Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.
Source: Melita Historica. [Malta Historical Society]. 7(1977)2(179-184)
A.T. LUTTRELL (ed.), Medieval Malta: Studies on Malta Before the Knights, The British School at Rome, London, 1975; pp. xiv, 232; 24 plates; £M1150.
The scarcity of documentation has made the study of the islands' medieval history particularly intriguing and elusive and consequently Luttrell's fresh attempt at a clear definition of the state of the art is more than welcome [p.180] come, now that some forty years have passed since the previous more or less systematic effort. The volume consists of a collection of studies by three Maltese and five foreign scholars on various aspects of Malta's medieval past but, although the first article and the last one actually show two precise dates, 533 and 1570, which purport to pinpoint the range of events in focus, most of the studies in fact deal with the period 1200-1500. A high degree of specialization is reached in most of the articles so that the result may be compared to a fresco or mosaic with many missing patches (the economic, ethnographic and linguistic aspects) but, although comprehensiveness is unavoidably impossible, the picture is sufficiently ample and coherent to make out the central problem. This is without any doubt the question of the continuity of Christianity during the relatively brief but traumatic experience of Arab domination.
All the articles project, each from its own particular angle and in its own specialized way, a small set of constants: (i) the fundamental importance of two turning points in the islands' history, 870 and 1530; (ii) the most intimate links with Sicily throughout the period under review; and (iii) the fact that Christianity must be regarded as the cynosure in this field of research. It is to the credit of each contributor and especially of the editor that the approach is strictly scientific, the hypotheses which hopefully fill the gaps being always accompanied by cautious reservations. Therefore each article does provide the most up to date view of the theme discussed, even in the case of two reprints, JL., Ward Perkins's fundamental "Mediaeval and Early Renaissance Architecture in Malta" (1942) and J. Cassar Pullicino's revised "Norman Legends in Malta" (1945). The other articles: are original contributions, typical of the latest approaches in their attention to detail, awareness of the importance of the chronological asad geographical context and of the comparative technique, and thorough familiarity with the relevant bibliography. The way the manuscript documents and the printed texts are exploited, particularly in Brown and Bresc, shows the good points of a rigorously academic formation; in fact the only flaw I feel qualified to point out lies where Abulafia strayed into the literary field, ignoring Avalles critical edition of Peire Vidal's poems (1960) consequently quoting a verse that had been corrected (cfr. my article in Melita Historica VII, I, pp. 69-70). Although in each article limitations are admitted and directions for further inquiry are indicated, the average reader will certainly feel that we have a fairly complete view of such topics as "Henry Count of Malta", "The Secrezia and the Royal Patrimony in Malta: 1240-1450" and "The Lost Villages and Hamlets of Malta", for although the viewpoints are taken from very narrow angles, the degree of depth reached justifies the painstaking sifting of available documents (cfr. Wettinger's progress [p.181] on Blouet's work after a decade). As regards the missing evidence which hampers further progress most of the authors look hopefully up to archaeology. M. Cagiano de Azevedo and M. Buhagiar have made two complementary steps in the right direction and their articles are symptomatic of the new faith in a field which was previously reserved for prehistoric monuments. In both cases the findings concern solely places of worship.
This brings us back to the central problem. The lack of remains of civil buildings points to the logical conclusion that the islands were deemed of very little use to the successive rulers. This is a bit hard to appreciate with a mentality which has been pampered for 450 years about its strategic military value, but the fact is that before the Knights (and here one notes that the subtitle is truly appropriate) the situation was totally different. For the Knights and for the British, Malta has been truly a centre and this implies the need for Auberges, palaces, cathedrals, offices, a theatre, a university, hospitals, barracks and fortifications. Before that Malta must be seen in the context of other neutralized small islands like Elba, Corfu, Majorca or even larger ones like Sardegna, Corsica, Crete and Cyprus. As Brown concludes, the strategic and political role of Byzantine Malta was a limited one and as Redjala (1973) has pointed out, to Arab authors Malta was only "an obscure morsel split off from Sicily which didn't merit any particular attention" (my translation of Brown's quotation in note 98 on p. 82). The Byzantines and the Arabs simply did not need grandiose edifices: for a few hundred soldiers and less than 10,000 farmers a handful of places of worship was all that was needed. This fact explains why the island cannot have a "history" for this period, not any more than similar communities scattered along the Mediterranean coasts.
And yet there are two intriguing questions which beg clarification: religion and the language. The first problem is invariably touched upon directly or indirectly in every article and the contributions tend to confirm Mayr's thesis (1896) asserting the extinction of the Christian faith in the islands during Arab rule. All the evidence, oral, written and archaeological, indicates a very violent takeover by the Arabs which must have caused an almost total substitution of the inhabitants. This may have been due to mass emigration to Sicily provoked by the increasingly frequent attacks before the actual invasion, and then by persecution and slavery. Consequently the newly established Muslim colony would have greatly outnumbered what remained of the original inhabitants. This would not rule out the probable hypothesis that the islands had been Hellenised (like Sicily) during Byzantine rule (Brown, p. 78), because a drastic change of population would not allow a substratum to penetrate the new language. It also fits in with the fact that all the known churches were built since the first decades of Christian [p.182] resettlement (Buhagiar, pp. 163-4). Therefore unless it can be proved that the 3rd, 4th and 5th century catacombs and rock cut churches were still in use until and throughout the Arab period, Mayr's thesis can't be refuted scientifically. The stratigraphy at Tas-Silg (Roman, Byzantine, Muslim and Christian places of worship in a series of destructions and reconstructions) may well be symptomatic of the general situation (Cagiano de Azevedo p. 88).
