Christian Names and Saints in 15th Cent. Malta

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A couple of days ago, while I was rummaging through my history tomes on my library shelves, I happened to pick up a very old periodical, an early copy of the Melita Historica, dated 1969. Flipping through the first few pages, I stopped in my tracks as I caught a glimpse of the title page of ‘The Militia List of 1419 – 1420’, a groundbreaking essay which the late Prof. Godrey Wettinger had published. Wettinger tells all about the document he had investigated wherein he discovered the names of more than 1,660 Maltese that lived in the early 15th century. I had studied this subject briefly during my B.A. course at the University, some 30 years ago. I thought it would be nice to refresh my memory about its contents.

The Militia List was actually a register drawn up by the Università (administrative council) of Mdina, wherein the names of those men aged between 16 and 65 were registered as conscripts for military duty. This document is preserved in the archives of the Mdina Cathedral Museum.

Since its publication more than fifty years ago, many historians and students have made very good use of this document in order to explore the various aspects of Malta’s social history of the 15th century. Amongst the various revelations that this document provides is the population distribution of the island as it was then. Wettinger had eventually also followed up his article by another  in which he went through the family surnames extant at the time. Unfortunately, the list is incomplete as it does not cover the names of the inhabitants of Gozo nor those of Birgu. This because these regions did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Mdina Council, but were instead administered by an autonomous authority. Also excluded from the Militia List were the clergy and shopkeepers as these were exempt from military duty due to the nature of their occupation.

Cloistered indefinitely in my own home since March 7, due to the pandemic, I thought this was an opportune moment to liven up my days by examining the list of names with a fine tooth comb. In the course of this perusal I was fascinated by the variety of Christian names on the list. In the Militia list there are some 80 different Christian names shared between the 1,660 names inscribed. In his essay, Professor Wettinger gives a break down of some twelve of the more frequent names to be found. I thought I should go a bit deeper and see what I could haul out of this historical gold cache.

I decided I should try and complement Wettinger’s information by checking on other sources that are available to me in my private collection of literature dealing with Malta’s mediaeval history. Who knows? Maybe my armchair research will reveal to me some intricate details which up to now have gone unobserved.

Some general background first

The names of the drafted males on the Militia List are grouped according to the locality of their residence. These localities are mostly hamlets, villages and modest towns. A small village might have had as little as 100 residents, as was the case of Ħal Millieri. The bigger villages like Siggiewi, Qormi and Birkirkara would have a population of around 500 each. Only Rabat and Mdina had a sizeable population to speak of. This totalled between them some 1,500 souls. Wettinger assumes that the list of 1,660 men at arms, if multiplied by six should give an approximate population figure of 10,000 for the whole archipelago, once the inhabitants of Gozo and Birgu were to be included in the estimate.

The male Christian names

The names on the list were written down in the Sicilian or the Maltese vernacular and not in Latin as is often the case with notarial documents of the time. This was not a legal document and so the name Johanni is not written as Johannes; similarly Antoni is not written as Antonius. This helps us to get close to the actual familiar pronunciation of the names. From the repetitive and consistent manner that the letters were inscribed, one may establish a fairly faithful pronunciation. For instance, one will observe that the ‘ch’ in the name Chiccu, and the surname Bonnichi provide the same sound as in the Maltese letter ‘ċ’ and thus, the first name would read, Ċikku and the second The other two letters ‘c’ in Chiccu are representative of the ‘k’ sound here and in all other names. Although there is also a Jiakkinu. Incidentally, this name tells  us that the J sounded as a soft G throughout, same as in Janninu or Johanni.

Some of the names in the list have a variant, in that some were jotted down with a complete and quasi-formal Christian name, as in the case of Nicolau, while the more shorten version, Cola was also recorded. Similarly the name Laurenzu or Laurenzcu was recorded as such (there were 16 of them) but were also sometimes inscribed by the street name Lenzu (17).

Some of the names on the list sound quite alien. There are such names as Ansieldino, Arrigu, Brancadu, Signuri, Albanu and Custanzu. There are 58 persons named Thumeo or Thomeo, quite difficult to pin down as a Christian name. We shall revisit this name later on. Quite bizarre are the names Carnivalu (4) – and Apostoli (1).

