Referring to Valletta of the Order of St John as a hub of vibrant social services would be a coarse historical anachronism. The concept of a welfare state that dispenses social solidarity as of right to everyone within its jurisdiction, would take a couple of centuries more to take the shape we know today. It was the offspring of the industrial and the communist revolutions, of a labour movement and enlightened political leaders and thinkers. Those state services that today everyone takes for granted took centuries in the making.

Yet, the years before the modern welfare state were anything but wholly inhumane or insensitive to the needs of the vulnerable in society. Alternative systems of social solidarity in favour of disadvantaged members of mankind were well in place and functioning quite smoothly long before the birth of the welfare state. The Knights did not anchor the concept in law, the way the welfare state now does, but in an equally powerful propellant – charity, in the Latin sense of caritas: Christian love, compassion, sharing, almsgiving.

This proved the dominant energy that made Valletta a world showpiece of social services before the notion was even conceived. Look for the unwritten ‘law’ behind the compulsion to solidarity, in the basics of Christianity – love thy neighbour as thyself. A law chiselled in finer detail in the Christian Seven Works of Mercy. Whether based on the more enforceable precept of the law, or on the more fragile virtue of Christian communality, the bottom line remained virtually the same – the material well-being of your neighbour. Valletta, over the Hospitaller years, turned into a highly sophisticated pioneer testimonial of that Christian generosity.

Few services we today consider as indispensable escaped the embrace of massive, organised Christian do-gooding – social housing; free education; health and hospital services; freedom from forced servitude and slavery; free entertainment and sport; culture for the people; free justice for those who could not afford to pay; free public cleansing; and much more. Mention one service today provided by the state, and the chances are you will find it in Valletta, at least in embryonic form, during the times of the Knights.

Every state today, barring extreme right-wing regimes, considers it its legal duty to provide social housing to those who would otherwise risk homelessness. Grand Master Nicholas Cotoner, in 1664, realising that the incipient housing shortage in Valletta would create hardship for the population, financed the construction of what were quite likely the first apartment blocks in Malta – the huge Cotoner buildings north of the Jesuit college, leased out against moderate rents. And these flats were anything but slum hovels. On the contrary, these ‘popular’ apartments had spacious living quarters, encased in sumptuously designed artistic facades worthy of aristocratic palaces, where families could live in comfort and dignity. The seed of popular housing had been sown.

The Merchants Street facade of Cotoner Buildings, possibly the first major social housing scheme in Valletta. Photo courtesy of Paul Borg OlivierThe Merchants Street facade of Cotoner Buildings, possibly the first major social housing scheme in Valletta. Photo courtesy of Paul Borg Olivier

Not surprisingly for a Hospitaller Order, its chief concern focused on the physical health of the population. It provided a network of medical services unsurpassed in Europe. Before Valletta was built, the Italian knights in Vittoriosa already provided free hospital services to anyone who needed them, irrespective of faith, social or financial condition. These facilities were offered in their original auberge, the Albergia d’Italia – hence why, to this day, free medical services are still dispensed from a berġa.

When the huge hospital of the Order in Valletta started functioning, it soon acquired the reputation of being among the best, if not the very best, hospital in Europe, where even the most wretched of patients were treated for free, one to a bed – then a rarity ‒ served by the aristocracy of Europe in solid silver vessels.

The main ward of the Sacra Infermeria, for centuries the longest hall in Europe. The Infermeria was possibly the most renowned public hospital in Europe.The main ward of the Sacra Infermeria, for centuries the longest hall in Europe. The Infermeria was possibly the most renowned public hospital in Europe.

It boasted of the largest ward in Europe, the best physicians and surgeons, a lavishly-stocked pharmacy, running water, and a regular supply of ice and snow from Mount Etna. It called itself Sacra exactly because it represented the acme of compassionate Christianity in action; it catered for all classes of illness, from insanity to venereal diseases, from traumatic injury to contagious conditions. This social service was the pride of the Order and the marvel of foreign visitors.

