Malta's Middle Ages were not as dull as the cliché about the Dark Ages makes them out to be but, unfortunately, very few things survive from this rather obscure period of Maltese history.
The language is the only living thing left over from Malta's Middle Ages, a new book shows.
The book, Malta: The Medieval Millennium, covers the island's history from around 530 to 1530. It was written by historian and lecturer Charles Dalli, who has been actively studying this period for about 15 years.
Mr Dalli described Malta's Middle Ages as, in a nutshell, "parallel to that of nearby Sicily, but having its own original characteristics.
"The islands formed part of the Ostrogothic Kingdom until eastern Roman rule was re-established around 535. Byzantine rule in Malta was only ended by the Arab conquest in 870. For more than two centuries, Malta and Gozo were part of Dar al-Islam.
"In 1091 it was the turn of the Norman conquerors of Sicily to annexe the islands. Christianity was slowly re-established. In the remaining four centuries of the Middle Ages Malta was subjected to the kings of Sicily."
Mr Dalli has always been fascinated by cultural change: "When looking back at history, change might seem to be very abrupt, but in reality there is never such an abruptness. On the contrary, there is always a continuum, even in change," Mr Dalli said.
After the Roman rule, Malta remained under Roman influence because the Byzantine Empire was essentially the "eastern arm" of the Roman Empire. The western arm evolved into other civilisations while the eastern one became the Byzantine Empire, Mr Dalli said.
In the 1,000 years under review, Malta was part of three worlds: the Byzantine world, the Muslim one and later the Christian world.
"It is important to look at this period, as any other, with multiculturalism at the back of one's mind. In Malta we had Muslims, Jews and Christians living together on a little island. The major stumbling block about this period is the lack of written accounts. Archaeology plays an important role here and we need more of it and more access to what is found to be able to interpret this period better," Mr Dalli said.
Through the scanty literature that exists, we know that the Muslims from Sicily laid siege in winter 869 and this lasted until August 870. During that time, they lost their commander, Khalaf al-Khadim, in battle and they dismantled a fort and a church and took its marble as trophies to Sousse, in Tunisia.
According to Mr Dalli, Count Roger came to Malta to conquer it, not to raid it, as some other historians believe. "Count Roger was at the apex of his career and for a raid he would have sent his troops, rather than come himself," he argues. The history of those distant times find echoes today. The common lands at Mizieb, for example, were among the areas in Malta where the poor and wealthy could graze their animals and collect firewood. In 1458, the town council protested with the crown against encroachment of these lands. These days it is the hunters who occupy Mizieb during the best times of the year!
Trading and tax collection were issues then in similar ways to how they are today. In 1335, merchants from Messina and Syracuse were outraged when Customs officials in Gozo charged them duties like foreign traders and King Frederick established that the trading privileges of Sicily should be respected in Gozo too. Tax from Customs and fines raised a considerable amount of money in the Middle Ages too.
The stunning photography in the book is by Daniel Cilia.
Midsea books director Joe Mizzi said the book is the third in the series Malta's Living Heritage, which is being produced with the aim of bringing together academic text and graphic content, thus appealing to a wider audience.
"Each volume is packed with the most updated information, colour photography by Daniel Cilia and exclusive illustrations prepared by our team of international illustrators. The book about Medieval Malta complements the one about Malta's Prehistory and Temples by David Trump and Phoenician, Punic and Roman Malta by Anthony Bonanno."
The book will be launched at the Bir Miftuh chapel in Gudja on Thursday under the patronage of President Eddie Fenech Adami.
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