Below is the list of some of the more prevalent Christian names found, shown in descending order according to their frequency of appearance.

Antoni   (104)                                           Paulu    (58)                 Francisku / Chiccu (40)

Nicola / Cola (94)                                     Petru    (52)                  Pinu  (38)

Johanni / Jianninu (82)                         Andrea  (47)                 Laurenzu / Lenzu  (33)

Gulielmu / Lemu / Gulju, etc. (79)       Marcu  (42)                  Agustinu   (18)

Thomeu / Thumeu  (58)

It is rather strange not to find certain names that should reflect their locality’s revered saints. For instance Ġorġ is completely missing. One is led to believe that this is due to the fact that the cult of Saint George was not all the rage at the time. Yet we know that this saint was revered in Ħal Millieri and in Casale Curmi (Ħal Qormi). According to the De Mello Rollo of 1436, just 15 years after the Militia List of 1419-20, Qormi and therefore the town’s cappella were established as a parish. I suspect that the name Jorgi (the J sounding like a soft g), might be an interpretation of that name. Nevertheless, out of a list of 102 conscripts from Casal Curmi there is neither Jorgi nor Ġorġ or similar. Wettinger remarks that there is no Joseph. He ascribes Pinu to Filippino. Dare I venture to say that Pinu may be the shortened form of Guseppinu? I posit this guess as in the same list, Filippinu has a different and shortened version, that being Luppu or Lippu.

Why is Thumeu so common? And who is Thumeu or Thomeo anyway? Never heard of this Christian name before. This was not another version of Thomas. The latter shows up as Thumasi or Masi. Does it stand for Timoteus, one of the very early Christian saints? Or is it a corrupt form of Matteu, a metatasi (inversion of syllables) that occurred some generations earlier? The list does not provide one single Matteu, although there happens to be one Mattu. The name Matteu does appears several times in documents of the late 15th century. If Thumeu stands for Matheu then we would be satisfied to know that all the names of the four evangelists are represented on the list.

Female Christian names

So far that was plain sailing. For a list of female names I had to scrape the bottom of the barrel insofar as checking on my private collection of literature on medieval times. It was definitely not so easy to trace female names as these are not commonly recorded in documents of the 15th century. This because the notarial documents often record males dealing in property, although this practice was not exclusive. Female names tend to be more evident when it comes to inheritance issues. Thus with hand on heart, I will be the first to admit that in comparison with the previous list of male names, the quantity of female names below is a stunted one. This will also be due of course to the limited material available to me at present.

Amongst the two dozen or so female Christian names that I came across, the name Garita, short for Margarita, cropped up at least five times. Then there were Paula, Catharina, Agatha, Lisa (Aloisa), Simona, Angilica, Chancha, and Francesca / Chicca, Granata, Magdalena, Amata, Dominica, Isabella and Chilia, (might be a version of Lucia). So far not one single Maria. Although on the Militia List there is the male version, Mariu repeated 20 times and Marianu (5 times). Indeed, it would be quite logical to assume that some of the male names on the Militia List would compare to female names that were current amongst families. For instance why not a Paulina and a Petruzza.

I came across some female names that might sound exotic and poshy to our ears: Imperia, Isolda, Ylagia, (there is a certain Lagu Dejf in the list – is this name not reminiscent of Shakespeare’s character, Iago in Othello?) Ventura, Vencie, Violans and Venera, (the latter could read Vennera, same as the name of the rock-cut chapel in Rabat, dedicated to Saint Vennera). The above names all belong to simple country folk. An interesting name belonging to a female slave providing her forced service in Malta in the 15th century was Preciosa, which by today’s standards sounds very charming.

Bir Miftuh facade - Copy
Chapel or cappella as in parish of Ħal Millieri – (Photo is the property of Din l-Art Ħelwa)

Saints as spiritual protectors

The larger quantity of Christian names must have been inspired from names of relatives, dead or alive, but ultimately from Christian saints. Indeed I noted that many Christian names belong to saints that were very popular in the then still extant Byzantine culture of Sicily. When choosing names for the baptism of their numerous children, parents were spoilt for choice. The interior of the churches would have many representations of saints depicted on their walls or on wooden panels and triptychs.

