Magic Uncovered – An Interview with Professor Conti on Witchcraft and What History Tried to Forget

Professor Fabrizio Conti has a list of interests spanning Antiquity, Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. He approaches cultural, social, and religious developments, with a specialized focus on the history of magic and witchcraft.

Community Spotlight

By Leila Baez and Violeta Nanutti / Matthew staff || Edited by Marouso Pappas

Professor Fabrizio Conti is editing the volume, Humanism and Beyond: Paideia, Artes Liberales and the Future of Higher Education (Budapest: Trivent, forthcoming), along with JCU Professor Stefan Lorenz Sorgner, with contributions from members of the JCU History and Humanities Department.

On Nov. 17, 2020, JCU’s History and Humanities Department launched the “Humanism and Beyond Lecture Series,” with a virtual discussion by JCU History Professor Fabrizio Conti, titled, “Classical Roots of Beliefs in Witchcraft: A Multidisciplinary Liberal Arts Topic.” The following year, Professor Conti directed a summer university course called “Witchcraft Across Classical, Medieval, and Early-Modern Cultures in Europe: Researching and Teaching a Long-Term Historical Issue” at the Central  European University in Budapest, Hungary and will direct the  summer course of “Magic and Witchcraft: Antique and Medieval Roots, Early-Modern Outcomes” to be held at the same university this July. At JCU, Professor Conti is currently teaching the course “Late Antiquity: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft” this semester, besides other history courses. This course teaches the history of the worldwide practice of magic, as well as its origins and expansions throughout the Mediterranean across the Classical, late antique, and early medieval times. 

As two of his students and Matthew members, we spoke with Professor Conti to further discuss his interest for this subject and its relevance to the historical accounts surrounding female stereotypes. 

Professor Conti has a passion and love for this area of study with a desire to analyze history from a deeply cultural and social point of view. He aims to discover individual stories behind history and he wishes to enlighten far beyond the phenomenon of witchcraft itself, involving other historical issues and social groups. 

He said that what motivated him to study and teach this subject was: 

“The desire to approach history from a deeply cultural point of view, in the true sense of the word, with all its contradictionsnot just studying history as a mere sequence of events, but to discover the person with their own mindset behind history and how these affected social realities. I think that witchcraft gives one the possibility to do that because it is a sedimentation of beliefs, a series of persecutory actions, which had so much to do with the treatment of women and other marginalized figures.”  

He explains that magic was, and is still practiced in some areas of the globe because it grants the practitioner the idea of having the power to  make something to transform reality and control the outcome. Witchcraft provided an explanation for hostility and evil or for unexpected and unfortunate climatic, economic and social occurrences. Magic and witchcraft as historical issues are a great laboratory for an interdisciplinary study of history with some of its most intriguing long-term patterns. Gender studies, social psychology, intellectual, political and climatic dynamics can illuminate essential aspects in the development of witchcraft beliefs. Studying witchcraft can reveal the influence it had on societies, the struggles between social classes, and the establishment of power status. The history of magic can also open a reflection towards the future with its technological patterns of development. After all, Arthur Charles Clarke suggested that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” 

“We know how preachers, inquisitors, but also more generally intellectuals, popularized myths concerning witch-beliefs,” said Professor Conti. 

In class, we’ve discussed how historically, women have had harsh upbringings. During the time the idea of witchcraft originated, most women had to do whatever the male figures in their lives told them. While men were also involved in magic, the most common stereotypes regarding “dark” magic being practiced and performed referenced women. Some of these stereotypes surrounding female witches were written by numerous Roman male poets, like Ovid, who elaborated on the idea of female monsters. His poems showed female beings as bloodsucking monsters that targeted children. Another stereotype was an ability for women to shapeshift into birds of prey that searched for children to kill.  

In the Mesopotamian era, speculation about child killing demonic women arose. This went on to become a traditional accusation in Greece and Rome. The stereotype portraying dangerous women started when the talk of women having independence was circulating around 3rd century BCE. This is when the thought of certain women being evil became a normal tradition. Roman intellectuals targeted women, especially when they managed to wield political and social influence, according to what Judith Hallett has defined the “paradox of elite Roman women.” Much of Latin literature referred to these targeted woman as wise women.  

“Cato the Elder speaks against elite women as licentious, seeking control over men, acting in inappropriately masculine ways instead of acting as chaste domestic wives, and even accusing them of using poison to reach their own goals,” said Professor Conti. “Cicero accuses the noblewoman Clodia to be a ‘Palatine Medea.’” 

