The Malta Independent 2 December 2023, Saturday
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Discussing rupture

Sunday, 10 September 2023, 08:30 Last update: about 4 months ago

Written by Mark A. Sammut Sassi

Rupture: A Historical Perspective - Proceedings of History Week 2021

Edited by: Noel Buttigieg and George Cassar

Published: Malta, 2023 (The Malta Historical Society)

Pages: 199


It might seem easy, but indeed it's not. Reviewing the Proceedings of History Week 2021 is tricky. It's a fine collection of exquisite papers but at the same time it's also an incontrovertible indictment of this country's systemic shortcomings.


First things first - the less controversial part: the defects. The volume would have benefitted from an index, short biographies of the participants, and an abstract for each paper - defects that can be easily remedied in the next History Week Proceedings.

Let's now look at the merits, which are not few.

The introductory essay, penned by George Cassar and Noel Buttigieg, is as clear-headed as they come. Theorisation is rare in Malta, and (to me, at least) always very welcome - the volume's two editors theorise about "rupture". Inspired by the Covid-19 experience, Professor Cassar and Dr Buttigieg take the opportunity to invite a discussion on themes of discontinuity and disruption in Malta's history. Their essay is dotted with astute observations, such as: "In some cases, ruptures present the ideal environment to bring to the forefront situations that had loomed in the shadows of other human experiences" (p. 10) and "disruption [can] be evaluated not as a singular momentous situation but as a series of events that exhibit a change in patterns of behaviour" (p. 11).

But then - and this is the systemic problem - most papers only obliquely deal with ruptures in Maltese history. All the papers are well-written and interesting. But the vast majority don't tackle the overarching theme head-on.

Charles Dalli, keynote speaker for these Proceedings, presented an intriguing paper on Muslim Malta, concentrating on whether our islands were uninhabited after the Muslim expulsion of the Byzantines. Mr Dalli opines that Haqwal and Himyari were mistaken in their claims that nobody lived here between 870 and 1040, but gives no reasons why. Despite the intriguing nature of the paper, the general reader will probably find some parts obscure which the specialist will easily understand. However, the most important point Mr Dalli makes is that contemporary attitudes shouldn't impact our reading of these islands' history at the beginning of the second millennium. As the paper is pregnant with points that necessitate further elaboration, one can only conclude that Mr Dalli must have had to toil hard to compress so much information. Mr Dalli's paper should form the point of departure for a conference on Muslim Malta.

The next paper, presented by Christopher Grech, is about a British captain and a British midshipman who served in Malta during the naval blockade of Valletta (1798-1800). It abounds in descriptive detail and helps us get a better glimpse of those disruptive times.

Vincent Peresso's paper on the 1813 plague epidemic is next. It too is rich in detail, chronicling this tragic episode by casting light on what the Maltese went through. One is tempted to conclude that compared to the 1813 precedent, the Covid-19 epidemic was almost a picnic.

Richard Cachia Caruana participated in these Proceedings with a paper on how the French revolutionary upheaval impacted a prominent Maltese family (the Sants, from whom the Sant Cassias descend) between 1793 and 1800. It's a quick-paced, pleasant narrative inspired by rupture on a micro-level.

I'll skip the next paper for now and go directly to the paper presented by Denis A. Darmanin on an unknown Maltese hero, Orlando Emanuel Caruana - another well-written and informative narrative.

Portuguese doctoral student Claudia Garradas presented a paper on rediscovering museums in Malta. This paper strikes you because it deals with museology (or museum studies), a discipline that should pique at least our curiosity given that tourism is one of our economy's pillars. Ms Garradas' paper analyses the impact of the Covid-19 epidemic on museums in Malta.

I'll skip the next paper, and turn to the following one, presented by Petra Caruana Dingli who, as professor, teaches mostly subjects relating to literature but here delves into female monasticism. Unless one is promised stuff reminiscent of the Nun of Monza, one would expect a subject like this to be utterly dull. In reality, this paper turns out to be fascinating. Furthermore, I must admit that I enjoy it when in a history paper I discover something like: "this linguistic detail serves to open up a broader, philosophical question" (p. 166), as I am a staunch believer in the idea that language is unwritten history. This paper not only looks into what happened within the confines of monasteries but also at the rupture in monasticism intended by the Council of Trent.

I'll now zero in on the papers I've skipped.