Take the case of Ħal Millieri. There, there are a dozen figures depicted on the interior walls of the chapel which is dedicated to the Annunciation. The frescoes that still show represent such saints as, Lawrence, George, Nicholas, Andrew, John the Evangelist, Blaise and Vincent. The figures of James and Paul are doubtful in their identification. Then there is Saint Agatha who happens to be the only female saint showing on the frescoed walls. While the population of Ħal Millieri might have hovered at around 200, in the militia lists of the 1420’s, we find that from 29 males, only 9 are named after the saints showing in the frescoes. These are, Johanni (4), Vincenti (2), Nicolau (1), Jiakinu (1) and Laurenzu (1). It seems that Michael, which is not represented in the chapel was quite a popular name in the village, (6). I shall hasten to add that a mere 70 metres away from this chapel there is another chapel dedicated to St John the Evangelist and St Michael, and hence the source for this name was close by.

Bir Miftuh facade
One of the saints revered inside the chapel of Ħal Millieri – (photo is the property of Din l-Art Ħelwa)

Throughout the course of the 15th century, the revered saints were many. St Peter and Saint Paul are well represented on the Militia List, (58) and (52) respectively, these two saints being feted each year on June 29. However strange as it may seem, Saint Paul, Malta’s patron saint lags behind in popularity. According to the list, out of a population of some 1,500 in the two towns of Rabat and Mdina, only 20 persons were named Paulu, this in spite of the fact that the cult of St Paul was very strong due to the presence of the Grotto which was visited by pilgrims from all over Malta and beyond. God forbid were the whole town folk to be named Paulu or Paulina, variety being the spice of life.

Hopefully more will be revealed to me and then to you as I delve into further scholarly work.

Martin Morana

16th May 2020

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In case you are interested to read about one very particular aspect of Maltese social history … plse click here :

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Price: Euro 12.95.



Buhagiar Mario, ‘Medieval Churches in Malta. (photostat - unfortunately, I
do not have the title of the original publication).
Dalli Charles, Malta - The Medieval Millenium, Midsea Books Ltd. 2006.
Luttrell Anthony, Ħal Millieri: A Maltese Casale, Its Churches and Paintings. Midsea Books Ltd, 1976.
Roebuck David, Mediation and Arbitration in medieval Malta, from the records
of Notary Zabbara (1471- 1500) Melita Historica, Vol. XVI no 4. 2015.
Vella Charlene, The Mediterranean Artistic Context of Late Medieval Malta. Midsea Books, 2013.
Wettinger Godfrey, ‘The young widow of Gozo who married too soon’, Melita Historica, Vol. XIII, no. 2 1997.
Wettinger Godfrey, ‘Honour and shame in 15th century Malta’, Melita Historica, Vol. VIII, 1980.
Wettinger Godfrey, ‘The Militia List 1419 -1420’, Melita Historica,Vol. 5, no 2, 1969.
Wettinger Godfrey, ‘A Cleric is disciplined in Gozo 1486 - 87’, Melita 
Historica, Vol. XIV no 2. (2005).
Wettinger Godfrey, ‘Donna Simona Caruana, Alias de Baldas’, Melita Historica,
Vol XIII, no. 2. 2001.

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  1. Very interesting.You mentioned “exotic names”. Among the first names of my ancestors on my mother’s side were “Veneranda” and “Eleonora”. There is another who is named simply “Ciana”, which I understand could be a shortened form of ‘Luċiana’. The surnames of the women who married into the Żarb family that could be considered as being ‘exotic’ included “De Vignon” (or ‘Devignon’) and “Spadafora”. The family tree that I had was for the Żarb side of my family and was based on the research that was done by Prof Stanley Fiorini, a distant relative who also shares the same Żarb ancestry, and goes back to 1475. However, I know that Stanley went even further than that by doing further research in Sicily, where records are older than what we have in Malta. I believe that he published a paper on the subject but I have no access to this; perhaps you can. As always, thank you for sharing. Fair Winds!Wally     (Follia Pura)


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