[p.81] ASPECTS OF DAILY LIFE IN LATE-MEDIEVAL
MALTA AND GOZO

Godfrey Wettinger

Until the recent opening of most of Malta's medieval archives and the tapping of foreign ones, the Maltese people had no real past history. History books written until then were largely concerned, for most of Malta's past, with the designs and doings of the governments which had ruled over the island. Not only were the people almost completely ignored, but since the Maltese Islands do not have a native literature which goes back more than a couple of centuries, except for the recently discovered fifteenth century cantilena of Peter Caxaro, the people just have no past characters, even fictional ones, with which they can identify. Although professional historians normally aim at making as scientific a study of the past as possible, leading to the academic development of such branches of history as "International Relations", "Social History", "Economic History", "History of Ideas", and so on, I think it is not right that they should ignore this psychological need of the public to know, somehow, how past people lived and how they reacted to the world around them, what drive or motivation ruled their life - what, in very colloquial English, made them tick.

Some information on this can be found in any part of the archives. One can learn from the government or administrative archives of Malta and Palermo how the people were governed, fed, defended, how prices were fixed, the streets kept clean, law and order preserved. The Notarial Archives, the few volumes that remain for pre-1530 years, provide much information on all kinds of transactions, from the purchase or sale of objects to the lending of money as well as marriage agreements, inventories of household effects, and last wills and testaments. Still, one is at a loss to understand how the man in the street in fifteenth-century Malta felt about all this, about the prices he had to pay, the wills he benefited from, when he did so at all, the marriages he performed. Even the relatively august records of the town council and the town authority sometimes record the occasional scrap of information. Thus on 9 October [p.82] 1482 a proclamation ordained under a stiff penalty of fifty uncie that no one was to interrupt any one else in the forthcoming meeting of the town council.[1] Twelve years before, the town mayor and his assessor or judge refused to attend a meeting of the town council, saying that "Nui havimu affari et non putimu viniri" (We are busy and cannot come).[2] On Sunday, 24 July 1468, another entry recorded the fact that diverse members of the town council, at lunch time, refused to return at once from Mtaħleb to Mdina, actually invited the town messenger himself to partake of the meal; eventually, the latter obtained a promise from one of them to attend the meeting of the town council that evening while the others slept on. When that evening, during the meeting itself, the town messenger went to the town mayor's house to summon him to the meeting, he received the answer that the mayor had returned to town but was too fatigued by the heat to attend.[3]

Other proclamations reveal that purchasers of fish and meat frequently practically assailed the fish vendors, forcing them to sell to them precisely the meat or fish they chose.[4] One suspects that the complainants here were those who benefited by the fish-mongers' reserving of the best of the catch for favoured clients. Most prices of objects were fixed by the town authorities at the beginning of September of each year. This did not prevent one of the more powerful citizens, Gullielmus Desguanes, accused of selling meat (on the hoof?) at too high a price, telling the court messenger to "Va cum diavuli; di' a li acatapani ki vayanu a zappari" ("Go to the devil! Tell the acatapani (the officials responsible for administering prices and weights and measures) to hoe the ground!"), still a common Maltese expression (Mur agħżaq!), equivalent to telling someone to do a job fit for his low level of intelligence.[5] When the nobleman Johannes de Nava was asked to pay his portion of the royal collecta, he answered "in vulgari eloquio" (ie. in Maltese) "I have nothing to do with the town jurats (equivalent to the aldermen in an English town), let them do the best or worst they want." ("Eu non hayu ki fart cum li jurati; fazanumi lu peyu et lu meglu ki ponu.")[6]

[p.83] Numerous aspects of daily life, however, are also recorded in these sources. Thus on Saturday, 2 September 1475, it was prohibited that any cloth, meat or other objects should be washed at the water troughs of the Saqqajja and Għeriexem springs provisions which were repeated in full or in part practically every September.[7] Noxious water sometimes issued out of drains from people's houses into the streets and had to be seen to.[8] Undoubtedly the richest source of information on this aspect of history, are the court archives, primarily, therefore, the Ecclesiastical Court Archives, which have survived in Malta from around 1445 onwards.[9] Here a caution may be required. Clergymen here appear repeatedly and, of course, not always in a good light. One remembers that these records are not a reliable reflection of what was normal in daily life. Not all clergymen were guilty of similar offences to those re-corded; the innocent among them as among laymen generally usually do not appear in court records at all except perhaps as witnesses. On the other hand, I refuse to ignore such records as have survived on the grounds that the present-day public may have its susceptibilities offended. It should instead have its sensitivity suitably educated by a proper regard for the reality of the past in Malta as elsewhere - as, in fact, has happened elsewhere and is visibly also already happening in Malta.

