Davis, Natalie Z.
Natalie Z. Davis 1928-
(Full name Natalie Zemon Davis) American novelist, historian, essayist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Davis's career through 2002.
A pioneer in the field of social history, Davis is known for her reconstructions of the lives of ordinary individuals—merchants, artisans, and peasants—in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. Her best-known books are Society and Culture in Early Modern France (1975) and The Return of Martin Guerre (1983).
Davis was born Natalie Zemon on November 8, 1928, in Detroit, Michigan, to Julian Leon and Helen Lamport Zemon. Davis credits her father's example for her own decision to become a writer; a prosperous businessman in the textile industry, he had an impressive library and wrote plays for amateur theatrical groups and for the USO during World War II. Davis attended public elementary school in her suburban Detroit neighborhood and a private girls' high school, Kingswood, where she was one of two Jewish students in her class of 30. After graduation, she enrolled in the history honors program at Smith College where she became active in a number of left-wing political groups. In 1948, a year before her graduation from Smith, she eloped with Chandler Davis, a graduate student at Harvard who came from a family of New England Quaker left-wing intellectuals. Although his parents both earned Ph.D.s, the family had little money, in contrast to the Zemon family, who disapproved of the match. Although she risked expulsion from Smith for marrying without permission, Davis was nonetheless permitted to graduate with her class, earning a B.A. in history. The next year, she received an M.A. from Radcliffe and accompanied her husband to the University of Michigan where he taught mathematics and she pursued a Ph.D. Their activism against the Korean War drew the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee and resulted in his dismissal from the university and imprisonment for six months in the federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut. During this time, Davis taught at Brown University, the first of many teaching posts she held during her career.
In 1952 Davis made her first visit to France and the following year she completed her doctoral exams; she received her Ph.D. in 1959. Meanwhile, the couple had three children: Aaron, Hannah, and Simone. Blacklisted at universities in the United States, Davis's husband joined the faculty at the University of Toronto in 1962 and the family relocated to Canada. Davis began teaching at the University of Toronto a year later. In 1971, she accepted a professorship at the University of California-Berkeley, and in 1978 became the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton University. She is currently professor emeritus at Princeton and adjunct professor of history at the University of Toronto. She maintains homes in both Toronto and Princeton, New Jersey.
Davis's works combine rigorous scholarship with popular appeal and tend to blur the distinctions between various disciplines, particularly history and anthropology, as well as the distinctions between various literary genres, particularly social history and biography. She concentrates on the lives of common people rather than the elite; typically her subjects are artisans, laborers, minor clerics, and peasants rather than aristocrats or bishops. Her first book, Society and Culture in Early Modern France, is a collection of essays on subjects ranging from the collective movement among journeyman printers, to the establishment of an agency for poor relief, to the effect of religious change on urban women. The work established Davis's reputation as a pioneer social historian. Her next effort constituted her most popular success. After serving as a consultant on the film Le retour de Martin Guerre (1982), a fictionalized account of a sixteenth-century peasant who left his village and had his identity assumed there by an imposter, Davis wrote the historical novel The Return of Martin Guerre, in which she attempts to fill in some of the gaps in the film version and to treat the story more as history than as fictional narrative. In 1987, she produced Fiction in the Archives, a collection of sixteenth-century letters written by convicted criminals in France hoping to have their sentences commuted. Davis adds her own commentary on the social and political significance of the letters, and analyzes differences in the style and content of letters written by women as opposed to those written by men. Women on the Margins (1995), tells the stories of three seventeenth-century women: a Jewish businesswoman in Germany, a Catholic missionary who co-founded a convent in Quebec, and a Protestant text illustrator in the Dutch colony of Suriname. In Davis's Slaves on Screen (2000), she returns to her interest in cinema; the work covers the representation of slaves in such popular films as Spartacus, Amistad, and Beloved. Also published in 2000, The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France is a study of the social and cultural meanings behind the exchange of gifts.
Because Davis's work appeals to historians as well as the general public, her books are often reviewed in both scholarly journals and popular periodicals. Assessments of her work are mixed. Many fellow historians have praised her innovative work in the field of social history, including her treatment of the lives of ordinary citizens, or “history from below,” as it is sometimes called. Charmarie Jenkins Blaisdell commends Davis for giving voice to the men and women affected by the social and political changes taking place in the early modern world, people “who have been largely ignored because they left practically nothing in writing.” Richard Cobb, however, believes that in Davis's work “the people themselves are generally assigned a somewhat peripheral part, the author frequently intervening to interpret their thoughts, aspirations and actions for them, as though they could not always be trusted to speak for themselves.” Similar controversies surround The Return of Martin Guerre, with reviewer Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie praising it as a “major work of historical reconstruction,” and Robert Finlay contending that parts of the work appear to be “far more a product of invention than of historical reconstruction” particularly the character of Martin's wife, whom Davis turns into “a sort of proto-feminist of peasant culture.” While several scholars accuse Davis of excessive fictionalizing in her work, Jonathan Dewald maintains that the author “has sought to restore our direct contact with voices from the sixteenth century” and commends her collection of letters of remission, Fiction in the Archives, for accomplishing that purpose. The fiction to which the title refers exists within the letters themselves as petitioners tried to state their cases in the most favorable way possible. Addressing Davis's “innovative methodology,” Nancy L. Roelker explains that it consists of “finding linkages that others have overlooked, combining sociological, political, and legal aspects of history with literary analysis and psychological insights.”
