October 2014 Event: Malta between the 15th and 18th centuries; an overview from a historical and social perspective (Part 2)

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Presentation by George Portelli

George introduced the evening by reviewing his previous lecture, and then explained how the names of some early villages started with Ħal, as in Ħal-Qormi or Ħal-Zebbuġ. Ħal is short for Raħal, which comes from the Arabic Rhal, meaning a stopping place after a journey.  They were used by farmers walking their merħla (flock of sheep).  Eventually these resting places developed into razzetti (farmhouses), then hamlets, villages and towns.  In Gozo, this did not apply, because of the many invasions by the Barbary Corsairs, especially when they were based in Comino.  The inhabitants of Gozo tended to cluster around the main citadel of Rabat.  No towns in Gozo begin with Ħal.

George then explored how words have changed over time.  For example Quċċija originally referred to the gifts left in a will by a benefactor, whereas now it refers to the custom in which babies are placed a circle with various objects.  The one he or she chooses is believed to indicate their future career or mode of life.  Buonavoglia now means someone who is mischievous or cheeky but originally it meant a volunteer.  In the times of the knights, some men volunteered as oarsmen, accompanying the slaves and prisoners, on the galleys.  Many ended up being held indefinitely and had to complain to the pope for their release, hence the modern meaning.

Regarding social classes in Malta, the upper class were the Gentil Homini and Homini Facultusi, which included the nobility and feudal landlords.  The second strata were the artisans and craftstmen, the ministrali (or burgesi), then came the farmers (bedouini  or bidwi), who were usually Muslim converts to Christianity. The last category was the slaves.  The nobility and hierarchy of the church resided in Mdina, where the Carmelites established the only convent in Mdina, whereas the burgesi and others lived outside the city. 

Many religious orders came to Malta in the 1400s.  The Franciscans established the Santo Spirito hospital, which attracted many poor people and prostitutes.  The hospital included a revolving window, where foundlings and unwanted babies could be deposited anonymously. 

Various dialects were spoken around Malta and Gozo.  According to the English scholar, George Percy Badger, who was well versed in Arabic, some Gozitans around Għarb spoke Brejku, an unusual means of communication. 

There was a high incidence of prostitution in Valletta.  Grandmaster La Cassière tried to stop it but was deposed by rebellious knights for his trouble.  He was eventually reinstated by the pope. In 1596, Inquisitor Innocenzo Del Bufalo wrote that there was a great number of prostitutes “on this island of Malta and especially in Valletta”.  The treasurer of the order, Bosredon Ransijat wrote that, “the Maltese shut their eyes to the seductions of their wives and daughters but this applied only to the citizens not to the country people.” IMG 4667

Attempts to eliminate prostitution by confession and communion, prayer and fasting failed.  Eventually a monastery was built for them, with the expectation that they would support it by leaving money in their wills.  None of these initiatives were successful. 

Perhaps the most outstanding prostitute of all was Antonia Creni.  Who was she?  Grandmaster de Rohan employed as his personal physician a Dr Fortunato Antonio Creni.  It seems that Creni’s wife became de Rohan’s mistress.  “The painful passions of the spirit” found tangible outlets, when Signora Creni gave birth to Antonia, reputed to be de Rohan’s daughter.  Dr Creni adopted his “wife’s princely indiscretion”, raising her as his own.  Antonia later joined the French rebels against her father’s Order and is referred to in a contemporary document as none other than “Napoleon’s prostitute in Malta”.  A long petition, addressed by a tempestuous priest to the King of the two Sicilies, recounts in great detail Napoleon’s arrival in Malta.  According to Commendatore Fra Michelangelo Attard, the first person Bonaparte visited on landing in Malta was “that vile prostitute Antonia Creni”.


  George Portelli speaking at the MHA      Photo: Lewis Zammit

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