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Book Notes: The Jews of Malta in the Late Middle Ages, Godfrey Wettinger

Derek Davis

<plain_text><page sequence="1">The Jews of Malta in the Late Middle Ages, Godfrey Wettinger (Midsea Books, Ltd, Malta 1985) Dr Wettinger's study of medieval Jewry in Malta and Gozo has been long awaited. It falls appropriately for review in the volume of Transactions dedicated to Dr Richard Barnett who had close connections with the Cathedral Museum in Malta's old capital Mdina, where the Judaeo-Arabic texts at the heart of the study were found, and who had been keen to see publication. It is pleasing to record that his copy reached him early in 1986. Malta and Gozo were dependencies of Sicily under Roman, Byzantine, Arab and medieval Christian rule. Their Jewish communities, which were outposts of Sicilian Jewry, lasted down to the Spanish expulsion of 1492. The broad outline of the story was known from Sicilian fiscal documents published in the 333</page><page sequence="2">Book Reviews last century by the brothers Lagumina and from Roth's summary in 'The Jews of Malta' (Trans JHSE XII). What Wettinger has done is to produce a very full analysis of the first nine Judaeo-Arabic texts discovered in Malta and to build round this a comprehensive account of the life of 14th- and 15th-century Jewry based on the full range of primary sources available in Malta. Part II of the book is, in effect, an edition of the texts with translation and commentary. The language proves to be related both to Sicilian Judaeo-Arabic and to the Maltese vernacular. Here, as elsewhere in Europe, vernacular text in Hebrew characters offers early evidence for the development of the language at a time when the Christian record was conducted mainly in Latin. The nine texts belong to the 1470s and 1480s and are roughly contemporary with the earliest known Maltese text, a poem by Peter Caxaro which Wettinger coedited in 1968. Maltese Judaeo-Arabic shows two pronounced tendencies. The first, towards Romance borrowing, is a characteristic shared with fully developed Maltese. Its absence from Caxaro's poem probably reflects the conservative traditions of popular song. The second tendency is the preservation of debased classical Arabic forms which did not survive into Maltese. This probably reflects a common origin of Maltese, Sicilian Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic during the period of Moslem rule in the 9th-nth centuries, with the 'administrative' Arabic component being displaced earlier among Christians by Latin, Italian and Sicilian. Part I of the book is a full narrative treatment of the economic, social and religious life of 14th- and 15th-century Jewry. It is partly based on the texts, five of which were receipts issued by Rabbi Abraham Safardi of Mdina for his salary as a municipal doctor. But much of the material comes from militia lists, notarial deeds and the records of the ecclesiastical courts and the medieval inquisition. The greater part of this is published in Latin as part III of the book. The material enables Wettinger to trace the names and likely origins of many of the Mdina Jews of the period and to build up a picture of their economic activity in trades such as candle-making, ironwork and textiles and in rentier dealing in land and produce. One noteworthy feature of the ecclesiastical court material is that it shows the Bishop acting, aside from his main responsibilities, as an interpreter of Mosaic law and, in cases of conflict within the community, as arbiter between Jews. Another feature of the ecclesiastical court and inquisition records is the directness with which they bring individuals and incident to life. Nachon Ketib's long quarrel with Rabbi Safardi in the 1480s, or Rafaeli Ketib's trial for apostasy following an alleged conversion to Christianity in 1469, emerge from the page with an immediacy that spans five hundred years. Wettinger is able to locate the Jewry of Mdina in the area of what is now Bastion Square, with its synagogue on the site of the subsequent St Scholastica convent. Gozo Jewry was located mainly in Rabat, the suburb adjoining the citadel. In neither case were the Jews formally enclosed, and an attempt to impose a ghetto in Mdina failed. The end of the communities, whose origins 334</page><page sequence="3">Book Reviews went back probably some 500-600 years or more, came as a byproduct of events in Spain and Spanish rule over Sicily. With his command of the sources Wettinger is able to identify a number of those who then migrated, and a substantial minority who took on a Christian identity and continued in Malta. In contrast to the Iberian peninsula, converts were rapidly accepted into mainstream Catholicism, and there is little evidence of continuing crypto Jewish activity. The book marks a change in our knowledge of late-medieval Maltese Jewry and is likely to stand as the authoritative account of its subject. Further advance will depend on carrying forward Wettinger's already extremely thorough examination of the sources in Malta or on finding additional sources elsewhere. In another sense, the book is also a case study in Sicilian Jewish history and it is to be hoped that it will give new impetus to work on the more numerous communities of the larger island. Derek Davis</page></plain_text>

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