Natalie Z. Davis Criticism

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Richard Cobb (review date 18 October 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 people.” It would indeed seem to be an advantage.

No one concerned to write history “from below” could find fault with such admirable sentiments; and Dr Davis has surrounded herself with an impressive pleiäde of social and ecclesiastical historians, not only of the sixteenth century, as well as with wide-ranging anthropologists. Yet, in the course of eight studies ostensibly devoted to the common people of urban and rural France, 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, and sometimes even “intellectualising” on the subject of forms of protest both primitive and spontaneous, thus adding to them dimensions that would no doubt not have occurred to the participants at the time. The discrepancy between the stated aim of the studies and their actual content and interpretation may have to some extent been imposed on Dr Davis by the very nature of the documentation available to her, much of it from the pens of authorities who observed the common people from outside and from above. This is particularly true of the vastly impressive range of secondary works on which she has drawn so abundantly; but it also applies to sources illustrating the administration of relief and charity, forms of popular leisure, the pattern of violence, and the gulf between popular language and the interpretation put on proverbs by the literate.

This is hardly the fault of the author. But she has also complicated, and perhaps distorted, her stated task by her very choice of subjects. There is a section on ‘The Rites of Violence,’ the title of which pre-supposes that there were indeed such rites, so that Dr Davis is often driven to seek patterns where, in all probability, no such patterns in fact existed. Popular violence is not something that easily responds to the drill of a twentieth century historian. Two other sections, the one entitled ‘Women on Top,’ the other ‘City Women and Religious Change,’ represent a legitimate bid for current preoccupations with the history of women (by women); but they turn out not to be quite what their titles appear to suggest. In the first, very few women do in fact emerge on top (or in any other clearly defined position), while, in the second, it turns out that women reacted in a number of different and largely unrelated ways to the choice offered between the new faith and the old, between Calvinism and Catholicism, and that their...

(The entire section is 60,136 words.)