Women on the Margins, while well received, also generated critical debate. Many critics, such as Anne Jacobson Schutte, praise the work for its eloquent treatment of the lives of three very different women, calling it “a marvelous read” for both scholars and the general public. Schutte expresses reservations, however, about Davis's treatment of one of her subject's relationship with the indigenous population of Suriname. Endowing the woman with “an unusually sympathetic view of indigenes in the Dutch colony strikes this reader as forcing possibilities beyond the margins of plausibility,” claims Schutte. Patricia Seed contends that since two of Davis's three subjects took part in the colonization of the Americas, their status as “women on the margins” must be viewed in relative terms. As white Europeans, these women were far more powerful than their counterparts among the indigenous population, contends Seed. Reviewers of The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France, draw attention to Davis's blurring of the usual distinctions between academic disciplines. Keith Thomas, for example, reports that “by applying anthropological theories of the gift to the understanding of history, Davis has illuminated the texture of social and personal relationships in sixteenth-century France.” Of her career as a whole, Peter N. Miller maintains that Davis “has been one of the most innovative historians working in North America in the past four decades. Without any self-promoting fanfare, Davis's works have set many of the fashions now followed by other historians.”
Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays (essays) 1975
*Le Retour de Martin Guerre [with Jean-Claude Carrière and Daniel Vigne] (screenplay) 1982
The Return of Martin Guerre (novel) 1983
Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (history) 1987
Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (history) 1995
The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France (history) 2000
Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision (criticism) 2000
*Written by Carrière and Vigne; aspects of the screenplay's plot and characterization were the result of a collaboration between the writers and Davis.
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SOURCE: Cobb, Richard. “Hard Times.” Spectator, no. 7686 (18 October 1975): 506-08.
[In the following review of Society and Culture in Early Modern France, Cobb maintains that Davis speaks on behalf of her subjects rather than allowing them to speak for themselves.]
“… Throughout the essays I have had a continuing concern about the sources for the lives of people most of whom are illiterate,” states the author at the beginning of this collection of eight studies of popular attitudes and mentalities in sixteenth century France [Society and Culture in Early Modern France]. And, later in the work, she expresses intentions similarly commendable on the part of a popular historian, commenting, on the subject of her abundant and meticulously researched sources: “It may also guide us in the venture that first attracted me to these collections—to use them to hear the voice of the people therein …” Elsewhere she traces the path on which she has set herself: “To track down the source of Misrule [in the particular sense of Carnaval], I left the streets of Rouen and Dijon and Lyon and other cities and went to the villages …” and she concludes, with the slightly alarming statement—alarming in that it suggests the existence both of a new orthodoxy and of a “school”—“We, current historians of popular culture in pre-industrial Europe, have a strong streak of interest in the...
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SOURCE: Blaisdell, Charmarie Jenkins. Review of Society and Culture in Early Modern France, by Natalie Z. Davis. American Historical Review 81, no. 3 (June 1976): 599-600.
[In the following review, Blaisdell recommends Society and Culture in Early Modern France for its treatment of the lives of ordinary people in sixteenth-century France whose stories are largely neglected in conventional histories.]
As a collection of essays on peasants, artisans, and the illiterate populace of the cities of early modern France, this book [Society and Culture in Early Modern France] should interest historians who are not directly concerned with the period or with popular history. Through what she calls “case studies” of the menu peuple, Natalie Davis demonstrates her impressive and wide-ranging research not only into little-known or used documents of her period but also into the scholarship of the social sciences in general. Though five of these essays have appeared in periodicals, their presence in this volume allows readers to appreciate the coherence of Davis' research and methodology and to acknowledge the significant contribution of her work to opening new vistas on the society of early modern Europe.
Davis clearly demonstrates the importance of collective behavior, playlets, pamphlets, welfare rolls, village festivals, political tracts, and sermons to understanding...
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SOURCE: Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy. “Double Trouble.” New York Review of Books 30, no. 12 (22 December 1983): 12, 14.
[In the following review, Ladurie summarizes the narrative of The Return of Martin Guerre, praising Davis for an unbiased reconstruction of Guerre's story.]
The biographies of peasants and especially the autobiographies of country people are a longstanding problem. We owe to the habits of Protestant introspection the fascinating life history of the Swiss mountain dweller, Thomas Platter, written in the sixteenth century; for the seventeenth century, as far as I know, nothing of the kind exists, at least in French. During the eighteenth century, Jansenism (as an almost Calvinist exercise of self-examination) provided us with the memoirs of the expeasant Restif de la Bretonne. The picaresque tradition produced the recollections of Jamerey-Duval, an obscure vagabond who tramped for many years through the regions of Champagne, Burgundy, and Lorraine. The culture disseminated by the Napoleonic wars finally made possible the childish notebooks of the young forester Coignet, who became a captain in the Imperial armies and a memorialist in retirement. As can be seen from this tally of a few names, the harvest is poor. Thus the temptation is strong to supplement these few autobiographies by writing biographies of rustic or peasant characters. That is what Natalie Davis (who teaches at...
