A Maltese National Hero – Dr Joseph Callus (1505-1561)

My Callus ancestors can be traced back to the late 17th century. They came from Zurrieq in southern Malta. One of Malta’s oldest national heroes also came from Zurrieq. His name was Dr Joseph Callus (aka Giuseppe, Guzeppi or Mattew, Matteo). This is his story which I have drawn together from a wide range of sources.

Formative Years

Joseph Callus was born in 1505 in Zurrieq, Malta, the son of Hyeronimus or Glormu Callus. He had 2 brothers that we know of, Antonio and James (Giacomo).

Medical Practice

It is believed that Joseph Callus trained as a doctor in Southern Italy and was practising in Sicily in 1530. It is in fact quite likely that he attended the oldest medical school in the World, the Scuola Medica Salernitana which was based in Salerno in Southern Italy and housed Western Europe’s most important medical library of the day, the Library of Montecassino. We can surmise this because the Salerno School developed a canon of writings called the “ars medicinae” (art of medicine) and  Callus is later referred to as a “doctor of art and medicine”. There is also evidence from his medical practice in Malta and his Will, bequeathing some of his medical books, that shows that his training was based on the Arabo-hellenic tradition which involved the study of the ancient Greeks such as Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Galen and important Persian and Jewish practitioners such as Al Razi (or Rhazes), Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Maimonides (A. Bugeja, 2012 p.30, P. Cassar, p.358) . These ancient Greek texts had been lost to Western medicine for centuries but were rediscovered during the Renaissance through Arabic translations. The medical school at Salerno was the most famous proponent of this form of medicine at the time.

Scuola Medica de Salernitana. Image sourced from a copy of Avicenna's Canons (Wikimedia Commons).

Scuola Medica de Salernitana. Image sourced from a copy of Avicenna’s Canons (Wikimedia Commons).

I should just explain the principle differences in early medical practice. Early medieval christian medical practice was dominated by a curative approach heavily influenced by pagan and folk medicine, which relied on herbalism and superstition (charms, amulets, prayers and rituals etc). The medical practice of the arabo-hellenic tradition was quite different in approach because it sought to understand the causes of disease and how the body worked. It therefore included the study of anatomy and used surgery as well as medicine. Arabic medicine also made great advances in the study of ophthalmology (eye diseases).

Career 1530-61

Joseph’s career got off to a good start. In 1530 he was employed by the Knights of the Order of St John (Knights Hospitallers), as physician to their navy, as they got ready to leave Sicily for their new base in Malta. He is documented as also having been employed as a naval physician on two further expeditions, to Syracuse and Tunis between 1539 and 1560 (J. Galea, 1945).

In November 1536 he was appointed the physician of the capital at Mdina and visiting physician for the hospital of Santo Spirito in Rabat, a role he held continuously for 29 years. This was Malta’s first hospital, which was established in 1372 for the care of foundlings, the very old and infirm and the very poor. It was served by a surgeon, a visiting physician and a visiting apothecary paid for by the universitá (town council) out of revenues they raised from the sale of wine. Joseph’s father, then brother Antonio, served as the apothecary. The “hospital” such as it was, received patients in the small church of Santo Spirito where there were 4 beds or cots, for up to 8 patients, i.e. 2 patients per bed!

The role of physician was held in high esteem and so Joseph made a good living. He bought property and engaged in treasure hunting and was often asked to be a god-father at baptisms and curator for orphans (Documentary Sources for the History of the Maltese General Practitioner, Bugeja, 2012, p. 29).  He would probably also have received private patronage and gifts, something suggested in a recorded dispute of 1560 when he sought compensation for the price of a schooner (see below).

During this time, he also became renowned as a medico-legal expert. Grand Master Jean Parisot de Vallette himself referred to Joseph as Eruditissimus Vir (erudite man).  A legal testimony from 1542 survives in the cathedral archives of Mdina. It is written in Latin and reports the medical opinion of 2 doctors, “Magnificus Joseph Callus” (doctor of art and medicine), and Rainerio de Bonellis (physician, surgeon and professor of medicine, also a noble), in a case of a woman Mattia  who was seeking annulment of her marriage to John Azzopardi, on account of his inability to properly consummate their marriage and father a child. A detailed analysis of the case is described by medical historian, Paul Cassar, (A Medico-Legal Report of the Sixteenth Century from Malta),  who observed that Callus clearly identified the husband as having the congenital medical abnormality today  known as hypospadia glandis, where the urethral opening is on the underside of the male genitalia. He also accurately described its implications for the sufferer. Cassar comments that the testimony shows a clear knowledge of anatomy and there is nothing in this account that would not pass muster in medical jurisprudence today.

