Natalie Z. Davis

Start Free Trial

Richard Cobb (review date 18 October 1975)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 1538 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 reactions were often unconnected with the fact that they were women. In another section, she suggests that it was much the same with men. In the section on ‘Printing and the People,’ it again emerges that there was little enough connection between the two. And, indeed, why should there have been, in a society so largely illiterate? It is much the same with ‘Proverbial Wisdom and Popular Errors,’ yet another couple unwillingly harnessed together and that then, breaking harness, run off in quite different directions. Perhaps this is one of the occupational hazards of a popular historian concerned first toposer le problème (his or her problem, not that of the obscure heroes and villains of the narrative) and then to find answers that are intellectually satisfying.

In other words, if this immensely erudite work can be at times disappointing, it is because the author has often been concerned to prove too much. Her analysis of the professional grievances of the Lyon print-workers (les griffarins) is enthralling; and, in this section, she does not attempt to relate the unrelatable, admitting that there was no apparent connection between their attempts to better themselves professionally and their choice of religion. It is clear from the narrative that many print-workers—and their masters too—opted for Calvinism when they thought that Calvinism was going to come out on top (as indeed it did at one time in sixteenth century Lyon), and that they rediscovered the merits of Catholicism when the new religion was clearly on the decline numerically. She has an equally admirable and minutely-documented section on the administration of charity through the Lyon aumône général, and on the attitudes of the various authorities to various forms of poverty, “legitimate” or inadmissible.

It is when she attempts to discipline her material and to make it say more than it actually says that she is in danger of constructing artificial patterns of behaviour or of events and of expressing, sometimes in almost solemn terms, what is perfectly obvious. On the subject, for instance, of religious riots, while she no doubt rightly makes much of the fear of “pollution,” it seems rather too far-fetched to suggest that, let us say in Lyon, when a Catholic mob threw a Protestant corpse into the river, it was in order to “cleanse” both it and the community, the Rhône and the Saône being credited with some of the properties of holy water. I very much doubt whether anything of the sort ever occurred to the murderers: Lyon had two rivers and many bridges, both offered the most obvious way of disposing of victims. And if a crowd set fire to a Protestant house, the purpose again can hardly have been to “cleanse” it of a heretical presence; fire was simply the easiest, most readily-available form of destruction. Equally, it comes as no great surprise to learn that religious riots were likely to occur on great feast days at funerals or christenings, in or near a place of worship. Nor are we greatly enlightened when told that religious riots respond to quite a different calendar from that imposed by the fluctuations of the price of grain. And do we really need to be reminded of such comparative rates of urban literacy as: “Very high: apothecaries, surgeons, printers. High: painters, musicians, taverners, metalworkers. … Medium (about 50 per cent): furriers and leatherworkers, artisans in textile and clothing trades. Low to very low: artisans in construction trades, in provisioning, transport; urban gardeners; unskilled day-workers”? Many historians of the eighteenth century have long been aware that male immigrants to Paris or Lyon came from much farther afield than female ones. One could have hit upon many such grandes vérités without recourse to anthropological techniques and reliance on such a quoted source as: “an evaluation of the retraining of unemployed men in Detroit as practical nurses.” How does this help us with the study of XVIth century begging?

Dr Davis believes that, in the October Days of 1789, there were men dressed up as women; but there is absolutely no evidence of this. I do not know of any feminist militant who was guillotined during the French Revolution (though a Dutch female spy was executed) and women were admitted, as spectators, to the clubs of 1793 and the Year Two. Qui veut trop prouver ne prouve rien. Dr Davis enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a pioneering social historian of sixteenth century France, a period both mysterious and not easily penetrable. But it is a pity that she has at times fallen into didactic attitudes and that, in her anxiety to blaze the trail, she has sometimes put up too many signposts. Popular leisure, which had to be crammed into a very small space of time, had to be fun; popular violence was often governed by topography and neighbourhood, and, historically, it needs to be closely related to the narrative of events. Dr Davis, often by asking the wrong questions, has at times missed simple answers. She has an immense range of scholarship at her disposal; what seems sometimes to be lacking, in the present study, is the tiny spark of imagination, the empathy that enables the historian to penetrate beyond the stated to the unstated but assumed. Popular history is not an intellectual exercise.

Charmarie Jenkins Blaisdell (review date June 1976)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 relationships among people and grasping the cultural traditions and symbols of a period. But this collection is scarcely a mere potpourri of popular sources relating to the menu peuple and the culture of early modern Europe. As the author points out, she has presented her material according to certain views of social structure and process, which have emerged out of her years of work with the documents. Using the studies of sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists to shed light on the society and people she studies, Davis has demonstrated the value of the cross-disciplinary approach and has provided scholars with a multidimensional and dynamic scheme of early modern society that acknowledges many more variables in the social order and more complex causes and results of social change than property, power, sex, age, and religion alone or together can encompass.

In these essays, as in all her work, Davis raises questions and poses answers that are crucial to an understanding of this society and point the way for further investigation. She asks what kinds of experience might contribute to the formation of social consciousness among male artisans. What prompted Protestant allegiance among groups, in particular urban women. What political and social use, if any, did public festivals serve. Further she explores patterns of sexual inversion in literature and popular festivals, the shape and structure of popular religious violence, and the goals and actions of the participants in religious riots in sixteenth-century France. She looks for the relationship between written and oral material, which leads her to ask what impact did the establishment of new communication networks have when printing touched popular life in the sixteenth century. To further enrich the readers' understanding of this society and culture, the book is illustrated with eight pages of woodcuts, paintings, and engravings chosen with a combination of Davis' precise scholarship and delightful humor.

Because Davis is interested in social structure, the context of social change, and the relationship between the religious and secular as well as between male and female, her work will inevitably raise questions for historians of other periods and places. Students of the sixteenth-century Reformations will be interested especially in these glimpses into the lives and values of the men and women—artisans, tradesmen, and craftsmen—who experienced the impact of the changes taking place around them but who have been largely ignored because they left practically nothing in writing.

This work offers scholars two rewards. First, Davis' important contributions to early modern European studies are now collected and edited (in many cases with new footnotes and insights), making them easily accessible. Second, having sampled this apéritif, the historian will eagerly await the pièce de résistance: Davis' anticipated study of the printers in sixteenth-century Lyon.

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (review date 22 December 1983)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Princeton) has done with great success, in [The Return of Martin Guerre] her reconstruction of the Basque or Gascon peasant Martin Guerre, of his “double” Arnaud du Tilh, and of the people around them.

The story of Martin Guerre is extraordinary. In the middle of the sixteenth century, the Guerre family emigrated from the Basque region of the Pyrenees to Gascony, in the south of present-day France. One of the Guerre children, Martin, grew up there on the land and married a girl from the same locality, Bertrande de Rols. The marriage was not happy; the husband was half impotent, or perhaps bewitched. He deserted the family home, enlisted as a soldier, fought on the enemy side in battles on the frontiers of the kingdom of France. He was injured and lost a leg. In accordance with old Basque traditions, he then took service as a valet with a Spanish lord in the northwestern corner of the Iberian peninsula.

One fine day “he” returned to his village … or, more accurately, his ghost in all too solid form took his place. Another man, a genuine Gascon named Arnaud du Tilh, had decided to pass himself off as Martin Guerre, by making use of a vague physical resemblance and all the uncertainties it engendered. The second Martin managed to get himself accepted by the family of his “wife” and by Bertrande herself, who was only too happy to collude with a more vigorous and lovable companion than the one she believed lost forever in war and exile. Children were born from this new union, ostensibly a continuation of an older bond. Everything seemed to go like a dream. The second Martin had a head for business and alongside farming went into trading—the classical route to social advancement for a young farmer of that time.

But Martin number two, alias Arnaud, wanted to settle accounts with his “wife's” uncle, the older relation who had managed the family's property in the absence of the real Martin Guerre. The uncle flew into a rage. Suspicions, previously hidden beneath the surface, now burst into the open. Witnesses recognized Martin number two as a man called Pansette (“little paunch”), the nickname du Tilh had acquired in his home village because of his well-upholstered shape. The Guerre family, but not the wife, tried to beat the highly suspect neo-Martin to death. He was put on trial for imposture, first at Rieux, a nearby small town, and then the appeal case went to the prestigious Parliament at Toulouse. There, the competent and conscientious Judge Jean de Coras finally persuaded himself, erroneously, that Pansette was the genuine Martin Guerre.

Then came a coup de théâtre straight out of one of Feydeau's farces: the real Martin turned up, hobbling on the wooden leg he'd acquired after his soldiering wound. He confounded the imposter, who was therefore sentenced to be hanged by due process of law in Bertrande's own village, where his long-camouflaged crime had been witnessed by everyone. Before his death, Pansette touchingly acknowledged his wrong-doing; he even instigated legal action against his own relations so that his family's property could go to the children he had had by his “wife.” The marriage of the genuine Martin and Bertrande put itself back together somehow, or so it would seem; a century later their descendants were still cultivating amicably the lands of the family parish. As for the good Judge Coras, later to be hanged as a Protestant, he wrote an account of the whole affair—the first piece of French sensational journalism.

The affair is an interesting one for several reasons. First, as Natalie Davis shows in her intelligent and subtle analysis, the story gives an inside view of an otherwise little-known world, the private lives of peasants. Many people confuse the country folk of the past with the unfeeling, uncouth gorillas depicted by some otherwise excellent historians. Zola's peasantry, for example, or even worse, Karl Marx's, a peasantry idiotically compared by the great man to a sack of potatoes. Martin and du Tilh also correspond, in the second place, to period stereotypes. Martin Guerre matches the conventional image of the hulking, clumsy Basque, while du Tilh is the embodiment of the fast-talking, sharp-witted Gascon, capable of dissimulation, a born actor, energetic, eager to “climb” in a society which does not always acknowledge his worth at its true value.

Third, and most important, peasant culture, in this story as in many others, shows its ancient power to represent in real life what in high culture was no more than a sublime fiction suitable for Greek tragedies or Latin and French comedies. In Plautus's Amphitryon (and in Molière's, in the next millennium), the hero, a Theban general away at the wars, is replaced by Jupiter during his absence. The god takes on all the features of the man, and plays the role of false husband even in the bed of Amphitryon's wife, Alcmene. The affair ends with Jupiter returning to his celestial headquarters and a reconciliation of the mortal couple. This is roughly the story of Martin Guerre, except that the latter story is true, takes place more than a thousand years after Plautus's comedy was written, and has no Jupiterian happy ending for the usurper of another man's identity.

In this sense the Martin Guerre affair is a “primitive” episode in the terminology of ethnologists and prehistorians. René Girard, the author of Violence and the Sacred, for example, holds that myths derive from true facts; he often alludes to the violent vengeance and bloody vendettas of the dawn of time, which could not be defused until the sacred, collective murder of a scapegoat took place. From this point of view, the Guerre episode is typical of the events Girard evokes: one man becomes the twin and monstrous double of another. Ambivalent and undifferentiated, Pansette is at the same time good for his new family and bad in his own actions. He adopts the physical mask of Martin, usurps his position and identity, to gain the affection of his wife and the product of his land. As a consequence, the previously blunted desires of the real Martin (alerted of his misfortune by some good soul who traveled into the depths of Spain to find him) are reawakened as if by jealousy and by a procedure of imitation (mimesis).

The one-legged Martin, a cultural hero of the return to the social order, returns to his hearth. He replaces the brutal, tribal vendetta, which his uncle favored, with judicial revenge. The vengeance ends, properly, with the death of the criminal Arnaud, who accepts his punishment with a certain piety, and even welcomes it. We are not yet at the stage of the scapegoat arbitrarily chosen by the community from among the innocent, since here it is the guilty party who fulfills the collective expiation in return for the sacrilege committed in his own homeland. So this text, for all its vivid realism, is still a “primitive” episode. Pansette is hanged, and society avenged, mended, reconstituted. Everyone can retrieve his true identity, his goods, his wife, his legitimate offspring. Communal unanimity springs forth anew thanks to the unmasking and punishment of du Tilh.

One can only admire Natalie Davis for the major work of historical reconstruction she has performed without any kind of ideological bias. It's true that Martin Guerre has previously fascinated Americans—or more accurately, American women. Before Natalie Davis, another woman from the US told the story of the Gascon “Jupiter” and the Basque “Amphitryon” in the persons of Martin and Arnaud, but she told the tale with incomparable talent and little learning.1 Natalie Davis has also collaborated on an excellent film of the story (produced in France) as well as writing this book. Comparing her learned work with the screen images of Daniel Vigne and Jean-Claude Carrière, my own preferences are no doubt biased. I once asked a woman if she knew of War and Peace, and she replied ingenuously, “Yes, I've read the book, but I prefer the movie.” About Martin Guerre, I would say, without any hesitation, the movie was great, but Natalie Davis's book is even better.


  1. Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre (Swallow, 1941; 1967).

Eric Christiansen (review date 14 January 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 the defendant was Martin Guerre and nobody else. About 45 thought he was a rascal named Arnaud du Tilh, alias The Paunch. About 60 were undecided. The prosecution was evidently instigated out of personal enmity, and there was little about the young Martin Guerre which the accused didn't know when questioned; nevertheless he was found guilty of impersonation. He appealed to the High Court at Toulouse, and there was a second trial. Closer investigation almost convinced the judges that he had been wrongly condemned. Witnesses were still equally divided on the subject of his identity, but his wife and his closest relations were unanimously in his favour.

