Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2010.



Godfrey Wettinger*

Albert Mayr’s famous article on the history of Christianity in Malta is being re-printed here, more than a century after its first appearance in a top-notch German historical journal in 1896.[1]. It might be thought that such an event is surprising and absolutely uncalled for because, in normal circumstances and in normal countries, historical writings, however scholarly, inevitably date and are not worth much re-reading let alone re-publishing after the lapse of more than a century owing to the discovery of new relevant material and to changes in mental attitudes, both of historians and of the general reading public. But Malta is a special case.

Although the University of Malta has existed for over two hundred years, it seems to have regarded its main task as that of providing the island with its professors and practitioners of Law, Medicine and Theology. Some languages and their literatures like Latin and Greek, English and Italian were also provided for. Even Maltese was introduced before the Second World War. Regular courses in History did not start before the mid-1950s and that in Medieval Maltese History was started by the present writer on the retirement of Professor Andrew Vella O.P. in the late nineteen-seventies.[2].

Inevitably, the serious writing of medieval and earlier history laboured under a heavy academic handicap. The models they followed included what was called ‘tradition’ as a source of ‘history’. They were largely impervious to the new serious and increasingly academic type of history followed mainly by contemporary German, French and English historians.

[p.20] In the present paper, Albert Mayr pointed out that there were two main problems in dealing with ancient and medieval Maltese history, namely, that for about 300 years after St. Paul’s shipwreck there was no written or archaeological evidence of his stay on Malta. Similarly, there was a period of about 200 or 300 years in the High Middle Ages when Christianity on Malta (including Gozo) was not documented in any way.

Understandably, these conclusions of Albert Mayr did not meet with the approval of Maltese historians. The traditions concerning the Christianization of the island on the arrival of St. Paul continued to find practically universal favour. The idea of continuity of people and language throughout the medieval period from Byzantine times to the arrival of the Order in 1530 with the inevitable progressive development of Maltese under the influence of Arabic remained the standard picture. In such writers as A.A. Caruana, one notices a certain softening of attitude towards Arabs and Islam but his own work is spoiled by his acceptance of much of the fabrications of Giuseppe Vella in the eighteenth century.[3] Professor Andrew Vella rejected the reputed Rogerian origin of the Maltese national flag, but where religion was concerned he followed the normal trend,[4] as did Albert Laferla,[5] Temi Zammit[6] and numerous other popular writers and authors of school textbooks. On the other hand, Temi Zammit’s own treatment of prehistory of course is unexceptional. Augustus Bartolo actually praised Mayr’s interpretation of Maltese prehistory but followed A. A. Caruana for the rest, including some of the fabrications.[7] A. Bonnici’s History of the Church in Malta in three volumes, intended to be an update of nineteenth century books by Ferris,[8] did not even include Albert Mayr in his bibliography and still gave prominence to outdated seventeenth and eighteenth century national historians. In general, Maltese historians have continued to avoid dealing with the problems posed by Albert Mayr. On palaeo-Christian studies, the ideas of Bellanti need updating.[9] Vincent Borg starts his gigantic survey of the Church in Malta around 800 AD.[10]

[p.21] I had the advantage of being put on my guard in the early 1950s by no less a figure than Joseph Cassar Pullicino when I naively[11] blurted out that I had already written a long essay, or ‘project’ as it was called, at St. Michael’s Teachers’ Training College, dealing with the coming of Count Roger. At the time, I did not know that Cassar Pullicino had himself already written an important study of the traditions concerning the coming of Count Roger.[12] He immediately warned me that there was a German historian who had turned much of Maltese history upside down: ‘Hemm professur Ġermaniż li qalbilna l-istorja ta’ Malta ta’ taħt fuq.’ A critical glance at Malaterra’s chronicle of the coming of Count Roger soon showed me that the German academic was correct, no Maltese Christians were involved. It changed my whole attitude. From then onwards, ‘Tradition’ was valueless for me as a source of history. My later studies merely confirmed and hardened this conviction.

Round about 1978, my colleague Dr. Dominic Fenech came across an Italian translation of Mayr’s paper and handed it over to me because he was very much aware of my keen interest in the subject. By then, I had also irrevocably returned to my early preoccupation with Maltese medieval history. It was found among the papers of the Society of Maltese History (founded in 1950) as left by Professor Andrew Vella in the departmental library after the stroke which crippled him for the last years of his life. Subsequently, Cassar Pullicino (editor of Melita Historica in 1952-60), remarking: ‘So it has surfaced again’, informed me that it had been handed over to him by Dr. Giuseppe Mifsud Bonnici (later Chief Justice) who told him that the translation had been commissioned by his late father Dr. Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, one of the most prominent politicians and men-of-letters in Malta in the inter-war period. This was confirmed to me personally by Dr. Mifsud Bonnici himself.