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SOURCE: Christiansen, Eric. “Ce n'est pas le Guerre.” Spectator 252, no. 8114 (14 January 1984): 20-1.
[In the following review of The Return of Martin Guerre, Christiansen takes issue with Davis's claims to have discovered the true story of Martin Guerre.]
It is a curious story. Martin Guerre was a young Basque farmer living in South-West France with a good-looking wife on a decent property belonging to his father. Then he was caught stealing a little of his father's grain, and suddenly disappeared. That was in 1548. His wife Bertrande and his little son then had to live without him for eight years, until it was rumoured that Martin was back, and staying at a nearby inn.
His sisters went out and welcomed him, and the rest of the village followed suit. His parents were dead, but his wife was there, and soon he was living with her once more and running the family property with some success. He had a daughter by Bertrande, and set up as a dealer.
Then his uncle began to quarrel with him over the way he was managing the property. In the course of the quarrel, he claimed that Martin was not Guerre at all, but an imposter. Some believed this claim, but not Bertrande, or the other members of the family. However, the uncle eventually managed to bring him to trial by underhand means, and a large number of witnesses were summoned to identify him. Some 40 claimed that...
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SOURCE: Hufton, Olwen. “Coming Back.” History Today 34 (April 1984): 55.
[In the following review of The Return of Martin Guerre, Hufton suggests that the Guerre story sheds light on many aspects of village life in sixteenth-century France.]
The preoccupation of historians with popular mentalities continues to grow. This study [The Return of Martin Guerre] focuses on a notorious case tried before two courts in 1560 which has formed the basis of law treatises, an operetta, a novel and now a film and is a tale set in a Pyrenean village. Martin Guerre, a young peasant who quarrelled with his uncle over a theft of grain, tired of his marriage and his life in the village and abandoned his wife, to serve in Spain as a domestic and later as a soldier. During his long absence, he was replaced by an imposter who had heard of his disappearance, mastered his curriculum vitae and was amazingly accepted by his family, including Guerre's wife, Bertrande. Three years elapse before a family quarrel over property causes the uncle to denounce him as an imposter before the courts and the reappearance of the real Martin, hobbling on a wooden leg, causes Bertrande to break down. The false Martin's fate is sealed and he dies on the gibbet.
The incident has many aspects and reveals many facets of normal village relations, the conduct of a marriage, the overriding importance of...
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SOURCE: Parker, David. “Ce n'est pas Guerre.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4214 (15 June 1984): 670.
[In the following review, Parker praises The Return of Martin Guerre for its readability and for the professionalism of Davis's reconstruction of sixteenth-century village life.]
In the mid-sixteenth century the village of Artigat, straddling the river Lèze in the foothills of the Pyrenees, was the home of sixty or seventy families. With a bustling local economy, founded on millet, wheat, oats, grapes and the pasturing of sheep, cows and goats, Artigat's inhabitants were well placed to benefit from the trade routes which linked Spain with Toulouse. Proud of its freedom from seigneurial obligations, the village community, although relatively egalitarian, was dominated by a small group of better-off peasants who mixed easily with the merchants and notaries of the communities up and downstream. It was to this comfortable but undistinguished peasant milieu that Martin Guerre, son of Sanxi Daguerre, formerly of Hendaye in the Basque country, belonged. There was nothing to suggest that either he or his beautiful wife Bertrande were about to become central figures in one of the most unusual of French causes célèbres and subsequently immortalized in prose, drama, opera and film.
In 1548 Martin, perhaps tormented by the fact that it had taken eight years to consummate his...
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SOURCE: Wagley, Stephen. “Will the Real Martin Guerre Stand Up?” Commonweal 111, no. 16 (21 September 1984): 510-11.
[In the following review of The Return of Martin Guerre, Wagley contends that the book offers an introduction to a new type of history based on the lives of ordinary individuals.]
The story of Martin Guerre is a simple one, at least as far as the facts are concerned. In 1548, he deserted his wife, Bertrande de Rols, his family, and the village of Artigat in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Eight years later, a man claiming to be Martin Guerre appeared in Artigat and was acknowledged by Bertrande de Rols as her runaway husband. The Guerre relatives accepted him too, until he demanded an accounting of Martin Guerre's property. A lawsuit followed, and then a criminal prosecution, the Guerres claiming that the man who had returned in 1556 was an impostor named Arnaud du Tilh. Just as the Parlement of Toulouse, at the advice of the examining judge, Jean de Coras, was about to acquit the accused, the true Martin Guerre appeared to reclaim his wife and property. Arnaud du Tilh was hanged at Artigat in 1560.
