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.
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?”
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:
“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 …”
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.