Then the real Martin Guerre turned up, minus one leg. He had spent the last 12 years as a servant, a soldier, and a pensioner of Spain, and had decided to come home. Sensation in court. At first the imposter brazened it out; then his supporters lost confidence in him, and finally, most reluctantly, his wife Bertrande. On 12 September 1560 the court sentenced him to death as Arnaud du Tilh. He confessed in public before the village that he had impersonated Guerre and deceived his wife and family, and asked them to forgive him. Then he was hanged, and his body burnt.

Bertrande and the real Guerre were reunited, had more children and lived connubially ever after. The case became famous, and one of the judges wrote a book about it, considering the various questions it raised in detail. Three still need answering.

Firstly, how did Arnaud du Tilh discover enough about Guerre to attempt the impersonation? He never confessed to meeting him, and was by no means his double: he was fatter, and his feet were smaller, apart from other differences.

Secondly, how did he manage to deceive so many people who could not have gained by conniving at the deception? Even a confirmed non-hoaxer might be hard pressed to produced 40 testimonials that he had been the same man all his life. Thirdly: did the imposter deceive Bertrande, or was she his accomplice?

This book by Natalie Zemon Davis retells the story and attempts to answer these and other questions. She has also collaborated with Carriere and Vigne on the film Le retour de Martin Guerre. She writes as a social historian, knowing enough about the people involved, and others like them at that time and place, to make plausible guesses at how they behaved and at what actually happened, and how far the printed accounts can be relied on.

She suggests that the disappearance of Guerre left a gap in the family and the village which needed to be filled. He left a sort of widow, unable to re-marry or live in her own house. He left a father to die with his property heirless. He left a small son and four unmarried sisters in need of protection. For these people, du Tilh was a godsend: an able, eloquent breadwinner, with eight year's roaming behind him to account for his imperfect resemblance to Guerre. His ready memory for the details of his assumed past was satisfactory, in those circumstances.

Why did he do it? He was a known reprobate, who needed a new identity, a second chance, such as other peasants won by migration or taking up careers; ‘some of this went on all the time.’ Perhaps he met Guerre; perhaps not. The historian cannot say. He claimed that he had been mistaken for Guerre before the idea of impersonation entered his head. If so, he could have accumulated information about a well-known ‘lost person’ by discreet eavesdropping in the district. Then he had only to start the rumour that Guerre was back; by appearing, he confirmed what everyone hoped was true.

Bertrande, Professor Davis claims, ‘must have realised the difference.’ But du Tilh was a better husband than the old one, who had been impotent for most of their married life, dissatisfied with his home, and dishonest in the end. She fell in love with du Tilh; she may never have loved Guerre. Furthermore, when it came to her conscience, there was a lot of protestantism about in the area, and both she and du Tilh may have been aware that the new religion allowed divorce for desertion, and spared them from revealing their secret in the confessional. If she believed that Guerre was really dead, a clandestine substitution was preferable to a remarriage: no new in-laws, no threat to the eldest son's inheritance, no expensive proofs to certify the death of number one.

However, Bertrande never confessed to having known that du Tilh was an imposter, and the court at Toulouse upheld her honour and integrity against the reproaches of her first husband. Her child by the pseudo-Martin was held to be legitimate, conceived in good faith.

No doubt this obstinacy was also to her advantage. If she had confessed she could have been punished as an accomplice. Here we are in the dark. No amount of well-informed speculation can get to the truth. A long interview with Maigret would no doubt bring it to the surface, but that is the tragedy of modern French historians: they can never live up to Maigret, however hard they try.

Nevertheless, Professor Davis ends her book by claiming that she has ‘deciphered’ the story of Martin Guerre, and has ‘uncovered the true face of the past.’ She has done nothing of the sort. She has kept up an intriguing flow of comment on a series of events that can never be deciphered, because no new evidence is likely to emerge. We still don't know how du Tilh stocked his artificial memory of another man's past, or why so many disinterested villagers took him at face value, or whether Bertrande was an accomplice or a victim. Social history is no substitute for police procedure in matters of detail like this, and police procedure is not infallible.

Professor Davis, and perhaps many others, appear to believe that no woman could fail to tell the difference between two sleeping-partners, even after an eight year interval. This seems doubtful; a sexual superstition, if ever there was one. However, the question can be decided by experiment. Perhaps readers of the Spectator would care to make it; can they shed light on the matter as a result of past experiences? This sort of thing ought to be reduced to statistics as soon as possible. Letters marked with the code-word SEXY will be set aside for analysis in a spirit of the utmost scientific impartiality.

Absolute confidentiality guaranteed.

Olwen Hufton (review date April 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 property and the innumerable disputes that arise out of contested ownership, the complexities of legal procedure and the comings and goings of a Mediterranean world where national boundaries were no deterrent to mobility and individuals—at least if they were able bodied men—could create a new life for themselves merely by crossing a mountain range. The work is also a gold mine for anyone interested in the history of women. Natalie Davis has long been a protagonist of learning about women from interstitial evidence, asides and assumptions in material not specifically devoted to women, and she is clearly most interested in the wife Bertrande.

Bertrande encapsulates a type of female predicament. Married young to an impotent, disinterested and unreliable husband whose relationships with his family are far from harmonious and who abandons her to seek a more agreeable life elsewhere, the poor girl is in the worst of all possible positions. Though her family had urged her to take steps to dissolve the unconsummated marriage after three years, she had refused, probably because she did not rate her chances of remarriage highly and did not want to return to the tutelage of her parents. When abandoned, she could not count as a widow since there was no evidence of her husband's death and so she could not pass into control of her husband's estate but remained dependent upon his uncle and his wife (her mother who had married again). Perhaps not surprisingly, she was won over to the false Martin who was sexually capable, tender, articulate and an able manager of the family property or that she clung to the false Martin's authenticity until actually confronted with the one-legged inadequate who was her real husband. The latter in court proceeded to denounce her as the one person who should have perceived the duplicity. Subsequent evidence confirms the reestablishment of the real Martin with his wife, the production of issue and the reabsorption of the pair into kin-group and village society. As far as one can tell, Bertrande emerges from the incident still an honnête femme in village esteem.

It is easy to see why such material has been converted into a film and why a historian should be attracted to so vivid a tale which remained in folk memory and was recounted four hundred years later to a bored outsider, forced to reside in the village, who claimed that nothing ever happened there.

David Parker (review date 15 June 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 highly youthful marriage, and shamed by his own violation of the Basque code of honour in “stealing” some corn from his father, walked out of the village, abandoning both family and inheritance. He seemed destined for that general obscurity which normally cloaks the lives of the humble. All normality, however, was to be cast aside in dramatic fashion when, some nine years later, a rogue from the Comminges known as Pansette walked into Artigat claiming to be Martin Guerre. Amazingly, the impostor was not only accepted by Bertrande and Martin's sisters, together with many villagers, but in his new role as a well-to-do, independent peasant farmer with sufficient success to elevate himself into the ranks of the rural merchants.

The initial deception, in which Bertrande was clearly a willing partner, became the new reality and the “invented” marriage was transformed into a deep and affectionate relationship. The new Martin, however, did not gain so ready an acceptance by all and a quarrel with his “uncle” over the disposition of some family property aroused latent suspicion. Under duress Bertrande was forced to take proceedings against Pansette. When the local magistrate found him guilty, Pansette appealed to the Parlement of Toulouse, where the case was heard in 1560 by three of the most distinguished judges of the day. Pansette, ably supported by Bertrande, turned on a splendid performance. The court was practically convinced that the couple were the victims of malicious accusations generated by family disputes, when a man with a wooden leg arrived at the Parlement. He turned out to be the real Martin Guerre.

For Pansette, who was subsequently hanged outside the house in Artigat where he had lived so respectably for four years, that was the end. For the learned judge, Jean du Coras, it was an opportunity to record for posterity his part legal, part literary and part moral account of what the investigation and trial had revealed. It is this account which provides the cornerstone of Natalie Zemon Davis's own treatment [The Return of Martin Guerre]. But in addition she has scoured the legal and notarial records of southwestern France to recreate for the reader not merely a highly entertaining story but a vivid picture of the world which fashioned its principal characters. Her observations on property rights, inheritance customs, family relationships and the mechanisms of the law are welded together by a rare blend of historical craft and imagination. Setting Pansette and Bertrande firmly in their economic, social and cultural context, Professor Davis produces an explanation for their behaviour which is thoroughly convincing. This is further sustained by a breadth of vision which allows her to incorporate material on the art of lying and deception. Finally she offers us an incisive analysis of du Coras's widely acclaimed version of events, using it both to illustrate the highly ambivalent response of this learned Protestant judge to the legal and moral issues raised by the case, and also to place this extraordinary tragi-comedy in its literary context. Thus, within the space of a short book, the author not only penetrates the most obscure recesses of the non-literate world but illuminates the perceptions and feelings of the educated and well-to-do.

Professor Davis's ability to combine lively narrative with historical reflection and psychological analysis will ensure for this book a wide audience. It is a truly captivating story with which to pass a rainy weekend; it is also a brilliantly professional reconstruction of the rural world of sixteenth-century France, which will both stimulate and inform for many years to come.

Stephen Wagley (review date 21 September 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 for four years—wrote up the case in a popular pamphlet. The story is set out for us anew by Natalie Zemon Davis [in The Return of Martin Guerre].

Fascination describes Davis's attitude as well as Coras's. How could Bertrande de Rols have acknowledged Du Tilh as her husband? Was she misled by her feminine weakness? For four years? Or did she play a double game, coaching Du Tilh to play the perfect husband Martin Guerre had failed to be? How could Du Tilh learn his part so well that he convinced the people of Artigat and the judges of the Parlement that he was Martin Guerre? How could the skeptical Jean de Coras be so mistaken in weighing the evidence?

Identity is a central theme in this tale, most obviously the identity of Arnaud du Tilh. He clearly had little difficulty in taking the identity of another man, in living his life, in playing husband to Bertrande de Rols. She accepted his claim to be her husband, and so did the villagers, or most of them. Martin Guerre returned finally as Fate, the man with one leg come to exact retribution, a peasant Ulysses, though hardly a heroic one. Linked with identity are the parallel themes of honor and loyalty—especially on the part of Bertrande de Rols—and mobility.

On the evidence Davis presents, the peasant world of the sixteenth century was hardly as static as we would like to believe, hardly as fixed. The Daguerre family of Navarre had pulled up stakes in the early part of the century and moved east to Artigat, adapting themselves to the customs of a quite different community, even changing their name to Guerre in the process. Martin Guerre found it easy to slip over the mountains to Spain and begin a new life. This was a moderately fluid society of little though real mobility, both geographical and social.

Even the religious contentions of the Reformation touched Artigat. Protestant, and especially Calvinist, ideas about marriage and conscience and repentance may have influenced Du Tilh. Jean de Coras was certainly favorable to the Protestant cause (he was lynched by a Catholic mob in 1572), and may have felt sympathy for the intelligent and clever Protestant peasant who claimed to be Martin Guerre. On the other hand, three years before Tametsi (Trent's decree on licit weddings), this may be simply another case of “peasant experience in manipulating popular rituals and the Catholic law on marriage.”

The story of Martin Guerre is more complex, then, than the recital of the facts might lead us to believe. It is the complicated story of identity and mobility, of honor and loyalty, of peasant community and Protestant sympathy that Davis sets out so well. This book may serve as an accomplished and excellent introduction to a type of history (in France, the study of mentalités), a way of looking at the past that tries to account for the numerous influences and motives—social, economic, political, religious, personal—that moved the characters in this story. In her brief and elegant narrative, the author shows herself particularly adept at using historical sources, even one so biased as Coras's Arrêt memorable, to reconstruct the world of Coras, of Bertrande de Rols, and of Arnaud du Tilh. Du Tilh charmed Bertrande de Rols, and he charmed Coras; now his ruses and seductions charm another. Fascination stands at the beginning of the story, the story of Natalie Zemon Davis as much as the story of her subjects. It is her genius to draw us into that fascination.

A. Lloyd Moote (review date October 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, feelings, relationships, and personal maneuverability of female and male peasants from a society whose secrets are rarely unsealed. This is precisely Davis's rationale for retelling the tale, and in a short review one must concentrate on that aspect.

The first thing one notices is the amazing amount of archival sleuthing packed into every page of this little book. The author has combed the local archives for information on the male principals and on the contrast between the familial restrictions on property alienation in the Guerre family's Basque homeland and the more conventional property arrangements of Artigat, which the false Martin Guerre tried to impose on the real Martin's uncle (then remarried to Bertrande's mother and head of an extended household). The author has also delved into Bertrande de Rols's world, its marriage customs and social constraints, where peasant women had little room to maneuver and where the particle “de” did not mean the peasants were aping nobility but instead signaled the legal and social attachment of female peasants to males in their family. In Bertrande's case, she was de Rols while her father was simply Rols. She was, in fact, subordinated first to her father, then to her husband, and finally to her widowed mother and her uncle, turned stepfather!

Arnaud's opportunistic rescue of Bertrande from that maze, his tragic hanging for the crime of acting as a deserted woman's husband that neither his crypto-Protestant nor staunchly Catholic judges knew how to handle, and his feigned life in between have enough universal appeal to be the focus of the film version. But Bertrande's clever, dogged, double game of having her cake and eating it within the confines of a particularist, male-dominated society is the natural centerpiece of Davis's less romantic but more realistic and brilliantly scholarly monograph. If the author occasionally turns conjecture into reality (“Bertrande dreamed of a husband and a lover who would come back, and be different” [p. 34]) and at times leaves us wondering whether she is following closely the two original contemporary accounts of the Martin Guerre story or drifting into the “perhapses” of her contextual analysis (compressed footnoting may account for much of the confusion), she has surely given us a splendid example of mature social history.