Martin Guerre actually counts for very little in this story. The memory of Arnaud du Tilh lived on in Artigat, and Jean de Coras—fascinated by the inventive peasant who had misled him and by the enigmatic Bertrande de Rols, who had accepted Du Tilh as her husband...
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SOURCE: Moote, A. Lloyd. Review of The Return of Martin Guerre, by Natalie Z. Davis. American Historical Review 90, no. 4 (October 1985): 943.
[In the following review, Moote suggests that The Return of Martin Guerre provides answers to questions raised by the film version of Guerre's story.]
It is a fitting tribute to a leading American social historian of early modern France that she has helped shape a French film version [Le Retour de Martin Guerre] of, as well as written a monograph on, the celebrated sixteenth-century story of Martin Guerre. Moviegoers can turn to Natalie Zemon Davis's book [The Return of Martin Guerre] for answers to many questions the film avoided about the strange case of Arnaud du Tilh, adventurer, reprobate, and ex-soldier for France: how he masqueraded for three years as Martin Guerre—misfit, wife deserter, and soldier for the Spanish side—and supposedly returned from the Franco-Spanish wars to his wife, Bertrande de Rols, and to the Languedocian peasant community of Artigat, not far from the Guerre family's original Basque homeland.
Davis has brought to life this strange and unusual story that was the talk of sixteenth-century France, a story so compelling that it has been revived on and off ever since. It is a natural subject for a late twentieth-century social historian, because it brings into bold relief the aspirations,...
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SOURCE: Finlay, Robert. “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre.” American Historical Review 93, no. 3 (June 1988): 553-71.
[In the following essay, Finlay discusses Davis's Martin Guerre film collaboration and her book in relation to the various versions of the Martin Guerre story that preceded those texts.]
While most Renaissance popes and princes have been forgotten by everyone but the historical specialist, one peasant of the sixteenth century, from a village near Toulouse in the foothills of the Pyrenees, remains well known. Martin Guerre—or rather the impostor who took his wife and birthright—has entered history. This is a remarkable fact, for generally the world of peasants lay outside what the elite of Europe in the past considered significant. Peasants were viewed within the comforting contexts of proverbial wisdom and pastoral buffoonery.1 The personalities and perspectives of rural people usually were recorded only when peasants ran into trouble with the law. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's reconstruction of rural life in southern France in the fourteenth century and Carlo Ginzburg's examination of peasant religious beliefs in sixteenth-century Friuli rely on legal records.2 These works have been acclaimed for revealing the motivations and values of ordinary people of the past, hitherto rendered mute by both their illiteracy and ignoble status.
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SOURCE: Adams, Robert M. “Alibi Alley.” New York Review of Books 36, no. 4 (16 March 1989): 35.
[In the following review of Fiction in the Archives, Adams contends that Davis's collection of pardon tales makes for enjoyable reading.]
Mini-storia, mini-noia, say the sardonic, or perhaps just jealous, Italians: micro-history, a bit of a bore. It's a sneer effectually put to rest by Natalie Zemon Davis, who some years ago gave us a filmable, and indeed gripping, version of The Return of Martin Guerre, and who now presents, under the title of Fiction in the Archives, a rich selection from the pardon tales of sixteenth-century France. This is the raw stuff of popular culture, drawn from village and alley life itself; and the first thing to be said is that it makes rowdy, joyous reading. If Rabelais is fun (despite a good deal of earnest, erudite commentary in the opposite direction), if the Decameron is still read for pleasure, then Ms. Davis's stories are fun too.
These pardon tales or “lettres de remission” were a distinctive feature of the French legal system in the early modern era. They were invoked mostly in connection with cases of murder, and only after the regular courts had passed, or failed to pass, on the crime. The letters were requests for pardon, and they commonly took the form of a straight narration by the killer of how the...
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SOURCE: Trexler, Richard C. Review of Fiction in the Archives, by Natalie Z. Davis. Renaissance Quarterly 42, no. 1 (spring 1989): 124-25.
[In the following review of Fiction in the Archives, Trexler praises the quality of Davis's writing, but suggests that she could have produced a stronger argument if the book were longer.]
A profound insight lies behind this analysis [Fiction in the Archives] of a sample of men's (164 cases) and all women's appeals (42) to the French king for pardon between 1523 and 1568: similar to the fictional vrai histoire, the story one told a judge has to be shaped from a storehouse of existing stories if it was to be real enough to move the crown and thus be successful. Thus apart from the question of the veracity of any particular tale told the king by an appellant—plus his or her lawyer, the royal scribe, and the chancellor—the historian turned story-teller should be able to find the contours of the boxes and frames that informed the notion of forgiving in sixteenth-century France.
Davis's work is in line with that of several non-historians who have been studying how individuals craft their personal “histories.” She divides a hundred rich pages of analysis into a chapter on context, one on stories of men killing men, and one on stories involving women. In the former, the author excellently lays out the judicial process for...
