By Mark A. Aloisio
Melita Historica : Journal of the Malta Historical Society, Vol.14: 2 (2005)
Introduction: References to Sciacca in medieval Maltese sources have hitherto been rather fragmentary. It is known that a family from Sciacca, the Perollo, held a number of properties in Malta and was even represented in the island’s municipal council or universitas. While Sciacca was one of the main outlets for grain in western Sicily, not trace of Maltese commercial activity there has been encountered thus far, in contrast to Agrigento, Terranova, Licata and Syracuse, where the universitas was represented by consulates. The purpose of this investigation is to draw attention to some notarial documents from the State Archives of Sciacca which throw further light on the involvement of the Perollo in Malta and to a number of connections between the two places, including commercial exchanges involving cotton, cloth and grain, as well as the presence in the countryside outside Sciacca of Maltese and Gozitan migrant workers.
Sciacca, some 60 km from Agrigento, was one of the main urban areas of medieval Sicily. In the mid-fifteenth century it had a population of about 10,000 including a sizeable and well-established Jewish community. Sciacca’s port was one of the chief outlets for the agricultural products of the val di Mazara – Sicily’s breadbasket – and the town’s economy was closely tied to the agrarian resources of surrounding areas. Large quantities of wheat, barley and cheese were shipped through its carricatore to other parts of the island, to cities in mainland Italy (especially Genoa), and to the territories of the Aragonese crown.Notarial contracts, which contain many references to vineyards in the vicinity of the town as well as massarie or grain-growing estates and mandre, lands for animal husbandry and the production of cheese, testify to the agrarian basis of Sciacca’s economy. In addition, herds of sheep and cattle provided raw materials for the local manufacture of orbace, a coarse, impermeable woollen cloth for everyday use, and for the leather industry, which in Sciacca was almost entirely in the hands of Jews.