Robert Finlay (essay date June 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Even within this select company, however, Natalie Zemon Davis's Return of Martin Guerre is exceptional. The events she examines were never lost to sight but instead became famous immediately and eventually inspired a play, two novels, and an operetta. The story was irresistible: the impostor, Arnaud du Tilh, posed as Martin Guerre, the husband of Bertrande de Rols, for over three years, thereby gaining a wife and property and fathering a child, only to be exposed by the true husband when he was on the verge of refuting those accusing him of deception. While Davis's book carried this dramatic story to an English-speaking audience, a film, Le Retour de Martin Guerre, the product of collaboration between Davis and the moviemakers, presented it to an international one. No doubt because of the excellence and wide distribution of the film, Davis's book reached a more extensive audience than does the usual historical study. It has been hailed in the popular press as a vivid supplement to the film and in academic journals as a “realistic and brilliantly scholarly monograph,” an “imaginative history which is nevertheless solidly based and intelligently argued,” a “major work of historical reconstruction … performed without any kind of ideological bias.”3 It is the consensus, then, that The Return of Martin Guerre is a genuine rarity, a work of sophisticated scholarship with general appeal, a study that remains faithful to academic standards while conveying all the color and drama of a famous tale.

Davis was driven to give the story of Martin Guerre its “first full-scale historical treatment” because she came to feel that the film did not adequately address “the motivations of people in the sixteenth century.” She was troubled that “the film was departing from the historical record,” especially because “the double game of the wife and the judge's inner contradictions were softened.” She wanted to make room for the “perhapses” and “may-have-beens” that the historian uses to explain inadequate and perplexing evidence. She tells her readers that “what I offer you here is in part my invention, but held tightly in check by the voices of the past.”4 The inventive aspects of Davis's book stem largely from her employment of concepts and methods drawn from recent innovations in anthropology, ethnography, and literary criticism, all fields that have had a significant influence on what is widely regarded as the best contemporary historical scholarship.5 The result of Davis's labors is a reinterpretation of the Martin Guerre story that is imaginatively conceived, eloquently argued, and intrinsically appealing. It is also strikingly different from the version of the story that has been accepted since the sixteenth century.

The traditional version of the story of Martin Guerre derives from accounts of the sixteenth century, especially from Jean de Coras's Arrest Memorable, written by the rapporteur at the trial and a judge of the Parlement of Toulouse after the pseudo-husband was executed in 1560.6 In Coras's commentary, the main character was Arnaud du Tilh, also known as Pansette, “the belly,” a charlatan brought to disaster by his own cunning and ambition. “It was truly a tragedy for this fine peasant,” the judge wrote, “all the more because the outcome was wretched, indeed fatal for him.”7 In his narrative as well as in his courtroom, Coras unequivocally condemned Arnaud, yet, as Davis shows, he had a certain admiration for the impostor's abilities. Coras's focus was on the marvelous deception perpetrated by Arnaud, and in the many subsequent retellings of the tale, the emphasis was similarly on the arch-trickster, the sly thief of sexual favors and property.

Davis presents a radically different interpretation in which the focus is on Bertrande de Rols or, rather, on her relationship with the impostor. According to Davis, Bertrande was in fact Arnaud's accomplice, for she knew that the man claiming to be her husband was a fraud. She accepted Arnaud, they fell in love, and they regarded themselves as having an “invented” marriage. They willfully fabricated a lie, and, when challenged in court, they concocted a strategy of deceit and manipulation: “Bertrande searched her memory for a sexual episode [involving her true husband]—perhaps even embroidered it—with which they could surprise the court.”8 With the return of Martin Guerre, however, Bertrande's “double role” collapsed, and she brought forth “prepared excuses” for her conduct. For his part, Arnaud remained faithful to his lover and accomplice, asserting that she had been duped as thoroughly as her fellow villagers of Artigat. Even in his confession on the way to the gibbet, the impostor “concealed from start to finish” Bertrande's role in their elaborate collusion.9

These two versions of the story of Martin Guerre could hardly be more different. The traditional account is a narrative of greed and deception, of perverted talents and a duped woman, of great ability in the service of fraud and theft. Davis's book tells a tale of devotion and collaboration, of love and identity, of how an invented marriage was destroyed by a hard-hearted man with a wooden leg. To Coras, Arnaud's abilities—his quick tongue and retentive memory—led a fine peasant into a tragicomedy of imposture. To Davis, the tragedy lies in the unmasking of Arnaud, “a kind of hero, a more real Martin Guerre” than the unsympathetic husband of Bertrande de Rols.10

The sharpest contrast between the two versions is in the characterization of Bertrande. In Coras's eyes, she was a dupe, who, “given the weakness of her sex, [was] easily deceived by the cunning and craftiness of men.”11 He considered her ignorant of Arnaud's true identity, hence innocent of wrongdoing. The Criminal Chamber of the Parlement of Toulouse agreed and declared that her child fathered by Arnaud must be regarded as legitimate. In his confession, Arnaud begged Bertrande's pardon for cruelly deceiving her. Amid all the squabbles in Artigat and in all the testimony taken from 180 witnesses by the court, apparently no one ever suggested that Bertrande was Arnaud's accomplice.

No one, that is, until Davis and The Return of Martin Guerre.12 According to Davis, Bertrande played a double role, deceiving her son by Martin Guerre, her relatives, friends, and neighbors. At the same time, Davis also turns upside down the moral judgment informing the traditional version of the story. No doubt if Bertrande's contemporaries believed she was guilty, they would have thought her as despicable as the impostor. From Davis's perspective, however, Bertrande is a heroic figure, independent, clear-sighted, passionate, and invariably “honorable.” While Coras saw the wife as an innocent victim, Davis views her as a knowing actor and, though guilty of adultery and deception, all the more admirable because of the values embodied in her heroic transgression.

There is a complex relationship between these two versions of the Martin Guerre story. Davis does not simply counter Coras's sixteenth-century interpretation with her own twentieth-century one. Rather, in the absence of trial records, her analysis must depend on Coras's own account. In short, the twentieth-century reinterpretation presumably is based on a reevaluation of evidence contained in Coras's very different interpretation. With all its flaws, “combining features of a legal text and a literary tale,”13 the Arrest Memorable remains the best source for the story of Martin Guerre, and Davis necessarily must reinterpret it to sustain her own version. Of course, Coras's text does not give privileged access to past reality; the judge's assumption of Bertrande's innocence is not proof that she was in fact innocent. Indeed, to the extent that Coras's assertion of Bertrande's innocence may have been a consequence of a low estimation of female intelligence and judgment, one might be tempted to equate a declaration of Bertrande's complicity with a rejection of the judge's benighted view of the female sex. Davis eschews that temptation, however, and one of the strengths of her book is its portrait of Jean de Coras as a thoughtful, humane scholar, fully capable of recognizing female intelligence and of looking beyond elitist and patriarchal prejudices in his pursuit of truth.

Davis situates Bertrande's supposed complicity within her view of sixteenth-century peasant society. From this perspective, Bertrande's conduct is seen as an instance of the ingenuity and calculation commonly shown by peasant women who must maneuver within a patriarchal system. The male-dominated society put a premium on “the woman's ability to get her way with the men and to calculate her advantages,” an ability that women passed along “through the deep tie and hidden complicity of mother and daughter.” The four sisters of Martin Guerre were apparently displaying typically feminine calculation in siding with the pseudo-husband against his accuser: “[T]hey may have preferred him to their uncle as head of the family and its property.” In Artigat, Bertrande “tried to fashion her life as best she could, using all the leeway and imagination she had as a woman.” During the trial of the impostor, “she had to manipulate the image of the woman-easily-deceived, a skill that women often displayed before officers of justice any time it was to their advantage.”14 As one reviewer of Davis's book summed it up, Bertrande almost succeeded in her “clever, dogged, double game of having her cake and eating it within the confines of a particularist, male-dominated society.”15 This interpretation has hitherto been missing from retellings of the story of Martin Guerre inasmuch as Bertrande has been reduced to playing a muted second fiddle to Arnaud, “the inventive figure in the tale.” Bertrande's true role has been overlooked or suppressed, Davis suggests, because of the unfortunate circumstance “that we have no female commentary on the story until the twentieth century.”16

However that may be, Davis fails to show that her view of women in peasant society is relevant to the case she is examining. Instead, she imposes her notion of peasant women on Bertrande, whose conduct and character thereby are seen as if Bertrande had regarded the pseudo-Martin with the same calculating, self-interested eye that was supposedly characteristic of peasant women in general. In other words, since Davis assumes that rustic women consistently and covertly maneuvered for their own advantage, she does not consider it necessary to justify her assertions about Bertrande's calculating behavior. But, whatever the accuracy of Davis's view of peasant society, her application of that perspective to the story of Martin Guerre does not yield a portrait of Bertrande that is either plausible or persuasive.

Davis adds substantially to establishing the historical context within which the story should be understood when she uses archival material to illuminate questions of kinship relations, inheritance law, peasant migration, marriage contracts, military service, village custom, and judicial procedure. But, when she considers the relationship between Bertrande and Arnaud, the linchpin of her book, she is faced with a central difficulty: the historical record indicates that Bertrande was universally regarded as the impostor's victim, not his accomplice. In fact, the question of Bertrande's complicity never arose at the time, and Davis presents no evidence for her contention that “after much discussion” about Bertrande, the judges of Toulouse “agreed to accept her good faith” and not prosecute her for “fraud, bigamy, or adultery.”17 Bertrande's good faith was always assumed, never a matter of debate, and, precisely because she was never considered liable for those charges, she was not prosecuted. Davis's claim to the contrary is not based on newly discovered material or on examination of surviving records. Instead, it depends on her mere assertion that she has recognized a truth that apparently remained hidden from both the villagers of Artigat and the judges of Toulouse.

What of Bertrande de Rols? Did she know that the new Martin was not the man who had abandoned her eight years before? Perhaps not at the very first, when he arrived with all his “signs” and proofs. But the obstinate and honorable Bertrande does not seem a woman so easily fooled, not even by a charmer like Pansette. By the time she had received him in her bed, she must have realized the difference; as any wife of Artigat would have agreed, there is no mistaking “the touch of the man on the woman.” Either by explicit or tacit agreement, she helped him become her husband.18

This is Davis's entire basis for claiming that the wife was in league with the impostor: that is, in sexual relations, Bertrande could not have failed to realize that her partner was not her true husband. Not only is there no hint of this in the sources, but the claim runs counter to the account Davis herself gives of Bertrande's dismal sexual experience: she was married for some nine years without intercourse, which was finally achieved after a magic spell was lifted; pregnancy took place immediately, and, when their son was several months old, Martin abandoned her for eight years.19 After seventeen years of marriage, then, Martin and Bertrande could only have had sexual intercourse for a few months at most, hardly the sort of connubial experience making for a “touch of the man” that was indelible or unmistakable.

If Bertrande had perceived any difference in sexual manner between her spouse and the man claiming to be her husband, she could reasonably have explained it to herself as a consequence of her years of sexual abstinence, during which the precarious sexuality of her husband evidently gave way to virile confidence, perhaps assisted by the fleshpots of Spain and Picardy, where he soldiered. Equally important, Bertrande would have had to weigh any doubts arising from his sexual performance against the universal welcome accorded her presumed husband. Like all her in-laws and neighbors, Bertrande was fooled by Arnaud from the beginning.20 He had gathered information about the Guerres' marriage before his appearance, and he had days with Bertrande before going to bed with her in which to become familiar and garner even more intimate knowledge.21 He was welcomed home first by the sisters of Martin Guerre, whom Bertrande later especially blamed for misleading her. Coras gave substantial weight to the response of the sisters, which, along with the proofs of Arnaud and the wife's eagerness to have her husband back again, seemed to the judge wholly sufficient to explain Bertrande's falling for the impostor's lies.22

Davis offers nothing to counter Jean de Coras's understanding of Bertrande's innocence other than her own assertion about an inevitable sexual recognition, backed by a proverb about “the touch of the man.” Even that proverb is not uniquely pertinent, for, in the conditions of sexual intercourse in peasant households of preindustrial Europe—the couple clothed, in a darkened house, amid the cold and dirt, surrounded by livestock and relatives—any wife of Artigat might equally well have regarded her bedmate with the jaded perspective expressed in the notorious masculine slur, “De nuit tous chats son gris.”23

In any event, even Davis agrees that Bertrande accepted Arnaud in her marriage bed because she was certain he was her spouse. Surely, the impostor's subsequent sexual habits would have had to be extraordinary for the happy, trusting wife to conclude that she was in error. As far as one can tell, neither she nor anyone else at the time came to that conclusion. The assumption, then, that sexual relations must have revealed the imposture to Bertrande is not an interpretation based on the sources; it is, rather, an opinion by a modern historian who apparently believes that unsubstantiated insight can itself be taken as evidence. This is a flimsy foundation on which to build an interpretation of the Martin Guerre story that contradicts the surviving evidence.