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SOURCE: Dewald, Jonathan. Review of Fiction in the Archives, by Natalie Z. Davis. Journal of Social History 22, no. 4 (summer 1989): 767-69.
[In the following review, Dewald maintains that Fiction in the Archives exposes readers to narratives fashioned by men and women from the sixteenth century.]
In all her scholarship, Natalie Zemon Davis has sought to restore our direct contact with voices from the sixteenth century, and her new book represents her most extended and sophisticated effort of this kind. Fiction in the Archives examines requests for pardons which accused criminals directed to the king of France. To obtain a royal pardon, the petitioner needed to supply a full description of what he or (more rarely) she had done. Legal experts played little role in shaping these narratives, Davis shows. As a result, the requests offer a relatively direct expression of the ways in which sixteenth-century men and women narrated and understood their experiences—more direct than the criminal interrogations and confessions that have been historians' chief means for understanding popular experience and belief.
Immediacy of expression does not imply factual accuracy. The pardon requests (Davis shows) were shaped by judges' views as to which crimes should be pardoned and by petitioners' eagerness to present themselves in the best possible light. These official documents...
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SOURCE: Roelker, Nancy L. Review of Fiction in the Archives, by Natalie Z. Davis. American Historical Review 94, no. 5 (December 1989): 1392-93.
[In the following review of Fiction in the Archives, Roelker praises Davis's approach to social history.]
This unusual book [Fiction in the Archives] owes its originality and its distinction to the wide range of the author's historical imagination, that is, finding linkages that others have overlooked, combining sociological, political, and legal aspects of history with literary analysis and psychological insights. The resulting mix makes significant contributions, multi- and interdisciplinary. Owing to the high drama of the pardon tales—some tragic, some funny, almost all suspenseful, as in detective stories—a variety of readers, impatient to know “how it comes out,” will enjoy a “good read” along with new material and fresh interpretations.
The juxtaposition and cross-fertilization of different kinds of sources is the foundation of the innovative methodology. Natalie Zemon Davis is concerned with the “shaping, molding elements in the crafting of a narrative,” specifically in “defining the character of historical narrative” (p. 3). Distinguishing “historical time” as a framework (wars, royal policies, social crises, and so forth) that makes the historian “itch to use it as an illustrative document...
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SOURCE: Chartier, Roger. Review of Fiction in the Archives, by Natalie Z. Davis. Journal of Modern History 62, no. 2 (June 1990): 381-84.
[In the following review of Fiction in the Archives, Chartier contends that Davis's text blurs the boundaries between literature and history.]
History is narration—whatever the history. Even in its forms that are most remote from the “revival of narrative” predicted recently, even in its disinterest in the event and in its most structural descriptions, the writing of history constructs its time schemes, defines the entities that are its objects, and embraces the relations that link them in the paradigm that commands all the strategies of “emplotment” and that thus governs fictional narrations as well. The difference between history and fable is not in the organizational principles of discourse, but in the relationship with a reality that has disappeared but that once was and that history claims to recapture. Paul Ricoeur's Time and Narrative has forcefully reminded us of this recently.1
The historian does not invent the narrations he proposes. They are always made up of other accounts that are scattered, mutilated, and sketchy. Even if these original relations count as truth when a historical text cites them as proof of its own veracity, they are not reality. Like the historian's text, their relationship with...
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SOURCE: Davis, Natalie Z., and Roger Adelson. “Interview with Natalie Zemon Davis.” Historian 53, no. 3 (spring 1991): 404-22.
[In the following interview, conducted February 1991, Davis discusses her early life and her work as an innovator in the field of social history.]
Born in 1928 in Detroit, Michigan, Davis received her B.A. from Smith College in 1949, her M.A. from Radcliffe College in 1950, and her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1959. Since 1978, she has been Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton University and has gained much recognition at home and abroad. Many of Davis's works are being translated into other languages as she broadens historical understanding through her research in sixteenth-century French archives, her explication of early modern European texts, her analysis of the complex roles of culture and gender in history, her use of other disciplines, and her involvement with historical film making. She and her husband, Chandler Davis, were married in 1948 and have two daughters and a son. She has homes in Toronto and Princeton. At the latter, this interview was conducted in February 1991 by Roger Adelson.
[Adelson]: Why do you think of history as more a vocation than a career?
[Davis]: That is the way I wanted it to be, and that is how it had to be. I consider myself an intellectual in that I seek to...
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SOURCE: Adams, Christine. Review of Women on the Margins, by Natalie Z. Davis. Journal of Social History 30, no. 2 (winter 1996): 541-43.
[In the following review of Women on the Margins, Adams finds that its individual stories of three women are interesting reading, but feels the book would be stronger if greater comparisons were made between their individual lives.]
