Women on the Margins Essay - Critical Essays

Natalie Zemon Davis

Women on the Margins

In WOMEN ON THE MARGINS, the acclaimed historian Natalie Zemon Davis, author of THE RETURN OF MARTIN GUERRE (1984), examines the lives of three seventeenth century women. The first is Glikl bas Judah Leib, a Jewish woman who was an active wife, mother, and businesswoman. In her revealing autobiography, Glikl bas Judah Leib not only describes her many joys and sorrows but also includes many stories to illustrate her points. The second life profiled is that of Marie Guyart, a Catholic who became Marie de l’Incarnation, the first Ursuline nun to come to Canada to teach Algonquin, Iroquois, and Huron children. At the request of her son, she left an autobiographical account of her experiences in the New World. The last is Maria Sibylla Merian, a German artist and member of a radical Protestant sect, whose illustrations of insect metamorphoses made her well known in scientific circles. Much of her most important work was done in Suriname, where she was the first person to depict many New World insects.

While at first glance, these seventeenth century women may seem to have little in common and little significance to political or social history, Davis demonstrates that it is the very fact of their marginality that makes them significant. She shows how their lives were shaped not only by their own extraordinary energy, but also by the religious and vocational expectations of the seventeenth century. Emergent forms of Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant spirituality affected all of them, while all also struggled to find form and expression for their spiritual experiences.

As a scholar and archival researcher, Natalie Zemon Davis has few equals, but this book is as enjoyable to the educated general reader as it is useful to the scholar. WOMEN ON THE MARGINS may well become a central book on the lives of seventeenth century women.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Science Monitor. October 26, 1995, p. B1.

The Guardian. November 24, 1995, p. 20.

Library Journal. CXX, October 15, 1995, p. 72.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 7, 1996, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. C, December 10, 1995, p. 18.