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INTERVIEW | Wednesday, 09 Januar 2008

Past perfect, future historic

Juggling time and papers is commonplace for academics, and it is no different for Godfrey Wettinger: professor of history at the Universty of Malta who talks to Bianca Caruana about his publications, historical artefacts and his collection of Maltese verbs

Malta was undergoing a transition during the early years of Godfrey Wettinger’s employment, immediately after World War II. He did not have many options to choose from when deciding on a career. His father, who died in 1942 when Wettinger was just 12, did not want his son to become a teacher. But in the end, Wettinger had little choice but to go against his father’s wishes.
“If I had the option, I probably would not have become a teacher,” he recalls. “The only other options were that of a bank clerk or joining the civil service. I was not interested in going to war and could not become a bank clerk.”
He was born in Mosta 78 years ago, but spent most of his childhood and adulthood in Mellieha where he lived with his mother after his father’s death from cancer. This was before he finally settled in St Julian’s.
“My mother worked hard to support my two siblings and I after my father’s death. This was a time when women did not work. We could not even afford the newspaper. I make up for it nowadays by buying three on weekdays and five on Sunday. I usually spend Sundays browsing the newspapers from about eight in the morning until four in the afternoon.”
After graduatig from St Michael’s College in Santa Venera, Wettinger was encouraged to further his studies by a friend, who urged him to register as a foreign student with the University of London.
“I had to be rational with my choice of subject. I was interested in many things, such as philosophy, but they were not all ideal for Malta. I finally decided to further my studies in history. After graduating with an Honours Degree in History, I continued for a Masters Degree.”
Having these degrees facilitated teaching opportunities in Mellieha and at the Lyceum which was considered one of the best schools in those days. He then worked for five years at the Junior College during which he worked on obtaining his PhD.
“My thesis was on language which was accepted; however I did not immediately send it over to Malta because I was rather nervous about the reaction. I presented half of it at first, and then published all of it about six years later.”
As a result of a growing interest in language, an unusual hobby of his is collecting Maltese verbs, of which he now has over 1,000. A growing stamp collection is also evolving although this leisurely pursuit developed quite recently.
After teaching at the Junior College, Wettinger became a lecturer at the University of Malta where he is still a senior lecturer. Now an Emeritus Professor, Wettinger continues to publish scholarly works.
In 1968, one of the most important documents in the Maltese language was discovered by Wettinger and Fr M. Fsadni when sifting through the Biblioteca archives: a poem, written on the back of a ledger in mediaeval Maltese.
“Il Cantilena by Pietru Caxaro is about 80 years older than what was previously recognised to be the oldest Maltese document. It dates to the fourteenth century and sheds light on the conditions of Malta at that time.”
Whilst working on this new material, Wettinger found himself becoming ever more interested in the Jewish community in Malta which had interested many scholars before him.
“After publishing the Cantilena, I decided to research this community and discovered many things. In the archives of the Cathedral in Mdina, I found information on the mediaeval inquisition in Malta during which the Jews in Malta were ordered to convert to Christianity or leave. This happened before the Knights of St John arrived in Malta.”
The information extracted from the archives was used by Wettinger to write the book, ‘The Jews of Malta in the Late Middle Ages’, published in 1985. One of his best-known books remains ‘Place-Names of the Maltese Islands’ which took about 30 years of his life to research.
“You have to spend your whole life trying to find the numerous place-names and their origins,” he says. “There are about 6,000 published names in the book but it would be impossible for me to find them all alone. Everything has some name, from fields to water wells, and some go back hundreds of years. I was worried for a while that my writing would be lost if it were not published and it took me nine years to have it published due to difficulties.”
He gives a small hint of what kind of information can be found in this book and gives credit to Sir Temi Zammit for the original discovery of the origin of this place name.
“Birgu does not come from the word ‘Borgo’. It comes from the name Pyrgos, which is Greek for ‘castle by the water’.”
Answering questions on his views on the appreciation of history by the Maltese population, Wettinger believes that yes, the Maltese do have a sense of history. However, Maltese history has been adapted to the exigencies of various circumstances.
Following this he tackles a question asking about the lack of historical documentaries in television productions. He feels bothered when those who are not really knowledgeable mess around with history. A re-enactment can be good if done well, but he personally feels that not enough attention is given to acting in Malta and most of those seen on television are part-time actors.
“I prefer to watch the news,” he says simply.
Changing the subject, Wettinger speaks about the importance of the temples to Maltese history.
“I think we should be proud of our heritage as Maltese but must avoid the mythology which tends to surround the temples. It is difficult to determine what really happened and why they are there.”
Although the temples are undeniably there, the Maltese are not the same people who built the temples. It is the same with the Maltese language: it is very similar to Arabic phonetically, but this does not make the Maltese Arabs.
He explains: “We have a different culture, a different way of life. The Maltese were Arabs 600 to 700 years ago, but this will never be accepted due to racism. Malta has a European culture but if observed properly, this island is further south than Tunis.”
Finally, from an historian’s perspective, does he believe that future historians will find our present lifestyle interesting?
“It is difficult to say. I personally feel that the best years for history have passed but that was what interested me. Things are advancing and are going to become better as time goes on but there are also those things which are keeping us all back, like possible nuclear wars and global warming. So, who knows what future historians will be recording?”
Professor Godfrey Wettinger admits that he would like to live forever and find out. “But I might become incredibly bored...”

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