Medieval Malta


  Introduction – Early Medieval Times

Malta’s medieval period is estimated to have spanned some 1,000 years, emanating some time around the mid-5th century AD.. By that time Roman dominion had waned and to all intents and purposes had just about evaporated from all over Europe and beyond. This was a period when, Malta was susceptible to foreign invasions whenever migrants, reached the Mediterranean shores, sometimes in military hordes, from Central and Eastern Europe as well as from North Africa. It was from these southern Mediterranean shores that at around 445 A.D. Sicily and most probably Malta were attacked by the Vandals. Yet, in 553, the Byzantines had conquered back Sicily and Malta must have been absorbed into the Byzantine sphere of influence.

Religious orders747330Solid information about the early and middle Medieval periods of Malta is very scant, because very little written documentation about these islands has survived. In order to ascertain the local events that occurred during this period one must glean information from ancient sources that are located especially in the archives of Palermo, as Malta’s history in medieval times is linked very much to Sicily. Then, as from the beginning of the 15th century onwards a fairly good amount of local documentation reveals various aspects of the social history of the Maltese, as proven especially by the archives in the Mdina Cathedral. Up to present, archaeological excavations in Mdina and elsewhere might prove or disprove that which has been written by various historians about Malta’s medieval past.

Archaeologically speaking, the multitude of catacombs of Malta are some of the earlier sources for material remains that date to the early medieval period. These may well belong to late Roman as well as to early Byzantine period. Indeed, these catacombs yielded not only Christian symbols but also Jewish as well as pagan funerary ones. This fact confirms the cosmopolitan character of Malta’s population at the time.

The  Arab Period

domus Muslim tombs49In the early decades of the 9th century, thousands of Arab Aghlabid forces invaded Sicily from Tunisia. Palermo fell in 831, Syracuse in 878 AD. In 870 AD Malta had been taken by the same Arabs who crossed from Sicily to reach Malta. According to some historians, it is possible that the local population had put up a stiff resistance to the new conquerors, as some archaeological evidence suggests that around this time some buildings were burnt down.

It is still quite difficult to ascertain Malta’s detailed history during the Arab period due to sparse documentation. It is very probable, however, that during this period most, if not all the Maltese population had turned to the Islamic faith. No traces of mosques have ever been found, and so far only one Islamic cemetery Islamic_funerary_limestone_Malta.jpeghas been discovered, so this issue is still very debatable. From Al Himyari, a 15th century Arab scholar, and the Arab chronicler Al Qazwini, we learn that in 1048 Malta was invaded by a Byzantine military force. According to these sources, the Arabs living on Malta had a fighting force of only 400 men, and so they asked the slaves (għabid) under their subjugation to help them defend Mdina and the whole island. When referring to the subjugated population this must have meant the inhabitants who were bound to pay taxes to their Arab overlords.

The Norman Period

count roger the landing laspina4In 1091, Roger I, the Norman Count of Hauteville who held a large part of Sicily under his dominion, crossed over to Malta. According to his chronicler, Goffredo Maltaterra, the count and his troops stayed only a couple of days on the island. He coerced the Arab leaders in Mdina to accept him as their overlord. Then he crossed over to Gozo, and after ravaging that island he and his troops all returned to Sicily. Malaterra also says that the Count had released and took with him a number of Christian slaves who were probably not Maltese. Otherwise, nothing else was done to liberate Malta from Arab rule. A Latin style of government that answered to the leadership of Palermo was only set up in Malta under Roger’s son, when the latter reconquered Malta in 1127. Even then, under Roger II, the Maltese population was allowed to practice its Muslim religion for many years to come. When in 1175 Bishop Burkhard of Strassbourg touched Malta while on his way ROGER IIto Egypt, he referred to the Maltese as Saracens. Evidence for the survival of Islam in Malta at this time is provided by the discovery of a 12th century cemetery located just outside Mdina in the whereabouts of the present building of the ‘Roman Domus’. Incidentally, the tombstone of Maimuna happens to be dated to a year earlier, 1174. However, a word of caution about this, because the original provenance of this tombstone has never been clearly ascertained.

