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Nothing to write to Istanbul about

Tracey Emin, My Bed

Tracey Emin, My Bed

Storja
Malta University History Society, 2015
142pp

Storja is the journal of the Malta University History Society. It has been around since 1977 but its life has included several periods of hibernation. The latest issue, which follows a seven-year interlude, is the result of three things: first, a hope of spring from the current editorial board, second, funds provided by Monique J. Grech, the Janatha Stubbs Trust and the Alfred Mizzi Foundation and third a good story.

A very good story indeed, in fact, since 2015 was the 450th anniversary of the Ottoman siege of Malta. Two of the seven articles deal with the siege and ask just how ‘great’ it really was. This is not a matter of academic bickering, but rather an attempt by scholars to locate the event within a historical and geopolitical context.

At one end is the received wisdom that tells us that the successful defence of Malta was the turning point that saved Christendom from certain annihilation. At the other, an extreme revisionism that dismisses 1565 as a punitive expedition gone wrong to no real effect.

In a lecture he gave in Vittoriosa a year ago, historian Roger Crowley argued that, great or not, the siege was certainly very damaging to Ottoman aspirations.

Victor Mallia-Milanes, a professor of history at the University of Malta, has generally been inclined to take a different tack. His contribution to the issue under review argues that the siege was not terribly great to either Christendom or Malta. It was, however, a major game changer for the Hospitaller knights: it saved the Order from extinction and it also rooted its presence and activities in Malta firmly and in the long term. Certainly Mallia-Milanes’s argument dovetails nicely with Carmel Cassar’s research on the flowering, following the siege, of local identity and urban culture in Malta.

Two of the seven articles deal with the siege and ask just how ‘great’ it really was

The second piece on the siege is written by Federica Formiga of the University of Verona. Given Formiga’s expertise in printed material, it is no surprise that she values the siege as the heroic subject of a staggering 120 texts published in the late 16th century in Latin, Italian, Spanish, German, French, English, and Greek. This does not necessarily contradict Mallia-Milanes. To my knowledge, he never said that 1565 was not a tremendous story.

This issue of Storja also deals with things other than the siege. Timothy Gambin traces the story of a submarine that now lies upright in sediment somewhere off Malta. HMS Olympus and its crew made the last journey to the seabed on 8 May 1942.

Kate Fleet of Cambridge University discusses the expansion in the 15th century of the Ottomans under Mehmed II (‘the Conqueror’, aptly). The side argument is that it was this expansionist frame of mind that set the tone for later excursions (including 1565). Stefan Aquilina writes about the role played by the Manoel Theatre Academy of Dramatic Art (MTADA) from 1977 to 1980.

The two contributions by graduate students are both based on material from the Notarial Archives in Valletta. The richness of the data is a testimony to the tireless work of the Notarial Archives Research Council (NARC) and to the wisdom of a recent major grant that is set to underwrite a renaissance of conservation and classification work at the archives.

Mariana Grech draws on the acts of Notary Tomaso Gauci to shed light on daily life in Gozo in 1566-1568.

I was much intrigued by Iona Caruana’s article. In historical-anthropological mode, it makes use of dowry records to argue for the significance of beds and bedrooms as powerful locations where early modern families were made, literally as well as socially. Caruana describes the matrimonial bed as a ‘room within a room’ and the evidence is on her side.

This latest issue of Storja makes for an excellent read and it is also refreshing to see contributions by leading scholars and graduate students share bed space in a single publication. One hopes for a very long spring for the editorial board and for funding for more issues. History has no shortage of good stories.

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