Posts Tagged ‘Maltese’

What is a Maltese?

The the debate between traditional account of the Maltese’s origins (as well as the image above of a “Maltese terrier” named Hugh) can be found elucidated in Hugh Dalziel’s British Dogs (1897):

All English writers, new and old, that I have consulted, agree in one thing, and that is, that in centuries long past Malta furnished toy dogs for the “dainty dames and mincing mistresses” of both Greece and Borne.

It also appears to be a general agreement among these writers that the island of Malta is identical with the Melita ascribed by ancient writers as the home of these pet dogs, and, further, that we originally obtained the breed from that place, although some of them recognise the fact that no proof of that exists.

Dr. Johannes Caius says (writing, be it remarked, of the toy spaniel of his time): “They are called Meliti, of the Island of Malta, from whence they were brought hither.”

In the part of this work dealing with toy spaniels I have expressed myself respecting the looseness and inaccuracy of Caius, and the habit he evidences of taking things at secondhand, and his tendency to moralise rather than describe, and I ventured to offer the opinion that he really was describing the true, though diminutive, spaniel of his time, and had got his historical recollections mixed up with his facts of the day. I think it is not at all unlikely that there existed in England toy dogs from the Mediterranean of the type we now recognise as the Maltese, and that the learned doctor was not sufficient of “a fancier” to discriminate the minute differences between one toy and another.

Strabo, who, so far as I am aware, was the earliest writer to refer specially to these toys, does not give Malta as the native place of these dogs, but, on the contrary, writes as follows: “There is a town in Sicily called Melita, whence are exported many beautiful dogs, called Canes Melitei. They were the peculiar favourites of the women; but now (a.d. 25) there is less account made of these animals, which are not bigger than common ferrets or weasels, yet they are not small in their understanding nor unstable in their love.”

Strabo must have been wanting in the organ of comparativeness, or the weasels of his time were of Brobdignagian proportions compared with ours; but the point is if Melita, in Sicily, was the birthplace of the Maltese so-called dog, why ascribe its origin to the island of Malta?

As I have said, every English writer I have consulted seems to have taken it for granted that the dog we call Maltese originally came from Malta, but not one offers the slightest proof in support of the assumption. It would be needless to go through the works of these writers seriatim. From “Idstone” I should have expected something more accurate and scholarly than the slovenly article he has given in his book, and coming to “Stonehenge” I am aghast with wonder and amazement. He seems to have lost his compass, and at the mercy of wind and tide goes see-sawing between Malta and Manilla – those wide extremes – a hopeless wreck out of whose hull we cannot get any cargo worth landing.

In his earliest work on the dog he describes the breed as nearly extinct, but, although “scarce, still to be obtained in Malta.” He, however, in the same work gave an engraving of a dog, as a Maltese, imported from Manilla. In “The Dogs of the British Islands,” still hankering after Malta as their birthplace, he confesses his inability “to trace any records of the dog, after many inquiries made amongst residents in Malta.” Well, if Strabo is right this is not to be wondered at any more than that these and other inquiries should have created in Malta a supply of a factitious article to meet an unintelligible demand.

Whether the dog we now call a Maltese terrier be a descendant more or less pure from the breed Strabo wrote of, it is now impossible to say; but there is one thing of more practical value, and that is that those who affect the breed nowadays, at least know the sort of dog they refer to by that name, and in the minds of breeders, judges, critics, and fanciers, there should be a clearness of meaning as to the points which, aggregated, make up the dog, from which there should be no getting away.

Prom this point of view it is lamentable to think that “Stonehenge,” who has been accepted as an oracle on such subjects, should have given the weight of his name to the contradictions and absurdities which mark his several articles on this breed.

In the 1872 edition of his “Dogs of the British Islands ” he discards the Manilla dog, and gives his readers an engraving of Mandeville’s Fido, then at the zenith of his fame, and states the dog’s height to be llin. at shoulder to a weight of 6½lb., whilst from tip to tip of ears the dog is said to have measured 21in. These figures condemn themselves. In this edition we are told that the coat “should be long, and fall in ringlets, the longer the better.” In the 1878 edition it is said “there is a slight wave but no absolute curl.” In the six years, I suppose, the tyre women who dress these toys had succeeded in ironing the ringlets out.

“The eyes,” he says, “should not show the weeping corner incidental to the King Charles and Blenheim.” Enquiry among exhibitors would have shown him that ” Weeping ” is one of the most tiresome things exhibitors of Maltese have to contend against. The watery discharge stains the white hair a dirty red.

“The ears,” we are told, “are long,” which is not the case; the skin, or flap of the ear is short, but the hair upon it is long. Further, “the roof of the mouth is black.” I seldom look into a dog’s mouth, except to examine his teeth, and consider that, as a proof of quality or purity of breed, we might as well consider the colour of his liver. Finally, “Stonehenge” objects to this dog being called a terrier,because “it has none of the properties of the terrier tribe,” and that “it approaches very closely to the spaniel.”

Rather strange, this, from the same pen that wrote, ” This beautiful little dog is a Skye terrier in miniature,” and I should think most admirers of the breed will agree with me that comparison to a bulldog would have been quite as near the mark as comparison to a spaniel.

The traditional account is that it an ancient toy dog from either Malta or Melita, Sicily, and the only disagreement is whether it is Sicilian or Maltese.

I don’t think the evidence is clear for either of those locations.

It is pretty clear to me that this is a small bichon-type, which are thought to be the bantamized form of the poodle-type water dogs.

Bichons do have roots in the Mediterranean, and they were spread to places like the Canary Islands and Cuba– even Madagascar.

If that is the case, I don’t think we can say they are all that ancient.

It’s a fun meme in many breed histories to claim very old origin for the specific breed. However, very little scientific evidence is used to back up the claims. In this case, the account goes to some works from the classics for its corroborating evidence.

Not conclusive at all.

These dogs superficially resembled small Skye terriers, which were all the rage in the early days of the British dog fancy. Thus, they were given the appellation “Maltese terrier.” There is even a persistent legend– though very unlikely– that the Skye terrier is derived from Maltese dogs that escaped a Spanish shipwreck in the seventeenth century.  The trouble with that theory is that Skye terriers– with their characteristic coats– appear as common courtyard pets for Scottish nobles in Caisus’s descriptions from the sixteenth century.

The Maltese probably played a role in creating the bantamized Yorkshire terrier, which is now so popular as a family pet and fashion accessory.

But the dog is a very small Bichon, not a terrier.

Its origins are more likley in the Renaissance, not antiquity. But it is likely a dog that was relatively common among the prosperous kingdoms, republics, and principalities that were found on the Italian peninsula.

They probably don’t come from Malta or Sicily, which were relatively poor places that didn’t have much use for lap dogs. (Malta, of course, isn’t even Italian. It is actually a remnant of an Arabic speaking culture that once dominated both Sicily and Malta. The Maltese language is derived from Arabic– and it is the only part of Europe that still has an Arabic language as its mother tongue.)

If I had a better name for these dogs, I’d gladly use it.

I don’t.

So they are Maltese.

Whether they are actually Maltese, Sicilian, or Martian is really anyone’s guess.





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