The huge hospital in Valletta soon acquired the reputation of being among the best, if not the very best in Europe

But Valletta could also claim another primacy – what was probably the very first hospital in Europe dedicated exclusively to incurable women. Venereal diseases, then intractable, ravished the town folk, targeted devastatingly women who sold sex. Caterina Scappi, a pious lady from Siena with a mysterious past, possibly an ex-prostitute herself, dedicated her considerable wealth to the setting up of a free hospital reserved entirely to irreversibly sick women. From its foundation in the early seicento, Scappi’s casetta grew and grew, till it reached a maximum capacity of 300 beds, everything funded by property bequeathed by Scappi out of her Christian compulsion for sharing to alleviate pain.

Portrait of Caterina Scappi, the wealthy benefactress from Siena who founded and funded the Casetta, possibly the first hospital for incurable women in Europe. Photo: Daniel Cilia, courtesy of Heritage MaltaPortrait of Caterina Scappi, the wealthy benefactress from Siena who founded and funded the Casetta, possibly the first hospital for incurable women in Europe. Photo: Daniel Cilia, courtesy of Heritage Malta

Another ‘social service’ very present in Valletta was the institute of repentant prostitutes. The hordes of women in Malta who earned their living by prostitution and had no other survival skills other than merchandising their bodies, found it extremely difficult to survive through a virtuous life. One observant visitor remarked that two out of every three women in Valletta earned their living horizontally.

Benefactors funded a convent dedicated to help those women weary or rebellious of a lifetime of whoring and abuse. The Repentite institute turned very active in taking care of the spiritual and material well-being of fallen women who had nowhere else to seek assistance, a sort of retirement home for young and old sinners alike, again a ‘social service’ born out of Christian charity. Caterina Valenti, Grand Master Antoine de Paule’s long-time mistress, later joined the Repentite and laundered through the convent 18,000 scudi she had put aside from her immoral earnings.

In parallel, Valletta also had two homes for the children of prostitutes, where these could be weaned from nefarious family pressures and scandals.

The regime of the Order had in place all the structures we today associate with orphanages, for children of dead parents or those abandoned by their families. This is one ‘social service’ which the state still finds convenient to offload onto Christian charity – nothing much has changed in this area since medieval times when religious orders stepped in to shoulder the burdens the family could not or would not assume and the state believed to be none of its business. The Valletta Sacra Infermeria had the rota, the circular cot where foundlings could be deposited anonymously, usually after sunset, to spare the parents the shame of exposing an illegitimate or unwanted birth. The hospital received some 200 foundlings yearly, half of whom would not survive. The great hospital fed and clothed them and employed women nurses to take good care of the children.

So, the institutions did work for a decent birth. Did they take care of a good marriage too? The cynical Latin maxim (perhaps keeping in mind that Maltese men will do nothing if there is no money in it for them) stated that girls without a dowry could forget about finding a husband. Unmarried women faced very few choices – mostly the convent or a life of prostitution. The solution to this became a major concern for the do-gooder state: pious legacies to endow girls of marriageable age.

Wealthy benefactors left rich capital sums or estates whose income periodically went to provide marriage dowries for women eager to start a family but too poor to do so. The state had institutionalised this work of mercy. Every celebratory occasion was fine for the Treasury to dole out marriage dowries. Part of the Great Siege yearly anniversary celebrations included the assignment of a generous dowry to six women about to marry, increased to nine on the centenaries of 1665 and 1765.

We do not know much about pension schemes and if and how they operated. The records sometimes refer to piazzanti – persons or relatives of those unable to provide a living, or survivors of dead people, granted a state pension in recognition of some service rendered to the community. To this day, archaic Maltese refers to a pensioner as a pjazzant, though the word now seems to be losing currency. Similarly, we find references to tavolanti, those entitled to free meals, either though indigence, or as a reward for services rendered. These practices, not uncommon, though obviously familiar at the time, have not yet received sufficient attention from scholars.

The legal system of the Knights also catered for indigent litigants in need of legal services. The state appointed and paid for a panel of avvocati dei poveri responsible for defending anyone involved in civil or criminal litigation and who could not afford lawyers of choice. Nothing much has changed over the centuries in the social service of legal aid.