Katya Micallef, Principal Curator at MUŻA, presented a captivating paper on the history of Maltese art in the 1990s. Dr Micallef offers us an unintended clue to understanding the insular limitations that constrain our view of ourselves, the world, and our place in it. She writes, "it was difficult for the [Maltese] to accept that what was presented on an international level had to work hand in hand with what was popularly identified as installation art" (p. 156). Dr Micallef writes about history of art, but in reality she's shedding light on our national mentality. The point is further consolidated by a reference to an article written by Raphael Vella in The Malta Independent about the "concept of hybridity by discussing both local and global conditions which interact to form Malta's identity". Dr Micallef claims that Raphael Vella was the first ever to make this argument. Needless to say, she's referring to the world of the visual arts. The take-home point here is the theoretical approach to our history, mentality, and identity.

In her "Ruptures in Jewish history: The Maltese context", Sarah Azzopardi-Ljubibratic compares rupture to a missing part of a painting needing restoration work. This paper consists of an interpretation rather than a chronicle of events, and essentially delivers what the title promises. It should interest readers of Jewish history, but not only. It struck me because the theoretical observations Dr Azzopardi-Ljubibratic makes seem to me to apply to all of Maltese history: "fitting minorities into [the] majority scheme of periodization" (p. 104). She quotes authorities that propose focussing on "significant inner developments of the Jewish community" (p. 104) in order to fit the "internal structures of Jewish life" into Europe's broader history. This approach seems to me relevant to Maltese history. For instance, many automatically assume that the term "modernity" applies to Malta as it would to other parts of Europe. But one could argue that strictly speaking modernity ("an indicator of normality" as the introductory essay points out, p. 9) arrived in Malta much later than elsewhere in Europe, which would raise issues relating to periodisation. (And the obvious question whether Malta is "normal" - but that's another story.) It seems to me that Dr Azzopardi-Ljubibratic, though discussing the Jews, has inadvertently offered a hint for a future rupture: a new approach to Maltese history.

The last paper, presented by Armando Antista, a researcher at the University of Palermo, deals with professional dynamics within the Maltese construction industry of the 17th and 18th centuries. Apart from the enriching analysis promised in the title and delivered in the text, this paper contains another nugget which can be used both universally as well as to explain the nature of this book, and the systemic shortcomings of our country: "lo scontro tra le istanze della prassi e quelle della teoria, il confronto tra accademici e uomini di cantiere" (p. 193) [the clash between the demands of praxis and those of theory, the confrontation between academics and those who work on-site].

To my mind, this quotation can be used to explain the slight dissonances felt in these Proceedings, but also to bring to the fore what is in my opinion a fundamental systemic shortcoming of Malta. Reading the introductory essay, the reader gets the impression that the Proceedings were meant to be interpretative and/or theoretical - much like the paper presented by Dr Azzopardi-Ljubibratic. But the majority of the papers aren't like that. They are not works of theory, but works carried on site, on primary sources. This is obviously a dissonance between the declared intention and the final product. It doesn't mean, however, that the result is not satisfactory. On the contrary, taken individually, the papers are all of a high quality. It's the sum total that doesn't add up.

But again, this is not the fault of either the editors or the participants. The problem lies with the system - it's a systemic problem. There's a lot of work to be carried out "in the field" - in archives (public and private) and on sites of historical value. And there are numerous people who are ready to work and are working - both academics and laypersons. The problem - the systemic problem - is that the country offers very few outlets for all the research that's being done.

To put it bluntly, I don't like reading new historical stuff on the newspapers - new historical findings should appear in peer-reviewed publications. The problem seems to me to be a lack of opportunities. So whenever an opportunity crops up - any opportunity - researchers use it to publish their research, using the flimsiest of justifications to include it where it should not be included.

The solution, in my view, is for the State to pump more money into the publication of peer-reviewed historical research.

The country is young; so is its historiography. If there are enough outlets for research on primary sources to be readily published, then theoretical and interpretative work will flourish as a result - as people won't feel they're missing out on the possibility of publishing research by publishing interpretation. But when outlets are scarce, people will necessarily make opportunity-cost calculations, and such calculations will never favour interpretation and theory.

Despite the systemic constraints, the Malta Historical Society has produced a handsome volume brimming with enticing material. It should grace the shelves of all history buffs and all those who wish to know more about the experiences of the people who inhabited in the past the islands we inhabit today.


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