Late Medieval Times

In spite of the settlement of a Latin type of administration by the Normans in Malta in 1127, it seems that the influx of Europeans and Christians into the Maltese archipelago was very gradual.  Then again, the newcomers were mostly confined to the Castrum Maris, that is to say, Fort Saint Angelo, located at the tip of the promontory of the maritime town of Birgu. An autonomous local government of sorts (the Universitas) administered the daily needs of Mdina and all other rural villages of Malta, but not of the maritime town of Birgu. Similarly, Gozo had its own autonomous Universitas. Apparently, the foreign rulers rarely communicated with those Maltese living in the rural areas or with the Gozitans. Hence, the  foreign cultural influences were slow to intermingle with that of the majority of the Maltese. Hence, the lingua franca of the Maltese remained wholly Arabic for many centuries to come. This will explain why the Maltese vocabulary retains up to this day words pertaining to the Christian beliefs in the Arab and Muslim version. Such words as Allah, Randan, l-Għid il-Kbir, knisja, quddies, qassis, etc., were carried over from the Islamic to the Christian terminology.

falcons-Frederick-II-Emperor-Rome-falconer-kneelingIn 1220 the Swabian (South-west German) king became Emperor Frederick II. He ruled all of Sicily, a large part of Southern Italy and Malta from his seat of power in Palermo. In 1241, his secretary, Giliberto Abate, set the population of Malta at around 10,000 many of whom were still Muslim. It was only in 1248, that Frederick II finally expelled the last of the ‘Muslim population’ of Malta to Lucera, a town in central Italy. Islam was gradually replaced by Christianity, upholding the same Byzantine rites as practised in most of Eastern Sicily at the time. This is hinted by the survival of various architectural elements in the more ancient chapels sparsely spread around Malta dating back to the 13th centuries.

Following the years of Swabian rule, the Angevins (originating in Anjou, France) took over Malta in 1268, just as they had done in Sicily. This is considered to have been a period of oppressive rule in Malta but more so in Sicily, where it lasted 14 years. In 1282, the famous uprising in Palermo, known as the ‘Sicilian Vespers’ took place on the Tuesday following Easter of that year. During this rebellion, a massive amount of violence in that city was instigated and thousands of foreign soldiers, most of them French, were massacred. Following this incident the Aragonese-Catalan armies came to the rescue of the Sicilians. In 1283, the Neapolitan Roger de Lauria defeated the Anjevins on behalf of the Aragonese-Catalanian kingdom during a bloody battle that ensued in Maltese waters. Yet the Angevins survived another year hemmed up inside the Castrum Maris. In 1284, Malta was finally in Aragonese hands. Throughout the years that followed, Malta was on numerous occasions pawned off from one overlord to another, in exchange of financial assistance, and military allegiance. (See dates and events list below).

Christianity Returns  to Malta

SALIB TAD DEJMA2By now, the Maltese had slowly but surely converted from Islam to the Christian faith. Towards the end of the 13th century we find the earliest mention of a cathedral in Mdina. The Franciscan friars, most probably were the earliest of the religious orders to settle in Malta in 1392. These tended the sick, in a hospital built adjacent to their convent (Santo Spirito). Throughout the 15th century other religious orders followed suit. The Augustinian monks came next, in 1413. The Carmelite friars had their convent in the Lunzjata valley outside Rabat in 1452. These were followed by the Dominicans in 1473, and then the Franciscan Minors (Ta’ Ġieżu) in 1474. All convents were established in the Rabat area as this was where agricultural land yielded most and where the monks felt secure, close as they were to the fortified town of Mdina. By the end of the 14th century there were established 12 cappelle / parishes in Malta and 4 in Rabat, Gozo.

Simblija jpg (2)Malta’s economy was then based almost entirely on agriculture. Throughout the late Middle Ages the main export was cotton and cumin, mainly to Sicily, while wheat was imported from Sicily to satiate local needs. Apart from agriculture, those in the harbour area must have earned their living by servicing the maritime vessels that called at Maltas main harbour. Others must have volunteered as crew, sometimes to participate in corsairing ventures. During late medieval times, Malta itself suffered many piratical landings, both by North African corsairs as well as by others originating from mainland Italy. One of the worse incursions occurred in 1429 when thousands of Maltesse were forced into slavery. (see dates list below).

When the Knights of St John arrived in Malta in 1530, the population of the archipelago amounted to a total of 20,000 souls. Throughout the whole of the mediaeval millennium the Maltese population had changed its cultural fibre many times. However, as from the mid-13th century onwards, due to the administrative and commercial contacts with South European people of commerce and maritime activity, the Maltese, especially those of Mdina and the Grand Harbour area were to integrate furthermore into the South European way of life.

