870 – 1127
The importance of bread during the Arab domination probably remained unchallenged. The ‘Arabisation’ of Malta permeated all aspects of local culture and outlived the Arab political control.
Malta is colonised by the Normans and the process of ‘Latinisation’ reintroduced. Emphasis on a European Catholic cultural mentality reinstated. Religious food rituals, mainly methods of feasting and fasting, employed to highlight differences among two significant religious communities: Muslims and Christians.
Gilibertus Abate, administrative agent for Emperor Frederick II, gives a detailed account of the garrison and the serfs working the royal cereal-producing latifundi. These workers, paid in kind, received two-and-a-half tumoli of wheat. Workers and slaves employed in the farmsteads consumed barely bread.
Notarial archives highlight the dependency of Malta on Sicilian grain. A series of bad harvests compelled the locals to increasingly depend on grain imports. Business deals contracted during this period highlight the higher market value of Sicilian grain compared to the local produce.
The Maltese Medieval period is mainly characterised by two important broad occupations. Between 870 AD to 1090 AD the Arabs controlled the Islands of Malta. In 1164, the islands were annexed to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies until 1530 following Emperor Charles’ V donation of the islands of Malta and Gozo to the Knights of St. John.
Several historians agree that following the eleventh century, cereals made up a considerable proportion of the popular diet with a shift in the perceived status of certain foods such as meat. Bread, more than a staple food, became a precious resource which moulded the popular culture of Europe and especially the Mediterranean in the following centuries.
The Maltese Late Medieval period also witnessed a growing dependency on Sicily. As in other small island societies within the Mediterranean basin food production often fell short of the local demand even in normal times. The praising description of fertile and abundant pastures by King Roger II’s illustrious geographer al-Idrisi coupled with the cultivation of cotton as a cash crop generated enough income to balance the local expenditure on grain imports for long periods of time especially since it is now widely accepted that until the closing decades of the fourteenth century Malta produced enough grain to supply the local population. Thereafter, regular and massive imports of grain from Sicily start to become a normal occurrence. This condition ushered one of the most important roles of the local Universita`, a municipal government shaped on the same principles found in the neighbouring island of Sicily.
The elevated status of bread in the life of Mediterranean societies was shown by its value in the market as a product that could be exchanged as a means of payment or social support. During the late medieval period imported grain was more expensive than the local product. Thus in 1487, Johannes Gambinu preferred to be paid in Sicilian grain while Antonius Gatt Desguanes reached an agreement to lend an amount of local grain without any interest to four men from Birgu. The latter, however, had to repay Gatt Desguanes in Sicilian grain. The unchallenged importance of bread among the locals is evident even in nineteenth century business transactions were several field workers preferred to be paid with two tumoli of mahlut (mainly barley bread). Mahlut, infact was bread of an inferior quality, often associated with the peasant and the worker also known to be ‘heavy and hard to digest’.