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Shining a new archival light on times of darkness in Malta

The Castrum Maris (Fort St Angelo) in the maritime city of Vitttoriosa, the embodiment of Maltese history, an enclave of medieval power, haughtiness and rapacity. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

The Castrum Maris (Fort St Angelo) in the maritime city of Vitttoriosa, the embodiment of Maltese history, an enclave of medieval power, haughtiness and rapacity. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

The words ‘medieval’ or ‘Middle Ages’ today are typically used to describe an outmoded attitude or any behaviour that is brutal, tribal or irrational. So we describe Islamic State’s savage cruelty, capital punishment, sectarian violence or even football hooliganism as medieval.

A well-known example of this period being dismissed as dark and barbaric came in 1993 when French journalist Alain Minc published The New Middle Ages, in which he wrote that the modern-day equivalent of the Holy Roman Empire – the Europe of Maastricht – looks on to the present inhumanities as powerlessly and impotently as Charlemagne did in the Middle Ages, resulting in the “disintegration of the ordered universe in the face of regions and societies that seem to defy our capacity for rational analysis”.

In his criticism Minc was probably referring exclusively to the Dark Ages.

Minc’s image of the Middle Ages certainly chimes with the views of Renaissance historians who coined ‘Middle Ages’ as a term of abuse. In her provocative and scholarly absorbing work Wordly Goods – A New History of the Renaissance, Lisa Jardine offers a similar interpretation of the Middle Ages.

She uses the term to describe the leapfrogging of the murky previous centuries, stretching from the glories of Greece and Rome until the 14th century. The latter time saw the flowering literary genius of Dante and the artistic and technological acumen of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci being exposed in the Italian peninsula, heralding an apparently rebirth of the classical era and the initial stages of the Enlightenment.

Lunzjata Valley, lying peacefully between Victoria and Kerċem, was donated as a benefice by King Frederick 111 of Sicily (1272-1377) to his former lover Sibilla d’Aragona. Photo: Maria MasiniLunzjata Valley, lying peacefully between Victoria and Kerċem, was donated as a benefice by King Frederick 111 of Sicily (1272-1377) to his former lover Sibilla d’Aragona. Photo: Maria Masini

Early 20th century popular culture echoes this dismal view of the Middle Ages depicting it as a time when life was brutal, intolerable and replete with squalor, misery, fear and disease.

Today, when we speak of the Middle Ages, Umberto Eco, the erudite Italian professor of Medieval studies at Bologna University, stands high and mighty on the medieval horizon. He gives us a more sophisticated contemporary image of the Middle Ages, embodied most famously in his 1980 seminal worldwide bestseller The Name of the Rose. According to Eco, the roots of today’s European culture and society are embedded in the High Middle Ages, so if there is a renewed fascination with that period it is part of a search for nourishment, a search for roots, rather than for a model of disintegration.

Some of these views are also shared by local historians who firmly believe that the Maltese people’s first faltering steps towards nationhood began in the Late Middle Ages through the valid administration of the Mdina-based Università.

A derelict medieval hamlet in the rolling countryside between Rabat and Dingli.A derelict medieval hamlet in the rolling countryside between Rabat and Dingli.

This occurred in spite of the dark patches of tyranny, abuse of power and internecine strife that characterised the period in the Maltese islands.

These episodes are well documented in the still extant annals of the Università and the Mandati documents researched by Prof. Stanley Fiorini. These documents, held at the Mdina Cathedral Museum, testify to the municipal council’s high degree of administrative competence.

Over the years, local medieval scholars have been shedding new archival light on this time of darkness, revealing aspects of the Late Middle Ages, particularly in the 15th and early 16th centuries, when the Maltese archipelago enjoyed a certain measure of self-government although forming part of the Kingdom of Sicily.

In the Middle Ages the misappropriation of common land by ruthless foreign barons safely cocooned in the palatial splendour of Mdina or the Castrum Maris in Vittoriosa was a daily threat to the survival of the peasant populace

This autonomy was entrenched in the two administrative institutions or munici­palities, in the cathedral city of Mdina and at the Cittadella in Gozo. The main original source material being researched by these medievalists are kept at the Royal Archives of Palermo and Naples.

The biggest know grievances of the Maltese, dating back as far as 1410, consisted of the misappropriation of common land (spacium comune) by noble­men, influential landlords and private individuals. Very often the petitions of the Maltese to the Royal Court in Palermo were agreed to, and “the kings’ horses and the king’s men” compelled the noble predators to grudgingly return the land to the impoverished peasants.

Mdina’s Cathedral Museum, a prestigious depository of medieval documents.Mdina’s Cathedral Museum, a prestigious depository of medieval documents.

These incidents relating to land tenure have been the subject of many scholarly books and academic papers by the late medievalist Prof. Godfrey Wettinger as well as Fiorini, to which I referred when compiling this feature.

In Late Medieval Malta every rural settlement had extensive stretches of common land which was essential for the grazing of sheep and goats in an island totally depending on land tilling and animal husbandry. Fully conscious of their God-given right to use the spacium comune the Maltese peasants were continuously on their guard not to lose their precious privileges to anyone.

In the Middle Ages the misappropriation of common land by ruthless foreign barons safely cocooned in the palatial splendour of Mdina or the Castrum Maris in Vittoriosa was a daily threat to the survival of the peasant populace.

