The Malta Independent 21 April 2019, Sunday

The Order of St John and Malta around 1630

Simon Mercieca Monday, 23 July 2018, 08:04 Last update: about 10 months ago

The Centre for Maltese Hospitaller Studies in Taranto, Italy has just published an extremely interesting book by Victor Mallia-Milanes on Lo Stato dell’Ordine di Malta 1630. The book forms part of a series of Melitensia Studies being published by the Grand Priory of the Order of St. John of Naples and Sicily.

Mallia-Milanes has studied, transcribed and edited a manuscript related to the history of the Order of St. John and Malta which is preserved in the Secret Archives of the Vatican. It is part of the Codex Barberini Latino, Section Number 5036. I shall be referring to this manuscript as ‘Relatione’; the first word in the original title. Correctly, Mallia-Milanes describes its content by the Italian word ‘stato’, which in English - in this case -  can be correctly translated as the overall situation within the Order at a particular point in time. The publication is enriched by the erudite Mallia-Milanes’ introduction.


The ‘Relatione’ can be said to comprise three independent important documents. The first is the ‘relatione’ outlining the situation of the Order of St. John and Malta in 1630. This is followed by a detailed list - compiled in 1583 -  of the actual lands and properties that the Order possessed across  Europe, including the names of the property owners.  Next is a list of all the members of the Order, including the name of each knight, chaplain and servant-at-arms, together with his grade, rank and Langue. This was compiled in 1631.

In his introduction, Mallia-Milanes outlines the historical background to this document and gives his views about the Knights of St. John and what the Order stood for in 1630. Indeed, the Order had a dual role; taking care of the sick and defending Christendom. Yet, Mallia-Milanes reveals another ground-breaking concept not normally associated with this institution. He quotes its statute, wherein it is explicitly stated that this Order is built on the principle of freedom. This principle was expressed by the Italian world ‘Liberalitá’. Closer analysis of this term can help understand why the Order has survived the vicissitudes of time. Having moulded its principles on the concept of liberty, the Order was capable of understanding this principle in accordance with the essence of the times.

Mallia-Milanes’ argument is that this principle took a new form during the magistracy of Antoine de Paule. In 1631, Grand Master Antoine de Paule convened the General Council of the Order. One of the outcomes of this assembly was the formulation of a distinct separation between what, in modern parlance, would be considered the religious duties and the State duties. Before 1631, they were considered as one, to the extent that they were recorded in the same register. From 1631 onwards, these two functions were considered separate and independent of each other and separate registers  were kept in what Mallia-Milanes describes as a clear and visible manifestation of the separation between the Order’s religious well-being and its State function. This is a clear act of secularization. Contrary to what is normally perceived today, secularization back then was not meant or seen as anti-Christian or an anti-Church process. Such political concepts entered history much later. Primarily, they are the result of Leftist ideology.

Mallia-Milanes also goes into the Order’s very complex system of administration of its lands and properties. He describes the functions of the priories and commanderies, which had specific administrative instruments, such as the cabreo to help clarify the boundaries of property. The author  also details what in anthropology is known as the gift-exchange system. Mallia-Milanes explains that when Antoine de Paule ruled, the policy was one of give and take or ‘dare e prendere.’ This formed the backbone of what was clearly political patronage. The properties that the Order had around Europe were used as part of its extensive system of patronage. Properties were assigned to Knights and sometimes even secular individuals were allowed to take them over, provided that the owner was in the good books of the monarch or prince where such properties were situated. In return they obtained political favours for the Order from the said monarch or prince in question.

Mallia-Milanes continues to explain that at the time, political consensus in Malta was achieved through  the ruler acting in an accommodating manner towards his subjects. The word used was ‘piacevole’. Rigorous politics was not in Grand Master de Paule’s books. Political patronage in Malta has very old history with the difference that the Order had no problem to publically admit and manifest it.

The ‘Relatione’ also delves into the history of the Order and state of the institution. The author, who is unknown, describes each and every position within the Order. He goes into detail of the military, judicial and administrative functions of this institution. Yet, this ‘Relatione’ is not only interesting to those studying the history of the Order. It is also of interest for the history of the Island. The document ends with a contemporary description of Malta in the 1630s and includes interesting demographic statistics.

By 1630, the population of Malta reached 50,000 inhabitants. The knights counted 2000 professed members but not all were residing in Malta at any one time. Only 10,000 Maltese were deemed fit to fight. The rest were either too young or too old. There were also women and other individuals who were not expected or allowed to carry arms. Furthermore, we learn that the Inquisition in Malta did not use torture when dealing with cases involving the Knights. This does not mean that torture was not used, but definitely not against the knights. But again, unlike the general impression, torture at this tribunal was not excessive or arbitrary and was definitely less cruel than that meted out by some of the secular courts in Europe.

As in similar 17th century narratives, there is an attempt to describe the character of the Maltese. It is an eye-opener and for this reason, I am reproducing it in full:

Generally the Maltese have a serious and melancholic look. They are ingenious, generous, sagacious, can get angry easily, are vindictive, capable of enduring fatigue, live on little food and are fond of the Spanish Crown’.

The author of this ‘Relatione’ continues:

They {the Maltese} are best in sailing and waging war at sea, an area in which they are at par with any other nation. Those who dedicate themselves to letters and civil administration take their first steps through their own doing’.

I don’t think that the calling of the Maltese has changed over the centuries except that we, as a modern nation, have failed to give our maritime legacy its rightful importance. This is a reason, I keep insisting that, as a nation, need to reassess this aspect of our heritage. At least, in the 16thcentury, marine activity was considered one of our innate characteristics. Incidentally, no other islanders in the Mediterranean had it; another reason for usas a nation, to cultivate and capitalize on this aspect to rediscover the true characteristics of the Maltese.   

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