to the strange and unfamiliar newcomers by the land from which they came — ‘les Bohemiens.’

Six centuries later, the term survives to this day.

If you’re interested in the evolution and origin of the term ‘bohemian,’ you might also enjoy this post exploring the evolution and origin of the name of Gay Street.

32 responses to “How Bohemians Got Their Name

  1. Andrew–great article. You’ve answered in full something I’ve always wondered about, and included a fascinating overview of one piece of European history. After reading it, I finally decided to join GVSHP. –aj

    1. Behemia is in Polish Bojo Ziemia. The Land of the Bojans-Boians. A boja or Boia is a tie arounfmdvtgd nieck which survived in Croatia and is now calked the Cravat or CROATION Tie. The Croatian TIE. This is AN ancient Slovonic and Celtic religious item sacred to the Goddess WISŁA-VISŁA. Remembered as the Main river of Poland latinised as Vistula.

    2. Thank you for the piece on “ Les Bohemians”. It is a brief but facinating story. I have been spurred on to research more about Bohemia by a recent book titled “The Shores of Bohemia “ about the amazing concentration of creative persons in Provincetown, Truro and Wellfleet Massachusetts during the period 1910 – 1960. A concentration that had almost as much influence on the art and literary worlds as post WW I Paris. Sincerely, Bill Green

    1. Not likely. Bohema was a place inhabited by Bohemians long before 1423 when the Roma were welcomed as described. So, there are plenty of Bohemians who are not Roma. They are usually a blend of German and Slav. Bohemia was part of the Holy Roman Empire, and at one time Prague was the center of the Holy Roman Empire.

      1. I am so happy that an article like this exists. My Grandmother was mostly “Bohemian” and had always said that the “real” Bohemians did not like to be called Gypsies. She said it was always a sore subject when people misunderstood the difference. I had never really understood what the difference was and I was far to young when she died to even know what questions to ask her. This was a very great simple break down of the difference. After reading this article, it is semi annoying to me that people just refer to themselves as Bohemian, when technically it is a nationality, not just “a culture of people or a way of life”

    2. My family is Bohemian. We immigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th Century. We are definitely not Roma!

      As far as I know, there are no Bohemians who consider themselves Roma.

      1. My great grandparents emigrated from Budapest, Hungary in 1890 to the United States where me, my mother, and grandfather were born. My great grandparents’ last name was Sedlak which is a bohemian- originating term for farmer.

        However, my great grand parents were not czech but were Romani Gypsy.

        I do not know when they acquired the bohemian surname but I imagine it was around this time mentioned in the article.

        That is something I am trying to understand now, and I think this article helped me to uncover that.

        My Roma ancestors had no problem adopting regional names or religions to be accepted into society…
        This makes sense considering the Roma history of oppression. However Roma’s often have a lot of ethnic mixing in our history due to emigration and so I may have a further back mixing of Bohemian and Romani lineage. I am not sure. My mother and grandparents are no longer alive to ask, and when they were alive- I got as much information as I could which was still limited.

        When arriving in the US my great grandparents were technically illegal immigrants who changed their name from Sedlak to Sedlock to avoid being found out for their illegal status, and Sedlock remains my last name now.

        There may be other czech people who assimimilated over time or mixed with the Bohemians of the time either of which my ancestors likely did, so you may have Roma czech’s in your country and not know it.

        My grandfather and in some ways my mother were the last two in my family to appear Roma. I am mixed with Irish and English and am white passing in America and so no one knows about my Roma ethnicity unless they ask or get to know me because it is not apparent due to ethnic mixing, white passing, and the covering up of my lineage through strategic last name changes in my family history.

  2. Hi. My great as well as immediate grandparents claim I am Bohemian when I ask what my origin is. I’ve heard Polish, Bohemian and Czech from different family members. Last name is NEDABYLEK. Any thoughts or insight that might help me? Thank you

    1. We have a same response from our family they were called Novak’s. The family calls are origins bohemian. They’re very proud to be called Bohemian’s. I heard that there’s a group of bohemians from the other country they are trying to bring back the country of bohemian.

    2. Czechoslovakia was made up of three peoples – the Bohemians, the Moravians, and the Slovaks. In the late 19th century, they were all ruled by the Austria-Hungary Empire. The Bohemians and Moravians more under Austria and the Slovaks more under Hungary. After WWI the three nations with similar cultural traditions grouped into one nation. Later, the Slovaks pulled out peacefully and the Bohemians and Moravians were close enough to stay together and form the Czech Republic. My ancestors were Bohemians and proudly called themselves ‘Bohunks’.

      1. My father’s parents came to the United States in the early 1900’s. Unfortunately, I never met them but I do have a few very old pictures of them from 1910. Wish. I knew more about them. They referred to themselves as Bohunks also. My father’s last name was Habart but it was often misspelled as Hobart, so we just called ourselves Hobarts.

      2. Actually, “Bohunks” and “Polacks” were terms of derision. Like “kikes” and “dagoes”. My grandparents emigrated from the area known as Bohemia, in the Austro Hungarian empire, prior to WWI and the creation of Czechoslovakia, so I am 100% “BOHEMIAN.”

  3. Stroh’s was a beer made in Detroit and self-identified as a Bohemian beer. As noted, Europeans lived in Bohemia and other places known as Slovakia, Romania, Germania, Prussia, Russia, Iberia, Skandinavia, Finlandia, Brittania, etc., so it makes no sense other than to generalize the origins of your ancestors, and it now makes a great deal of sense to use the term Bohemian to identify as a somewhat liberal Party Animal even if after a week of conservative labor in industry or construction you go to a rock concert and live like a Bohemian for a few hours.

  4. The movie “Latcho Dram” lays out the threads coming out of Rajistan and leaving cultural/musical imprints throughout the Mediterranean area (belly dancing, Flamenco) and France (Django Reinhardt). The beauty and soul of the Roma!

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