Behind Davis's assertion about Bertrande's response to the impostor is an equally unfounded assessment of the wife's character. After quoting a late fifteenth-century work, the Malleus Maleficarum, to the effect that the devil can make a wife consider “her husband so loathsome that not for all the world would she allow him to lie with her,” Davis states that “Bertrande might not have put it in these words, but it seems clear that for a while [after marrying Martin] she was relieved that they could not have intercourse.” In fact, Davis presents no evidence that Bertrande had any such view. The assertion about intercourse, however, is of a piece with Davis's portrayal of Bertrande as a woman of “stubborn independence,” one who considered the bewitchment afflicting her marriage lifted only when she “was ready for it.” When urged to divorce her impotent mate, she refused because of her “shrewd realism about how she could maneuver within the constraints placed upon one of her sex.”24 While Coras viewed this refusal as a touchstone of Bertrande's integrity, Davis sees it as a manifestation of the same shrewd realism that led Bertrande knowingly to accept the pseudo-husband, connive with him in deceiving her kinfolk, and finally abandon him when Martin Guerre reappeared.25

According to Davis, Bertrande's realism and independence explain why the wife took her presumed husband to court, cooperating with Pierre Guerre, Martin's uncle, after he illegally acted as her agent in having Arnaud imprisoned for imposture. Explaining why Bertrande acted as a plaintiff on a charge of imposture against Arnaud is a crucial matter for Davis, since common sense dictates that an accomplice is unlikely to press a criminal charge against a collaborator. In the service of resolving this difficulty, Davis provides some questions that she supposes must have troubled Bertrande: “Would God punish them because of the lie? … She loved the new Martin, but he had tricked her once; might he after all not trick her again? And what if the other Martin Guerre came back?” Under pressure from her mother and Pierre Guerre (who was also her stepfather), “the stubborn woman calculated and made her plans. She would go along with the court case and hope to lose it. She would follow the strategy she had worked out with the new Martin about testimony and hope that the judge would declare him her husband … [S]he would also be prepared to win the case, however terrible the consequences for the new Martin.”26

Evidently a creature of utter calculation, Bertrande thus pursued a shrewd strategy in court that she kept secret from both her accomplice and his accusers. In the odd position of being a plaintiff in collusion with the defendant, she had to be careful not to trip up her pseudo-husband, while also pretending to be completely honest with the judges. She had to appear to be easily deceived but without convincing the court that she was in fact a victim of deception.27 She had to make an accusation that she knew to be true, while also plotting with her accomplice to expose herself as a false accuser. In Davis's view, then, the peasant woman from Artigat committed herself to a plan of dizzying subtlety and complexity, one involving extraordinary manipulation of her relatives, the judges, and even her lover.

Coras recorded that in court Bertrande was nervous and uncertain, trembling in speech and with eyes fixed on the floor. The deluded judge did not realize, Davis asserts, that this was all a clever act, that Bertrande was adhering to a “text” she and her accomplice “had agreed upon months before.”28 Nor did Coras recognize that Bertrande was acting when she started weeping and trembling upon being confronted with Martin Guerre: “She was sufficiently steeled to the different possible outcomes of her situation so that when she arrived at the Criminal Chamber she was able to play her role quite well.”29

In Davis's interpretation, Pansette the impostor's role was also dauntingly intricate: to defend himself against the charge brought by Bertrande, he had to show that his accomplice had been suborned and was thus guilty of making a false accusation. He was successful at this ploy, and the court ordered Bertrande (and Pierre Guerre) imprisoned during the trial;30 hence, success for the impostor meant a serious criminal charge levied against his accomplice. Of course, given Davis's scenario of complicity, all that Bertrande had to do to avoid such a fate was to refuse to render herself as plaintiff against her pseudo-husband, an action that would have had the incidental benefit of removing her lover from threat of execution. Davis never explains why this obvious and safe course was not taken by the duplicitous couple.

Davis's scenario becomes bewilderingly complex with the return of Martin Guerre. Abandoning the accomplice she had charged with imposture, Bertrande perforce wins her case and pours forth “prepared excuses.” Arnaud still insists that he is the true husband, but the judges do not put the obdurate liar to torture because “they certainly did not want him to name Bertrande de Rols as his accomplice at the last minute.”31 Davis fails to explain why the judges either suspected or covered up the peasant woman's supposed crimes. Moreover, Davis's argument requires us to believe that the judges who had imprisoned the plaintiff on suspicion of bringing a false accusation against her husband were also suspicious that the plaintiff was an accomplice in the imposture of the man she had charged with that crime. In other words, the court somehow suspected Bertrande of both false accusation and complicity with the accused. According to Davis, only one person suggested that Bertrande was not deceived by Arnaud: “Was the weakness of the [female] sex really so great that wives could not tell the difference between married love and adultery? The cuckolded Martin Guerre clearly thought not, as we know from the words attributed to him in court by both Coras and Le Sueur.”32 Yet it is clear from those words that Martin Guerre simply (albeit severely) rebuked his wife for imprudence, not for choosing adultery over marital fealty.33 A cuckold is a man whose wife has committed adultery, and apparently no one at the trial regarded the returned husband in that light. The judges would hardly have urged him to compassion for Bertrande if they had thought he was accusing his wife of the very crime of which they allegedly suspected her.34 In sum, Davis presents a scenario in which the principal participants in a trial—the plaintiff, the defendant, and the judges—harbored secret designs and motivations that, by their very nature, cannot be substantiated by the sources.

Given the evidence regarding the story of Martin Guerre, the assumption that Bertrande was Arnaud's accomplice necessarily involves convoluted reasoning and unsubstantiated assertions. As Coras perceived, Bertrande's accommodation to the charge of imposture and her timorous conduct in court argued that she was acting under duress, just as her refusal to swear that the defendant was not her true husband confirmed the court's suspicion that she had been suborned by her family. As far as one can tell, Bertrande's most fervent belief seems to have been in marital fidelity. At any rate, her sense of loyalty (rather than “shrewd realism”) nicely explains her behavior throughout: her refusal to divorce, her “incredible longing … to have her husband back,” her willingness to accept the proofs that Arnaud was her husband, her stand with him against family pressure, and her tearful submission to her true husband when she realized her error.35 In the story of Martin Guerre, there is no need for unfounded hypotheses regarding maneuvering within sexual constraints, the perpetual uniqueness of sexual behavior, and secret pacts between a predator and his prey.

Having begun with such hypotheses, however, Davis is faced with the challenge of answering two resulting questions. First, how can one regard Bertrande as Arnaud's accomplice and yet still consider her as “honorable”? Second, what point of view was expressed in Coras's Arrest Memorable, Davis's principal source for her own interpretation, toward Bertrande and Arnaud?

Davis's determination to salvage “the honor of Bertrande de Rols”36 is evident in the three contexts she establishes for regarding the relationship between the wife and the impostor. First, Bertrande and the pseudo-Martin fall in love, so their fraud fades in the glow of mutual affection. According to Davis, Bertrande had not merely prayed for Martin's return but had “dreamed of a husband and lover who would come back, and be different.” She accepted the impostor because what she had “with the new Martin was her dream come true,” a man she could live with “in passion.”37 Of course, the man she was living with continued to ferret out information from Bertrande about his presumed background. To Davis, that is not evidence of treachery and manipulation but rather a manifestation of the “intimate exchanges between husband and wife,” which were “an ideal of Christian humanists and Protestant moralists,” as well as an expression of “the Occitan delight in conversation” typically found in “the words of peasant lovers.”38 In describing Arnaud's challenge to the suborned Bertrande to swear he was not her husband, Davis places the impostor's maneuver in romantic guise: “He then made a test of her love and expressed his own.”39

To be sure, Arnaud may have come to have affection for the trusting peasant woman, but, not surprisingly, the sources are silent on the matter. It is perhaps noteworthy that, while the impostor asked for Bertrande's pardon on the ladder up to the gibbet, he never tried to justify his duplicity by claiming that he had acted out of love for her. None of the evidence adduced by Davis, such as Bertrande protecting Arnaud from a beating or his trusting her to support him in court,40 testifies to more than Bertrande's fidelity or to the impostor's exigencies. There is no basis for asserting that the historical record “everywhere attests to his having fallen in love with the wife for whom he had rehearsed and her having become deeply attached to the husband who had taken her by surprise.”41

Second, Davis suggests that the loving couple probably discovered a religious justification for their deception in the Protestantism that was reaching into the Toulouse region, especially in a non-sacramental view of marriage that allowed these adulterers to conceive of “marriage as something that was in their hands to make, indeed, as in their hands alone.” Davis is aware that this speculation has the disadvantage of rescuing Bertrande from the frying pan of adultery only to throw her into the fire of bigamy. Nevertheless, she presents the romantic spectacle of the pseudo-Martin and Bertrande finding solace and “another justification for their lives” in the Reformed religion: “That they could tell their story to God alone and need not communicate it to any human intermediary. That the life they had willfully fabricated was part of God's providence.”42

The only evidence that Davis puts forth for these sentiments is that some Reformed soldiers and local converts to Protestantism smashed the altar of the Artigat church, although that was eight years after Arnaud's execution; that the de Rols family became Protestant, although Davis only cites documents regarding that family in the mid-seventeenth century; and that no priest played a major role in Arnaud's trial.43 Davis suggests that it is also significant that Arnaud showed “respect” for his principal inquisitors, “men who were already attracted to Protestantism”—as if the charming impostor would dream of showing disrespect for judges who held his life in their hands, no matter what their religious views; or as if the judges would have been so given to fellowship with the accused peasant as to make him aware of their dangerous confessional leanings. Davis also finds it significant that Arnaud's final statement of contrition included no Catholic formulas or references to the saints.44 Yet this negative consideration does not advance the argument that the putative accomplices sought justification for their illicit liaison in the new faith. All the sources say about Arnaud's spiritual sympathies is that, as a youth, Arnaud was notorious as “a constant denier and blasphemer of God's name,” habitually swearing “on the head, body, blood, and wounds of our Lord.”45 This evidence much predates Arnaud's appearance in Artigat, but at the very least it does not bespeak receptivity to the Reformed religion. In all, there is no warrant in the sources for introducing a religious dimension to the Martin Guerre story, not to mention the speculation that “local Protestant sympathizers [in Artigat] tended to believe the new Martin and the Catholics tended to believe Pierre Guerre.”46

Having summoned up romance and religion to illuminate the complicity of Bertrande and Arnaud, Davis also calls on notions of psychological reconstruction and reflectivity that likewise shift the focus of the story from deplorable deception to heroic commitment. From this perspective, the wife and the impostor were not being fraudulent and adulterous; rather, they were engaged in “self-fashioning,” in “inventing” a marriage, in creating new “identities.” Davis borrows the term “self-fashioning” from a recent work on Renaissance literature, and she takes it to refer to “the molding of speech, manners, gesture, and conversation” that aided advancement in elite circles.47 Davis is concerned, however, to show that the fate of the elite and that of peasants was sometimes similar, that common folk too could fashion their lives in novel, self-conscious ways, and, further, “that an impostor's fabrication has links with more ordinary ways of creating personal identity.” Unfortunately, Davis proves none of these things. Instead, after asserting that some sort of construction of identity may be seen in a person posing as another, she goes on to claim that, with Arnaud's preparations for his appearance in Artigat, “it is clear that … [the impostor] was moving beyond the mask of the carnival player and the stratagems of the mere inheritance seeker to forge a new identity and a new life for himself.”48

There is nothing to justify such an elevated and exculpatory perspective of Arnaud du Tilh's imposture. Davis points to nothing in the historical record—no hint of self-reflection by the trickster, no provocative use of language in the sources, no revealing pattern of behavior, no suggestive inconsistencies or contradictions, no illuminating contrasts with other impostors—to substantiate her employment of “self-fashioning.” Pervasive and tendentious, the concept is merely imposed on the historical record as an ingenious assertion, a modish way of viewing sixteenth-century peasants. Viewed through the lens of self-fashioning, Arnaud is an audacious forger of self, not simply a clever fraud, while Bertrande is an assertive molder of identity rather than an unfortunate dupe; together, the inventive rustics fabricated a marriage.

It is easy to cast the story of Martin Guerre into self-fashioning terms, but the exercise does not result in a plausible account of the desired “motivations and values.”49 According to Davis, when Arnaud asked Pierre Guerre for a financial accounting of the real husband's property—the action that eventually led to Arnaud's trials—“he was not just an impostor trying to take Martin Guerre's money and run” but rather was giving “a sign of how comfortable he felt in his role.” Martin Guerre did not return to Artigat merely because he was alarmed at another taking his wife and land but may be regarded as having “come back to repossess his identity, his persona, before it was too late.”50 Nothing loath, Arnaud matched the long-lost husband persona for persona: “It would be a mistake to interpret his behavior [in court] … as simply a desperate attempt to stay alive. Live or dead, he was defending the identity he had fashioned for himself against a stranger.” When Arnaud continued to deny his imposture after the return of Martin Guerre, his obstinacy did not reflect panic but rather how sincerely he had transformed himself into “the jealous husband.”51

Davis takes the idea of the impostor refashioning himself as Martin Guerre very seriously indeed. In the central chapters of her book (chaps. 5-6), she scrupulously tries to avoid referring to the impostor as “Arnaud” or “Pansette,” and she never adopts the chroniclers' appellations of the “Pseudo-Martinus” and the “soy disant Martin Guerre.” For her, the refashioned rustic, “a more real Martin Guerre”52 than the original, is generally “the new Martin.” In dealing with the relationship between the supposed accomplices, Davis uses the impostor's name only once, when stating that “Pansette's rehearsals began once again,” with the impostor and the wife reviewing the sexual episodes of the Guerres' marriage for information with which to dupe the court. Sometimes, when Davis uses the impostor's real names, it is to emphasize his supposed transformation, as when she refers to “the rebirth of Arnaud du Tilh as Martin Guerre.” Sometimes, Arnaud is simply “Martin,” the distinction between refashioner and real spouse collapsing as thoroughly for the modern historian as it allegedly did for Arnaud du Tilh.53 This is unfortunate, for in examining the tale of the famous imposture it is surely essential to keep straight who was Bertrande's husband, what was a marriage, and who was really Martin Guerre.

