The Malta Independent 22 May 2019, Wednesday

Did Malta remain Christian under Muslim rule? - A controversy reignited

Noel Grima Saturday, 6 June 2015, 07:00 Last update: about 5 years ago

It had never gone out, if truth be told, but a conference last week reignited the controversy regarding whether Malta stopped being a Christian country under Muslim rule or whether somehow it continued to be Christian.

The distinguished British academic, Professor Jeremy Johns, gave a very well-attended public lecture entitled 'A New Latin-Arabic Document for Malta and Gozo' (Queen Constance, November 1198) and the history of the Maltese archipelago from the 7th to the 13th centuries on Wednesday, 20 May at the Aula Magna in Valletta.

The lecture was organised by the Archaeological Society Malta.

Professor Johns is Professor of the Art and Archaeology of the Islamic Mediterranean, Director of the Khalili Research Centre for the Art and Material Culture of the Middle East, University of Oxford, and Fellow of Wolfson College.

More than 10 years ago, Professor Johns announced the imminent publication of an edition and study of the Latin-Arabic document that in November 1198 the Empress Constance addressed to "the whole people of the entire island of Malta and of the entire island of Gozo, our loyal Christian and Saracen subjects alike (Latin) / to all the Christians and the Muslims of Malta and Gozo - may God guide them! (Arabic)".

Later this year, the promised study will finally appear in "The heritage of learning: Arabic and Islamic studies dedicated to Wadad al-Qadi" (Chicago University Press, 2015). The Latin text of this document has long been known from late medieval copies, but reading it together with the hitherto unknown Arabic text gives much new information about late 12th century Sicily and Malta.

The document throws new light on the Maltese archipelago under Norman rule, not least by seeming to confirm that already under Roger II, in the words of Giliberto Abbate, "the men of these islands [lived] according to different customs and laws than [did] the men of our kingdom of Sicily".

Professor Johns also introduced another new publication - the study by Marc Lauxtermann, Bywater and Sotheby Professor of Byzantine and Modern Greek Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, of the famous anonymous Greek poem addressed to George of Antioch, which was published in 2010 by J. Busuttil, S. Fiorini and H.C.R. Vella under the title Tristia ex Melitogaudo.

In particular, he explored the implications for the history of Malta of Lauxtermann's radical correction of the published translations of the famous passage in this poem that describes the aftermath of Roger II's conquest in 1127.

Apart from the subject matter itself, the lecture was rendered even more poignant by the fact that Professor Johns told the audience he had been to see Professor Godfrey Wettinger at the hospital the day before and told him that his theory had been vindicated. Professor Wettinger, Malta's foremost historian, died just a few days later.

This document, with holes for the ribbons tied to the wax seal, is the earliest surviving document of Medieval Malta. It was found in the archive of the Principi di Paterno' in Bagheria, near Palermo.

Maybe the original document was sent to Mdina in Malta, and maybe the copy at Bagheria is a copy that found its way to the archive at Monreale and somehow to the descendants of the Prince. There is no other earlier document regarding Malta in any Sicilian archive.

It is important to note this document is bilingual, in Latin and Arabic. This is in line with the trilingual custom of Sicily as from 1130.

Constance was the posthumous daughter of Roger II. She was the heiress of the Norman kings of Sicily and the wife of Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor. She was Queen of Sicily from 1194 to 1198, jointly with her husband from 1194 to 1197.

After the unexpected death in 1189 of King William II, King of Sicily, his cousin (and Constance's nephew) Tancred seized the throne. Tancred was illegitimate, but he had the support of most of the influential men of the kingdom.

Constance then accompanied her husband at the head of a substantial imperial army to forcefully take the throne from Tancred but after some initial successes, the tide turned and she was captured, only to be rescued by the imperial soldiers.

Henry was already preparing to invade Sicily a second time when Tancred died in 1194. Later that year he moved south, entered Palermo unopposed, deposed Tancred's young son William III, and had himself crowned instead.

While Henry moved quickly south with his army, a pregnant Constance followed at a slower pace. On 26 December, the day after Henry's crowning at Palermo, she gave birth to a son, Frederick-Roger (the future Emperor and King of Sicily Frederick II) in the small town of Iesi, near Ancona

Constance was 40, and she knew that many would question whether the child was really hers. Thus she had the baby in a pavilion tent in the market square of the town, and invited the town matrons to witness the birth. A few days later, she returned to the town square and publicly breast-fed the infant.

Now that the turmoil and rebellion were over, she wanted to reward those who had remained loyal during the uprising, and Malta which had not taken part, was among the loyalists; hence the November 1198 letter. In it she removed the fine that had been imposed on Malta after the killing of a Muslim (see further down) and she included Malta once again as part of the royal demesne. She died soon afterwards on 27 November 1198.

For more than two centuries, the Maltese Islands were under Arab rule (870-1090). In 1090, Count Roger the Norman, with a small force, landed in Malta. This was more like an incursion, a 'razzia' than an invasion proper. The Arabs did not offer any resistance and after negotiations with Count Roger it was agreed that they were to continue to govern the islands, but had to pay an annual tribute to Roger the Norman.

The Maltese Islands were formally incorporated with the Sicilian Crown in about the year 1123 when Sicily was governed by Roger II (1105-1154), the son of Roger the Norman.

It does not seem that in 1090 there were any Christians left in Malta - the jury is still out on that. But as time went by and the incursions by Christian forces increased, so too did the proportion of Christians grow and relations between the two were not all that serene.

In 1154, an incident occurred and a Muslim (one would think an important Muslim) was assassinated. Although Malta was incorporated with Sicily, a harsh punishment was imposed on all Christians in Malta as a result of that killing.

The anonymous Greek poem addressed to George of Antioch was found in the National Museum in Madrid. This was publicized by Stanley Fiorini and Horatio Vella under the title Tristia ex Melitogaudo.

There is a passage in this poem that describes the aftermath of Roger II's conquest of Malta in 1127

After the capture of Malta by the Muslims in 869 AD, Malta seems to have been rendered uninhabitable with people using it for timber and so on. After 1048 Malta was again repopulated by Muslims. Thus there was no continuity from what happened before or whatever came afterwards.

This runs counter to the idea that Malta has remained a Christian country from St Paul's times till today.

From the poem one understands that there was a bishop in Malta at that time. This would indicate that Malta was considered a Christian country at that time.

There is also a hint that mosques had been changed into churches. It would also seem that Muslims were concentrated in the countryside where there were muezzins but no imams.

By 1198, more incursions by Christians took place and in 1224 more Muslims were expelled from Malta. By 1241 it was calculated that there remained three Muslims for every two Christians. In 1245 there was a further expulsion of Muslims.

The situation in Sicily is very different from that of Malta.

This is as far as Professor Johns would go. There may be other evidence around, where archaeology especially can be of help. The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage has to be vigilant to ensure that no evidence is lost. Professor Joseph Brincat has highlighted the importance of the study of the evolution of the Maltese language to understand what really happened between the Muslim and the Christian years.

The reactions among the audience, as much as I could gather, were rather perplexed: they did not see that Professor Johns had added radically new evidence in the controversy. The debate continues.

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