Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Parish Community in Eighteenth-Century Malta

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Parish Community in Eighteenth-Century Malta

Article excerpt

Making use of a wealth of primary sources, the author provides numerous insights into the role of the Maltese community in the life of the eighteenth-century Church across the liturgical year, exploring social, cultural, and gender differences that separated the different sectors of society in the residents' religious behavior. The author emphasizes the democratic responsibility of the wardens in administering the parish, the participation and patronage of lay parishioners, and the all-important cult of Mary and the saints. As the parish church was considered the centerpiece of the community, residents contributed materially to its erection, embellishment, and upkeep.

Historians working in Great Britain and North America have offered detailed insights into English parish life. The faithful, we have been told, considered the parish church as their own to the point that they paid the incumbent for his liturgical services with their personal funds.1 However, the history of the parish is a subject that has attracted interest across Europe. Marc R. Forster demonstrated this openness of parochial organization to the ordinary people in Southwest Germany.2 Henry Kamen confirmed such popular control of the local church in Catalonia,3 while among French historians, Alain Lottin has shown that at LiUe, the parish offered the people a platform for the exercise of an unusual degree of responsibility and political power.4 This essay analyzes the Maltese experience in the eighteenth century, using the fine run of 117 volumes of churchwardens' reports (conti) at the bishop's archives.


When the Knights Hospitallers came to Malta in 1530, they took firm control of the governing of the islands. The consiglio popolare, or the local self-government, remained in existence only in name.5 A handful of inhabitants did succeed in reaching positions of authority within the government-the judiciary was recruited invariably from Maltese lawyers, for example6-but the majority of the people had no place in it.

Yet, if the central government seemed remote and unapproachable, the Maltese parish was central to the lives of the people and emphatically belonged to them. However, the parish was not a socially homogeneous entity. On the contrary, it was a heavily stratified society, as was evidenced by the precedence taken by procedures of processions and the disputes that arose on such public occasions.7 As an attentive author has put it, there always lurked "the destabilizing fault lines of continuous social tensions."8 The community consisted of men and women from every social class, and these social and sexual distinctions were reflected in the parish church itself. The parishioners, as recorded in Thomas More's Utopia,9 were seated in different places: the nave was reserved for the women while the men sat in the transepts.10 The sexes were differentiated not only in their seating11 but also at their deaths. At Città Pinto, three peals (mote) were sounded for men but only two for women.12 Since death was an occasion for stressing one's status in the community, at Zabbar, the major bell "distinguished a person of the first order from another of an inferior condition."13 If most of the people were buried in common graves, the privileged few had their own burial sites if not their chapels.14

The church fostered social distinctions in other ways and mirrored the formal social structure of the community. Attendance at church was a social occasion, so that those who did not have the "proper apparel"15 heard the "morrow Mass" purposely said at dawn for their convenience.16 Others, like Veronica ta' l-Ghawdxija (the Gozitan woman's daughter), went to a filial instead of the parochial church for want of decent clothing.17 Preaching also was tinged with status consciousness. The elite heard sermons in Italian in the mornings, but the rest of the population were catechized in Maltese in the afternoons.18 Confraternities further serve to underline a graded society. …

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