The Development of Domestic Space in the Maltese Islands from the Late Middle Ages to the Second Half of the Twentieth Century

George A. Said-Zammit PhD (Leiden), FSA, introduces and contextualises his recent Archaeopress publication

This study, which forms part of an extensive body of research undertaken and presented for my doctoral thesis at the University of Leiden (The Netherlands) in 2016, traces and analyses the evolution of domestic space in Maltese vernacular and “polite” houses between the late Middle Ages and the second half of the twentieth century. The study was published as a monograph later in 2016 by Archaeopress. The houses under study range from humble buildings of modest size, materials and design, like farmhouses or those for the less affluent town-dwellers to buildings of grand design, like townhouses and private palaces. This work considers various aspects of Maltese lifestyle, culture and economic activities to assess the local houses both from an architectural point of view and from an economic and anthropological perspective. The specific aim is to examine Maltese houses not as a static relic of the past, but as a vibrant place of human activity and social interaction, in which people act and react in different ways, according to different circumstances. In this sense, houses are also studied in terms of their spatial properties and how these generate privacy, interaction and communication, accessibility and security, and, equally important, how domestic space relates to gender roles, status and class.

The main objective of the study is to reach a deep and nuanced understanding of domestic space and how it relates to the islands’ history and the development of its society. The complex nature of the Maltese houses can only be addressed through applying a multidisciplinary approach. Therefore, my research promotes a multifaceted enquiry into the houses of the Maltese islands, reaching from the physical buildings and their material culture, via the perception of houses in art and literature, to the socio-economic significance of buildings in terms of property relations and economic activities. More specifically, in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of domestic space in Malta, the study pursues the following lines of investigation:

  1. systematic house surveys and rigorous data recording to establish categories of different types of dwellings;
  2. detailed field surveys, cartographic analysis and geographic research to relate the evolution of settlements to the development of domestic space;
  3. the study and appreciation of literary sources and oeuvres d’art to evaluate how Maltese houses have been perceived by travellers, visitors and artists;
  4. the documentation and evaluation of house furniture and contents through comparative studies of permanent museum exhibitions and notarial records;
  5. the analysis of a wide range of historical sources (including notarial records and travelogues) to explore Maltese houses as a place of human habitation and socio-economic activity;
  6. a systematic analysis of a small but coherent sample set of house and settlement plans using formal techniques for spatial analysis (Space Syntax) to study the evolution of the Maltese houses and settlements through their intrinsic spatial properties;
  7. the analysis of demographic data (for example, population records and the national censuses) to study the socio-anthropological dimension of the Maltese houses;
  8. the analysis of recent local domestic architecture to evaluate the perceptions of Maltese contemporary society.
Figure 105
Falson Palace in Villegaignon Street, Mdina

These individual strands of enquiry have their own merits; when combined, however, they complement and amplify each other and allow new and deeper insights into the evolution of the Maltese houses.

The resulting monograph is divided into twelve chapters. The first three provide the general framework for this research, including the geographical and chronological parameters as well as the methodology employed (Chapter 1), a historical background on Malta, with particular reference to society, class structure, economy and settlements (Chapter 2), and an analysis of local domestic architecture (Chapter 3). It is through the background provided in these chapters that the Maltese houses and settlements will be analysed in further detail in this work.

The next two chapters explore the local built environment through literature and art. Chapter 4 studies the houses and settlements from the observations or descriptions made by poets, writers and visitors. In this chapter the national censuses were instrumental to acquire data on local population and housing, for example occupancy and the person per room index. Chapter 5 examines local settlements and houses through a number of artistic works. These works-of-art were instrumental to study different types of urban and rural houses not only from an architectural point of view, but also from an anthropological perspective. The importance of these two chapters lies in the fact that the Maltese houses and settlements are considered from different perspectives, whilst providing an insight as to how through time locals and foreigners looked at dwellings, villages and their inhabitants.

Figure 116
A farmhouse in Sannat, Gozo, built in ashlar masonry

The next four chapters deal with different aspects of local life and how the Maltese family used domestic space for various functions. Chapter 6 deals with the relationship between domestic space and the family’s religious beliefs and traditions. This chapter demonstrates that the house was a place which often brought together the members of the family to pray together and to conduct their private worship. Chapter 7 is concerned with aspects of diet, dining fashions, health and education, while Chapter 8 focuses on furniture and costumes, which varied according to the social status of the house owners. Chapter 9 deals with household, gender, class and property. Together, these chapters are important because through the study of various sources they demonstrate that houses are a building as much as they are a place of human habitation and activity. They also show that houses were often a symbol of social status, political or economic power, and identity.

Fig 152 colour
An example of a Maltese villa in Guardamangia built in the sixties

Chapter 10 looks at the development of settlements and houses in Malta from a Space Syntax perspective. It shows that the development of local dwellings often reflects changes in local society and the way house dwellers interacted together through time. This chapter has also demonstrated that settlements evolved in a way to meet not only the political aspirations of the country, but also the economic and social needs of the local community. Chapter 11 deals with the development of domestic space in the Maltese islands during the last fifty years. The changes that occurred in Maltese society during this period also had an indelible effect on the Maltese house and the configuration of its domestic space. Apart from identifying the main phases of development of local urban and rural dwellings in the Maltese islands, Chapter 12 demonstrates that changes in local domestic space were often influenced by particular political, social and economic situations. It also shows that the evolution of domestic space in Malta and Gozo was generally associated with changes in local society, particularly in issues regarding privacy, class and gender. At the end of this study Appendix 1 provides a detailed description of each house that I studied as part of the Malta Historic House Survey. Appendix 2 includes a glossary of the key terms used in this research.

The author (right) at a book launch event in Malta with Archaeopress’ very own Ben Heaney.

9781784913915Sincerest thanks to George for providing this blog post. His book The Development of Domestic Space in the Maltese Islands from the Late Middle Ages to the Second Half of the Twentieth Century is available now in paperback (RRP £65), hardback (RRP £85) and eBook (from £16 + VAT) editions.

Print editions will be available with 20% discount via the Archaeopress website until 31/08/2017.