The Roma are a non-literate people: they do not use writing to carry on their memory. Their origin, journey and trajectories survive in the oral memories of three or four family generations. The traces that their presence and trajectory have left over time must be sought in the archives of the towns where their itinerancy has led them. Several circumstances place Roma in Bologna and Forlì in 1422, on their way to Rome. In 1423, they are documented transiting, with safe conduct, for the German Empire. And in 1425, they are recorded in transit through the Iberian Peninsula in the direction of Santiago de Compostela.
John, called Count of Lesser Egypt, which in medieval ideology referred to an area of indeterminate borders that would include Syria, Cyprus and the nearby territories of the eastern Mediterranean, was the first Roma of whom there is documented presence in the Iberian territory. John of Lesser Egypt was authorised by Alfonso the Magnanimous to circulate and cross the Crown of Aragon on his pilgrimage. The pass, which we reproduce and transcribe here, protected both him and those who accompanied him, and similarly safeguarded his goods and merchandise. The duration of the safe conduct was three months from the date it was registered, on January 12, 1425.
It is thought that this tribe, of between twelve and one hundred people captained by Count John of Lesser Egypt, was part of a first wave of migration that would have entered the peninsula through the Pyrenees in the beginning of the 15th century, coming from central Europe – hence some being called "Bohemian". Another point of entry, already in use at the end of the 15th century, was through the Mediterranean; hence some being cited as being "from Greece".
The good reception of the Roma people as pilgrims in 1425 later gave way to the marginalisation of this ethnic minority. Accused of being against adapting to Christian social norms, they were mistreated throughout the peninsula. This rejection intensified during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs, who initiated a persecutory strategy aimed at their expulsion, as demonstrated by the Royal Pragmatic of March 4, 1499, which annulled all safeguards granted and still in force. This pragmatic was followed by hundreds of prohibitive and coercive measures towards Roma, who were pushed to become sedentary and integrate if they did not want to be exiled. It would not be until the end of the 20th century that the historical discrimination against this ethnic minority began to be repaired in legal systems throughout Europe, in parallel with the recognition of its cultural contribution to the history and mentalities of the old European continent.
Archival sources take us away from the stereotyped image of the Roma people. Their history is full of legends and fables, but the archives' accurate information shows us their passage and journey through the peninsula from the beginning of the 15th century. These traces registered by the Crown's officers and scribes are not Roma documents; rather, they are documents that speak of Roma and of the royal administration's view of them.
The documents referring to the Roma community in the Archives of the Crown of Alagón that still survive today range from King Alfonso V's request to the Justice of Alagón to seek the return of stolen dogs to Count Thomas of Egypt (1425, May 26. Saragossa. ACA, Royal Chancery, Registers, 2483, f. 136r) to the 1 July 1477 order of imprisonment of a member of the entourage of Count Martin of Lesser Egypt for the crime of murder committed four years earlier while they were passing through Tortosa (Idem, 3391, f. 7r-v).
The most frequent (and repetitive) documents are the safe-conducts in favour of groups of Roma who made pilgrimages to Santiago and other places of devotion. After the first testimony we have to wait until 1447 (Idem, 3197, f. 101r-v). There were many safe-conduct passes in the year 1460: Idem, 3371, f. 39v-40r; 3442, f. 42r-43r and 3971, f. 96v-97r. Similarly, we have three more testimonies of their transit from the year 1471: Idem, 3386, f. 37v-38r; 3385, f. 157v-158r and 3386, f. 55r-v. These continue in 1472 (Idem, 3514, f. 17v-18r and 3512, f. 114r-v); in 1474 (Idem, 3387, f. 60v-61v); in 1475 (Idem, 3519, f. 36v-37r); the year 1476 (Idem, 3390, f. 157v-158r) and finally, in 1484 (Idem, 3858, f. 88r and 89v).
Later, in the baroque period, their special way of life and their voluntary self-marginalisation with respect to the State are evident in the consultations and memorials presented to the Council of Aragon, which show the monarchy's harsh policy against the Roma. We found testimonies related to the expulsion of Roma minorities from territories, cities or towns (ACA, Council of Aragon, Files, 870, nº 73; Idem, 583, nº 17; 860, nº 78 or 939, nº 110), but also the granting of a royal pardon in the year 1649 (Idem, 67, f. 52v-57v); news about residence or the exercise of an office (Idem, 897, nº 40 or 895, nº 150), about their way of living and culture (Idem, 834, nº 47 and 934, nº 60). We even have a census of Roma in Catalonia from 1729 (ACA, Royal Audience, Registers, 143, f. 96-97). These and many other news concerning the Roma in the 16th and 17th centuries can be consulted in PARES.
ACA, Royal Chancery, Registers, 2573, f. 145v