Cassar Pullicino’s own original paper on the traditions concerning the coming of Count Roger to Malta was re-issued under the editorship of A. T. Luttrell, apparently without any significant changes. In a seminal and hard-hitting paper that was read for him at an International Congress on Norman Sicily held in Palermo in 1972, Luttrell sharply criticised post-Mayr Maltese historians in general who still relied on the work of A. A. Caruana,[13] which he followed in 1975 by the lengthy introduction[14] to his own Medieval Malta Studies on Malta before the Knights[15] [p.22] and a detailed study of the ‘Invention of Tradition’ mainly by a small group of late sixteenth century Maltese Jesuits, which came out in Melita Historica in 1977.[16]

In 1984, I at last tackled the Arab period of Maltese medieval history in a cautious paper in which I emphasised the significance of the events of 870 AD and bewailed the general lack of evidence on the topic.[17] In a revised and lengthened edition a couple of years later, I expressly acknowledged the influence of Albert Mayr’s present paper, thus being the first Maltese to have done so publicly and favourably.[18] Of course, I had been spreading the same ideas through my lecturing at the University and elsewhere for thirty or forty years such that they had become almost commonplace except in the more extreme centres of conservatism . Back in 1965, I had already clearly shown my scepticism to the use of ‘tradition’ in local medieval history in a long and elaborate letter to the Times of Malta.[19]

Recently, Professor Stanley Fiorini has maintained in the Introduction to Tristia ex Melitogaudio. Lament in Greek Verse of a XIIth century Exile on Gozo[20] that in 870 AD the Byzantine inhabitants of Gozo were granted the status of dhimmi while the whole of the island of Malta was devastated and depopulated. In this way, he was apparently trying to save the traditional picture of ethnic and religious continuity by limiting it to the smaller island of the Maltese archipelago. It was an idea that ran directly counter to all historical records such as they are, and cannot be entertained at all. I did my best to snuff it out, successfully, I believe.[21]

* Professor Godfrey Wettinger is a founder-member of the Malta Historical Society. For his profile, see p. 139.

[1] Historisches Jahrbuch, 1896, vol. 17, 475-496.

[2] However, in October/ November 1962 Professor Lionel Butler, Leverhulme Lecturer in 1962-63 then serving a three month stint at the newly-opened Department of History, delivered an eight lecture public series at the Valletta premises of the University of Malta on ‘The Maltese People and their Rulers 1090- 1600’, which was very well attended and highly appreciated. The omitted portions of the High Middle Ages, i.e. post- 870 to 1090, were precisely the ones which relied almost completely for information on what was then regarded as reliable ‘tradition’ or by way of extrapolation from the history of other countries or the whole region.

[3] A. A. Caruana, Frammento critico della storia Fenicio-Cartaginese, Greco-Romana e Bisantina delle isole di Malta, Malta 1899.

[4] E.g. A. P. Vella, Storja ta’ Malta, vol. I, Malta 1974.

[5] A. V. Laferla, The Story of Man in Malta, Malta 1939.

[6] T. Zammit, Malta. The Maltese Islands and their History, Malta 1926.

[7] ‘History of the Maltese Islands’, in Malta and Gibraltar Illustrated, ed. Allister Macmillan, London 1915, 10-172; references to Albert Mayr on pp. 11, 15, 17 ([who] ‘published an invaluable little book, since translated into English by H.G.D.H. Princess Louis of Battenberg’), 18, etc.

[8] Storia ecclesiastica di Malta, Malta 1877, and Descrizione storica delle chiese di Malta e Gozo, Malta 1866.

[9] P. F Bellanti, Studies in Maltese History, Malta 1924. Bellanti utilised a French translation of the present paper made ‘for the late Monsignor [Alfredo] Mifsud by General Voénsky de Brézé’; p. 2.

[10] Melita Sacra, Malta 2008-2009.

[11] A youthful effort of which I did not even retain a copy, the original having been purloined from the College perhaps on the departure of the Brothers in ca. 1975.

[12] J. Cassar Pullicino, ‘Norman Legends in Malta’, Scientia, 1945, 152-165. Albert Mayr’s article is not mentioned in this study.

[13] A. Luttrell, ‘Malta nel periodo normanno’, Atti del congresso internazionale di studi sulla Sicilia normanna, Palermo 1972.

[14] ‘Approaches to Medieval Malta’, London 1975.

[15] Ibid.

[16] ‘Girolamo Manduca and Gian Francesco Abela: Tradition and Invention in Maltese Historiography’, Melita Historica, vii, 2, 1977, 107-132.

[17] G. Wettinger, ‘The Arabs in Malta’, in Report and Accounts, 1084, Mid-Med Bank Limited, Malta 1984.

[18] ‘The Arabs in Malta’, in Malta Studies of its Heritage and History, Mid-Med Bank Limited, Malta 1986.

[19] G. Wettinger, ‘The Maltese Flag. Validity of Tradition’, The Times of Malta, 3 September 1965.

[20] J. Busuttil, S. Fiorini and H. C. R. Vella, Tristia ex Melitogaudio. Lament in Greek Verse of a XIIth-century Exile on Gozo, Malta 2010.

[21] See Review in The Sunday Times by Ugo Mifsud Bonnici on 14 March 2010, and consequent correspondence dated 21 March, 4 April, 18 April, 25 April, 2 May, 9 May and 16 May 2010.