Hospitaller Malta and the Mediterranean Economy in the Sixteenth Century

JOAN ABELA is Senior Lecturer in the Legal History and Methodology Department at the University of Malta. In 2014 she won that year’s Boydell and Brewer Prize for the best doctoral thesis in maritime history.

Here she introduces us to some of the main themes behind her study of Malta’s development in the sixteenth century, not least its role as the hub of a large, complicated trading network.


The complexity and diversity of the Mediterranean Sea and its lands has provided fertile ground for debates on many issues: from its unity to its sharp divides, from the importance of human interaction to that of micro-ecologies. More than half a century of scholarly work and discussion has followed Braudel’s monumental work on the Mediterranean (La Méditerranée et la Monde Méditerranéen à l’Époque de Philippe II) and yet there still remains much to explore in order to obtain a clearer picture of how seemingly opposite realities found ways to function in an environment where politics, religion and the economy were intricately intertwined. This paradox encompassed different cultures and civilizations that inhabited this closed space where, at one and the same time, they were formally at war and trading with each other.

This book presents the reader with a study of a small but strategically placed island in the central axis of the Mediterranean, Malta, which in many ways could be considered as the epitome of this irony. Malta’s central position, a few miles off the Sicilian Straits which were crucual for controlling the eastern-western Mediterranean passage, and, after 1530, the presence on the island of the Order of the Knights of St John, made it an active participant in Mediterranean politics and commercial networks. Similar to the broader context, two very opposing realities were significant benefits to Malta’s economic performance in this early stage of Hospitaller rule; one was its major role as the bulwark of the Christianity mainly carried out through its corsairing activities, and the other was its constant trading activities with the ‘infidels’.

Malta’s story thus presents itself well for a microhistorical approach which throws light on larger phenomena taking place in the Mediterranean. By taking this methodological appoach for historical reconstruction, which goes into what seem to be petty details of everyday life, my intention is to juxtapose the institutional level of history with that of real life on the ground. The total sum of these episodes and the projection of their conclusions to the wider scenario help us to read beyond the institutional framework of economic transactions and perceive them in their pratical implementation. Furthermore, this book provides a better understanding of Mediterranean commercial relations since the Maltese harbour was a point of intersection not only for people of different nationalities, but also for people of different faiths, such as Muslims, Jews and Christians of different denominations. All were unified by a common goal: to trade and to make a profit.


This guest post was written by Joan Abela, Senior Lecturer in the Legal History and Methodology Department at the University of Malta, President of the Notarial Archives Resource Council and past Secretary of the Malta Historical Society. She was the winner of the 2014 Boydell and Brewer Prize for the best doctoral thesis in maritime history. 

Her book Hospitaller Malta and the Mediterranean Economy in the Sixteenth Century is currently available in hardback and as an ebook.

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