When female witches are written into stories, they are more often than not portrayed as malicious. Professor Conti states that these women were generally accused of being evil by nature because they were considered to be using evil magical rituals. They are shown to use magic in demonic ways to harm those who stand in their way. However, that was not always the case. In actuality, a majority of circumstances pertaining to witches and females accused of being witches throughout history had little to do with demonic or dark rituals and much to do with men retaliating against women and their efforts to protect themselves and survive in a world that otherwise disregarded them. 

“The typification of women, or more precisely, of certain female figures in a witchcraft sense is undeniable. From the classical age to the Renaissance, the history of witchcraft illuminates the channeling of a peculiar fear of women, for their political involvement and social significance, as well as for their supposed powers regarding nature, and their roles in the generative sphere of life in general,” said Professor Conti. 

The study of witchcraft can open a greater understanding of the roots of gender inequality through history. Accusations specifically targeted women that were more independent in society in attempts to marginalize them and make history forget them. These flawed conceptions got women killed, according to ancient Roman and Greek traditions, as in the case of the Greek “witch,” Theoris of Lemnos, executed in the 4th century BCE.  Witch hunts and trials started in Western Europe between the 15th and 16th century CE. Witches would be burnt at the stake if they turned down the option to repent and accept another form of punishment which, in most cases, was imprisonment or exile.  

Witchcraft also has much to do with the process of stereotyping and scapegoating in history. Professor Conti refers to the famous series “Lepers-Jews-Heretics-Witches” studied by Carlo Ginzburg, one of the greatest historians of witchcraft, to show how the same accusations, especially of killing people – often children – and using poisons, targeted different social groups through time. Ginzburg once stated that most probably he had decided to study witchcraft with a special focus on the persecuted and the marginalized because of his Jewish heritage. Ginzburg shows how personal experience can orientate one towards what aspects of history one feels the need to understand more deeply. 

“I wanted to investigate how stances defending those unjustly accused women developed, even at that time in which the belief in witches seemed more widespread,” said Professor Conti. “This is what I researched in my PhD thesis, which later became a book published by Brepols under the auspices of Monash University in 2015, in which I reconstructed this long term development of accusatory stereotypes, from the Classical Era through the later medieval and the Renaissance periods, with the surprising voice of a group of 15th-century Milanese Franciscan preachers who stood up against the accusations, even at the cost of being labelled ‘defenders of witches,’ in the same period of time in which Heinrich Kramer’s infamous handbook Hammer of Witches was published.”   

Professor Conti’s publications include the monograph Witchcraft, Superstition, and Observant Franciscan Preachers: Pastoral Approach and Intellectual Debate in Renaissance Milan (Brepols, 2015), and the edited volumes Civilizations of The Supernatural: Witchcraft, Ritual, and Religious Experience in Late Antique, Medieval, and Renaissance Traditions (Trivent, 2020) and Magic in the Roman World (8th c. BCE – 5th c. CE) (forthcoming). 

Currently, he is editing the volume, Humanism and Beyond: Paideia, Artes Liberales and the Future of Higher Education (Budapest: Trivent, forthcoming), along with JCU Professor Stefan Lorenz Sorgner, with contributions from members of the JCU History and Humanities Department.

Professor Conti said he likes to remember how, according to Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft, history is not so the “science of the past,” but rather the study of individuals through the lens of time: individuals in the plural, as this is the grammatical form of relativity fitting for the science of change, which is history.  

Professor Fabrizio Conti received a dual Ph.D. in History and Medieval Studies from Central European University, Budapest, Hungary. He is a graduate in the Humanities and in History, from the Sapienza University of Rome, and earned degrees from the School of the Vatican Apostolic Archive and the Pontifical Institute for Christian Archeology. He is a member of the American Academy in Rome – Jury for the Italian Fellowship in Medieval Studies for 2022. He worked in the Roman catacombs as a docent and an archivist in the Vatican Apostolic Archive. He is a history consultant for the Save Ancient Studies Alliance and has been a history consultant for KM Plus Media & Big Media, appearing in several TV documentaries.  

After teaching in a variety of European countries, and at The Ohio State University, USA, in 2015 he arrived at John Cabot University. During his time at JCU, Professor Conti has been working as a lecturer in History, teaching: Introduction to Western Civilization I, The Birth of Medieval Europe, Europe before Nations, The Italian Renaissance, Mystics, Saints, and Sinners, The Popes of Rome as well as two new courses that he has created: Late Antiquity: Magic Ritual and Witchcraft, and Magic and Witchcraft in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. In addition to these, he taught a number of independent studies on a variety of topics within the range of ancient, late antique, and medieval civilizations.

Suggested Readings  

Professor Fabrizio Conti to Direct Summer School on Witchcraft at Central European University | John Cabot University News 

Witchcraft Throughout History: A Lecture by Prof. Fabrizio Conti | John Cabot University News 

Studying Humanity Through Time: History Professor Fabrizio Conti | John Cabot University News