The notion of self-fashioning functions as a way of elevating an interpretation of complicity between Bertrande and the pseudo-Martin from the sordid reality of fraud and adultery to that elusive realm where life approximates literature. Evoking imagination, intelligence, and subtlety, self-fashioning allows Davis to regard Bertrande and Arnaud as engaged in the same sort of artful construction of identity that supposedly typified princely courts and literary circles. A tale of mere trickery, as in the old version of the Martin Guerre story, piques curiosity but cannot sustain interest or analysis. A discourse on self-fashioning, on the other hand, is compelling to a modern sensibility preoccupied with ideas of role-playing and identity, beguiled by intricate theory and psychologizing. In effect, self-fashioning, along with romance and religion, glosses the conduct of the adulterous peasants. “The self-fashioning Bertrande” embraced “her dream come true” and invented a new marriage; the new, improved “Martin” found a new love, a new religion, and constructed a new self: “[T]he life he was fashioning for himself was operating like a conversion experience, wiping away the blasphemer … if not totally the trickster.”54 Of the trickster, there is abundant evidence, even a confession; for all the rest, there is no evidence whatsoever.

After demonstrating how Bertrande the accomplice may be regarded as “honorable” when seen in the light of romance, religion, and self-fashioning, Davis is faced with a second crucial question: how can her view of Bertrande and Arnaud be reconciled with Jean de Coras's, especially since the Arrest Memorable is Davis's principal source for her own very different interpretation? Her answer to this depends entirely on a complicated psychological reading of both Coras and his text. She sees Coras as embodying a profound ambivalence toward the self-fashioning peasants, while she regards the Arrest Memorable as “an historical account that raises doubts about its own truth,” much as the judges of the Criminal Chamber supposedly displayed “mixed feelings” even as they condemned the dazzling trickster.55 Davis asserts that Coras came to identify himself with Arnaud, probably a Protestant like himself, poised and eloquent like himself, with a beautiful wife like his own, and a liar so inventive that his fabrications were akin to “self-fashioning,” a practice that lawyers and royal officers “knew all about.”56 Thus Davis neatly employs her unfounded hypotheses regarding Protestantism and self-fashioning to argue for an equally unfounded identification of the inquisitor with the accused.

Davis establishes another point of identification with her assertion that Coras was a kind of attenuated Pansette of the legal commentary in that “he lies a little” when shaping his account to strengthen it as “a moral tale.” Yet she neither spells out the moral she perceives in Coras's text nor does she indicate any egregious shaping of evidence by the legal theorist.57 Her list of “exaggerations and omissions” in the Arrest Memorable is not persuasive. Her accusation that the commentator in one instance neglected to report a failure of Arnaud's memory is trivial, and the contention that Coras “presents himself and the court as less convinced of Arnaud's innocence than in fact they were” is overstated.58 The Criminal Chamber's view of Arnaud's probable innocence is expressed clearly in Coras's statement that only the intervention of God, as manifest by the nearly miraculous return of Martin Guerre, prevented “a horrible and monstrous imposture” from going unpunished.59

According to Davis, there is exaggeration in Coras's discussion of crimes such as abduction and sacrilege, of which Arnaud was not actually convicted. In her view, those annotations “gave him a chance to argue that Bertrande was coerced and that the death penalty was warranted.”60 Coras, however, did not need to grasp at opportunities to present Bertrande as a victim, as if he had to repress his recognition of the wife's outrageous behavior. The judge's annotations were intended to detail the manifold ways in which the unfortunate woman had been victimized, even if the culprit had not been charged by a court with the particular offense.61

Davis claims that Coras also exaggerates at another point, when “Arnaud du Tilh's prodigious qualities are built up by comparison with biblical, classical, and more recent impostors.”62 But Coras's concern clearly was to discuss precedents and parallels for the case, not to enshrine Arnaud in a pantheon of heroes. The lawyer no more intended to have his readers see Arnaud as “prodigious” as Jupiter and Caesar than he wanted them to regard Bertrande as illustrious as Cleopatra, Cato, Brutus, Hannibal, and Empedocles because, like them, she said she preferred death to dishonor. Indeed, Coras was aware that a reader might misconstrue his intentions, and, hence, after discussing Arnaud's memory in the context of feats of recollection by Cyrus, Seneca, and Caesar, he was careful to warn that he intended no equation “of such an impudent impostor with such noble, grand, and illustrious persons.”63

All these supposed exaggerations and omissions, Davis claims, were “loopholes” in the Arrest Memorable, revealing Coras's uncertainties and allowing his commentary to be recast as a tragic drama.64 She finds the most “curious omission” in the first edition (1561) of the work to be an account of Arnaud's confession and execution, a flaw that leaves Coras's readers “some room for doubt about whether the Criminal Chamber actually did get the right man.” On the contrary, no reader of Coras can doubt that the court and everyone else concerned had discovered the truth of the matter.65 In any case, Coras made up for his “curious omission” in the second edition (1565) of the Arrest Memorable, where he devoted a passage to Arnaud's confession and execution. According to Davis, however, the judge could not help expressing his “conflicting feelings” about the dazzling criminal, since “ambiguity is reintroduced immediately” by a description of Arnaud's fate as a “tragedy,” a comment that Davis chooses to see as expressing ambivalence about the impostor's guilt rather than dismay at his perverted talents.66 This misconstruction is pivotal to Davis's argument, for she goes on to relate Coras's remark about tragedy to another writer's linking of the tragic with “prodigious” passion—“an association,” Davis handily reminds the reader, “also suggested by Arnaud and Bertrande”—thereby proposing that Coras actually saw tragedy not in the self-destruction of a “fine peasant” but in the doomed romance of the wife and impostor. Again, self-fashioning crowns the pyramid of assumptions: “That Coras could conceive of ‘a play of tragedy between persons of low estate’ depended on his being able to identify himself somewhat with the rustic who had remade himself.”67

Davis reconciles her interpretation of the Martin Guerre story with Coras's Arrest Memorable by asserting that, while the judge explicitly considered the wife innocent, an examination of his text, with its significant exaggerations, omissions, and comparisons, reveals another, unsettled view of Arnaud—and therefore of Bertrande as well. Supposedly troubled by psychological identification with Arnaud, Coras unconsciously allowed an element of ambiguity and tension into his commentary on the case, a “multivalent representation” that exposes his uncertainties.68 On the one hand, Coras saw Arnaud as a treacherous deceiver, a virtually diabolical fraud and thief; on the other hand, he identified with the dazzling self-fashioner and fellow Protestant. Similarly, Coras regarded Bertrande as an innocent dupe, yet at some inarticulate level he also recognized that she had conspired with the impostor: this guilty Bertrande “is present in Coras's text, but is less prominent than the duped wife.” Even though Coras had to admit explicitly that profound wrong had been committed by the ruthless impostor, he secretly could not deny to himself that there was something “profoundly right about the invented marriage of the new Martin and Bertrande de Rols.”69 Davis suggests that a psychological difficulty lay behind Coras's conflicted feelings and uncertainties. An elite member of a patriarchal society, the learned judge identified with the pseudo-husband, “the rustic who had remade himself,” but could not face the psychic threat represented by Bertrande: “The possibility of an honorable woman disposing of her body as she pleases is much more disturbing than the self-fashioning of Pansette.”70

Nothing is cited from Coras's text to support these contentions. Given the nature of the argument throughout, that is entirely understandable. If the guilty but honorable Bertrande is “present in Coras's text,” she cannot be there in the usual sense that makes quotation of, or reference to, the text possible. If Coras repressed his recognition of Bertrande's guilt because of alarm at her freedom from sexual constraints, proof of that must be sought in curious omissions and subtle exaggerations in the text regarding Arnaud du Tilh. If Coras believed that the unmasking of “the new Martin” was a tragedy, his troubling recognition of that cannot be encompassed by traditional forms of scholarly evidence. If “Bertrande does not seem a woman so easily fooled” in bed by a rogue like Arnaud, it is to be expected that her subsequent deceits would elude documentation. Indeed, if Bertrande had collaborated with the impostor, she must have been embarked on an enterprise so secret and subtle that it escaped the notice of all her contemporaries as well as “every scrap of paper left … by the past.” Such arguments, it may be said, make footnotes to sources quite beside the point. If historical records can be bypassed so thoroughly in the service of an inventive blend of intuition and assertion, it is difficult to see what distinguishes the writing of history from that of fiction. As Montaigne observed about assertions being imposed on reality, “What can we not reason about at this rate?”71

Davis claims that the judges of Toulouse, in considering the “inventiveness” of Arnaud du Tilh, had to pose for themselves the question, “Where does self-fashioning stop and lying begin?”72 But the terms she ascribes to the judges should pose for her readers a more pertinent question: In historical writing, where does reconstruction stop and invention begin? The virtues of The Return of Martin Guerre are clear: its eloquent portrait of peasant life, its sense of communal values and prejudices, its sympathy for those outside the elite, its emphasis on the central role of women, its evocative detail and supple prose. Unfortunately, none of the central points of the book—the knowing Bertrande, the devious court strategy, the tragic romance, the Protestant justification, the self-fashioning peasants, the conflicted judge, the “multivalent” text—depend on the documentary record. As a result, a famous tale is given a reinterpretation that finally bears more resemblance to a historical romance than to an account “held tightly in check by the voices of the past.”73

Jean de Coras wrote the Arrest Memorable to relate a true, fascinating story, not to give the villain of the piece “another chance” to argue his case or charm his audience.74 The moral of Coras's account has nothing to do with a tragedy of romance and self-fashioning but with the deadly weakness of perception, with the ways in which deception can reach into the most intimate relations and shape human destinies. The judge's compassion was wholly reserved for an unimportant, luckless woman, and perhaps one of his main purposes in writing about the story of Martin Guerre was to enable others to understand how circumstances conspired with Bertrande's own desires to make her an ideal victim for a cunning impostor.75 In the end, it cannot be said that Jean de Coras was successful in that ambition. The events of Artigat will probably never again be analyzed in detail, hence the historical image of Bertrande will be fixed forever in the unlikely pose established by Davis's reinterpretation. Humiliated by her husband's impotence, abandoned by him for years, duped and seduced by an impostor, harassed by kinfolk, and shamed before her community, Bertrande de Rols now suffers the posthumous fate of being refashioned into an assertive and principled champion, the shrewd and ardent companion of a man who transformed himself for her. No longer a dupe and victim, she has become a heroine, a sort of proto-feminist of peasant culture.

This Bertrande de Rols seems to be far more a product of invention than of historical reconstruction. The same may also be said of Arnaud du Tilh, the forger of identity, and of Jean de Coras, the ambivalent inquisitor. As interesting, subtle, and complex as these characters are, it is doubtful that they have anything to do with the actual story of Martin Guerre. The self-fashioning rustics and the conflicted scholar are nowhere to be found in the Arrest Memorable, a document that Davis implies is not to be trusted, in all its multivalent complexity, precisely because it fails to yield up the characters called for by her reinterpretation.

What Davis terms “invention,” the employment of “perhapses” and “may-have-beens,” is, of course, the stock in trade of historians, who are often driven to speculation by inadequate and perplexing evidence. Depth, humanity, and color in historical reconstruction are the products of imagination and do not flow from a vulgar reasoning upon data.76 But speculation, whether founded on intuition or on concepts drawn from anthropology and literary criticism, is supposed to give way before the sovereignty of the sources, the tribunal of the documents. The historian should not make the people of the past say or do things that run counter to the most scrupulous respect for the sources. In discussing popular culture in preindustrial Europe, Davis has cogently observed that historians of that subject are strongly interested in people, “but I am not sure we really respect their ways very much; and this makes it hard for us to understand their lives.”77 Regrettably, in The Return of Martin Guerre, Davis has permitted an excess of invention to obscure the lives of the people who engaged her sympathy and imagination. If readers of her book feel a kinship with Bertrande and lament the return of the man with the wooden leg, if they feel that they truly understand the lives of those long-dead peasants, it is, all unbeknownst, at the expense of respecting their historical integrity, their very different motivations and values. It is one of the charms of Natalie Zemon Davis's generous and imaginative approach to historical study that she even leaves open that possibility in the epilogue of her book: “I think I have uncovered the true face of the past—or has Pansette done it once again?”78


  1. Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), 1-2.

  2. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, trans. Barbara Bray (New York, 1978); Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, trans. John Tedeschi and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore, Md., 1980); see also his The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, trans. John Tedeschi and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore, Md., 1983).

  3. The quotations are, respectively, from reviews by A. Lloyd Moote, AHR, 90 (October 1985): 943; Donald R. Kelley, Renaissance Quarterly, 37 (1984): 252; and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, New York Review of Books, 30 (22 December 1983): 12-14. See also reviews by William Monter, Sixteenth Century Journal, 14 (1983): 516; Edward Benson, French Review, 57 (1984): 753-54; Michel Simonin, Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance, 47 (1985): 286-87; R. J. Knecht, History, 70 (1985): 121.

  4. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, viii-ix, 5.

