How Bohemians Got Their Name

How Bohemians Got Their Name

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.

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?

Bohemia | History, Location, & Facts | Britannica
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 — “Bohemians.”

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.

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.’

Approximately six centuries later, the term survives to this day.