Studying Humanity Through Time: History Professor Fabrizio Conti
History Professor Fabrizio Conti studied at the University of Rome “La Sapienza” and earned his Ph.D. in History and Medieval Studies from the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. This semester he teaches The Birth of Medieval Europe, Historical and Philosophical Aspects of the Italian Renaissance, and The Popes of Rome at JCU.
Why should people be interested in studying history today?
The first books I ever read as a boy were about ancient civilizations. I was crazy about the Persians, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians, and everyday life in medieval castles. I probably became interested in history because I have always been curious about life and human beings in general. I totally agree with Marc Bloch (1886-1944), the great French historian shot by the Nazi Gestapo, when he writes, “The good historian is like the giant of the fairy tale. He knows that wherever he catches the scent of human flesh, there his quarry lies.”
History is not just the study of the past, as many may assume. History is the study of humanity through time and of how individuals, as well as societies, change, evolve, make mistakes and work to find new paths. Studying history can definitely foster curiosity, and develop an interest for change, complexity, diversity while gaining a sense of perspective.
You recently published an article about witchcraft in the journal Religions. Can you tell us more about it?
Witchcraft is a peculiar topic, one that has been simplified too often. In my article for Religions, I aimed to show how two traditions – a set of learned literary motives of Classical Roman and Greek origin, and medieval beliefs of folkloric nature – contributed to shape our modern understanding of witchcraft. According to these beliefs, in order to be a witch, one needs to have a connection with the devil, participate in the Sabbath, be able to fly, and in some cases, have the ability to shapeshift into cats or owls. The elaboration of such beliefs actually rested upon stereotypes that date back to ancient Roman writers. It is still somewhat mysterious how classical and medieval traditions came together centuries later, giving birth to a new demonic stereotype in which both the original folkloric and the literary motives merged. I believe it is fascinating to trace the manifold cultural roots at the origin of ideas that had such a strong impact on the history of the west and beyond.
What’s the most surprising thing that has come up in your research?
During my doctoral studies, I came across some medieval textual sources in which preachers criticized those who accused women of being witches. I actually discovered that, even in the age that was about to see the spread of witch-hunts (1450-1750), there were intellectuals who dared to speak up against charges of witchcraft. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation and subsequently published a book, on the ‘skeptical’ approach towards the belief in witches as elaborated by a group of Milanese preachers. It was surprising to see different factions of friars confronting each other on whether witches were real or not, and to see some friars working to spread what could be considered a defense of witches in the same period in which the infamous witch-hunt manual Malleus maleficarum was published in 1486. As a historian, I am always fascinated by discordant voices, or by those who seem to be too advanced for their own age.
You used to work in the Vatican Secret Archive. What’s the main thing that you took away from this experience?
The Vatican Secret Archive is not ‘secret’ anymore! In 2019 Pope Francis decided to change its name to The Vatican Apostolic Archive, as the term ‘secret’ – which just meant ‘private’ – could have induced people to think of strange mysteries. There, in the huge bunker that hosts and protects tons of documents recounting the history of the relationships that the Church of Rome had with the world, centuries of history are preserved. The experience of working as an archivist in the Vatican Apostolic Archive left me with a deep grasp of the relevance of history, of how history is always made through documents, and of how the creases of those documents can offer surprises that sometimes become important discoveries. That is the work of the archivist and the historian (the two are not always the same), looking for meaningful human hints in the meanders of parchment: that is indeed a school of patience, dedication, and an exercise in reading and interpreting clues.
You are also a history consultant for KM Plus Media & Big Media. Can you tell us more about it?
I acted as a talking head for documentaries dealing with ancient civilizations – Footprints of Civilization – and empires – Empire Games. Recently we finished shooting our latest big project, called The Mysteries of Knights Templar, shot between the Vatican Archive, the Magisterial Villa of the Order of the Knights of Malta on the Aventine hill in Rome, and Paris. Another documentary show for which I have been interviewed, The Warriors’ Way, centered on the warriors of ancient and medieval civilizations, from the Roman legions to the Vikings passing through the Knights Templar and the Celts, will be broadcast by international networks. There are other projects under development, including some fascinating ones about the Vatican and ancient civilizations. It is impressive to see how the demand for historical knowledge is gaining ground, and how viewers are becoming increasingly eager to dig into the mysteries and secrets of the past.
Tell us about a challenge that you have encountered in your professional career. How did you overcome it?
I have met many people who encouraged me, but also others who tried to dissuade me from becoming a university professor. I knew what I wanted, and I did what I believed in. It took great effort and sacrifice, but I have applied what I believe is a golden rule: perseverance and commitment. I believe nobody can tell you what is right for you.
Having the chance to teach History, to stand in front of students and contribute to foster their curiosity and intellectual growth is a privilege and a gift. Therefore, every time I enter a classroom at JCU I try to bear this in mind.
What’s your teaching philosophy?
I love teaching students and I love learning from them. Teaching and learning are not one-way processes, but a comprehensive human exchange. We all learn. We just do that at different levels and in different ways. It is true that learning is the human activity par excellence, since we are the only living species to teach and learn in an organized and collective way. Having the chance to play my small part in this great endeavor makes me feel proud and unique, and this is also what I want my students to do: to become aware of their uniqueness and to discover how they can add their own voices to the fascinating journey of discovery of how and why we have become what we are as individuals and as societies.
Discussion is fundamental in all of my courses. I want my students to become active and engaged leaders in the learning process. Engaging with primary sources is part of this process, and doing that with sources that represent different views of the issues at the core of discussion is fundamental. Students can develop a sense of how multifaceted, varied, and rich historical realities are. In exercising themselves with interpretative efforts that need to be as multidisciplinary as possible, students also develop their critical and transcultural skills as well as the ability to read and interpret complexity with an open mind.