The Malta Independent 17 February 2020, Monday

A Milestone in Gozitan historical studies

Malta Independent Sunday, 11 April 2010, 00:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

The recent publication of Tristia de Melitogaudo by Professors Joseph Busuttil, Stanley Fiorini and Horatius Caesar Roger Vella is a veritable milestone in the study of Gozo’s early ecclesiastical history of the Middle Ages. This book contains the full transcription of a long poem in Greek written in the 12th century by an exile in Gozo. The poem is not just a literary composition by a very learned man, but at certain points it contains revealing

information about his stay in Gozo, his confinement in the tower infested with parasitic insects of various kinds, and his various slight hints about the Gozitan environment in which he found himself, such as the heat and cold of our summers and winters, the headlands and cliffs from where, occasionally, he could see his native Sicily, the Arabs around him with different customs and language, and the pious Christian inhabitants with their bishop.

The author asserts that these Christians of Gozo worshipped “the Holy Trinity from ancestral times” and they were tolerated in view of a “pact of old”. So Christianity in Gozo survived from Byzantine times throughout the whole Arab period. Moreover, Busuttil, Fiorini and Vella are of the opinion that in the 12th century, the church dedicated to the Virgin on the acropolis of Gozo was most probably the Cathedral Church for both islands. It also seems that this church was an Arab mosque converted into a Christian temple. Did the majestic steeple of the old Matrice built in the years 1424-1427 replace the old minaret of the Arab mosque?

That there existed a tower or castello within the precincts of the old town on Citadel Hill is also attested by the Aragonese chronicler Ramon Montanier in his Crónica (1283). Writing in the Catalan language Montanier said: “…e combatté la vila e hac lo raval tantost,” meaning: … and he (Ruggiero de Lauria) attacked the town and captured Rabat. So this is clear evidence that at that time there was the town (la vila) on the hill and Rabat (lo raval) an undefended place just outside the fortifications. Montanier gives us further details about the tower. He says that the town soon surrendered and the Aragonese Admiral Ruggiero de Lauria left an Aragonese garrison of 100 men to defend the castello, the tower or the qasr of Arab times within the town, “…qui és ab la vila ensems”, meaning “...which is part and parcel of the town”.

So it is pseudohistory to say that the Citadel was first raised in the latter half of the 13th century. The old fortified Medina of Gozo had long been established on the hill overlooking Rabat (lo raval), which had no walls.

This tower or castello was a fortified palace occupied by Gozo’s rulers and administrators. It appears that in it, among other offices, there were the Gozo courts (castellania) and the prisons where our deportee was confined.

In 1405, the newly established Universitas of Gozo asked for accommodation in this castello, just a room or a hall. The request was turned down, most probably because of lack of space. Our Gozitan pseudohistorians, lacking deep historical knowledge, interpreted this fact as if the Gozo Universitas were denied even just a small hall in the whole town as this was only a place reserved for noblemen and privileged people!

In 1442 this tower or castello was nearly in ruins and used to be leased. So once more our pseudohistorians thought that the whole town was in ruins and used to be leased! In this regard it is pertinent to point out that in Mdina there was a similar castello, or castrum civitatis. This was demolished after 1450 with the king’s permission.

I will end this correspondence with a note about the name Gran Castello. In Gozo a similar name is Gran Fontana. It is called “Gran” Fontana in contrast with a smaller fresh water spring situated just opposite on the other side of the road, called Ghajn ta’ Bendu. So it was named Gran Fontana not because it was exceptionally big, but to differentiate it from the smaller one. I think that the name Gran Castello has a similar origin. The name castello for the whole town was qualified by the adjective “Gran” (magnum castrum) to distinguish it from the smaller castello within the same town.

The continuity of Christianity in these Islands since Byzantine times, as attested by this Gozo document, is an exceptional discovery of great rarity. It should be referred to in certain important speeches during the Pope’s visit to Malta. Historians and history enthusiasts should also make it a point to acquire a copy of this important, well-researched and well-documented book: Tristia ex Melitogaudo by Busuttil, Fiorini and Vella.

Anton F Attard


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