These court records, perhaps surprisingly, reveal occasionally even how the man in the street was affected personally by corsair invasions and provide first-hand accounts of what was happening from the very countryside through which the Turks or Moors roamed before they had actually left the shores of these islands.[10] This is very much the case in the hitherto almost totally unnoticed minor landing in Gozo of 1533. They landed in the eastern part of the island, at Mġarr, San Blas Bay, and Ħondoq ir-Rummien, overrunning Qala and Nadur. The court case concerning it in the bishop's court involved the alleged sale by a local shepherd of some sheep belonging to a couple of priest brothers, the shepherd himself claiming that the sheep had been stolen from him by the Turks. The various witnesses describe the two or three days' events in that part of Gozo in a practically hour-by-hour account of landings, sightings, captures and killings of persons, theft of sheep and goats, their slaughter and removal on board, search for survivors, and so on. For good measure one [p.84] is told precisely what was expected of people in the countryside by the island's administration when invasions were announced, whenever dusk fell, and so on. And one learns a lot also of the occupation of the island's shepherds at least in that part of Gozo.

Much is also learned about the growing of wheat and cotton in central Gozo by another case concerning an alleged usurious sale of land round about the year 1421. One learns about land tenure, metayage, crop rotation, the cattania contract for the growing of cotton, the income from various sources like straw and thorns.[11] One learns about the increase in land prices in Gozo during the subsequent three decades because there were more people about. One learns in particular about the strange situation in Gozo where the disarming of a galley led to the formation by its crew of a band of rather lawless men who lived at the expense of a particular Gozitan and ate him out of everything, so that he had to sell property in order to provide them with the wine they drank. One learns also of the ship the latter had owned which had been betrayed by others to another Christian corsair vessel. Obviously, keeping law and order in the Gozo of the opening years of Monroy's rule in a small island ridden by corsairs ashore and afloat was no mean job.

There was then the other field about which a dispute arose in 1485. It had belonged to a married couple without children. When the husband disappeared, apparently drowned in a shipwreck, the wife tried to retain possession of it, but her husband's family wanted it back. This led to a scuffle in the field itself. Numerous witnesses gave a vivid account of everything that was said and done, the stones that were thrown, the pushing, the shouting, the crossbow that had been flung aside by one and picked up by a member of the other side, the threats that were uttered, and the slanders that were flung about in language which was definitely unprintable until recently and I am not yet convinced can pass the censor even now. One also learns how rumour was repeated in the town square of Gozo even then, and how people kept note of what others were doing, where they were going, what they carried, particularly if they were armed.

Inevitably, in an ecclesiastical court, one comes across the occasional cleric who had done wrong. There is, for example, the cleric who had been saying the Divine Office at the doorway of the church of St James at Rabat, Gozo in 1486 when a well-shrouded woman entered the church. The cleric followed [p.85] after her, afterwards claiming that he was really merely going to lay his missal aside. Instead, within minutes the woman began to scream. Apparently he had addressed her in an impudent and insolent manner, to which she took immediate offence. Within an instant he rushed out all embarrassment and worry. He pleaded later in court that he had mistaken her for a well-known prostitute, but she was a respectably married woman, who later on accused him before the bishop's vicar's court of his offence. He was sentenced to a year's imprisonment with irons on his feet and exiled to Malta. Years later, she wrote a letter, which has survived, in which she informed the church authorities that he was threatening to return to Gozo, which he could very well do as he belonged to a well-connected family members of which normally did what they liked.[12]

The well-known prostitute he mentioned appears as a witness in another almost contemporary case concerning an allegation that a woman had some-how stolen the affections of a husband for his lawfully wedded wife, probably by the practice of magic - an art for which her step-mother had been burnt alive in the Castle-by-the-Sea some time before. This time witnesses volubly described the street scene when the wife went over to the house where her husband was reported to be seeing his paramour, banging on the door to get admittance, and eventually finding not only her husband but also the other woman herself hiding under the bed, from where she pulled her out by the skirt in her husband's own presence. It turns out that she had been his concubine before his marriage, and that the lawyer defending her was the husband's own father, practically the only notary then in Gozo.[13] She had already had children by him, and she had determined that he would return to her. Witnesses reported her boasts that she would even influence by her art the Church authorities of Malta in her favour if they intervened. The husband eventually pleaded that she had bewitched him by her craft, that she had at first appeared to him as the face of the moon until he discovered she was the very devil himself; and, under oath in the vicar's court, he declared that he had seen her approaching the coast of Gozo riding on the back of a sea- turtle to practice her magic.[14]

