Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.
Source: Melita Historica. [Malta Historical Society]. 7(1977)2(188-190)
DAVID ABULAFIA, The Two Italies: Economic Relations between the Norman Kingdom of Sicily and the Northern Communes. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, 3rd Series Volume IX, Cambridge University Press, 1977, pp. xvii - 310, 2 maps; £14.50.
The sources for Maltese history between 1090 and 1194 are indubitably scanty, yet it is now increasingly accepted that, despite Roger the Norman's raid in 1090, twelfth-century Malta remained predominantly Muslim in religion and culture; that Latin trade and the Roman church obtained a tenuous foothold only towards the end of the century; and that effective Christianization came later still. Malta was never "Norman", except in a distant and indirect political sense, and the turning point in the process of Latinization came, through a series of Genoese Counts of Malta, only after Norman rule in Sicily had collapsed. Such interpretations are advanced in various contributions, including D. Abulafia, "Henry, Count of Malta, and his Mediterranean Activities: 1203-1230," contained in Medieval Malta: Studies on Malta before the Knights, ed. A. Luttrell (London, 1975). One of Abulafia's sources has since been given an expanded dimension in J. Brincat, "Le Poesie 'Maltesi' di Peire Vidal: 1204-5," Melita Historica, vii no. 1 (1976), which provides some extra information and emphasizes local prosperity and patronage during an uncharacteristic period in which Malta was ruled from Malta; incidentally, Brincat (p. 65) wrongly gives the Genoese Guglieimo Grasso, not "Grosso", as the son of Margarito of Brindisi. On the whole there are only limited chances that new texts will emerge, but excavation must eventually shed more light on Muslim Malta and its overseas contacts, while a study of the coins which is now in preparation may reinforce the Sicilian [p.189] connection emphasized by the twelfth-century geographer al-Idrisi. For the rest, the Mediterranean context is crucial, and economic developments in Sicily and further north, particularly in Genoa, are now considered in David Abulafia's important thesis. Still awaiting attention are the commercial relations between Sicily and Africa for which Abulafia indicates various untapped sources.
The newer interpretation seeks first to establish what can reasonably be ascertained about Malta itself, and then to interpret such data against the widest possible background. The older approach was to fit real or supposed facts concerning "Norman" Malta into a Sicilian pattern. Even if the latter procedure were methodologically acceptable, it would still involve the historian of Malta in a process of historiographical revision, for historians of Sicily now emphasize not Norman tolerance or Norman innovation, but the repressive aspects of Norman government, the conservative policies which often left Muslim populations for long largely undisturbed: cf. S. Tramontana, "Aspetti e problemi dell'insediamento normanno in Sicilia," Atti del Congresso Internazionale di Studi sulla Sicilia Normanna (Palermo, 1973), and for a more general treatment M. del Treppo, "Medioevo e Mezzogiorno: appunti per un bilancio storiografico, proposte per un'interpretazione" in Istituzioni e società nella storia d'ltalia: Forme di potere e struttura sociale in Italia nel Medioevo, ed. G. Rossetti (Bologna, 1977).
This is not the place for any detailed critical analysis of Abulafia's researches or of their somewhat strained arrangement within a partly ideological thesis which confronts an agrarian Mezzogiorno with an industrialized North, as if twelfth-century Palermo was bound to become more "agricultural" than Genoa, Venice or Pisa. The author is evidently aware that the search for origins, however cautious, involves the dangers of reading history backwards. The city-states of Northern Italy certainly evolved attitudes and techniques which did not develop in the South, but that was a matter of geography and sea-power, of foreign colonialisms, of communal institutions, of capital investment and of other often highly intangible factors, rather than of industry as such; and the whole Mediterranean world, not just the Mezzogiorno, was eventually to be left behind. Furthermore, a complete treatment of these problems demands investigations of numerous other developments centering on the emergence of the latifondo: cf. H. Bresc, "Histoire et idéologie aux origines du 'problème méridional': à propos de quelques congres," Mélanges de l'École française de Rome: Moyen Age — Temps Modernes, Lxxxv (1973). This debate, in any case, has little direct bearing on the history of late-Muslim Malta, which calls for facts more than theories. Though most diligently mustered, Abulafia's sources are slender. Only the Genoese notarial contracts permit even a somewhat uncertain assessment of the real trading [p.190] operations which lay behind the generalities of commercial treaties and biased chroniclers. For such reasons, Abulafia's broad hypotheses inevitably remain debatable, but his detailed considerations constitute an important contribution which must be fundamental to an understanding of Malta's Mediterranean position.
The Genoese associated their own maritime expansion with Norman conquests in Sicily and North Africa. Malta lay within this zone but its conquest in 1090 was not sustained, for the Normans were generally stronger on land than at sea and Genoese sea-power had not yet been implicated on the Maltese islands, which were on the route to Tripoli rather than to Tunis. A Sicilian royal grant to Savona of 1127/8, which spoke of totum mare quod est a Nu[mid]ia usque ad Tripolim et totum mare et totam terramn que inter nos et eos sunt (p. 65), perhaps reflected an extension of interests towards Tripoli and therefore towards Malta, which was again conquered by the Normans in 1127. Genoa's interests, furthered through a curious but effective blend of personal initiatives and public policies, were in the commerce and grain of Sicily itself and in its own Levantine trade-routes, as well as in North Africa. Genoese contacts with Sicily in 1127 coincided with Norman preparations for an African campaign and with the second Norman conquest of Malta. Genoa's major treaty with Sicily came in 1156, the year in which, coincidentally, a Norman Bishop resident one, is first reliably documented. In 1162, however, the Genoese switched to an alliance with the German emperors. Genoa's trade in Sicily continued despite this new entente, just as its commerce in Tunis outlasted the end of Sicilian control there in 1160, but when Norman rule in Sicily itself eventually crumbled in 1194, some Genoese profited, under German protection, from the ensuing power vacuum. They had long been infiltrating the whole Central Mediterranean market area and they soon established a base on the southern fringe of the Sicilian kingdom at Malta, where a series of Genoese Counts began to bring the island permanently within the Christian, Latin sphere of influence.