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Mark Camilleri

Malta’s greatest historian ever

Godfrey Wettinger was a laborious student of history who grew up to challenge the myths and dogma propagated by the clerical establishment for hundreds of years

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Mark Camilleri
25 May 2015, 9:33am
Profs. Godfrey Wettinger
Profs. Godfrey Wettinger
There was once a young historian who, against all odds, rose to become Malta’s towering authority on Medieval history, slashing away at the ridiculous lies and popular myths propagated by the Church and the clerical establishment. He slashed so hard and wrote so much, that there were no more myths left to debunk.

Godfrey Wettinger, born in 1929, was raised in Mellieha by his mother after his father, a school headmaster, died when the young Godfrey still had not reached his teenage years. He started his studies in a teaching career at Malta’s teaching college, but then opted to start studying history by correspondence as an external student of the London University.

While Godfrey was studying history under the supervision of highly trained professionals, Malta lacked professional and qualified historians. When the then-Royal University of Malta opened the first Department of History in 1952, and the University was still lacking a decent library, its first head of the history department was Dominican friar Andrew Vella, who was by no means professionally trained, let alone a history (or relevant social science) graduate.

Back then, history and social sciences at the Royal University of Malta were not actually considered proper academic and scientific social sciences, but were treated rather as an extension to the teachings and dogma of the Catholic Church.

Wettinger was an essential figure in revolutionising the dogmatic terrain of the history department, and that is the very reason why the established authorities made it so hard for him to join the University of Malta as a full-time lecturer. 

On September 3, 1965, Wettinger created his first controversy with a letter to the Times of Malta. He raised doubts on the authenticity of historical myths which had gone down in history by means of tradition rather than scholarly work, making particular reference to the myth of the origins of Malta’s colours, supposedly handed down to us by Count Roger the Norman.

After that, Wettinger was blacklisted by the guardians of ‘historical truth’, who perceived him as a radical secularist who was going to bring forth completely new historical narratives to the sacred Catholic land of Malta.

Despite literally being ‘the odd one out’, the only truly Maltese historian of his time pushed on irrespectively and objectively sought for historical truths about Medieval Malta.

He spent long hours by himself studying at his mother’s house in Mellieha or at the National Library. He picked up classical Arabic and Latin all by himself, refined his skills in paleography and read any book he deemed relevant to his studies. In the meantime, he studied for his PhD with a thesis on the history of slavery in Malta, and spent time researching and looking for Medieval documents at the Cathedral and the Notarial archives.

In 1966, Wettinger struck gold along with Dominican friar Michael Fsadni, when he found the “Kantilena” in a notarial document written by Pietro Caxaro: a 15th century document which carries the oldest text in the Maltese language. This discovery ensured the respect and recognition of the public for Wettinger, despite his historical views being generally accepted to be in direct contradiction to those of the clerical establishment. 

In 1969, Wettinger applied for the second time to become a lecturer at the University of Malta. He was still short of his PhD (which he obtained two years later in 1971) but, confident of his academic abilities, refused to let this deter him.

During the interview, an irate Ugo Mifsud Bonnici asked him what he knew about Marxism. Those were Malta’s days of communist scaremongering, of mortal sin and heretical Labour parties cozying up to international anti-imperialist and socialist organisations. Wettinger was not selected and instead made way for the Jesuit priest Mario Borg Olivier, who back then didn’t even have a first degree in history. The Jesuit was the son of the Minister of Education of the time, Paolo Borg Olivier, brother of then Prime Minister Giorgio.

As it happened, just a few months after the selection process was completed, the newly appointed Borg Olivier passed away and the University had no choice but to admit Wettinger into the post.

Wettinger always suspected that Lionel Butler, a foremost Medieval historian who in a way mentored and inspired Wettinger to a great extent, was the hidden hand pushing for his appointment. This was probably correct, given that Wettinger had few or literally no friends at the University of Malta.

Since his appointment at the University, Wettinger was in a position to freely write and research whatever he wanted to. He bestowed his country with immensely important historiographic pieces, such as “The place-names of the Maltese islands” which provides the etymology and history of thousands of Maltese place names, most of them being of a Semitic and/or Arabic origin. Gradually, with Wettinger’s laborious studies, the historiographic notion that we Maltese were not actually the direct descendants of St Paul’s converts was settling in, offending many in the process and consequently leading many zealots to strategically manufacture evidence and narratives which somehow prove the popular Pauline myth. 

In 2011, Wettinger presented a paper in which he clearly and without hesitation concluded that Malta had become depopulated with the Muslim invasion of 870 AD. His conclusion, based on the extensive historiographic references such as Al-Himyari and Ibn Hauqal and the complete lack of archaeological evidence which prove that there was no continuity in the Maltese population of that time, was still not accepted by those who desperately clung to their ideological and religious beliefs rather than accepted the result and work of years of professional and historical academic study and research.

But Wettinger was vindicated just a couple of days ago, when literally hours before he died, Jeremy Johns, an established Medieval historian, gave a lecture in the Aula Magna at the Old University in Valletta, where he presented a newly found Medieval document which adds to the evidence confirming Wettinger’s historiographic narrative.

Wettinger was the greatest historian Malta has ever had the priveledge of calling its own, not only because his monumental body of work has solved some of the most difficult historiographic problems of Maltese Medieval history, but because he worked in extremely difficult conditions. Who could ever imagine, that this young lad studying laboriously by himself in the humble setting of his mother’s house, was to challenge the myths and dogma propagated by the clerical establishment for hundreds of years.

Like David, Wettinger triumphed against his Goliath, but with the humblest of attitudes and in nearly complete solitude, I remain, in truth, doubtful whether Wettigner was actually a “David”. From my experience as a then history undergraduate, my student colleagues and I had the honourable opportunity to, if only for a short time, stand on the shoulders of a giant of Maltese history.   

Mark Camilleri is a historian and executive chairman of the National Book Council.

Godfrey Wettigner, 1929-2015, won the Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Book Council in the National Book Prize ceremony of 2014. 

mark_camilleri
Mark Camilleri is a historian and chairman of the National Book Council.