When in 1492 many public pathways were illegally privatised and enclosed, strong representations were promptly made “as it was impossible to go about the island”. The incident is recorded in the Capitoli of Malta of May 10, 1492, kept at the archives of the Cathedral Museum in Mdina.

Contemporary land tenure in the Maltese islands is deeply rooted in the Middle Ages. It is indeed a reflection of the pattern of land acquisition at the time when huge tracts of land were donated to loyal foreign nobles of the Spanish or Sicilian Crowns in the form of fiefs or benifices for services rendered, mainly military.

Occasionally they were also for sexual favours rendered, as in the case of the idyllic Wied il-Lunzjata in Gozo, with its medieval chapel dedicated to the Annunciation (Il-Lunzjata), which was donated by Frederick III of Sicily (1272-1377) to his former lover Sibilla d’Aragona. In a scholarly paper entitled Sibilla d’Aragona and the Foun­dation of the Saqqajja Benefice on Gozo, Fiorini reveals that she settled there “as it may have been convenient to have her out of one’s way in distant Malta”.

Nobles and landlords, most of whom resided in Mdina, were despicable tyrants, and consequently despised by common people. This explains why the impoverished populace received the mighty Order of St John with acclamation and great expectation in 1530.Nobles and landlords, most of whom resided in Mdina, were despicable tyrants, and consequently despised by common people. This explains why the impoverished populace received the mighty Order of St John with acclamation and great expectation in 1530.

The 15th century is characterised by the haughtiness and rapacity of a new breed of notables, mainly Spaniards or Sicilians established in Malta by King Alphonse V, who utterly ignored his promises after the popular revolt against Gonsalvo Monroy in 1426 when the Maltese had paid hefty ransom money to redeem the island from foreign tyrants. To add insult to injury the King ensured that these arrogant noblemen obtained lucrative positions in the island’s administration, namely the Università, as well as the Secrezia, the financial office of the Castrum Maris (Fort St Angelo) in the maritime city of Vitttoriosa.

These episodes are dramatically exposed in Ninu Cremona’s literary play Il-Fidwa tal-Bdiewa (The Peasants’ Redemption) performed in the middle of the last century and set to music by Mro Charles Camilleri in 1985. Other literary works relating to the tyranny of the period include Is-Saħħar Falzun (The Wizard Falzon) by my great-uncle Agostino Levanzin, and Guże Galea’s Raġel Bil-Għaqal (A Wise Man).

The incidents of misappropriation of public land by these oligarchs became so frequent and threatening that Wettinger, in his highly acclaimed book The Lost Villages and Hamlets of Malta, suggests that “the rapacity of the nobles and land owners may well have been responsible for certain village desertions”.

Contemporary land tenure in the Maltese islands is deeply rooted in the Middle Ages when huge tracts of land were donated to loyal foreign nobles of the Spanish or Sicilian Crowns in the form of fiefs or benifices for services rendered

A case in point was Raħal Allun (Ħal Allun), which in 1419-20 was documented as a casale of Tarxien but faded away before 1530, becoming a contrada of Tarxien. Medievalists have recently unearthed various instances when the most notorious tyrant of them all, Antonio Desguanes, illegally expropriated land in various localities in Malta.

In 1458 he forcibly usurped for his own use the common land of Wied Gerżuma, presently known as Il-Kunċizzjoni, limits of Baħrija. The Università immediately took the necessary action because in the said area “it was usual for large numbers of animals to be led by their owners for pasture and watering”.

The view of Malta from the Mdina bastions. The nobles ensconced in the fortified city viewed the arrival of the Knights of St John with the cold indifference and suspicion in sharp contrast to the rest of the population.The view of Malta from the Mdina bastions. The nobles ensconced in the fortified city viewed the arrival of the Knights of St John with the cold indifference and suspicion in sharp contrast to the rest of the population.

In that same year Desguanes obtained royal permission to enclose common land over a vast area of Il-Mizieb extensively used by peasants and shepherds of di la Milla chia (Mellieħa), which action resulted in protests and condemnation by the Università, because “the said Desguanes should not and could not make use of the said spaces called di la Millacha without which the people of the said island cannot survive owing to the thorns for fuel and pasture for animals to be found there”.

Understandably no textual criticism of Desguanes exists except in the annals of the Università. There was a time when no one had the temerity to oppose this new mula (lord), a title normally given to despotic feudal lords. The Desguanes family had arrived in Malta in 1400 from Catalunya, Spain, and within a few years became the leading noble family in Malta. Desguanes’s rise to power was meteoric; he craftily climbed the social ladder by marrying into one of the most influential families in Malta.

At one time Desguanes was hailed as a national hero for leading the revolt against the tyrant Monroy in 1426 and many inscriptions are still extant today extolling his courage and generosity. Apparently even in the 19th century Maltese literature, this perception lingered on in the patriotic play Caterina Desguanrs by Gużé Muscat Azzopardi, first performed on September 9, 1876. Subsequently the play formed the basis of the libretto for an opera by the same name with music by maestro Carmelo Pace first performed in 1965.

In popular perception, the nobles and landlords, most of whom resided in Mdina, were despicable tyrants, and consequently despised by common people. This explains the attitude of the impoverished populace, who in 1530 received the mighty Order of St John with acclamation and great expec­tation. It contrasts sharply with the cold indifference and suspicion displayed by the haughty nobles ensconced in Mdina.

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