Satellite, Sentinel, Stepping Stone: Medieval Malta in Sicily’s Orbit

Satellite, Sentinel, Stepping Stone: Medieval Malta in Sicily’s Orbit

By Charles Dalli

Malta in the Hybleans, the Hybleans in Malta (Proc. Int. Conference Catania, 30 September, Sliema 10 November 2006) edited by Anthony Bonanno and Pietro Militello (Palermo, 2008)

Introduction: No discussion of Malta’s pre-modern relationship with Sicily could afford to overlook the ten centuries of the Middle Ages. For more than one thousand years, the Maltese islands were intimately drawn into the wider sphere of influence of the largest Mediterranean island. A number of permanent factors converged to define the qualities and directions which would become evident as this relationship unfolded during that long period. Among these factors, geography takes pride of place; for it was the physical dimension and location of the Maltese islands which placed them and other small insular satellites in the orbit of their much larger neighbour. Geography set the stage for the individual and collective efforts of the central Mediterranean islanders stretching across millennial time, providing a fixed reference point in the ever-moving constellation of human actions and intentions making up history.

The present essay investigates the relationship between Malta and Sicily in the Middle Ages. It sets out to outline the different aspects of this relationship, demonstrating how it evolved across the medieval centuries to make out of Malta’s multifaceted ties to Sicily a defining feature of the archipelago’s history. In the orbit of their large neighbour, the Maltese and other small insular satellites of Sicily played a role in its history, a history mirrored in their own experiences.

This essay reconstructs Malta’s ties to Sicily mainly in terms of the surviving primary documents from the period. Insofar as it is possible, in historiographical terms, to take into account the centuries from the fifth to the fifteenth as constituting one fundamental framework for historical investigation, the one thousand years from ca. 500 to 1500 present for examination a spectrum of experiences shared across the sixty-mile channel between Sicily and Malta. The textual records in Maltese archives survive mainly from the fifteenth century – municipal records belonging to the Mdina town council, proceedings of the Bishop’s Court at Mdina, and notarial acts starting with the volume of deeds of Paolo de Bonello from 1467. A number of charters and official letters were copied in early modern times into volumes of privileges which encapsulated the islands’ cherished access to Sicilian grain – the tratte. Research in the Palermitan archives widened the documentary base of Maltese history with hundreds of administrative acts dating from the 1350s to 1530. Documents pertaining to Malta’s Angevin administration were fortunately published a decade before the destruction of the Neapolitan Archives. Few acts survive from the Hohenstaufen period, including the royal reply to the report drawn by the islands’ administrator at the time of Frederick II, Giliberto Abate. Details gleaned from different chronicles of the kingdom of Sicily and from Arabic writings supplement the scanty materials of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries available to the histor

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