Paper, Commerce, and the Circulation of News: A Case-Study from Early Modern Malta

William Zammit, University of Malta

The increasing availability of paper and its use as a medium for written and visual communication, whether in manuscript or printed format, together with the processes through which this transformed commerce and the communication of news in early modern Europe, has been the focus of a number of studies at both the macro and micro levels. The evolving, interdependent and intricate nature of the relationship between paper, manuscript and print was to prove of paramount importance in the evolution, among other things, of modern European commercial and business transactions, structures and networks, as well as in the dissemination and hence availability of news both as a political tool in the hands of the rising state and for the formation of public opinion when it percolated beyond the strictly political confines.

The aim of this paper is to provide a case study of the interplay between paper, commerce and the dissemination of news –the latter in various typologies and through different media. In other words, it concentrates on the transformative power of this relationship within a specific peripheral European, geographical, political and cultural entity; one which aptly fits into Braudel’s category of ‘isolated worlds.’ Early modern Mediterranean islands often remained archaic in practically every aspect, unless and until what Braudel described as ‘some accidental change of ruler or of fortune’ took place, resulting in a sometimes short-lived, sometimes long-term, if not permanently maintained political, commercial and cultural integration with mainland Europe. In this context, Malta provides a significant example. The island’s ‘historical accident’ took place in 1530 when it became home of the Hospitaller and Sovereign Military Order of St. John.

A cosmopolitan and aristocratic order with members hailing from across Europe, a good number of whom were very well politically and culturally connected, the order’s presence was to set in motion a process of integration with Europe on all levels. Geographically cut off from the very southern fringe of Europe by a stretch of sea, the crossing of which depended as much upon the vagaries of the weather as political stability in the Mediterranean and –above all –the strength of the Muslim corsairing presence, the island, given the Hospitaller takeover, was to establish permanent and heavily sustained political and economic links with the harbours of the Italian peninsula, France and Spain, among others, and from there with practically all areas of Catholic Europe. Its economic contacts extended to Islamic North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.

A cultural and economic backwater, more akin to North Africa than even to nearby Sicily, in most respects, pre-1530 Malta would be integrated within the European fold in the process.6The extent to which these processes of ‘opening up’ the island, as it were, depended upon a dramatic increase in the presence of paper and in its utilisation particularly for business transactions and the communication of news, while not unique to early modern Malta, is certainly worth exploring.


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