Fall from Grace

Joseph Callus was also involved in Maltese politics. This interest may have been sparked by his father’s involvement in the universitá but Bugeja cites evidence that on his return to Malta in 1530, Joseph was himself a member of the universitá. As I observed in my first post on Hyeronimus Callus and the Universitá, it is interesting that when the Knights came to Malta, they displaced the authority of the Universitá Notabile in Mdina by appointing a Lieutenant Governor to be their superior. This certainly caused some resentment amongst the Maltese nobility. Mdina was the island’s capital city but it remained politically as well as geographically distant from the new rulers of the Order. In 1568, this was further underscored when the Knights built Valletta and made it the new capital!

In 1878, a novel by Ramiro Barbaro told the story of Mattew Callus (sometimes translated as Matteo), who became a martyr of the Maltese people. It described how, in 1560, a doctor of the city drew up a petition on behalf of a number of citizens protesting about the usurpation of their rights by the Order of St John. It was addressed to King Philip II of Spain and asked him to intercede on their behalf. The petition was however intercepted by agents of the Order and was sent to the Grand Master. Mattew Callus was accused of  of treason, tried and hanged in 1561. The story is widely believed in Malta but the attribution to a Mattew Callus is acknowledged as an error. All the hallmarks point to our Dr Joseph Callus instead.

Research published by Joseph Galea in 1945 (Mattew Callus: a myth?) asserts that the misattribution can be traced back to a Canon Bartolo, the Bishop’s vicar in Mdina cathedral, who in 1574 wrote a complaint to the visiting Inquisitor Monsignor Duzzina about the Order in general and de Vallette in particular. This complaint included an account of the trial and execution of Mattew Callus which matches the novel exactly. Galea argues that Bartolo may have been disaffected having been passed over for a bishopric on several occasions which may have influenced his account. However he also acknowledges that Bartolo may have himself received a distorted version of the truth, the story being passed down by word of mouth in an age of general illiteracy.

Galea presents a new reading of the case which comes from a manuscript of the universitá (Mandata Ordinari 1540-1563, vol. 84) now held in the Royal Library in Malta. The manuscript is a petition dated 1560 from Dr Joseph Callus to Grand Master de Vallette. In it he pleads for reinstatement of his position as physician to the cité, a position in which he has served faithfully for 29 years without lapse. He reminds de Vallette that he has also served in the Syracuse and Tunis naval campaigns on the Commander-in-Chief’s vessel. The reason for the petition is that Callus was involved in a dispute with Catarinella de Falzone over compensation for a schooner (sconia) and had taken this to the episcopal court instead of appealing to the authority of the Order. He explained that this was done in error rather than intending any offence to the Grand Master. De Vallette accepted this appeal and ordered the magistracy to restore Callus’s position and salary forthwith. The petition is written in Italian.

Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Vallette (1557-68). Photo by Giulio Andreini.

Grand Master Jean Parisot de Vallette (1557-68). Photo by Giulio Andreini.

Not withstanding this evidence, it is true that Dr Joseph Callus was still actually hanged by the Order of St John in 1561 but Galea states that the true reason cannot be confirmed because the archive records for the law courts of Mdina were destroyed in a fire in 1798. It is also known that his estate was confiscated by the Order of St John before his death. This all took place in the same year that Joseph was reinstated so, while there may have been some conflation or distortion of the facts as laid out by Galea, clearly something  very serious happened to end his life so catastrophically. My own theory is that in the period following his dismissal, before his appeal was heard, perhaps feeling bitter and disaffected, Joseph did decide to appeal to the King of Spain, as speculated. If this came to light after he had been pardoned and reinstated by the Grand Master it would certainly account for the severity of the punishment meted out to him.

Legacy in Malta

In Malta, the legend of Dr Callus is one of some controversy and ambivalence. On the one hand, he is seen as a martyr of Maltese patriotism, standing up for the rights of the common people and paying the ultimate price. On the other hand, the man who condemned him was another Maltese hero, Grand Master Jean Parisot de Vallette, who held Malta during the Great Siege of 1565 against Turkish invaders and was the architect of their new capital, Valletta. There was public criticism following the  publication of the novel by Barbaro that so much was known about Malta’s colonial rulers but so little about their own people like Callus. In the last few decades there has been a resurged interest in academic historical research which is gradually uncovering more information about the lives of ordinary Maltese and their attitudes to their overlords. I therefore plan to return to this topic as one such area of study concerns the missing estates of Joseph Callus which has caused further controversy!

Postscript – Could we be Descendants?

Almost categorically not. Joseph named his brother Giacomo (James) Callus as his heir in a testament bequeathing his property dated 19 August 1548. It seems likely therefore that either Joseph did not marry or if he did, he left no children.

What we may say with some confidence however, is that it is quite probable that we share a common ancestor, as must any Callus originating from Zurrieq. It may also be possible that our family is descended from one of his brothers. To prove this one would need to find a marriage record for Antonio or Giacomo naming Hyermonimus as the father, and then trace their descendants forwards in time until you reach the oldest known records of our own family, an extremely difficult task and not one likely to be achieved any time soon! Personally I am content to assume we just share an ancestor.

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