A most striking fact is the contrast between the total lack of above-ground constructions dating back to the pre-Muslim period and the extraordinary flowering of churches or chapels in groups of 2, 3, 4, 6 or even 12!, constantly multiplying up to the incredible figure of 430 in 1575 (Buhagiar, pp. 171, 179). At this point one wonders whether the reconstruction of churches in two traditional spots, Tas-Silg and San Pawl Milqi, could have been a mere coincidence or a perfectly conscious act representing the victory of a long-standing and long-suffering tradition. If Mayr's views were correct would not this revival seem spectacular? Would not such an intense missionary campaign have created new popular saintly figures? The political renewal has been personified in Count Roger in local folklore (Cassar Pullicino, pp. 99-100) but the religious heroes have continued to be Saint Paul and Saint Publius.
The key to this dilemma may lie in the depths of the population problem. Brown points out that "one of the most striking features of this period in the Central Mediterranean is the extent of the migration which took place" (p. 84) but Wettinger is of the opinion that "it would be a mistake to suppose that Malta underwent any extensive colonization from Sicily or other Christian parts of Europe" (p. 203). The question is very delicate indeed because apart from the Celano affair of 1224 (Luttrell, pp. 37, 40), in spite of the reported expulsion of Muslims and continuous devastations and kidnapping till 1500 (Wettinger, p. 191) the population of the islands did increase considerably. Further research into the population problem may prove fruitful, especially if it is carried out by Dr. Wettinger who is the best equipped scholar in this field. One should also delve deeper into such indicative fields as comparative ethnology and dialectology, especially folklore and the material aspects of popular culture (domestic architecture and furnishings, costumes, tools and utensils, arts and crafts) and the relative terminology, as well as gesture and intonation. If this points towards the same closely bound ties with Sicily and Southern Italy as the political and ecclesiastical aspects expounded in Medieval Malta's articles, then one will have to give very careful consideration to the hypothesis of a truly massive but gradual immigration.
The gradual movement of Muslims out of the island has been proved: it is now accepted that 1090 is not the date for the total and immediate expulsion of the Arabs by Count [p.183] Roger as crystallized in tradition. If the Arabs were forced out in 1224 the interval may be considered as a sufficiently long period to permit slow immigration from Sicily and the Italian South with very gradual latinization of the race and romanization of the language. As the majority continued to speak the Arabic dialect introduced with the invasion of 870 and imposed on the small number of natives who refused to move out (this would account for the lack of a pre-Arabic substratum because the Berber element must have already been incorporated in the language of the conquerors and colonists), each new wave of immigrants must have conformed to the way of communicating of the majority. In this manner the process that has led to the present state of race and language in Malta may be traced down to its beginning in Medieval times: each new generation would progressively consist of more Latin speakers of the Semitic tongue which was in this way becoming Maltese. In my attempt at a comparative study of Maltese and the dialect of Pantelleria (Journal of Maltese Studies, n. 11, 1977) I have concluded that although Pantelleria is much closer to the Arab coast than Malta, the fact that its dialect is predominantly Sicilian and not Semitic is due to the smallness of the island, its meagre population (8,500 now) and the higher rate of immigration in proportion to the older stock. This must be seen as the determinant factor because the farmers of Pantelleria have much lexical material in common with their Maltese counterparts which proves that the situation must have been identical once (Sicilian Arabic; cfr. B.S.J. Isserlin in J.M.S., n. 11, 1977, pp. 19-25). Just as Malta could absorb the influx better, Sicily, being much larger in size and population was relatively easier to re-romanize since the Muslims had succeeded in Arabicizing the coastal towns especially Palermo and the area near the Tunisian promontory, but not the hinterland.
The theory of gradual immigration, mainly but not exclusively from Sicily, with generations of Latin stock grafted on the few thousands of Muslim converts who remained after 1240, would help explain such contradictory factors as the conservation of the Semitic morphology, place-names and the basic nucleus of everyday and "country" terms on the one hand, and the complete embracing of the Christian faith, the predominantly Romance character of Maltese semantics and the loss of the more characteristically Semitic sounds in Maltese phonology, which has in fact moved closer to that of the dialects of Southern Italy. A careful analysis of the chronology and stratigraphy of the lexicon with particular attention to the different registers may yield concrete proof of such a type of immigration. An example that readily comes to mind is the fishing and maritime sector the terminology of which is predominantly siculo-italian (Aquilina, Nomi di pesci....... 1969) and which is certainly related to the fact that fishing was not very important [p.184] in the Middle Ages (Wettinger, p. 195). The specialized terminology of the traditional crafts (woodwork, masonry, shoemaking, sewing, etc.) is prevalently Romance especially in the details.
A. T. Luttrell certainly deserves our gratitude for putting together such a worthwhile collection of studies. Moreover his introductory chapter must be considered as the starting point for study on Malta in the Middle Ages (and non-specialists and students may like to know that it is available separately), for he has succeeded in updating the work of the Archivio Storico di Malta group of the thirties, to whom, particularly to Valentini, credit is duly given by Luttrell and most of the other contributors. "Approaches to Medieval Malta" is much more than an ordinary introduction to a collection of essays:
it is a serious attempt to coordinate them, showing a remarkable skill at synthesising the conclusions of each and to present them in a carefully objective picture. Luttrell's care is evident in such minor details as the rigorously accurate cross-references that link the overall view of the introductory article with each deeper look at the single topics in the others. Moreover, in each article one finds references to the others whenever the topics overlap. This stratagem really keeps the whole together. As I have already noted the bibliography is impressive and it's a pity that it has not been grouped together if only in alphabetical order. This would have helped in any further research which Luttrell advocates and has been instrumental in bringing about by the deep interest he has aroused in Medieval Malta as quite a number of works that have been published after the publication of this volume by Wettinger, Vella, Cassar Pullicino, V. Borg, Luttrell himself (Hal Millieri) and others amply show.