Natalie Zemon Davis opens her new book [Women on the Margins] with an imagined dialogue, in which the three women of the title challenge Davis' interpretation of their lives, and her decision to include the three of them together in the same book. Davis justifies her project, urging her subjects—and the reader—to take a closer look. (p. 2)
The reader might indeed ask what these three women had in common. Davis, with customary virtuosity, explores the lives of Glikl bas Judah Leib, a Jewish merchant woman; Marie Guyart, known as Marie de l'Incarnation, mystic and co-founder of the first Ursuline school for girls in North America; and Maria Sibylla Merian, an artist-naturalist and author. Davis' goal, in her own words, is to bring attention to these women whose “stories reveal other possibilities in the seventeenth century, as they carved out their novel ways of living on the margins.” (p. 209)
Davis was aided in her efforts to bring these women to life through an abundant...
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SOURCE: Todd, Barbara J. Review of Women on the Margins, by Natalie Z. Davis. Canadian Journal of History 31, no. 3 (December 1996): 444-45.
[In the following review, Todd claims that Women on the Margins has both academic and general appeal.]
This erudite and audacious book [Women on the Margins], like its subjects, occupies margins. Not only is it about women, a subject that a quarter century after Davis and Jill Conway created their justly renowned undergraduate course at the University of Toronto is still at the margins of most university instruction, it also appeals simultaneously to popular and academic audiences; it explores a little used genre of “comparative biography”; it crosses disciplinary boundaries; and perhaps most controversially, it challenges traditional categories of historical proof.
At one level the book is simply an engaging account of the lives of three women: German-Jewish autobiographer Glikl bas Judah Leib (the name Davis prefers over “Glückel of Hameln”), French Catholic Marie Guyart (Marie of the Incarnation) co-founder of the Ursuline convent in Quebec; German-Dutch Protestant Maria Graff Merian, artist, naturalist, traveller to Surinam. Each woman is already well known to scholars, and these skillfully narrated but breathless accounts (each life is told in only seventy pages of text) only occasionally add new details. An...
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SOURCE: Schutte, Anne Jacobson. Review of Women on the Margins, by Natalie Z. Davis. Renaissance Quarterly 50, no. 1 (spring 1997): 347-49.
[In the following review, Schutte recommends Women on the Margins while at the same time suggesting that Davis's interpretations of the individual narratives are in some instances implausible.]
This book [Women on the Margins] charts the intersection of public and private in the lives of the Ashkenazi business woman and autobiographer Glikl bas Judah Leib (1646/7-1724); the Ursuline educator in New France, Mère Marie de l'Incarnation (1599-1671); and the German entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). It is the “purest” narrative work that Natalie Zemon Davis has ever produced, in the sense that only in her conclusion (203-16) does she suggest what draws these diverse biographical trajectories into “a common field.” In each case, she writes, “a woman's version of an artisanal-commercial style” complicated and enriched the life-cycle events (marrying, bearing and rearing children, suffering the loss of offspring and spouses) that shaped most women's lives in early modern Europe. Within their respective religious traditions, each encountered a reformed or revolutionary current. Finally, all three confronted “the other”: peoples whose styles of life and systems of belief differed radically from their own.
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SOURCE: Ranum, Orest. Review of Women on the Margins, by Natalie Z. Davis. American Historical Review 102, no. 3 (June 1997): 808-10.
[In the following review of Women on the Margins, Ranum reports that Davis does not offer more than a surface analysis of the relative powerlessness of her three subjects despite the fact that their powerless state informs every aspect of the book.]
In 1941, Jacques Barzun published Darwin, Marx, and Wagner, a modernist genre-breaking work of history; in 1961, Fritz Stern took up the triadic model in the Politics of Cultural Despair to discern critiques of modernity in the thought of what were hitherto seemingly discrete German lives. Other works in the triadic model have appeared since Stern's, but it is Natalie Zemon Davis who has taken up and extended Barzun's bold innovation by writing a radically modern history of seventeenth-century gendered acculturation.
Before this book [Women on the Margins], it probably would not have occurred to anyone to study the careers of three such different and disparate women in one work of history. A late seventeenth-century Jewish Germanic mother and dealer in semi-precious stones, a French Ursuline nun who Christianized Amerindians in Canada, and a German Protestant insect painter and publisher who traveled as far as Surinam in search of rare specimens constitute extraordinary...
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SOURCE: Seed, Patricia. Review of Women on the Margins, by Natalie Z. Davis. William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 3 (July 1997): 626-27.
[In the following review of Women on the Margins, Seed contends that since two of its subjects participated in the colonization of the Americas and occupied relatively privileged positions outside of Europe, they can hardly be considered marginalized compared to the women of the indigenous populations.]
With her customary grace, Natalie Zemon Davis recounts the lives of three seventeenth-century women, Glikl bas Judah Leib, of the Jewish community of Hamburg, Marie de l'Incarnation, a Catholic Frenchwoman, and Maria Sibylla Merian, a German-born Protestant resident of Amsterdam. Each minibiography can be read separately, making this volume [Women on the Margins] attractive for use in Jewish, French, German, and Dutch history courses of the early modern era. Davis's prose flows so smoothly that the temptation to use all three together may prove irresistible.
Each of the women inscribed her observations on the page, in diaries, journals, or drawings. Maria Sibylla drew detailed images of plants and insects that were published during her lifetime. Marie and Glikl kept journals that were edited and published posthumously. Marie's appeared only five years after her death in 1672; Glikl's did not find its way into print until the...
