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Heinous crime and horrendous punishment

Heads at St Elmo.

Heads at St Elmo.

William Zammit: Kissing the Gallows
BDL Malta 2016.

As William Zammit admits right at the outset, this book is not for the squeamish. It is, however, hard to put down, which may be quite an odd description to use for a book based on 10 years of dedicated research in dusty archives in Malta and the Vatican. This was an area that has been only summarily researched before and it was obvious that Zammit would come across so much hitherto untapped material.

Most of the material is based on the original reports – foglietti di notizie – which the Inquisitor was expected to send regularly to the Papal Secretary of State with any news that he came across and which might be of interest to Rome. Among other subjects, they include a fascinating record of misdemeanours and the resultant punishments.

Reading it all, and it is so rich in anecdotal detail, one feels a sort of voyeuristic attraction, perhaps a satisfaction that one was born in a different world where hu­mane values are given great­er im­por­tance, or so we would like to believe.

Bearing in mind the main source of the information, it is obvious that, given the nature of the body reporting and the institution being addressed, there would be a high percentage of crimes carried out by the secular and regu­lar clergy or involving ecclesiastical matter. It all depended on the In­quisitor reporting; some went about it in a lackadaisical manner while others loved to enter into minutiae.

And still, as Zammit himself explains in his introduction, there remain several relevant juicy civil and Church archives that can be tapped for even more details. But this is a huge task that requires years of dedication, possibly by a trained team of research­ers. The road to a full account of crime and punishment in Malta is indeed long and winding, but this is a more than respectable start.

Zammit’s study is a careful, me­tic­ulous analytic study of the social and cultural aspect of crime and punishment in Malta in the 17th and 18th centuries. The first section is a wide-ranging analysis of crime and punishment in this period.

It was a time when society believed in retributive and vengeful justice, where punishment was meant to be very visible to strike terror in any aspirant criminal. Indeed, death was often not considered fear-provoking enough and the miscreant had to undergo un­speakable tortures, very often in full public view.

The first part of the book is taken up with an extensive description and analysis of the judicial situation under the Order. With the other jurisdictions there were in Malta in addition to the State’s own system, there was quite a complicated situation which at times degenerated into serious misunderstandings, especially in matters of immunity and sanctuary. The bishop, the Inquisitor, and even the local universitas had their various judicial set-ups. As Zammit says, “jurisdictional jealousy between the secular and the ecclesiastical courts could be carried to quite absurd lengths”.

Public executions were the sole prerogative of the State, although other jurisdictions could hand over condemned individuals to the State for the final punishment. The execution itself was generally the climactic act of a long-protracted ritual from condemnation to burial. It was the declaration of the State of its powers of life-and-death over its subjects and was to survive in Malta well after the Order’s departure. The last public execution in Malta was, in fact, held in 1878 and it was a particularly botched one.

An extensive description and analysis of the judicial situation under the Order

Ironically, the ultimate intention was to make the condemned person convert (if he was not a Catho­lic) or repent, and thus save his soul. Punishment, ugly and spine-chilling as it was, was only a means for an individual to gain eternal salvation and also to pass this message to the population at large.

At least from 1582 the Valletta gallows were a permanent structure at a place outside the main walls of  Valletta close to where the War Cenotaph today lies. Previously they were situated on the Rica­soli peninsula, providing a gruesome welcome to all arrivals by sea.

Some executions were held close to the site where the crime had taken place, with a murderer once even being executed in Gozo.

Still, it is the 29 chapters that make up Parts II and III that should keep the reader turning page after page. They consist of the records of the various crimes, divided by their nature, committed by the Maltese, members of the Order, and other foreigners and by slaves respectively.

The types of the crimes involved testify to the unchanging nature of man, with most of them still being regularly committed to this day. They include murder, man­slaughter, burglary, theft, robbery, forgery, fraud, anger, greed, envy, physical assault, gambling, and sex (it had to raise its head).

The chapel of Santa Marija, Ħal Muxi, l/o Żebbuġ, where Filippo Fenech from Żebbuġ sought sanctuary in July 1691 after committing murder, and was later shot on the church parvis.The chapel of Santa Marija, Ħal Muxi, l/o Żebbuġ, where Filippo Fenech from Żebbuġ sought sanctuary in July 1691 after committing murder, and was later shot on the church parvis.

