JCU Welcomes Professor Teofilo F. Ruiz for a Talk on the Mediterranean

John Cabot University’s Department of History and Humanities welcomed Distinguished Research Professor Teofilo F. Ruiz for a lecture called “The Mediterranean: A Sea of Encounters,” on October 26, 2021. Organized with the support of the American Academy in Rome and moderated by JCU History Professor Fabrizio Conti, the lecture provided an overview of the Mediterranean’s geology and climate and served as an introduction to the religious and linguistic variety of the area.

Teofilo F. Ruiz

Teofilo F. Ruiz

Geology of the Mediterranean
Professor Ruiz started by explaining that around 5.9 million years ago, an earthquake caused the Strait of Gibraltar to close, sealing the Mediterranean Sea off from the Atlantic Ocean. Over the following 600,000 years the Mediterranean desiccated, until a second earthquake reopened the Strait of Gibraltar, allowing the Atlantic Ocean to fill up the basin again. The Calypso Deep (5,267 meters) is the deepest point of the Mediterranean, with the average depth being 1500 meters.

Professor Ruiz explained that the diversity of languages and religions around the Mediterranean is a result of the different civilizations that developed around the area, including the Phoenician, the Greek, and the Carthaginian, and of the trade routes that they established. When the Roman Empire rose to power, the Mediterranean was controlled by the Romans, and it became known as Mare Nostrum (Our Sea). In the centuries following the fall of Rome (476), Islam spread from Turkey all the way to Spain and influenced the area around the Mediterranean.

The centrality of Sicily
Sicily is a key point in the Mediterranean because it divides the East from the West, and the North from the South. Professor Ruiz used Sicily as a case study of a “quintessential Mediterranean society,” or a place that saw the presence of many civilizations over time. Phoenicians and Carthaginians remained in Sicily until 241 BCE, and from the eighth century BCE onwards, the Greeks settled there, and the island became known as Magna Graecia. From 241 BCE to 440, Sicily served as Rome’s granary, and it became an important province. In 440 Sicily fell under Germanic Rule until 532, when it was invaded by the Byzantine Empire.

In 827 Sicily was occupied by the Arabs, who had been regularly raiding the island since the eighth century. In 1061 the Normans arrived in Sicily, and in 1198, Frederick II, who was of German descent, was crowned king and ruled until his death in 1250. In 1266, the French prince Charles, count of Anjou and Provence was crowned king by Pope Innocent IV. In 1282, the people began an insurrection, known as the War of the Sicilian Vespers, which saw almost the entire French population of the island killed, and paved the way for the Aragonese rule.

Ragusa, Ravenna and Venice
Professor Ruiz also talked about the cities of Ragusa (modern-day Dubrovnik, Croatia), Ravenna, and Venice. He explained that these cities in the Adriatic, particularly Ragusa and Venice, prospered thanks to their trades with the east. At the beginning of the 16th century, with the rise of transatlantic voyages, most countries’ interest towards the Mediterranean decreased and the remaining ones hired corsairs to act as proxies and to control the sea. The Mediterranean lost importance and became a place of poverty and conflict and people started immigrating to countries in the American continent, especially from Spain, Italy, Greece, and the Ottoman Empire.

Former Distinguished Professor & Robert and Dorothy Wellman Chair in Medieval History at the University of California, Los Angeles, Teofilo F. Ruiz has been teaching history for almost four decades. Born in Cuba, Professor Ruiz moved to the United States in 1961, and in 1974 he earned a Ph.D. in History from Princeton University. In 1995, he was named “Outstanding Master’s Universities and Colleges Professor of the Year” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and in 2008 he received UCLA’s Distinguished Teacher Award. In February 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Professor Ruiz a National Humanities Medal. In October 2021, Professor Ruiz received the American Historical Association’s Award for Scholarly Distinction, an award that goes to senior historians of the highest distinction. With over thirteen books and numerous articles, Professor Ruiz’s scholarship has been recognized with fellowships from Mellon, Guggenheim, and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Witch-hunting in Renaissance Europe
On November 3, Professor Ruiz was a guest in Prof. Conti’s Magic & Witchcraft course, talking with students about the historical, cultural, and political context of witch-hunting in Renaissance Europe. In particular, the class discussed the complexities inherent in a historical phenomenon that is still partially unclear and under study, such as what was once called the “witch-craze.” Two students had the opportunity to present, in the presence of Professor Ruiz from whom they received useful feedback, their audio-visual research project, a comparative analysis of textual material, and the Season of the Witch movie, which is one of the assignments of the course.