Morality and sexuality in Maltese society in the late Middle Ages

Malta | Medieval ArchivesWhen one analyses today’s permissive society with regard to standards of morality, one might conclude that present-day Malta has plummeted to unprecedented decadence. Scholarly research on Maltese social history during the late Middle Ages has shed a new light on this time of darkness, often depicted as a time of Christian fundamentalism rigidly devoid of the pleasures of the flesh and other carnal inclinations.

Over the past four decades, Malta’s erudite medievalists have unearthed original documents that resonate with tales of passion and depravity, honour and shame – studies about the sexual aspects of sociology which help society, in the words of Peter Laslett in his seminal book Family Life and Illicit Love, “to assess better our present standards of morality”.

After my previous forays in the dark labyrinth of this aspect of Malta’s social history, I delved deeper into the pioneering works of the island’s medievalists, particularly those of Godfrey Wettinger, Stanley Fiorini and Frans Ciappara in their studies in academic journals.

The late Middle Ages, particularly before the coming of the Knights in 1530, were characterised by a male-dominated society under a feudal system governed by barons and nobles mainly en­sconced in the old capital of Mdina. The prevailing practice in these feudal times allowed the feudal lord to deflower the new bride in their domain, enjoying the right of jus primae noctis, before releasing her to her lawful husband.

Quite naturally, this privilege, haughtiness and rapacious attitudes of the barons of Mdina was repugnant and offensive to humble village folk. Generally, the conduct of men towards illicit sex was vaguely permissible, while it was unpardonable in women, and all the perfumes of Arabia would not wash away the indelible stigma on the family honour.

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