Natalie Z. Davis Criticism - Essay

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...

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Charmarie Jenkins Blaisdell (review date June 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (review date 22 December 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Eric Christiansen (review date 14 January 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Olwen Hufton (review date April 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Parker (review date 15 June 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Stephen Wagley (review date 21 September 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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A. Lloyd Moote (review date October 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Finlay (essay date June 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert M. Adams (review date 16 March 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard C. Trexler (review date spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jonathan Dewald (review date summer 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Nancy L. Roelker (review date December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Roger Chartier (review date June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Natalie Z. Davis and Roger Adelson (interview date February 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Christine Adams (review date winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Barbara J. Todd (review date December 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anne Jacobson Schutte (review date spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Orest Ranum (review date June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Patricia Seed (review date July 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Karen Ordahl Kupperman (review date December 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Keith Thomas (essay date 21 December 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dalia M. Leonardo (review date winter 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jonathan Powis (review date 20 April 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter N. Miller (essay date 30 April 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Brent Toplin (review date summer 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Daniel Snowman (essay date October 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Robert A. Rosenstone (essay date December 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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