Was early modern
Malta an isolated world?
- University of Malta
| In the first part
of The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age
of Philip II, written more than thirty years ago, Fernand Braudel
makes some very interesting observations on Mediterranean islands.
One such observation concerns their isolated worlds.
'Isolation' [he explains 1
] is a relative phenomenon. That the sea surrounds the islands
and cuts them off from the rest of the world more effectively
than any other environment is certainly true whenever they are
really situated outside the normal sea routes. But when they
are integrated into shipping routes, and for one reason or another
... become one of the links in a chain, they are on the contrary
actually involved in the dealings of the outside world, less
cut off from them than some inaccessible mountain areas.
Braudel's notion of 'isolation' is entirely
restricted to material values - to the powerful force of trade
in generating material prosperity - almost completely ignoring
the equally potent civilizing dynamism of ideas - whether these
concern political philosophy or unorthodox religious beliefs,
military engineering and defence technology, or the inspiring
enriching styles of all forms of art, manners, habits and fashionable
The present paper endeavours to assess the
validity of Braudel's thesis with regard to early modern Malta.
How far, for instance, was Malta in early modern times a 'land
of hunger', and its inhabitants 'prisoners of their poverty'?
To what extent may it be identified as a 'besieged territory',
as Braudel calls the Balearics, Corsica, Sicily, and Sardinia;
or 'a maritime frontier under constant enemy attack', as the
island of Elba has been described ? Is it historically acceptable
to define domestic life on early modern Malta
|'withdrawn and insecure', 'precarious,
restricted, and threatened' ? All these qualifying terms belong
to Braudel. He employs them consistently with reference to Mediterranean
islands in general or to the larger ones in particular.
The paper argues that unlike practically all
Mediterranean islands, large and small (which were generally
outlying peripheral regions of composite States and Empires
whose administrative core lay in distant centres), Malta from
1530, and especially more so after 1565, when the Hospitaller
Order of St John was fully committed to a permanent presence
on the island, had increasingly become an 'independent' sovereign
State, no longer practically on the receiving end of the political
dictates of either Spain or Sicily. In all but name, the Grand
Master was every inch a monarch. The further the Order became
removed from the monastic spirit of 'poverty and humility' that
had characterized its early years in Jerusalem, the more prominent
and enticing did the symbolism of the 'closed crown' of royalty
increasingly appear to successive Grand Masters, very intimately
reflecting the evolution of their sovereign authority.
The Order's personality, the highly efficient
organization, matured by a long tradition, behind its vast estates
spread all over Catholic Europe, the accumulation of practical
knowledge in all spheres of insular government, naval warfare,
and international diplomacy, its persistent endeavour to justify
its relevance to the contemporary Christian world, and the Hospitallers'
own eminently sophisticated lifestyle and aspirations - the
dynamism of all these potential forces of change helped gradually
to integrate the island within the major spheres of European
activity, and in the pursuit of exclusively Hospitaller interests
 F. Braudel, The Mediterranean
and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, trans. S. Reynolds
(London, Collins, 1972), 150.