Imagining Maltese history
Robert Attard, Romina Azzopardi: Daily Life in 18th-Century Malta, Midsea Books, 2011, 175 pp.
Written by Romina Azzopardi and Robert Attard (co-authors of Antique Collecting in Malta), Daily Life in Eighteenth-Century Malta offers a glimpse into Maltese society during an exciting period of social change.
The book proposes a fascinating journey through the period’s foibles and eccentricities, lavishly illustrated and crammed with stories all cherry-picked to provoke a reaction.
There are tales of devout prostitutes, lascivious knights, beloved barber-surgeons and curmudgeonly clerics – if it reads like the cast of a grotesque pantomime, it’s because the authors know their audience.
This isn’t a scholarly tome (and indeed, much of the information in the book will not be unfamiliar to Melitensia connoisseurs) but it doesn’t propose to be one, either.
The pleasure it offers comes from the playful juxtaposition of delightful illustrations and irreverent fun. The tone strikes a wry balance between tongue-in-cheek commentary and historical anecdote, in a style popularised by Giovanni Bonello.
Azzopardi and Attard have written their little history with a careful eye to primary sources (many of which are extensively quoted and referenced), reconstructing an idiosyncratic vision of 18th-century life in Malta drawn from judicial records, traveller’s accounts, and other bits of narrative debris that come part-and-parcel with every square inch of Maltese soil.
You can’t move for the ghosts of things past, and it’s refreshing to find new popular historians who are willing to take the plunge and attempt amusing recreations of local lives.
The introduction tells us that “the Code de Rohan was very intrusive in matters relating to the use of persons’ organs of procreation” and goes on to say that “the parish priest of Żurrieq was convicted of pimping” and “prostitutes recited the rosary while they waited for clients”.
It’s that kind of book, and if you’re looking for the most genteel kind of racy reading around, this should do the trick. The volume touches on the darker side of life too, noting the ways that anti-Semitic laws were enforced with particular severity, and slavery was so ingrained that many people didn’t consider slaves ‘human’ at all – even the Church’s tempering presence couldn’t alleviate that sad state of affairs.
If you’ve ever wondered what food people ate then (why caffeine became a national addiction), what clothes were paraded up and down the streets of Valletta, and how the long arm of the law affected locals’ lives, this book won’t disappoint.
Most of the illustrations in the book are pictures of authentic 18th century artefacts from private collections, and as the authors of Antique Collecting in Malta the pair were perfectly placed to get photographs of some exquisite objects.
Daily life in 18th-century Malta will certainly find a welcome place on many bedside tables. Anybody with an interest in Maltese social customs in the 1700s (or with an inordinate enthusiasm for breeches or petticoats) will enjoy this book.