Real prostitutes as distinct from concubines were very much a part of daily life in Gozo as in Malta, but sometimes the distinction was not at all clear. Thus, Stephanu Kirdak's daughter, Tiresa, was undoubtedly a prostitute, [p.86] having been described as such in two separate sets of proceedings. She was supposed to have had relations even with slaves. Laurencza, the freed slave of Don Matteo de Brunecto, though described as a prostitute by the cleric Gullielmus Kinsi in order to ward off the charge that she had been his concubine for some time, was instead one of those unfortunate women whose fate it is to fall in love with a married man. However she eventually succeeded in running away with him to Trapani. She was described in part of the proceedings as "a mercenary woman, vain, one who normally told a thousand lies, said one thing then another such that with her lies, vanity and rascality she had separated the husband from his wife and kept him publicly as her lover". There was then the incident when she went to Friderico Sansuni's shop to buy some tape or ribbon for a torn sleeve. Friderico refused to give her any except for ready cash. A bystander suggested that the shopkeeper should give her as much worth of ribbon as the sum she owed himself, having sex with her and paying him what she owed him instead of her. Don Pinus Urdub said this because he was sorry for her and only spoke jokingly. She flared up: "Friderico is her kinsman and brother. He has nothing to do with me." Her main trouble arose because she had tried to cover up her liaison with Andrea by claiming that she had an affair with Friderico instead.

There was then the woman who remarried too soon in Gozo in 1466. Her name was Donna Lisa de Vagnolo and her first husband was the nobleman Antonius de Naso who had died in December 1465. She was reported to have been in such an unholy hurry to get married again that she did not wait even the stipulated forty days of mourning to pass before celebrating the second wedding to the sound of a viola,[15] a lute, trumpets, drums and much dancing and singing. This was confirmed by the evidence of the lute player himself, named Salvus de Luchia. On the other hand, she claimed that her late husband had told her, after a quarrel on his death bed with one of his nephews who was one of his eager heirs, that she should immediately remarry when he was dead: "What you have told me is true. Therefore, I tell you, when I am dead, on the third day take a husband and do not withdraw to your brothers or to anyone of your relatives". It was argued that according to canon law, a widow could remarry at any time after the death of her husband without incurring any penalty. Her opponents claimed that she would not even help in the celebration of the quadragesima of her late husband's death, by lending a pall to cover his grave with and a silver goblet to place upon it during the ceremony.

[p.87] In the 1480s a group of Gozitan women are found captive in the Rialto of Tunis. One of them was absolutely forbidden to leave the Castle, but others had already obtained freedom of movement throughout the Christian Rabat or suburb of Tunis. The former charged Petrus Mannara, a cleric who had arrived there expressly to arrange ransoms, that he had pocketed her money and had done nothing else about her. Witnesses supported her claim. They also mentioned a so-called bishop of Carthage and his mother,[16] both of whom spoke with pity about her plight. The court clerk carefully recorded the language in which they spoke, whether in the Gozitan speech or in that of Tunis, on one occasion having to make an emendation for the sake of precision on the matter.