The end of Malta’s Medieval period occurred more abruptly than when it started, once the Order of St John settled in Malta. Mdina and Rabat started to lose their importance as the commercial and administrative towns of Malta and their population began to drift towards the Grand Harbour area, enticed as they were by employment opportunities offered by the Order’s navy. In Birgu and the surrounding area, a second large urban environment started to develop. Thanks to the new commercial communication of the Order of St. John, the Maltese islands quickly shed off their semi-isolation as trade with the rest of Europe thrived for the next 268 years.

fountain without waterIMG_6552

Details of the events related to medieval Malta

477    Sicily and possibly Malta were occupied by the Vandals of North Africa.

535    Start of Byzantine rule in Malta.

592 – 598 – 599    By this time, Malta had a bishop. Letters by Gregory the Great confirm Malta’s Christianity and its influence by Byzantine rites. At the same time, the Pope’s letters reveal Malta’s ties with the North African Christian Church.

673-735 AD  The Venerable Bede , an English monk and a historian, is quoted as saying that the  population of Malta in his time was Christian.

870       Malta is taken over by the Arabs.

1091    Count Roger invades and conquers Malta, reaching an agreement with the local leaders for them to acknowledge him as their ruler.

1127    Roger II establishes a Latin kind of Government on the Maltese islands.

1156     Bishopric of Malta mentioned as suffragan of Palermo.

1194     End of the Norman dynasty. Start of Swabian rule through marriage.

1220     Frederick II ruling Malta from Palermo consolidates his rule on Malta.

1224     Frederick II deports part of the population of Celano Italy to Malta.

1248    Frederick II expels the last of the Muslims from Malta to Lucera.

1268    Anjevin rule in Sicily and Malta.

1282     Rebellion of the ‘Sicilian Vespers’.

1283   Roger di Lauria defeats the Anjevins on behalf of the Aragonese. He left 200 Catalans to defend the island. Last of the Anjevins capitulated a year later.

1292    As from this year onwards, Malta is in the hands of Genoese pirates who act as Counts of Malta.

1330 c.     Frederick III reacquires the Islands on behalf of his Aragonese kingdom.

1330         Frederick III cedes Malta to Roger de Fior.

1350        The Maltese petition to be ruled directly by the Crown in Aragon. This request is duly conceded.

1350s      Up  to 1372   Malta was practically owned by Giacomo de Pellegrino.

1353        Ludovico hands over Malta to Angelo de Caziolo.

1360       Frederick IV grants Malta to Guido Ventimiglia.

1369       Malta passes into the hands of the Aragonese Manfredi di Chiaramonte.

1372       Franciscan Order is mentioned as having its convent in Malta.

1392       Malta is in the hands of William Raymond de Moncada of Augusta.

1397     The Maltese petition the Royal Crown to be ruled directly from Aragon. Petition is granted and Malta remains under such direct rule until Charles V cedes Malta to the Order of St John in 1530.

1413      Augustinians establish their convent in Rabat.

1419    Militia list shows that there were 1,667 eligible men to serve as a fighting force. These hail from some 50 different villages as well as Rabat and Mdina.

1421     Gonsalvo Monroy, a Castillian galley captain takes over Malta from Don Antonio de Cardona.

1423     Malta is attacked by Tunisian Corsairs. Maltese bishop is captured and taken as slave.

1427    The Maltese petition King Alfons to get rid of Monroy by paying him 30,000 Florins.

1428    A Moorish invasion takes place.

1429    Monroy accepts 20,000 Florins from the Maltese.

1429    Another corsair invasion from Tunisia.

1436    Twelve documented parishes in Malta and four in Gozo.

1439     Calabrian corsairs land on Malta’s shores.

1441   Castel Sant’Angelo is taken  over by the De Nava family. There were 20 foreign and 30 Maltese soldiers garrisoning the fort.

1452    Carmelite monks establish their convent in Lunzjata valley, outside Rabat.

1461     A state school is being run by the Universitas.

1473     Domenican friars in Rabat convent.

1485     Death of Pietro Caxaro – poet of the ‘Cantilena’.

1487     Fleet of Sultan Bazajet lands in Marsaxlokk and later heads towards Birgu.

1492     Jews and Muslims expelled from all Spanish domain…that includes Malta.

1519     Viceroy of Sicily urges the Maltese to celebrate Charles V of Spain as Emperor.

1522     Knights of St John are ousted from Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks.

1524    Charles V offers Malta to the Order of St John.

1530    The Order of St John takes over Malta

Martin Morana

2 September 2022


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Fiorini Stanley, ‘The Gozitan milieu during the Late Middle Ages and Early 
Modern Times’. Gozo and Its Culture, Ed. Lino Briguglio & Joseph Bezzina. 
Formatek Ltd. / University of Malta Gozo Centre. 1995.
Luttrell Anthony T., Medieval Malta - Studies on Malta Before the Knights. 
Luttrell Anthony T. ‘Malta before 870: Some Libyan Connections’, Hyphen. Vol IV. No 4. 1984.
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‘Byzantine Malta’, Wikipedia

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