  5. For example, see the works cited in note 2, above.

  6. Another contemporary work was Guillaume Le Sueur's Admiranda historia de Pseudo Martino Tholosae, a pamphlet following the genre of a news account. Davis's reinterpretation of the Martin Guerre story depends on her reading of Coras's Arrest Memorable, and she gives the latter far greater weight than Le Sueur's shorter, simpler account (see Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 4-5, 104, 114-15, 153 n. 17).

  7. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 111.

  8. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 57; 44, 50, 68-69.

  9. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 69, 86, 92.

  10. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 113.

  11. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 110.

  12. Davis suggests that a hint of Bertrande as an accomplice—or what she styles “the self-fashioning Bertrande” (Return of Martin Guerre, 118)—is found in two “male responses” to the story of Martin Guerre. The writers that she cites, however, did not regard Bertrande as an accomplice. A French poet of the later sixteenth century merely expressed sympathy “with the tricked wife,” while Montaigne, in his “Of the Lame,” referred briefly to the trial for imposture but without mentioning either Bertrande or a wife (see Davis, 118-19). In a 1941 novel, Janet Lewis presents a Bertrande who tacitly accepts the impostor for years and only slowly comes to realize the implications of her action. After reading Coras much later, Lewis wrote that she would have approached the story differently, apparently because of the indications in Coras that Bertrande had been suborned by Pierre Guerre (Janet Lewis, “Sources of The Wife of Martin Guerre,Triquarterly, 55 [Fall 1982]: 104); for more on Lewis's novel, see note 73 below. The same volume of Triquarterly (86-103) contains a translation of the main text of Arrest Memorable.

  13. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 4.

  14. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 31, 55, 60, 68.

  15. A. Lloyd Moote, AHR, 90 (October 1985): 943.

  16. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 118.

  17. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 90. On the same page, Davis states that the judges had to decide “what to do about the woman prisoner in the Conciergerie,” that is, Bertrande. It is easy to forget at this point in Davis's narrative that Bertrande was imprisoned not on charges of fraud, bigamy, or adultery but because the judges suspected her of falsely accusing her husband of imposture.

  18. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 43-44.

  19. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 19-21, 24.

  20. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 44, 61.

  21. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 42-43.

  22. Jean de Coras, Arrest Memorable, du Parlement de Tolose, Contenant une histoire prodigieuse, de nostre temps, avec cent belles, & doctes Annotations, de monsieur maistre Jean de Coras, Conseiller en ladite Cour, & rapporteur du proces; Prononcé es Arrestz Generaulx le xii Septembre MDLX (Lyon, 1561), 47, 52, 60-61, 67, 112. Davis states that Bertrande, when presented with her true husband at the trial, retailed her “prepared excuses: your sisters believed him too readily; your uncle accepted him”; 86. Coras's account, however, is considerably more pointed about whom Bertrande blamed: “Accusant les seurs dudit Martin sur tous les autres, qui avoient trop facilement creu, et asseuré, que le prisonnier estoit Martin Guerre leur frère”; 81.

  23. In his commentary in the Adages on Plutarch's “All women are the same when the lights are out,” Erasmus wrote, “Ego certe antequam Plutarchi locum adiissem, hujusce Graeci adagii sensum à Gallico edoctus eram adagio. De nuict tous chats son gris” (Opera Omnia [Leiden, 1703], 2: 821). On cats, sex, and “all cats are gray at night,” see Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York, 1985), 95-96. On peasant sexuality, see Jean-Louis Flandrin, Families in Former Times: Kinship, Household and Sexuality, trans. Richard Southern (Cambridge, 1979); Les Amours paysannes: Amour et sexualité dans les campagnes de l'ancienne France (XVIe-XIXe siècle) (Paris, 1975). Some comments by Montaigne suggest that pre-modern notions of sexual passion in marriage were very different from contemporary ones: see Michel de Montaigne, “On Some Verses of Virgil,” The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame (Stanford, Calif., 1965), 646-47, 649. See also Philippe Ariès, “Love in Married Life,” Western Sexuality: Practice and Precept in Past and Present Times, Philippe Ariès and Andrè Béjin, eds., Anthony Foster, trans. (Oxford, 1985), 131, 136-38.

  24. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 28.

  25. Coras, Arrest Memorable, 33; Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 28.

  26. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 60-61.

  27. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 68-69.

  28. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 75-76, 80.

  29. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 85.

  30. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 68-69, 76.

  31. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 86, 90.

  32. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 110. Davis follows this with the statement that “it is hard to imagine that the Coras we have seen dealing with Jacquette de Bussi [his wife] could consistently believe that women were so easy to trick”; 110. The implication is that, since Coras had high regard for his wife's intelligence, he must somehow have seen Bertrande as undeceived by the impostor. Davis once more adduces Coras's wife to make the same point: “[W]e have no female commentary on the story until the twentieth century. Jacquette de Bussi's reaction to her husband's gift book [that is, the Arrest Memorable] is unrecorded. I doubt that she believed that Bertrande de Rols could have been deceived for so long”; 118. Davis's suggestion, then, is apparently that Jacquette de Bussi would have seen through her husband's putative conclusions regarding Bertrande in the Arrest Memorable because the wife was, of course, female.

  33. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 86.

  34. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 86, 91.

  35. The quotation is from Coras's description of Bertrande's reasons for accepting Arnaud as her husband: “Ioint l'incroyable envie, qu'icelle de Rolz avoit, de recouvrer son mary”; Arrest Memorable, 82.

  36. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 27.

  37. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 34, 44.

  38. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 46.

  39. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 69.

  40. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 44-46.

  41. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 44.

  42. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 47, 48, 50.

  43. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 48-49; 142n.10.

  44. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 50.

  45. Arnaud was “consummé, en tous vices, adonné à toute espece de larrecins, et affrontemens, ordinaire renieur, et blasphemateur du nom de Dieu … Les tesmoings rapportoient, qu' iceluy du Tilh, estoit coustumier, iurer teste, corps, sang, et playes de nostre Seigneur, ce que vulgairement on appelle Blasphemer” (Coras, Arrest Memorable, 45; compare Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 37). Although Davis argues that the publications of Coras and Le Sueur on the Martin Guerre case had a certain Protestant setting (107), she does not consider that the absence of Catholic formulas or references to the saints may have been the result of the biases of the chroniclers rather than the supposed Protestantism of the impostor.

  46. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 56.

  47. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 103. In the work from which Davis borrows “self-fashioning,” the term refers to considerably more than the personal prerequisites for courtly success: see Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago, 1980), 1-9. For some reflections on the story of Martin Guerre, see Stephen Greenblatt, “Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture,” Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts, Patricia Parker and David Quint, eds. (Baltimore, Md., 1986), 210-24.

  48. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 4, 40-41.

  49. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 4.

  50. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 60, 84.

  51. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 91.

  52. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 113.

  53. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 57, 50. In the central chapters, Davis uses “Pansette” six times; “Arnaud,” ten; and “the new Martin,” forty-five. “Martin” is used to identify the impostor six times (52, 54, 56, 57). Thus Davis refers to the impostor as “the new Martin” or “Martin” three-fourths of the time.

  54. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 118, 49.

  55. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 108, 91n. According to Davis, the judges showed “lingering respect for the man who had dazzled them with his testimony” by treating his interests (that is, his property and his child by Bertrande) with consideration, by not torturing him, and by canceling his formal apology before the Criminal Chamber (89-91). But there is no evidence of “respect” shown by the court toward Arnaud. The judges were concerned for the interests of the Guerre family in dealing with the property and child; torture was not always used by the Toulouse court; and the apology was canceled when it seemed clear that Arnaud had no intention of apologizing, not (as Davis hints) because of fear that he would name Bertrande as his accomplice.

  56. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 102-03.

  57. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 108-09. Davis suggests that Coras may have seen “the story of Martin Guerre as conveying a Protestant message,” but she concludes that “if Coras and Le Sueur had such views, it must be said that they are not imposed by their texts”; 107. The reader, then, is left in some confusion as to the message or moral that Davis believes Coras intended his work to convey.

  58. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 109, 108.

  59. Without “le tout bon et puissant Dieu,” “une si horrible, et monstrueuse imposture, demeurast celee, et incogneue”; Coras, Arrest Memorable, 70. Davis also maintains that Coras “never mentions that Bertrande and Pierre were imprisoned for months”; Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 108. But Coras states “car elle demeuroit par l'appel encor arrestee”; Arrest Memorable, 84.

  60. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 109.

  61. For example, see Coras, Arrest Memorable, 98, on how Bertrande was a victim of rape, albeit by deception rather than violence.

  62. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 109.

  63. “Ce que i'entends avoir escript, avec la protestation, qu'ay cy devant faite, de ne vouloir entrer, en comparaison d'un si impudent affronteur, avec personnes si nobles, grandes, et illustres”; Coras, Arrest Memorable, 52. On the comparisons regarding Bertrande preferring death to dishonor, see ibid., 84.

  64. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 110.

  65. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 111; Coras, Arrest Memorable, 86: “Ainsi l'imposture dudit du Tilh, estant entierement descouverte, et le nouveau venu de tous uniquement receu, et recogneu, pour Martin Guerre, et le proces, par ce moyen du tout instruit, pour estre iugé diffinitivement, et iceluy veu”; see also Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 85.

  66. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 103, 111.

  67. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 112. The phrase “a play of tragedy between persons of low estate” is not from Coras but is quoted from Matteo Bandello's Histoire tragiques, the work that linked the tragic with “prodigious” passion and that does not discuss the story of Martin Guerre (see Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 153 n. 16). There is, of course, no indication that Coras conceived of “a play of tragedy” between Bertrande and Arnaud.

  68. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 110, 120.

  69. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 112, 103.

  70. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 112. Davis follows this statement with a quotation from a letter from Coras to his wife that details a “strange dream” (112). The letter comes from several years after Arnaud's trial (see Davis, 98), and Davis does not explain how it substantiates anything found in the Arrest Memorable.

  71. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, ix; Montaigne, “Of Cripples,” Complete Essays of Montaigne, 791. For some comments on history and fiction, see Carlo Ginzburg, “Prove e possibilità: In margine a Il ritorno di Martin Guerre di Natalie Zemon Davis,” in N. Z. Davis, Il Ritorno di Martin Guerre (Turin, 1984), 131-54.

  72. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 103.

  73. After completing this essay, I read Janet Lewis's historical romance, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941; rpt edn., Chicago, 1967). Davis states that Lewis's novel “differs from my historical account in most respects, but they resemble each other in presenting a Bertrande who is not a dupe and who has some independence of spirit” (Davis, 118n.). In Lewis's novel, however, Bertrande first suspects that the self-proclaimed Martin is an impostor after receiving him in bed (Lewis, 50). She sometimes thinks of him as “the new Martin” (Lewis, 50, 55). She slowly comes to realize “that she was consciously accepting as her husband a man whom she believed to be an impostor” (57; 55-65). Impelled by guilt and anger, she finally takes Arnaud to court, although even then she briefly hopes that the judges will declare him her husband (90). Arnaud's performance in court and his tenderness toward Bertrande make the wife ponder questions of identity (96-97). When the real husband returns, he accuses Bertrande of complicity with the impostor. Arnaud tells Bertrande that he had transformed himself into an honest man “for your beauty and grace” (107). He embraces his fate as a sacrifice to Bertrande, while the latter recognizes that “the return of Martin Guerre would in no measure compensate for the death of Arnaud” (108). Lewis draws an affecting portrait of a Bertrande torn between love and duty, a heroine at once shrewd, passionate, and honorable (55, 57, 63-64, 95-96). Romance and self-fashioning are prominent themes in Lewis's novel, along with the view that events unfold as a tragic drama for the peasant couple. Davis's version of the story mainly differs from Lewis's in her presentation of an explicit collaboration between the wife and the impostor, a religious perspective on that collusion, and a portrait of an unsympathetic Pierre Guerre.

  74. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 103.

  75. This is one of the dominant themes in the Arrest Memorable; see 10, 20-21, 33, 37, 54, 69, 80, 85, 98, 106, 109-12.

  76. Compare Donald R. Kelley's review of Davis in Renaissance Quarterly, 37 (1984): 254.

  77. Natalie Zemon Davis, “Proverbial Wisdom and Popular Errors,” in Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford, Calif., 1975), 266.

  78. Davis, Return of Martin Guerre, 125.

I would like to thank Elizabeth Anne Payne and Donald E. Queller for their encouragement and criticism in the writing of this essay.

Robert M. Adams (review date 16 March 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 homicide came about. Speaking as nearly as possible in his own words, the felon would describe to a royal notary his version of just what took place; he would then offer his explanation/excuse, express regret, and implore mercy. Certain formulaic pleas were early recognized as better than others. One who murdered in self-defense, in uncontrollable rage, or unintentionally (when drunk) had a pretty good chance of pardon or a diminished sentence. If one could claim to have lived a virtuous life in the past, and to be of good reputation, that might help too. On the other hand, anything that smacked of habitual evil-doing, of premeditated malice, or that violated deep taboos like those against parricide, was pretty well doomed to begin with.

Letters of remission were prepared by notaries for rich and poor, for members of the lower nobility, for plowboys and scholars. Not as many were prepared for women as for men; Ms. Davis speculates interestingly on some reasons for the difference. The part of the notary in tailoring the story-as-given to the purpose it was meant to serve was by no means negligible. It was, for example, a good idea to get into the story a suggestion that the victim died not only of his wounds but of bad medical treatment, or preferably of his own carelessness. Certain other phrases like “My friend, I'm not asking you for anything,” used just before the outbreak of violence (or alleged to have been used), could serve as evidence of peaceful intent; they were talismanic, and a smart notary worked them in where they seemed likely to benefit his client. It was storytelling under pressure. Between petitioner and notary the task was to compound a snappy, appealing story to attract the interest, and with it the compassion, of the authorities.

