Historian Godfrey Wettinger dead at 85

HIstorian who discovered oldest piece of literature in Maltese, Pietru Caxaru’s Il-Kantilena, passes away

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Matthew Vella
22 May 2015, 9:34am
Profs. Godfrey Wettinger
Profs. Godfrey Wettinger
Eminent historian Godfrey Wettinger, a senior fellow at the University of Malta, passed away today Friday, 22 May 2015.

He was 85 years of age.

Education minister Evarist Bartolo was among the first to salute his memory. “He was a man of great culture and his research cleansed history of many fables and myths.”

Perhaps one of Wettinger’s greatest contributions to Maltese history and the field of study was the discovery of the oldest piece of literature in Maltese, Pietru Caxaru’s Il-Kantilena, submitted for inclusion in Unesco’s International Memory of the World Register.

Il-Kantilena was written in medieval Maltese around 1450. It was found in 1966 by Godfrey Wettinger and Fr Mikiel Fsadni. The original document is at the Notarial Archives in Valletta.

Wettinger’s final and definitive statement was his position in the controversy about what really hap­pened in Malta after its conquest by the Arabs in AD 870. Basing himself on the Arab author Ibn Hawqal, who wrote around a century after the Arab conquest, Wettinger says that “870 witnessed an outright ethnic break and not merely a cultural and religious switch on the Maltese Islands”.

Hawqal wrote that Malta was then uninhabited, the main living creatures there being wild donkeys and sheep. The islands’ visitors came over from time to time to round up and ship away the donkeys they caught, eat a sheep or two and export Malta’s excellent honey.

But Wettinger suggested that immigrants from Sicily, then entirely Muslim, began to arrive in the late 10th century and began to till the land, carrying out animal farming. A larger influx of these immigrants came around the mid-11th century, when the ruined citadel at Mdina, built in Byzantine times, was rebuilt.

After the invasion of the Norman Roger II that brought Arab rule to an end, Malta’s Muslim inhabitants remained a significant part of the population for long after.

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Matthew Vella is executive editor at MaltaToday.