The Medieval Period

Roger II of Sicily. From the Liber ad honorem Augusti of Petrus of Ebulo, 1196

Medieval Malta

At the end of the tenth century the centre of the Mediterranean was a battlefield for the three great powers of the time: the Byzantines, the Muslims and the Normans. The Normans first arrived in Italy in 1014AD and by the middle of the eleventh Century their leader, Roger Hauteville became a powerful Count in Italy. By 1091 the Normans took over all of Sicily from the Arabs after thirty years of on-going warfare. From there Count Roger sailed to Malta.
 
The Arab rulers in Malta quickly surrendered to the Normans and the terms of surrender included that all Christian slaves be freed. All horses and weapons were to be turned over to the Normans and freedom of worship was allowed for all, with Christians and Moslems being treated equally. However, the image of religious tolerance or equality must be questioned as after all non-Christians were required to pay a tax. At this time many churches and chapels were rebuilt. The legend that Malta’s national flag originates from Count Roger’s coat of arms is a recent myth, but this story is still so strong that Masses are said on the 4th of November for the repose of the Count's soul.
 
A historian of that time, Idrisi, described Malta as 'A large island with a safe harbour which opens to the East. Malta has a city and it abounds in grazing land, flocks, fruit and, above all, honey.' Place names from that period are often made up of Arab words like ‘mrieħel’ (flocks), variations of ‘ġnien’ (garden) and ‘mġiebaħ’ (apiaries). Amongst many others. 
 
Until 1156 the Archbishop of Palermo was in charge of the Maltese diocese but in 1168 the bishop of Malta, John, is mentioned by name.  However, a Muslim tombstone found in Gozo records the death of Maimuna, a Moslem girl, on Thursday 21 March 1174. Therefore the religions existed side by side for a long time after Count Roger’s son King Roger took over Malta fully in 1127. By the end of the 12th Century the Norman reign in Southern Italy, Sicily and Malta (which was often treated as an extension of Sicily) had crumbled for several reasons including attacks by naval forces from Pisa and Genoa.
 
In 1250 Pope Clement IV invited Charles of Anjou and Provence to take over Sicily. This created disputes and battles raged for 18 years. Charles was victorious but he was a tyrant and his Angevin dynasty was short-lived. An uprising began at the start of Vespers in Sicily, the sunset prayer marking the beginning of the night vigil on Easter Monday, March 30, 1282.  These uprising became known and termed as the Sicilian Vespers. Within six weeks, the Sicilian rebels killed 3,000 French men and women and the government of King Charles lost control of the island. Although his rule was quite just, unrest was simmering in Sicily because the island played a subordinate role in Charles’s empire.In 1282 the Aragonese fleet in Sicily greeted Peter III of Aragon with great joy. He was crowned king of Sicily in 1283. Later that year, the Battle of Malta took place on July 8, 1283, at the entrance to the Grand Harbour, as the Aragonese fleet appeared. The Grand Harbour was to witness the first major battle to be fought in its vicinity. The Angevin fleet was defeated, much to the joy of the Maltese as like their fellow Sicilians, had rose against the Angevins. This meant that the rule of the Aragonese begun in the Maltese islands. Although the Angevin rule over Malta was short, it was during this period that Malta mostly began to be absorbed into the Latin and European systems of laws and government.
 
During the Aragonese period, Malta, although officially part of the kingdom of Sicily was often given as a 'fiefdom' to a nobleman who then became 'Count of Malta'. Hence in the period between 1283 and 1350, the kings of Aragon granted political authority including taxing to a succession of Sicilians awarding them the titles of marquis or count of Malta.
 
In 1350 the Maltese begged King John I of Aragon for Malta and Gozo to cease the direct rule from Sicily and to place the island under his own domain. In fact an agreement was signed that same year. However, subsequent kings ignored this agreement and it was only after widespread discontent between 1393 and 1397 that once again led King Martin I in 1398 re-ordered that the Maltese islands were not to be given as a fief.
 
This promise was broken once again in 1420 under the rule of Aragonese King Alfonso V. A new feudal lord made the Maltese pay heavy taxes and by 1425 under yet another count, Gonsalvo Monroi (or Monroy), the Maltese were reduced to poverty. The situation was so miserable that the Maltese offered to pay Monroi the sum of 30,000 florins that he had paid for the islands. In January 1427 the Maltese obtained what they wanted and moreover, Mdina was granted the title of 'Citta Notabile'. As a result a Maltese self-government known as the Universita’ was formed. The repayment of all that money was not an easy task for Malta and to make matters worse Malta was invaded by pirates and then ravaged by a plague from 1427 to 1428.
 
After the death of King Alfonso V and then of his brother, the Maltese Islands passed under joint Sicilian and Spanish rule as Spain ruled over Sicily. Under the new King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella there was more misery in store for the Maltese when a huge army of 18,000 men from Tunisia attacked Malta and Gozo. The total Maltese population at the time was slightly less than the attacking forces so although they tried to resist they failed and some 3,000 Maltese were dragged away to slavery.
 
Following this disaster King Ferdinand ordered the building of Fort St Elmo, actually not much more than a tower, at the mouth of the Grand Harbour. This was the same fort that was later enlarged by the Knights and played an enormous part in the defense of Malta in the 1565 siege.
 
In 1522 the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem were driven out of Rhodes by the Turks and after wandering Europe for a period of 8 years, King Charles V of Spain gave Malta to the Knights as a base. This marks the end of Malta’s Medieval period as Malta’s stormy and feudal history from the eleventh to the fifteenth century meant that socially, Malta did not benefit much from the social and artistic Renaissance of the rest of Europe.


Count Roger I who invaded Malta in 1091
Count Roger I who invaded Malta in 1091
The tombstone of ‘Maimuna’
The tombstone of ‘Maimuna’
This tombstone of ‘Maimuna’ a Moslem girl was found in Gozo and is dated 1174 AD. This shows that even though the Maltese islands were under Norman, Christian rule, freedom to practice other religions was allowed.
Malta's Grand Harbour in which the Battle of Malta occurred in 1283
Malta's Grand Harbour in which the Battle of Malta occurred in 1283