"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

by John Macbeath Watkins

I've been accused on occasion of being bohemian, so finding the word in an odd context piqued my interest. It seems the Romani, so called because of the myth that they are from Romania, were also called Bohemians because of the myth that they were from the kingdom of Bohemia, now called the Czech Republic. They are most commonly called gypsies because of the myth that they are from Egypt. Some of their own myths say they came from India, others say they came from the middle east (possibly Chaldea) and some of them went from there to India. The linguistic and genetic evidence is a little ambiguous, but it seems they came from somewhere in the Indian subcontinent.

But the word "bohemian" as it is used to describe someone disreputable in a kind of cool, anti-authoritarian way, has everything to do with the gypsies. They arrived in Wallachia (now part of Romania) and Serbia some time in the 1300s, where they were quickly recognized as aliens and enslaved until the law was changed in 1856. They arrived in France in the early 1400s, where their wandering ways brought them in contact with the Goliards, unfrocked priests who traveled from town to town, in some cases seeking knowledge at different schools but in most cases chasing women, drinking wine, and writing some of the earliest European poetry written in the vulgar tongues (as well as vulgar poetry written in Latin.) They gave us some of the earliest preserved secular music.

In that time, to be a scholar, you pretty much had to take orders. If you became disenchanted with the Church, what was left to you? A choice between a life as a hypocrite within the church, or a dissolute life outside of it, or, I suppose, going back to the family farm. To be a scholar and not a hypocrite, what would such a person do? Kick around in cheap lodgings, consort with loose women and other disenchanted scholars, write poetry that was subversive without being overtly political, I suppose. (That overtly political stuff would get you killed.) Much of this poetry was about a fictional defrocked priest called Bishop Golias, a satirical figure used to ridicule the Church. The Goliard poets were still priests, and got some of their money by preaching and granting indulgences.

Eventually, the church started cracking down on them. Authority within the church was becoming more centralized and it was becoming better able to suppress such subversive activity at about the time the gypsies, better known in France at the time as "bohemians" were arriving in France, England and Germany, the main stomping grounds of the Goliards.

But if you were to condemn their behavior, calling them Goliards would only remind people of the disreputable Bishop Golias, about whom so many satirical songs were sung in drinking establishments. Better to associate them with the gypsies, who made people uncomfortable. They looked different, they dressed different, nobody wanted them to settle wherever they went except those who wished to enslave them. To call behavior "bohemian" was to link it to poverty, theft, and a shiftless, impermanent lifestyle. The Goliards' reputation for fighting, drinking, wenching, gambling and writing edgy, anti-authoritarian poetry was linked to the "bohemians" from then on. Or, as several 19th Century French books on the Romani had it, Les Bohemiens.

Although four Romani accompanied Columbus on his third voyage, there are not so many Romani in America. At a time when it was almost impossible to be an illegal immigrant in America, 1885, Congress passed a law against them immigrating. So American bohemians had to make do with associating with our more numerous underclass, African Americans and Hispanics. We associate them with drugs such as marijuana and music such as jazz that are connected with these groups, and with an alienation from mainstream life and the authority that protects if from the disreputable, the outsiders, and the rebels.

But calling the rebellious poets of the 14th century bohemian has in fact attached the sign (the spoken or written word) to the meaning once occupied by the term Goliard – a rebel poet – more than to the meaning the Church authorities had hoped for, of people who were poor, shiftless, thieving, and Not of our Tribe. Power managed to change the sign, but not what it signified, because the web of meaning is more resilient than any political power.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self