2018-2019, pp. xxv + 205, edited by Emanuel Buttigieg.

Storja, the journal of the Malta University Historical Society (MUHS), has been around for 40 years. In itself quite a feat, given the endemic problems with continuity that such journals, and such societies for that matter, tend to face. That the quality of the research and writing is so good, is added value.

This issue broadly coincides with Valletta’s European Capital of Culture designation, which explains why most of the nine articles have to do directly with aspects of the city’s history. Another common thread is the use of documents held at the Notarial Archives as source material.

We can expect to see more of this as the major project to rehabilitate the archives and conserve their staggering two kilometres of volumes and fragments gathers pace. As the editor suggests, such collections, and their sustenance of scholar­ship, are part of Valletta’s living history.

The issue is divided into three sections. While the first is set in a time when the city was not yet a twinkle in the eye, the articles remind us that the arrival of the Order and the eventual growth of what historian Carmel Cassar elsewhere calls the “growth of an urban culture” were not a blank-slate deal.

Charlene Vella, an art historian and academic at the Faculty of Arts, looks at how art is also made of mobility, patronage, and kinship. Her chosen case study is that of Antonello da Messina (c.1430-1479), who we might romantically imagine was an isolated genius. Instead, we find ourselves deep in a world of workshops, dealings and commissions in Malta, Venice and Sicily.

Vella digs up original material to show how women and strategic marriages were essential in creating a network of allied botteghe and artistic influences. Good art history, then, and even better anthropology.

The same may be said of Ryan Grech’s article in this section about women and transactions (in particular dowries) on the eve of the Siege.

However gentle the gentlemen who built Valletta may have been, the men and women who actually lived in and storied it were made of more imperfect, and infinitely more colourful, stuff

Part II focuses on Valletta as a military and administrative centre. Perhaps nothing tests the workings of a State-like contagion. On Christmas Eve, 1675, the 11-year-old daughter of the wealthy Valletta merchant Matteo Bonnici was taken ill with a ‘malignant fever’. Within a month, the Bonnici family was decimated.

Mario Sciriha tells us that the Order’s administration dragged its feet, apparently preferring to believe those doctors who played down the contagion. When it finally went into overdrive months after the death of young Anna, it was rather too late to avoid what became known as Malta’s Great Plague, an epidemic that killed 11,000 people (a fifth of the population).

Administration gone imperfect is also the theme of the contribution by Maria Pia Arana Barbier, which discusses the part played by States other than France and, in particular, Spain, in the politics and events that led to the Order’s loss of Malta in 1798.

The final section of the issue includes three articles that look at aspects of social life in early modern Valletta. Christine Muscat has become synonymous with the history of the Magdalene nuns (the church and part of the convent survive in lower Merchants Street) specifically, and with that of the underbelly of women’s lives in the city more broadly.

Her article discusses how the Order dealt with prostitutes in a way that was predictably authoritarian, but also surprisingly benevolent. Thus, while an errant woman might be destituted to Gozo, the Grand Master would act as a Catholic bonus paterfamilias and grace her with his clemency if she showed remorse.

Also included in this last part of the issue are thoughtful contributions by Master’s graduates Vanessa Buhagiar and Gabriella Radmilli. Buhagiar uses inventories to lend us a rare glimpse into everyday domestic life in the Valletta homes of German Knights, while Radmilli’s study of death practices sheds light on the beliefs, rituals and social mores that characterised urban life.

This instalment of Storja suggests that it is a wise history that does not tidy up too much, even when capitals of culture are involved. However gentle the gentlemen who built Valletta may have been, the men and women who actually lived in and storied it were made of more imperfect, and infinitely more colourful, stuff.

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