Was early modern Malta an ‘isolated world’?
Victor Mallia-Milanes - 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 entertainment.
   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'withdrawn and insecure', 'precarious, restricted, and threatened' ?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 getting

[1] F. Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, trans. S. Reynolds (London, Collins, 1972), 150.
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