Other misdemeanours may be looked at in a different light today and they include suicide and escape from quarantine.

Society tended to come down heavily on felons, and when capital punishment was avoided, the sentence would involve rowing on the Order’s galleys, though one wonders which was the more lenient of the two. The great constant need for rowers in the Order’s navy explains why justice was so  ready to punish even the slightest of crimes with years of rowing.

The crimes themselves are reported briefly, almost impersonally, as is the punishment: the condemned man “suffered his right hand to be cut off and then executed. Following that, his corpse was beheaded and quartered and the dismembered parts were publicly exposed on the island”.

Naturally the meatiest parts are those concerning burglary, theft, and robbery and murder respectively. Robbery can range from extremely serious sacrilegious crime (which was surprisingly quite common, with the churches of St James and Porto Salvo in Valletta apparently being preferred sites) to the robbery of a Valletta store where a few items were stolen. In the late 18th century the island was also terrorised by gangs of thieves who often employed violent men to reach their nefarious ends.

The number of murders cited testify to a violent society around the harbour cities, perhaps less than other societies in other European countries but violent nonetheless. A good number of the murders were oddly enough carried out by tonsured people. Once it even bordered on the “comical” when somebody tried to poison the Dominican friar Żebbuġ in the friary’s refectory but the poisoned plate ended up being given to another friar who tasted it and found it insipid and passed it on to the servant. Both died a couple of days later. The identity of the poisoner remained unknown.

Archconfraternity Rosary, Valletta.Archconfraternity Rosary, Valletta.

The shooting of Filippo Fenech on the parvis of the church at Ħal Muxi, where he had sought sanctuary, is accompanied by a unique gem of contemporary map of the Żebbuġ district.

The section about crimes relating to sex makes juicy reading. The short descriptions can, indeed like many of the other accounts, provide exciting plots for a multitude of short stories. In a number of them, members of the Order and clerical figures were involved. A Żabbar mother violated the lover of her 14-year-old son with extreme violence, leading to her death. The violence is graphically described.

A short chapter discusses the “discovery” of the Golden Calf at Dwejra in Gozo in Pinto’s time.

The last section is dedicated to the same crimes committed by slaves. These children of a much lesser god were normally treated even harsher. Many of these slaves could go about their business much like free men and so had ample opportunities to break the law, either singly or in gangs. Escapes, or attempted escapes, were not that rare, even though they must have been difficult undertakings considering the constant watch the Order kept at the harbours and around the entire coastline.

The most notorious crime hatched by slaves was surely the 1749 conspiracy to murder Grand Master Pinto. The Order exacted a terrible retribution, which be­comes even more immediate to us because the torments were gruesomely recorded in contemporary naïve sketches, several of which are reproduced in the book. Interestingly, the torturer in one of the pictures seems to have a wooden stump for a leg. The condemned slaves were killed at regular intervals from July to October 1749, prolonging the ‘entertainment’.

In a few cases, condemned people were forgiven; in such cases they were taken up to the gallows and made to kiss them before being sent to row on the galleys. Some had their noses chopped off.

The appendices should prove quite a treasure for researchers. One appendix features verses in Maltese, including an early 18th-century lament written by an anonymous wrongly imprisoned  Gozitan, verses written about the failed uprising of the slaves of 1749, and a versified description of the murder of the Dominican friar Vincenzo Grimani in the Valletta friary on April 23, 1738.

Personally I did not like the use of the Maltese versions for some village names rather than their accepted English forms in a book written in English. If one is going to use, say Ħaż-Żabbar and Ħaż-Żebbuġ for Żabbar and Żebbuġ, why then not use In-Naxxar, Is-Siġġiewi, or Ir-Rabat for consistency’s sake? Taken to extremes, one would have to use Roma, Firenze or Siracusa.

Still, this does not take anything way from the fundamental importance of this book in the study of crime and punishment in Malta in a period of our history that has trodden such completely novel ground. The book itself is also a fine production, which attests to the great steps forward local publishers have made.

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