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SOURCE: Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Review of Women on the Margins, by Natalie Z. Davis. Journal of Modern History 69, no. 4 (December 1997): 804-05.
[In the following review of Women on the Margins, Kupperman contends that since Davis offers no conventional interpretation of her subjects' lives, she invites readers to formulate their own interpretations.]
This remarkable book [Women on the Margins] examines the lives of three seventeenth-century women: Glikl bas Judah Leib, born in Hamburg in 1646 or 1647 and died in Metz in 1712; Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation, born in Tours in 1599 and died in Canada in 1672; and Maria Sybilla Merian, born in Frankfurt am Main in 1647 and died in Amsterdam in 1717. Each made a remarkable spiritual and physical journey, and each left a legacy in ink and paper meant to inform those they left behind. That legacy makes possible the reconstruction presented here by Natalie Zemon Davis.
None of the three can be considered typical. Each was a learned woman. All were, partly by choice and partly by circumstance, astute and successful businesswomen, accustomed to dealing with changing situations and understanding the value of goods and services to those with whom they dealt. Each one's biography demonstrates vividly the precariousness of seventeenth-century life and of our connection to it. Not only were the fortunes of all three women...
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SOURCE: Thomas, Keith. “Wrapping It Up.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 20 (21 December 2000): 69-72.
[In the following essay, Thomas contends that Davis has shed light on personal relationships in sixteenth-century France with her study of gift-giving—The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France—but because the work is brief, feels that readers are left with unanswered questions.]
The idea that human beings are held together by the exchange of gifts is forever associated with the name of Marcel Mauss (1872-1950), nephew of Émile Durkheim and author of Essai sur le don, forme archaïque de l'échange (1925).1 In that brief but pregnant sketch, Mauss showed how the people of the South Seas, the Pacific Northwest, and other “archaic” societies transferred many goods and services to each other by gift, rather than by commercial contracts. Those gifts purported to be free and voluntary, but were in fact obligatory. A strict code of reciprocity imposed a threefold obligation: to give, to receive, and to repay.
Mauss believed that, in the absence of the state, this practice of gift exchange was a way of binding people together and creating human solidarity; though he also showed how in the potlatch, the competitive destruction of goods among the Indians of Northwest America, the practice could take on a more aggressive form. For...
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SOURCE: Leonardo, Dalia M. Review of The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France, by Natalie Z. Davis. History 29, no. 2 (winter 2001): 76-7.
[In the following review, Leonard finds The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France a valuable resource for students and professional historians.]
Natalie Zemon Davis, a professor of history emerita at Princeton University and an adjunct professor at the Center for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto, has written a fine study of the relational “gift mode” that continued to thrive in early modern France in conjunction with an expanding market society [The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France]. Davis examines a culture where gift giving encompassed the familial, political, economic, and religious spectrum, and in its most positive incarnation could ease and sustain all types of social connections. Conversely, the coercive influence of certain gift relationships often resulted in conflict and animosity, thereby placing undue pressure on the entire gift system and threatening its effectiveness.
Sixteenth-century French society relied on a number of parameters governing the presentation and reciprocation of gifts. The basic Christian theory stipulated that the giver must never expect anything in return, and the recipient must always express gratitude and then be “impelled to give in turn” (71). Eventually, notions of...
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SOURCE: Powis, Jonathan. “The Favours of Others.” Times Literary Supplement 38, no. 5116 (20 April 2001): 38.
[In the following review of The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France, Powis compares Davis's treatment of the subject of gift-giving to that of her predecessors.]
Among the vivid virtues of Natalie Zemon Davis's new book [The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France] are the glimpses it provides of early consumerist profusion. The inhabitants of sixteenth-century France gave one another the same sorts of present as their forebears: food, drink, animals and birds as game or pets. But the worldly goods of the Renaissance meant that some, at least, could buy into fashion garments or mechanical objects or printed books. Just as today, a variety of motives no doubt triggered specific gifts: affection, perhaps, but also habit, whim, guilt, infatuation. And we might at least ponder the questions now asked by economists about modern giving: its role in the overall shape of the economy, the possibility (or otherwise) of the truly altruistic gift. But much in Davis's picture suggests practices and assumptions markedly unlike ours. Sixteenth-century giving was a process, not simply an action. There were expectations of the giver, and of the recipient; and the character of the exchanges between them could colour every aspect of early modern life. Christian notions of charity played a part in this, as...
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SOURCE: Miller, Peter N. “Past and Presents.” New Republic 224, no. 4502 (30 April 2001): 38-44.
[In the following essay, Miller discusses the historical context of The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France and reviews earlier literature on the subject of gift-giving.]
Walter Benjamin, who perished in September 1940 at Port-Bou in the shipwreck of Europe's Jews, once wrote that “when a valued, cultured and elegant friend sent me his new book and I was about to open it, I caught myself in the act of straightening my tie.” The reviewer of a new book by Natalie Zemon Davis ought to feel the same. She has been one of the most innovative historians working in North America in the past four decades. Without any self-promoting fanfare, Davis's works have set many of the fashions now followed by other historians.