Sometimes the conniving storytellers leave rather evident marks of their art. When Toussaint Savary was beating his wife Bonne Goberde, he chose an inopportune moment when she was slaughtering chickens for his supper. Having hit her several times, he approached her again while she still held the knife in her hand—and as he came in, he encountered the said knife (“rencontra ledit cousteau”), which pierced his chest just below the left breast, i.e., near the heart. And that was that for Toussaint; a sympathetic reader will want to know that the lady got her pardon, while crediting the shrewd notary with an assist.

But sometimes the stories present Ms. Davis and her readers with more problems than there is evidence to resolve—take, for instance, the tale of Guillaume Caranda, a twenty-year-old barber from Senlis. On the evening of the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, he and some of his neighbors put on a kind of tableau of the Resurrection, in which he took the part of Jesus. But when the show was over, a certain roughneck named Claude Caure accosted him and said, “I see the god on earth. Did you keep your prick stiff in playing God?” This insult to both the barber and the holy image was repeated a few minutes later (hence deliberately); it led first to fisticuffs, and then to the drawing of a little knife, with the usual unhappy consequences for the bully Caure—who, of course, neglected to take proper care of his wound, so his death was partly his own fault.

But why that particular insult in the first place? Ms. Davis takes us off on a scholarly trail, of great interest in itself, involving literary analogies and Leo Steinberg's recent study of medieval representations of Christ erect, which can be thought of as a symbol of the Resurrection. But this doesn't make much of an insult out of it; and a reader trained on detective stories will look for a more personal motive. Perhaps those neighbors grieving at the foot of the cross included among the holy women some particular wench in whom Claude Caure took a particular interest. The motive of the fatal fight would then be straight jealousy. It's the sort of detail that, because it suggests longstanding hostility with even an overtone of premeditation, Caranda the murderer would want to keep quiet. How small precisely, one wonders, was that “little knife” he carried to his choral endeavors, and how many stabs did it inflict under the vague formula, as the notary put it, “he doesn't know exactly where”? The barber got off all right, as a good percentage of the petitioners did, but a modern jury would want to know more.

How much of what these stories tell us about French society in the sixteenth century is new or beyond the reach of easy conjecture? Not an immense lot, we can surmise. It was a rough society down there in the muddy lanes and dark streets of little towns. Men and women did a lot of cursing and elbowing (Rabelais appears by comparison no more than a tame transcriber of the everyday billingsgate of the streets), and now and then the violence got out of hand. Some years ago, while living for a while in Firenze, I started a collection of stories about the petty crimes of the Italian gutter, culled from the columns of La Nazione. They included a hilarious mixture of mischiefs, misdeeds, and escapades by the malviventi, ludicrously miscalculated criminal enterprises, and inspired comic incoherence. By the terms of the comparison, there was much more murder in sixteenth-century France, more pimping in twentieth-century Italy (the eloquent Italian word is “sfruttazione”). But, by and large, life in the murky depths of a tough, dirt-poor society doesn't seem to have changed all that much.

Can any significant relation be defined between the semijudicial storytelling of the letters and other forms of early narrative art from fabliaux to veillées, from moral exempla to dirty jokes? Medieval narrative is such a rich and various field that it would be very surprising if random parallels were not to be found here and there. But to make the argument for influence more specific is very hard. In the sweeping form that pardon narratives show the wide popular diffusion of storytelling talents through the medieval population, the argument is hardly to be questioned. Nobody ever doubted it But closer ties? Ms. Davis points to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and two tales of the Heptaméron (numbers thirty-six and thirty-seven) as offering parallels with certain common types of pardon tale. But the connections are not altogether persuasive. Shakespeare in England had little access to a distinctive feature of the French legal system, and the Montague-Capulet feud is just the sort of background against which the pardon letter was not intended to provide an excuse. As for the two Heptaméron stories, one does not involve a murder at all, just a domestic misunderstanding, and in the other the murderer is never brought to trial or even suspected of his crime—he goes scot-free.

Perhaps Ben Jonson, who had had personal experience of a remotely similar procedure, might have been attracted by the plot device of a plea for last minute pardon. (He had made good use of the neck-verse, a text of Latin scripture that, when recited opportunely, entitled one to trial before a more lenient ecclesiastical court.) But though the elements of such a plea are available in Volpone, they are not made very effectual, and the pleasure of The Alchemist's ending lies in the escape of the rogues from any punishment at all. Conceivably in romances of roguery and knavery enough evidence for the influence of pardon letters can be found to make the case worth arguing at length. Until then, the most that can be said is that Ms. Davis's suggestions are intriguing and worthy of further pursuit. But the rough stuff of the letters is a pleasure in its own right; it is meticulously presented, fully documented, and authenticated by transcriptions of seven letters in their vernacular originals. Nine picturesque illustrations complete the impression of a stylishly conceived and carefully designed book.

Richard C. Trexler (review date spring 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 these “letters of remission,” and describes the extenuating circumstances which afforded the king his window for suggesting pardons (festivities, [female] adultery, anger or drunkenness, etc.). Not surprisingly, periods of festivals often turn up as the time when many of these crimes—usually homicides—occurred for which pardon was sought.

The title “Angry Men and Self-Defense” gives the thrust of chapter two. Remission letters involving men commonly begin with “I was walking down the road minding my own business,” continue with suddenly-angry-men, and end with homicide in the midst of “hot colic.” Davis asks if this pattern extends to fiction and the crime pamphlets of the time. No, she concludes, because to be pardoned men are always on their knees, an unacceptable male image for the moral superstructure and the literary marketplace.

Alas the author has no time to pursue this question of power. True, she does claim that the institution of pardon letters maintained and heightened royal power. Following Elias, she further states that the (subordinating) images of language and comportment men had to present to the king “were among the civilizing mechanisms of the early modern French state.” But there is little else on this score. Davis proves as good as her word that she would “resist the social historian's temptation … and … emphasize only the cultural issue. …” Therefore, she does not offer us a vision of such prostrate Men on Bottom, many of whom came from the “better” classes, imagining themselves—even before a child king—as women.

This is worth mentioning because the author separates women from men in her own analysis. Significantly, she finds that although the women in the letters, very different than men, come almost entirely from a narrow class of artisan and village families, precisely such occupational and estate elements play the least role in their stories. Women's stories are about family, sexual honor, and inheritance. The women in chapter three are their gender roles. As to extenuating circumstances, Davis finds that anger is less acceptable in appealing women, especially an anger that leads to husband-killing. Importantly, she discovers that except for mother-daughter disputes, women's pardon stories lack dramatic buildup, often sounding like stereotypic wives falling to. They could “be themselves,” and women had to change less in their letters in the presence of the king than did men, Davis concludes, because they were used to being on their knees already.

As always, Natalie Davis' study is superbly written, generously endowed with the contemporaneous feel of life, grandly pagan in its avoidance of verbal or mental idolatry. If it had been longer, it could have presented a more sustained argument. But though the book has a certain breathless quality, it also displays that trade-mark vitality, and a self-effacing yet vigorous dedication to the truth that makes for great historical writing.

Jonathan Dewald (review date summer 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 offer not reality but “tales,” and yet this is precisely their significance for Davis. Here we are able to see ordinary men and women fashioning their experiences into coherent and persuasive narrative form. With characteristic sensitivity, Davis draws attention to the narratives' artistry; their authors fashioned the narratives in careful, elegant ways. Thus the “pardon tales” display the cultural repertoire available for use in the process of narrative creation, and understanding this cultural repertoire is Davis's main objective. This is not a question of reconstituting popular culture only. Instead, she shows, a fund of narrative techniques was shared by a broad range of social groups, linking peasant discourses with high literary culture.

At the center of most pardon tales, Davis finds, is first a vision of human personality. Male petitioners described their acts in terms of “hot anger;” they described themselves as good men caught in threatening situations, to which they unexpectedly responded with a violent act of self-defense. Second, they typically set their actions in a context of ritual time. Historical events occasionally entered and justified the narratives that Davis has studied, but more often the relevant chronology was that of religious festival or family feast, moments in which uncertainties in social relationships assumed heightened importance. In these uncertain moments, unexpected anger might erupt with special violence. At the same time, Davis is impressed with the tellers' readiness to weave the ritual situation into their tales; they used the images and expectations of ritual to give their narratives structure and resonance. Finally, there were the settings of work and social status. Narrative techniques varied according to the social standing of the parties involved, and Davis sketches types of the Peasant's Tale, the Gentleman's Tale, and the more varied tales of different artisanal groups. Through the tales, Davis shows us the society of orders as a lived understanding of the world, rather than mere social theory.

There were also women's tales, and these show striking differences from the men's. Few women involved themselves in the pardon process, because the major crimes that women were most likely to commit, sorcery and infanticide, became unforgivable in the sixteenth century. Even for crimes that might elicit pardon, women could not use male narrative techniques. They could not use the language of sudden anger that dominated men's tales—not because women were thought especially mild, but because their rage was so very fearsome and so clearly a violation of their subordinate role. Women's narrations instead emphasized emotions of modesty, despair, and jealousy, and portrayed women in passive domestic situations, outside the public and ritual settings appropriate to men; gender replaced work and status in defining women's roles in these stories. Davis's assessment of women's sixteenth-century situation is here somewhat darker than in some of her previous work, which emphasized women's rowdiness and chances for independence. Fiction in the Archives shows another side of these images of women; assumptions that women were potentially dangerous worked to exclude them from male forms of self-presentation.

Fiction in the Archives displays another characteristic of Davis's scholarship, a concern to relate in concrete ways popular and high cultures. To what extent, she asks, did the pardon tales' themes and techniques reappear in literary guise, whether designed for popular or sophisticated audiences? The answers are complex. Specific story elements might circulate widely, reappearing in pamphlets and short-stories, and so might the theme of pardon itself, which Davis traces in such unexpected artifacts as Romeo and Juliet. But contemporary literature also emphasized the partialities and trickery in pardon tales. These narratives, Davis suggests, interested contemporaries partly because they illustrated the incompleteness of any first-person version of events; they posed the problem of literary truthfulness, the imperfect coincidence of the plausible and the real.

Finally, Davis treats pardon as an aspect of state-building. The pardon process created a dialogue between sovereign and subject, a dialogue with political messages. Pardons illustrated the king's mercy and benevolence. But they also displayed his power, most clearly his power to set aside the law itself. the conditions under which subjects could enjoy his benevolence made a related point. Pardon came only when the subject begged for it in a properly humble literary posture, one that renounced self-glorification in recounting his act. This is in part an exploration of the cultural techniques and effects of absolutism.

Fiction in the Archives confronts a central issue for cultural historians today, that of integrating literary and archival approaches to the past. Davis does this in two ways: by examining ways in which formal literature made use of everyday events and narrative techniques; more importantly, by understanding the literary techniques that went into creating archival records—and by implication, into shaping the events that the archives record. In raising this issue, Davis enters essentially new territory, where previously only theorists have ventured. In consequence, Fiction raises some of the problems that such a history will need to resolve. There is of course the problem of typicality among narratives: Davis understandably focusses on the richest of her tales, and in any case the analysis of narrative technique requires extended treatment of a few cases, rather than quantitative treatment of many. There is the problem of contexts: how is the historian to set the exceptionally rich narrative of unusual events within daily life and its more humdrum tales? How can we determine the place that a tale of murderous rage held within the larger collection of narratives that constituted village life? Should we attempt to relate these narratives to the harsh realities of subsistence that Robert Darnton has made central to his version of how “Peasants Tell Tales”? Fiction in the Archives offers pragmatic answers to such inevitable questions: it shows what the historian can accomplish by listening closely to sixteenth-century voices, whatever their typicality, and it shows how lively such voices can be, despite the harsh conditions from which they emerged.

This is an important book. It is a first exploration of how sixteenth-century men and women narrated—and hence constructed—the realities of their lives. Despite the playful artistry of Davis's own voice, this is a call for social historians to approach their work in new ways.

Nancy L. Roelker (review date December 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 in a graduate seminar” (p. 56), she demonstrates the prevalence in the tales of “ritual and festive time.” A man who killed his adulterous wife on the day of the Magdalene, in thinking about it later, concluded that “the Magdalene's feast was the appropriate time to decide not to die for a whore and not to let her live. This way of thinking about connection takes some sustenance from medieval and Renaissance notions of correspondences and analogies between the supernatural and the natural world. … Here we have a dynamic convergence between ritual programs and ceremonial scenarios on the one hand and particular life events on the other. … The storyteller uses the ritual or festive frame … to make sense of what has happened” (p. 29).

Letters of remission are “many-layered” (p. 20) sociologically, in that the selection of 164 male pardons and 42 female is drawn from a cross section of the population and from all parts of France. (See figures for the categories in the note on page 18.) They are also “many-layered” culturally: “Information, values and language habits could flow across lines of class and culture. These stories … were spread by notaries, clerks, chancery officials, attorneys, judges … sometimes by the king himself. … We have here not an impermeable ‘official culture’ imposing its criteria on ‘popular culture,’ but cultural exchange, conducted under the king's rules. The stakes were different for supplicants, listeners and pardoners, but they were all implicated in a common discourse” (p. 112). Among the intriguing linkages is the correspondence of many pardon tale themes with those of Boccaccio, Rabelais, and Marguerite de Navarre.