Another case concerned Donna Simona de Baldes, daughter of notary Corrao de Alaymo, first married to the Catalan nobleman Petrus de Baldes, then to the Maltese merchant Jachinus Caruana. Various witnesses described her first husband as a spendthrift, lord of half the fief of Marsa, the most opulent fief on the island, who squandered his whole fortune on his friends his dissolute way of living, pawning his goods and borrowing off others, particularly to equip a ship for corsairing which eventually fell into the hands of the Moors, he himself being taken captive and having to be ransomed. To achieve the latter he actually donated his land at Marsa to Johannes de Nava in return for a small annuity. Other witnesses said that they remembered him on his visits to his estate at Qormi, his drinking bouts at the village taverns, his hunting trips with falcons. Donna Simona for her part described how she intervened when-ever the tenants came to pay their rents because her husband did not know Maltese. This was confirmed by Petrus Cardona of Qormi, one of the tenants who also said that he himself did not know Don Petrus de Baldes's own language, that is, Catalan. The other nobleman Antonius Gact Desguanes described de Baldes as a splendid person who kept horses, ate and drank well, and spent unreasonably, who had to donate his half of the fief of Marsa in order to redeem himself from slavery. Ysabella de Casseres, the widow of Johannes de Nava, referring to the great friendship between her late husband and de Baldes, said that the Marsa land was donated to de Nava in return for the annual sum of thirty uncie payable to de Baldes until the day of his death. He actually lived with her husband both in the castle and in town, eating and drinking in his company and being treated as a relative and had died in his [p.88] house. As a well-known man, he had too many friends on whom he spent his money. In his own house at Mdina, he had furniture, slaves, a horse, donkeys and falcons and lived like a member of the gentry. Though his wife really ran affairs for him he never contradicted her. Other witnesses denied that he was all that of a spendthrift. He had never, for example, spent money on or prostitutes. His annuity was not all that small. His widow herself continued to receive an annuity of eight uncie after his death. He had owned a male and female slave who had three children, and he had never sold them off. On the other hand, Donna Simona, as the daughter of notary Corrao de Alaymo, had always been a well-informed, wise and clever woman in mundane matters; throughout her life she had been considered wise and prudent in all her affairs and business undertakings, dealing and speaking with everyone and treated as such by one and all. This was confirmed by several. Reference was made to the friar Matheus Zurki who had bought a field from her husband. Inigus de Cantore said that he had seen Zurki managing the endowments of the Augustinian Friary, enlarging them by new purchases. The lawyer Andreas de Fauzono had heard from several persons at Mdina and Catania that friar Matheus Zurchi was a preacher who had preached in both of those places and everywhere else right up to Rome itself - as was commonly known. He was qualified in Sacred Theology and a preacher who could have deceived donna Simona and any other woman by his purchases of land, but would not have done so as he was an ordained man. It was said that he had obtained sixty uncie in new income for the Augustinians of Malta. The parish priest of Siggiewi put the figure at ninety uncie.

Not many years before the arrival of the Order in Malta, two well-known priests in Malta took each other to court. Don Jacobu Vassallo alleged that the sexton of the Cathedral had been flinging stones, oranges and dung at him from the cathedral steeple, and got into a public row with the Treasurer, Don Dominicu Dimech, responsible for the sexton's behaviour. He also alleged that Dimech had given him a beating personally early the following morning just outside the cathedral side door, as a result of which the big cathedral bell was rung, while the deacons rang small bells along the streets and thoroughfares of the city while the otherwise unknown assailant was declared an excommunicate. I do not think it matters much which of the two was most to blame in the affair. But the court papers provide inimitable side-lights into the daily life of the time at Mdina. The two sides belaboured each other with a whole list of accusations, apparently trying to ridicule and undermine the reputation and credibility of the other.