Since her dissertation on the printers of Lyon, Davis has been interested in class, books, religion, archives, and above all the individual people of sixteenth-century France. The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) explored the silences in a strange story about a husband who disappeared for several years and then just as suddenly returned to his small town and resumed his life—before being caught out years later when the real husband appeared. Fiction in the Archives (1987) was an archival scholar's demonstration that archives cannot be...
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SOURCE: Toplin, Robert Brent. Review of Slaves on Screen, by Natalie Z. Davis. Cineaste 26, no. 3 (summer 2001): 56-7.
[In the following review, Toplin suggests that while Slaves on Screen has much to recommend it, Davis at times ignores the fact that films must be entertaining as well as historically accurate.]
In this brief but insightful study, historian Natalie Zemon Davis examines five cinematic presentations of slavery by accomplished directors—Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960), Gillo Pontecorvo's Burn! (1968), Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's The Last Supper (1976), Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997), and Jonathan Demme's Beloved (1999). Comparing the movies' spins on history with the interpretations of professional historians, Davis discovers that scholars and movie artists often ask questions that are “parallel.” We can take film seriously “as a source of valuable and even innovative historical vision,” she says, if we keep in mind principal differences between traditional history and history on the screen.
Davis, retired from Princeton University and now living in Toronto, has built her career on traditional historical research rather than scholarship on cinema, but her curiosity about the subject springs from firsthand personal experience. Back in 1980-82, she served as an adviser to French director Daniel Vigne when he was...
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SOURCE: Snowman, Daniel. “Natalie Zemon Davis.” History Today 52, no. 10 (October 2002): 18-20.
[In the following essay, Snowman discusses Davis's unique approach to history in such works as The Return of Martin Guerre, Women on the Margins, Slaves on Screen, and others.]
What is history? What is it about and how should it be portrayed? Such questions are much in the air these days. But few have examined them more consistently and imaginatively than Natalie Zemon Davis.
Widely revered as (variously) a leading historian of early modern France, a left-leaning intellectual who helped pioneer the shift from social to cultural history, and one of the great iconic figures of feminist history, Natalie Davis is not ‘simply’ any of these. The sheer versatility of her skills, and her capacity to incorporate multiple meanings, defy simplistic labelling. Like a jeweller turning a diamond this way and that in different lights, Davis insists on the multivalent meanings of the historical record. If you come across (say) an early edition of the essays of Montaigne, she insists, check not only its contents but how and by whom it was printed and bound, who bought it from whom and who gave it to whom, what the inscription says and what the handwriting is like, and which pages are particularly frayed. You may not have hard and fast evidence to answer all the questions that arise; but,...
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SOURCE: Rosenstone, Robert A. “Does a Filmic Writing of History Exist?” History and Theory 41, no. 4 (December 2002): 134-44.
[In the following essay, Rosenstone suggests that Davis's analysis of the accuracy of the film genre in representing historical events fails to judge film on its own terms rather than on the standards of written history.]
First, the confession. The back cover of Natalie Davis's Slaves on Screen carries the following blurb by yours truly: “A major historian convincingly shows how cinema has an important contribution to make to our understanding of the past.” Like many such blurbs, this one was written to honor the contribution of a scholar, a work, and—second confession—a friend. Like many blurbs, this one contains a great deal of truth, even as it says less than it appears to say. The essay that follows here will be, in a sense, an elaboration of that blurb, an exploration of Davis's intervention into the growing subfield of history and film, and, more particularly, into that tiny branch which dares to raise the question of how historical dramas on the screen can contribute to our understanding of the past.
To label Davis a “major historian” is hardly surprising. What may be more surprising is the fact that, with this publication, she becomes the first historian in America to devote a book-length work to a group of historical films centered...
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Allen, Bruce. “Famous French Marital Scandal of Desertion and Mistaken Identity.” The Christian Science Monitor (16 November 1983): 35.
Compares Davis's version of the Martin Guerre story with Janet Lewis's The Wife of Martin Guerre.
Bossy, John. “As It Happened.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4488 (7-13 April 1989): 359.
Presents a mixed review of Fiction in the Archives, praising the representation of life in the sixteenth century, but faulting the “coy and sometimes vulgar” language of the book.
Brien, Alan. Review of The Return of Martin Guerre, by Natalie Zemon Davis. New Statesman 109, no. 2822 (19 April 1985): 35.
Claims that Davis fails in her attempt to retell the story of Martin Guerre as history.
Burke, Peter. “The Imposter.” London Review of Books 6, no. 7 (19 April 1984): 12.
Maintains that Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre could have been strengthened by providing more historical background on some subjects, such as the concept of honor in sixteenth-century France and the tendency of its citizens to litigate.
Desan, Suzanne. Review of Women on the Margins, by Natalie Z. Davis. Comparative Studies in Society and History 40, no. 3 (July 1998): 582-83....
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