The pleasure of history
Charlene Vella (ed.), Proceedings of History Week 2009, Malta Historical Society and Midsea Books, Malta 2012, pp160, ISBN 978-99932-7-400-1, €15.
The Malta Historical Society has always been a bit of a hybrid between professional and amateur history. I use the a-word without the slightest hint of a raised eyebrow. Amateurs and hybrids tend to be free from the pressures of the academic bane of publish or perish. They do research simply because they love doing so and most of the time it shows.
Certainly there is an eclectic charm and playfulness to these writings. And yet they’re invariably rooted in solid scholarship.
This latter quality owes largely to editorial and peer-review standards which themselves benefit from a close association with our University. The Editor is resident academic there and the contributors have all followed advanced courses in various fields.
It is also refreshing to note that the volume steers clear of ‘national identity’ rhetoric and frameworks. The Editor does mention a ‘love and an interest for Malta’ in her brief editorial, but I would like to interpret that as matter-of-fact.
There is a difference between loving and taking an interest in a familiar patch of land and doing history as explicitly a part of a nationalist project, however, that might be imagined. There is nothing here of the trite teleological mantra that a people must know where they come from in order to know where they’re going. To my mind that’s a good thing, we can do without the pomp and circumstance.
The volume brings together 10 contributions from a range of historical periods. For example in Perceptions of Poverty: A Hospitaller approach, Stefan Cachia looks at a relatively understudied facet of the Order’s history.
The word ‘knights’ popularly brings to mind all manner of things from fancy façades and fortifications to more Walter Scott-type suits of armour, possibly gallantry and decadence, but not really poverty. And yet it was one of the vows taken by members of the Order.
Cachia explores the perennial tension between riches and renunciation, between having it all and leaving it all behind. He suggests the answer was in a synthesis of a number of forces including the practical necessity to administer a pan-European network of properties, the need to attract nobles, and the historical rise of individualism as a philosophical and cultural form.
The changing face of poverty within the Order reminds us that readings of its history must be both processual and anti-essentialist, at any rate certainly not romantic.
Architect and architectural historian Matthew Gauci’s chapter looks at the career of Webster Paulson who was active in Malta between 1861 and 1884. (It might entertain readers to know that his major commission was to rebuild the roof of the old opera theatre; the past, as they say, is a foreign land.)
Gauci’s work should probably be read in conjunction with Conrad Thake’s recent book on William Scamp, the man who gave us the Anglican Cathedral among other gems. One reason why I think it’s a particularly good idea to follow this lead is that it effectively rehabilitates an important period in our artistic and architectural history and emphasises its embeddedness in broader currents.
David Mallia adds to our knowledge of the history of migration by looking at a proposed scheme early last century to settle Maltese people in the Holy Land. This was essentially a kind of prototype burden sharing. Only the ‘burden’ back then was thought to be of the homegrown kind; the argument for emigration was that there were too many Maltese people for such a small island.
These are just a glimpse of some of the contributions in the book. The rest include a paper on the social history of bread making, an elegiac tale of two windows, pieces on roundel carvings and naval contacts between the Hospitallers and Sweden, and fascinating insights into the lives and works of Giuseppe Cannolo and Saverio Marchese.
Stephen Spiteri tells us of the possibility of a late Medieval gun platform having formed part of the Mdina fortifications. In sum, a very catholic set of offerings indeed.
There is, however, one thing that’s missing and that’s contemporary history. Not too surprising given that kid gloves at best, arm’s length more likely, seem to be the order of the day between local non-professional historians and that particular period.
I suppose part of it is that artillery platforms, roundels, Punic inscriptions, and neo-Gothic chapels are rather more colourful than drafts of the Constitution and such. Or maybe amateur historians are loath to touch a topic which they see as inextricably entangled with bipartisan tugs-of-war and biases.
Whatever the answer may be, this last is certainly not to speak ill of the book as is. Charlene Vella and her contributors have done an excellent job for the Malta Historical Society.