Thus among the accusations Don Jacobu flung against the reputation of [p.89] Don Dominicu was that since he had become Treasurer of the Cathedral, the discipline and order inside the church had declined. Not only was the cathedral service held irregularly, but dogs were allowed inside the church, even pigs sometimes straying in. He answered that dog-owners sometimes took their animals in with them and were offended if their dogs were driven out. The pigs could not be kept out because the church doors were kept open and there was no railing around the church parvis. Don Jacubu said that Don Dominicu was the son of a mere stone-mason, while he was a grammar school master. The latter replied that his father was a master mason much in demand whenever a pretty window or a nice church needed building, and no one complained of his work, because he gave advice justly and without malice, while Don Jacubu's father was a wretched tailor who sewed cotton and woollen clothes even for slaves and the Jews, and was nicknamed Xibeyriteyn, working first at Mdina, then at Mosta, a hamlet of Naxxar. As for Don Jacobu's boast that he was a grammar schoolmaster, he should admit that he was nicknamed campisa by the students because of the strange hat he wore, and his clothes were so extravagant that even his brothers were ashamed of him. Instead of chiding his pupils when they made a noise he joined in their , and when he told them that he would let any of them spit into one of his ears if they brought him his fee, the mother of one of the Galea kids gave her son twice the amount for him to spit in both of his ears. During all Christmas and Carnival evenings and at all other times, Don Jacobu was teased by the children, and his own pupils made fun of his school and all his affairs. He was a laughing stock throughout his lifetime. During the time that Don Bartolomeo Bonavia was Vicar General he was teased in this way already, and Don Bartolomeo took no notice because he saw that while Don Jacobu accused Don Joanni Fauczuni and others of their continual and thousands of taunts yet every evening he accepted their invitation and they all ate together. They had in fact called the vicar to come and see him eating with the very same persons he had accused that same morning and the Vicar General was much astonished and told Don Jacobu, "If you come to complain before me again, I shall punish you severely". Though Don Jacobu boasted that he was a respected school-master in his pleadings, in fact, however, his pupils had little respect for him. Some time before, invited to the house belonging to Mariano Darmanino, father of Cola, who was one of his pupils, and waiting to be served his food, he was offered a plate full of barley as a joke, but he took no notice of the banter. On the same day, at the garden of Mtalileb or the house of Mariano Darmanino he was offered a plate full of bones - raw legs of mutton and goat and, without being disconcerted by their laughter, he set to and began to eat. Don Dominico [p.90] continued that schoolmasters were respected and nowhere were they ever treated like that. This was done to Don Jacobu very often because he himself gave cause to all men to make fun of him. His students frequently played in his presence inside the school, playing the in which one of them flung a coin in their midst, and the one who took it kept it, and the first to throw himself on the ground to snatch it was the plaintiff himself who called himself a schoolmaster, and all the pupils then flung themselves upon him. His school had more of play and fun than of anything else, and all his young pupils made fun of him for his behaviour. He was in the habit of calling the little children he taught "Demons! Demons!", having no other words on his tongue than "Devil! Demon!", "words which no one should utter". And so it went on, but I am here rationed to twenty minutes. Parts of the case beat Boccaccio.

Do I have to defend the validity of this type of history concerned with the analysis of daily life in the past? It has nothing to do with other types which have won for themselves the acceptance of the academic world. It does not set itself up as the supreme type of history which should as of now replace the more traditional forms. It is merely an alternative type much in demand and well practiced already elsewhere, but hitherto unimaginable here in Malta before the recently undertaken intensive exploitation of our relatively rich surviving archives - rich, that is, for post-1450 times.


[1] NLM Univ. 11, f. 512v; Acta Juratorum et Consilii Civitatis et Insulae Maltae, ed. G. Wettinger, (Palermo, in the press), doc. 873.

[2] NLM Univ. 11, f. 591; Acta Juratorum, doc. 381.

[3] NLM Univ. 11, ff. 31v-32; Acta Juratonon, doc. 298.

[4] E.g. for fish, see the proclamation of 4 October 1469 in NLM Univ. 11, f. 574v;Acta Juratorum, doc. 350; for meat, see proclamation of 6 May 1471 in NLM Univ. 11, f. 209v; Acta Juratorum, doc. 412.

[5] NLM Univ. 11, f. 176, dated 18 January 1463; Acta Juratorum, doc. 240.

[6] NLM Univ. 11, f. 520v, dated 19 November 1482; Arta Juratonan, doc. 888; see also ibid., does. 890 , 891.

[7] NLM Univ.11, f. 342; Acta Juratonan, doc. 622.

[8] NLM Univ. 11, f.162; Acta Juratonan, doc. 193.

[9] CMM Curia Episcopalis Melitensis, Acta Originalia.

[10] Most of the rest of this short paper is based on a full-scale work which the author is preparing for publication in the near future.

[11] G. Wettinger, "Agriculture in Malta in the Late Middle Ages", Proceedings of History Weep 1981 (Malta, 1982), 1-48. Also published separately in a slightly amended edition (Malta, 1982).

[12] Id., "Concubinage among the Clergy of Malta and Gozo, ca. 1420-1550", Journal of the Faculty of Arts, vi, 4 (1977), 165-188.

[13] This was notary Andrea de Bonjemino or Bonjebino.

[14] G. Wettinger, "Honour and Shame in Late Fifteenth-Century Malta", MH, viii, 1 (1980), 65-77.

[15] I am told that this could not have been the viola as known today.

[16] He was probably one of the priests ministering to the European merchants in Tunis: C.-E. Dufourcq, L 'Espagne Catalane et le Maghrib aux Xllle et XlVe (Paris, 1966), 488-94, itself referring to the fourteenth century.