July 2011 Event: Mediaeval Malta


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MediaevalMaltaOne of the many chapels around the Malta countryside

The history of the Maltese islands in mediaeval times is shrouded in mystery. Much of what has traditionally been taught in schools was often based on not much more than myths.

Guest speaker Professor Maurice Cauchi delivered a lecture on Mediaeval Malta at the June meeting of the Maltese Historical Association held at the Maltese Centre in Parkville. With his insights he was able to shed some light on this fascinating period of our history. His talk drew on accounts written by mediaeval chroniclers, such as, al-Himyari, Ibn Hawqal and Giliberto Abbate.

Prof. Cauchi began with a brief timeline, highlighting the period of Byzantine rule (roughly 395 to 870 AD), that of Arab domination (from 870 to 1090 AD), and the arrival of the Normans and various European dynasties. Arabs based in Tunisia launched their first concerted attack on the islands in 869 but they were repulsed by the Byzantines. A second attack in 870 was, however, successful. According to al-Himyari, the islands were laid waste and remained virtually uninhabited until around 1045 when a colony was established, made up of Muslims (four hundred combatants with families) and their more numerous slaves. In 1175, a Christian visitor to Malta, Burckhardt von Strasbourg, referred to the inhabitants as Saracens.

The next phase in Maltese history begins in 1191 with the arrival of the Normans under Count Roger de Hauteville. Although the Arabs were defeated, the Normans simply imposed taxes and returned to Sicily. It was not until a second expedition in 1127 that the Normans, led by Count Roger II, assumed more direct control of the islands.

Prof. Cauchi spoke about some key events, including an Arab uprising, an attempt by the Byzantines to regain the islands in 1144 and the final expulsion of the Arabs in 1224. He also pointed out that many Muslims converted to Christianity during the years prior to 1224, a development related to sustained efforts to re-christianise the islands. For example, the cathedral church in Mdina, possibly a restructured mosque, is mentioned in official documents in 1299, but it may have been established decades earlier. A late thirteenth-century document, Lo Compasso de Navegare, refers to a church of St Mary on Comino. This would suggest that, by around 1300, similar places of worship would have been established across the islands.

Evidence also points to a dramatic increase in rural settlements in Malta, a tendency already noticeable in the Arab period. Documents of the time refer to wheat and cotton production, the latter a particularly critical introduction, providing the islands with a cash crop. Late in the thirteenth century, Giliberto Abbate estimated that the population exceeded ten thousand, almost all of whom were dependent on agriculture. According to this source, the vast majority in Malta were Muslims; in Gozo, on the other hand, more than half the people were Christian.

After the Normans, control of the Maltese islands passed from one dynastic house to another, often as the result of major battles fought in the Maltese islands, which surprisingly have often been overlooked in our history books. For instance, the Aragonese and Angevin fleets fought a pitched battle in the Grand Harbour in 1283; according to Desclot, Angevin casualties amounted to three thousand five hundred dead and five hundred wounded (an exaggeration, perhaps?).

Prof. Cauchi also spoke about a much maligned figure in our history, Don Gonsalvo Monroy. In 1421, in a contract referred to as an impignoratio (pawning), Monroy paid thirty thousand florins to the King of Aragon in return for lordship over the Maltese islands. This was done through an intermediary, the Sicilian viceroy, Antonio de Cardona. The Maltese swore their loyalty towards Cardona, against the pledge that their 'rights and privileges' would be honoured by their new lord. Four weeks later, Cardona officially transferred all his rights to Monroy. Revolt against Monroy broke out in Gozo in 1425, the rebellion spreading to Malta by 1426. In 1427, forces were put together to subdue the revolt. Two Maltese clergymen then travelled to Sicily with guarantees for payment of the thirty thousand florins. Only twenty thousand florins were paid by the agreed deadline, October 1428. However, Monroy passed away early in 1429; in his will, he stipulated that, of these twenty thousand florins, ten thousand were to be paid to the Aragonese king while the remaining ten thousand florins were to be redistributed among the Maltese population!

The Knights of St John made their entrance into Maltese history in 1530. Jean Quintin d'Autun in his Insulae Descriptio (1536) provides this not very flattering picture of the Maltese at the time:

"The people have a Sicilian character, with a mixture of African ... they are not strong enough nor adapted to warfare ...The women are not at all ugly, but live very much as if they were uncivilized; they do not mix with other people; they go out covered in a veil, as if to see a woman is here the same as to violate her." o

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