Women on the Margins

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Natalie Zemon Davis has long been familiar with margins. Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Detroit, married young to a promising scholar who was barred from teaching in the United States during the McCarthy era, attending graduate school and establishing herself as a historian while busy rearing three children, Davis has often worked from the margins. It is from the margins that she has most often chosen the subjects of her historical inquiry. From the peasants and common people of sixteenth century French cities and countryside (Society and Culture in Early Modern France, 1975) to imposture and the imposed-upon in a small French village (The Return of Martin Guerre, 1983) to narratives of convicted felons hoping to win pardon from the king (Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth Century France, 1987), Davis, a historian of mentalités, has always been interested in the culture and identity of those who occupy the borderlands of historical inquiry. In Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives, she has richly redefined the concept of marginality, demonstrating the interactions of many margins in the lives of three women, Glikl bas Judah Leib, Marie de l’Incarnation, and Maria Sibylla Merian.

The first thing that strikes one about the three subjects of Women on the Margins is their difference: Glikl bas Judah Leib, the wife and then widow of a busy gold trader, living in Hamburg and later Metz; Marie Guyart, who became the Ursuline nun Marie de l’Incarnation, cofounder of the first Catholic school for Amerindian women in North America; and Maria Sibylla Merian, German artist and naturalist who went to Suriname to continue her work of illustrating insect metamorphoses in the New World. In fact, the three women seem so different that Davis puts them in imaginary dialogue with one another in her prologue, where each notes the unsuitability of being linked with the others.

The most striking difference among the three is religion. Glikl was a Jew, Marie a cloistered Catholic, and Maria Sibylla, for a time, a member of a radical Protestant sect, the Labadists. Yet for all three women, religion placed them on the margins of seventeenth century society. This is obvious for the Jewish Glikl and the Protestant sectarian Maria Sibylla, but it was true even for the Catholic Marie de l’Incarnation, who participated in the revitalizing mysticism of the Counter-Reformation church. Like her spiritual model, the recently canonized St. Teresa of Ávila, Marie communicated directly with God through the “Divine Word.” Yet the church hierarchy, particularly the Jesuits, were threatened by the experiences of women like Marie; thus her energies were channeled into the teaching mission of the new Ursuline order, which ultimately led her to Quebec, on the margins of the New World.

The occupations of these women served to marginalize them as well. Glikl, married at thirteen, with twelve children to rear, was active in her husband’s gem-trading and money-lending business, continuing it even after his death:

As for the family business, Haim [Glikl’s husband] had felt no need to name executors or guardians (“My wife knows about everything,” he said on his deathbed), and the widowed Glikl assumed the responsibility herself. . . . She set up a shop in Hamburg for manufacturing stockings and sold them near and far; she bought pearls from every Jew in town, sorted them, and sold them by size to appropriate buyers; she imported wares from Holland and traded them in her store along with local goods; she attended the fairs of Braunschweig, Leipzig, and other towns; she lent money and honored bills of exchange across Europe.

Glikl bas Judah Leib was certainly efficient, energetic, and confident, both as a partner in her husband’s enterprises and as a widowed businesswoman, but as Davis often points out, “the situation of being a Jew gave Glikl bas Judah Leib a constrained and vulnerable status in Christian Europe.” With many children to marry off, Glikl carried out the Jewish strategy that her husband Haim had begun before his death, of marrying some of her children to partners in distant cities: a daughter in Hannover, another in Amsterdam, one in Metz, other children in Berlin and Copenhagen, and finally a son as far away as London. Davis notes that “the wide dispersal of one’s kin was an economic advantage and a safety measure. One never knew when the wheel of fortune might turn.” Clearly, while Glikl prospered most of her life, it was always within the margins set by her status as a Jew in an overwhelmingly Christian political, economic, and social structure.

After the death of her beloved first husband, Glikl began to compose her autobiography in Yiddish. It was intended for her family and, by the time of her death, consisted of seven books. It was not a diary, for it shows many signs of revision and artistic rearrangement, and it does not gloss over troubles such as the financial reversals that plagued her second husband in Metz. It...

(The entire section is 2084 words.)