Education too formed part of the ethos of civic life in the Baroque era. The concept of compulsory schooling still lagged centuries behind, but rudimentary systems of education started being put in place, it seems, mostly by convents. References to small schools where elementary learning skills were taught, are recorded, though Valletta had to wait for the Jesuits to introduce intense and large-scale education in 1592. Grand Master Manuel Pinto eventually upgraded their collegium to a fully-fledged university in 1769, after the expulsion of the Jesuits. Valletta became a university city. Dancing, fencing and music schools also make fleeting appearances in old documents.

Education and the enjoyment of culture go hand in hand. The state and the Church provided this lavishly, for free, to anyone interested. Before public theatres and concert halls, the only, and also the highest, forms of music were those played publicly in churches and during public entertainments. We know of leading composers, musicians, singers, castrati, being hired to give performances in churches and music festivals, like the Calendimaggio celebrations, all freely open to the public – free music and performances of the highest calibre available to everyone. Again, the only exposure to high art ‘ordinary’ people could and did enjoy was in the decorations of churches – the most celebrated painters and sculptors worked for the anonymous faithful; their works usually beat anything found in private palaces and collections. The masses had it all available for free. High culture was almost literally thrown at them.

One major ‘social service’ based on Valletta targeted Christians held in captivity by the Islamic powers. The economic reality of enslavement pursued a double purpose: securing free labour and profiting from ransom money. Many of the Malta-based people captured and reduced to servitude, mostly in North Africa and Turkey, could in no way raise the hefty sums required to buy back their freedom. Here is where Christian charity took over. The state set up a formal institution, the Monte di Redenzione degli Schiavi, to collect capital and bequests aimed at the recurrent raising of funds to be used solely for the redemption of Christians in slavery. For most, this represented the only way of regaining freedom.

The building that housed the ‘Monti’ in Merchants Street, The Monte di Pietà lent money at a moderate rate of interest as a social service.The building that housed the ‘Monti’ in Merchants Street, The Monte di Pietà lent money at a moderate rate of interest as a social service.

Realising the destructive effects of usury, namely, lending money at extortionate interest rates, the state intervened by founding a charitable bank which lent money at a minimal interest against an object pledged by borrowers or their guarantors. The Monte di Pietà, still in existence, has performed its work of mercy almost uninterruptedly since 1598.

I have recently publicised elsewhere another social service held dear by the Knights – the regular cleansing of the streets of Valletta at public expense. The Order deemed urban hygiene an absolute priority – for reasons of health, but also for the decorum of the city and the prestige of the prince. Contemporary visitors reeled in amazement at the impeccable cleanliness of the streets of Valletta. This at a time when the state exacted no direct or indirect taxation from the population.

The list of services to serve the public could go on and on. In you lived in the Baroque age in Valletta, you could easily go on reaping benefits at death and after. By joining certain religious congregations for laymen, you ensured material and spiritual assistance on your death bed, plus a decent funeral, no expenses spared. You were also entitled to burial at no cost, in the confraternity’s graves. Christian charity took care of you from the womb to the tomb. No welfare state today matches that.

Christian charity took care of you from the womb to the tomb. No welfare state today matches that

All this accounts, at least in part, for the culture shock that awaited visitors coming to Malta from mainland Europe. When Patrick Brydone, a Scottish nobleman, arrived in Valletta in June 1770, the enormous differences between what he was witnessing and what he had left behind instantly struck him: “Having landed in Valletta, we could not but help thinking that we had tumbled onto another world. The streets were thronged with well-dressed people whose appearance denoted good health and affluence.”

One of the six large murals in the grand master’s bedroom at the Palace, Valletta, depicting the seven Christian Works of Mercy. Photo: Daniel Cilia, courtesy of the Office of the PresidentOne of the six large murals in the grand master’s bedroom at the Palace, Valletta, depicting the seven Christian Works of Mercy. Photo: Daniel Cilia, courtesy of the Office of the President

That was the Valletta of the Knights. The grand master slept nightly and awoke every morning, witnessing the paintings in his bedroom. Very large among then figured the evangelical Works of Mercy. He never allowed himself to forget his principal obligation in life.

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