Probably least familiar to most readers is Davis's careful explanation, analysis, and illustration of the complex processes of justice in sixteenth-century France. There were thirteen “extenuating circumstances for homicide” (p. 12 n.) and a considerable number of middlemen involved. Motivation is central to the “credibility” of the tale; much also depended on the status and influence of the advocates who brought it to the attention of the king, who alone had the power of pardon, acting through a judicial body, often the Parlement of Paris itself. Yet “even the monarch has an interest in the prisoner's voice being the dominant one. … Collaborative product though it was, the letter of remission can still be analyzed in terms of the life and values of the person saving his neck by a story” (p. 25). Authors and readers seem to have agreed that this be presented as “news”; dealing with real events, the vraisemblance of a pardon tale was increasingly seen as an element in its credibility, in contrast to the fantasies of chivalric romance. Davis's book contributes a “sociology of justice” to the early modern field.

Davis brings out a fresh angle of the familiar theme of the growing power of the crown. A large percentage of the petitions succeeded. “Of all the prisoners in the Paris Conciergerie from 1564 (when the record begins) to 1580, only 6.5٪ were deprived of the king's grace” (p. 51). This success goes beyond the effectiveness of the story, “as the supplicant was integrated into the larger drama of the build-up of monarchical power” (p. 52). Intermediary authorities had gradually been deprived of the right to pardon. “From the Ordinance of Blois, 1499, through the Republic of Jean Bodin, pardon was celebrated as ‘one of the fairest marks of sovereignty,’” and “the king's special pardons when he entered a town for the first time after his coronation were as important as his touching for scrofula” (pp. 52-53). Nevertheless, it is essential to remember that at all stages this process required “playing by the king's rules.” “The habit of language insisted upon in the letters of remission and the roles in which supplicants were required to present themselves were among the civilizing mechanisms of the early modern French state … reminding people of the locus of power” (p. 57).

Roger Chartier (review date June 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 what once was is a complex one, involving both reconstruction and interpretation.

What makes Natalie Zemon Davis's book [Fiction in the Archives] extraordinarily interesting is that it examines a specific category of archival narrations—letters of remission—and studies them as historical narration has been studied, showing the thematic motifs and the stylistic figures that permit what is related to be taken as a truthful account of what indeed happened. Why did she choose these letters in which a supplicant relates his crime in the hope—usually fulfilled—of obtaining the king's pardon? A first answer is obvious: the letters of remission are arguably the only sixteenth-century documents that contain true narrations; that are well organized, deliberately composed, and distinctive; and that came from all groups in society, including the humblest. This source is thus unique for anyone interested in evaluating the “storytelling ability” or the “rhetorical craft” of ordinary men and women in the age of the Renaissance.

But there is another reason for this choice. The letters of remission seem supremely authentic, both by their verification—since the tales they told could be checked, during the ratification procedures leading to the royal pardon, by comparing them with the depositions of witnesses and of the victim's family and friends—and by their content, which remained close to real-life experience. Thus they appear to be documents into which the historian can safely dip for the reconstitution of the criminality, customs, and habits of bygone days. To treat them as “fictions” is thus to pick an area in which demonstration appears most arduous and to show that any archival narration must first be understood as a construction that controls the effects it wishes to produce and takes command of the rules to which it will conform.

Natalie Davis begins by outlining the constraints governing letters of remission, of which she has read hundreds and studied 206 in depth. Some constraints are regarding the procedures for issuing a pardon. Drawn up by the royal notaries and secretaries or by their clerks, examined by the officers of the chancelleries, signed and sealed in the name of the king, and ratified by a royal court, the letters of pardon respected a fixed protocol safeguarded by the men of law and the scribes. The rigid formulas of the preamble and of the conclusion, the use of the third person (“the said supplicant”) rather than the personal “I,” and the use of a legal vocabulary all clearly indicate the mediation of someone accustomed to writing. Other constraints came from the law itself. Not all homicides, for example, were remissible. A wicked life and a bad reputation, a previous criminal record, malicious intent, and avowed premeditation irremediably precluded royal elemency. This meant that two typically “female” crimes—sorcery and infanticide—could not be pardoned by the king, one of the major reasons for the low proportion of letters of remission submitted by women (perhaps I percent of the total). The accounts addressed to the king thus attempted to reconcile what actually happened with what one should say about it—the efficacy of the narration with its verisimilitude.

These constraints, which lend stylistic comformity to the requests for clemency, nonetheless cannot stifle the voices of the supplicants, who are the true authors of the narrations that the notaries and secretaries transcribed. The very mechanism of remission demanded that this be the case, since not only was pardon understood as a totally personal, immediate relationship between the criminal who asked for clemency and the king who granted it, but also when interrogated by the judges at the later court hearing to ratify the letter, the person making the request was expected to answer in complete conformity to his or her statements made several months earlier. Davis concludes: “The notary gives the document its frame and writes the king and the supplicant into the narrative, but collaborative product though it is, the letter of remission can still be analyzed in terms of the life and values of the person saving his neck by a story” (p. 25).

Next Davis contrasts men's narrations (analyzed in chap. 2, “Angry Men and Self-Defense”) and women's narrations (chap. 3, “Bloodshed and the Woman's Voice”). A detailed comparison brings out three major differences. Men always offer the excuse of la chaude colle—sudden anger prompted by an insult, an offense, or a threat, which sets off an uncontrollable and violent reaction. Women's justifications of their acts play on a larger range of sentiments and emotions: despair, jealousy, indignation, fear. Second, whereas differences in social status and occupation command the story lines and dictate the themes in the men's stories so that they vary greatly when a gentlemen or a merchant, a peasant or a craftsman is the narrator, with the women preoccupations common to the “feminine condition” (the brutality of their husbands, the dilapidation of family fortunes, threats to their virtue and modesty) make the supplications of unwitting murderesses strongly resemble one another. Finally, although men's crimes are often set in a ritual and festive context, occurring abruptly during a ball or a banquet, a marriage or a Carnival celebration, women's crimes occur when the ordinary daily routine is brutally disturbed by unexpected violence—generally from males—that forces them to kill to defend their lives or their honor.

This parallel dissection of the contrasting ways in which men and women organized the narration of a pardonable crime, which marvelously fulfills the requirements of the history of gender, must not lead us into false symmetry. The corpora of male and of female crimes are far from equal in number, and thus they are not immediately comparable. As attested by literary references to the procedures for royal grace, remission was always connected to murder by a man. It is as if female violence were of another nature, failing to fit into the model that associated men's anger with the sovereign's mercy. Even without considering the differences between men's and women's letters of remission, it is these antagonistic representations of men's and women's criminality (representations that gave expression to actual practices but also that produced them) that best show the gap between them.

Davis's argument is impeccable and is based, as always, on a dazzling erudition (the 317 notes, a book within the book, are absolutely required reading). It branches out to touch on several fundamental questions: first, the places and the modes for apprenticeship in or exercise of the art of narration in Renaissance society. The book identifies several of these: men's gatherings in the workshop or at the tavern; female forms of sociability that lent themselves to caquets, the veillées; even confession, which was often taken, to the detriment of the clergy, as an occasion to tell a story.

Although these sources clearly attest that a certain familiarity with narration, with telling tales, was well anchored in the shared culture of men and women of the sixteenth century, do they offer specific models and formulas reusable in letters of remission? Before stating that this was so, we doubtless need to distinguish between those various forms of speech. The motifs characteristic of the story—the conte—did not lend themselves to the same liberties as yarns told in the village, the neighborhood, or the workplace; the rapid exchanges of a lively discussion supposed a different organization than storytelling; familiar talk among people of the same social level had constraints different from the ones that governed discourse addressed to a clerical or monarchical authority. Paradoxically, since allusions to pardon procedures were rare, it is possible that printed accounts (occasionnels [newssheets], novellas, and “tragic histories”) may have lent the schemata for structuring a solemn confession that then became a text—a plot that, like stories read or heard, was designed to eliminate doubt of its veracity and persuade belief.

In another respect, Natalie Davis places the posture implied in the discourse of clemency requests among the various mechanisms calculated to impose respect for monarchic sovereignty in the age of the genesis of the modern state: “The habit of language insisted upon in the letters of remission and the roles in which supplicants were required to present themselves were among the civilizing mechanisms of the early modern French state, reminding people subjectively of the locus of power, even while never silencing competing modes in which they dramatized their actions or mishaps” (pp. 57-58). Through the mechanism of royal clemency, the sovereign defeated arrogance in two ways: he subjugated competing authorities (ecclesiastical, seigneurial, and judiciary) whom he deprived of the right to pardon, now the monopoly of the ruler; and he imposed his will on his subjects, obliged to abandon all braggadocio to solicit his benevolence with all humility and reverence. In this sense, the scenario of remission can be considered a “civilizing process.”

This was perhaps less true in another sense, since this scenario (in men's declarations, at any event) postulates that impulses were uncontrollable, the force of affect irrepressible, and the individual powerless to contain a violence that made him lose all command of himself. For the authors of supplications, as for the officers of the chancelleries or the judges of the royal courts, it seemed evident that violent behavior, far from being blameworthy, could, on the contrary, excuse the bloodiest acts. As it happens, it was precisely to counter that immediacy of emotions that a new psychic economy and a new structure of personality would be constructed, following the model of rational control furnished by the king's court. These were to “civilize” behavior by spreading from one milieu to another, either by imitation or inculcation. Upsurges of homicidal brutality became less pardonable when it was thought necessary and possible to control one's impulses.

Returning to questions encountered in the mountains of the Artigat—how can a “prodigious history” become a “memorable” or “admirable” narrative? how can individuals construct their own identities through a process of “self-fashioning”?—and carrying them still further, Fiction in the Archives is a magnificent and generous book. In it Natalie Davis breaks down the barriers between disciplines and, by proposing both a “literary” reading of unpretentious narrations and a “historians'” understanding of canonical masterpieces (here, the Heptameron and Romeo and Juliet), she obliges each of us to make the effort of “undisciplining ourselves,” as Foucault wrote. Furthermore, at a time when historians are somewhat shaken by the examination that assails their discipline, now that the illusions of its supposed rupture with the world of narration have been dispelled, she gives them the tools to conceptualize the paradoxical articulation between archival “fictions” and historical narrations that impart knowledge—tools, but also a superb example.


  1. Paul Ricoeur, Temps et récit (Paris, 1983-85; Time and Narrative, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer, 3 vols., Chicago, 1984-88).

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 understand the ideas and actions of people from all walks of life in a variety of cultures, to exchange my thoughts with thinking people in many disciplines, and to enjoy the exciting play of discovering new ways of looking at the past. This kind of intellectual is rather European. I had to think of history as a vocation because I grew up outside the mainstream of American society. I did not follow the ordinary academic path owing to my marriage and children, my husband's and my political activities, my independent style of thinking and writing, and because I have always been deeply concerned with and wanted to reach an audience wider than the narrow circles of scholarship. While I am eclectic in looking beyond traditional approaches to history, I am no dilettante. The quality of my work in history—and I do believe that the craft I practice is work—as well as the subjects I write about matter very much more to me than the credentials and careerism so often, rightly or wrongly, associated with professional historians.

Having grown up an outsider, can you tell us about your family background?

While my father's mother, Grandma Zemon, was born in the United States in 1860, my other grandparents all immigrated to the United States from eastern Europe in the 1880s and 1890s. With many Jewish immigrant families, as with second-generation Americans generally, my parents were completely committed to the United States. Grandma Zemon had not gone to university, but she saw that her youngest daughter, who was much younger than my father, did so. Grandma Zemon loved the fact that I was such a bookish girl. My mother's family, the Lamports, had some members who left Russia for Palestine, more who came to the United States, and a tiny number of radical socialists in the Soviet Union whose views scandalized the more conservative members of the Lamport family. My parents did not abandon their Jewish identities—but they were present-minded in the sense that they did not reflect on the past in Poland and Russia—nor did they tell stories about the interesting experience of migration, which some members of my family are now trying to tease out of the last surviving member of my mother's family. Since both the Zemons and the Lamports settled in Vermont or Michigan, where there were few Jews, Jewish ghettos were not part of my family experience.

Could you say more about your mother and father?

My mother lived very comfortably as a girl. While all five of her brothers went to university, neither she nor her two sisters did so. My mother read some, but she was no intellectual. She was not so much a thinker as a doer. Energetic, she liked to play tennis and golf with my father. She kept what I'd call a Jewish home but not a practicing home, since my father stopped keeping kosher when I was a girl. Mother was involved with the Lamport family, Jewish friends, and women in Hadassah, the women's Zionist organization, but I'd say her interests were much narrower than my father's.

Growing up in Detroit in a very well-off family, my father graduated from the University of Michigan and did a year's graduate study at Harvard. Like his father, my father was a successful businessman in the Detroit textile industry. My father also had intellectual, literary, and theatrical interests that he enjoyed very much. He had lots of books on the shelf, some of which I now have, including his annotated Shakespeare. He had a rare edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, though I never saw him reading it. I remember my father as a liberal Democrat, not a radical. He once told me that he had had very radical ideas. He may have been an atheist in his youth, but he never told me about that. He always read Walter Lippmann. He kept up with what was going on in New York partly through his subscription to P.M., a progressive New York tabloid unaffiliated with any party, which I also read as a girl. I remember him coming home, sitting down, and typing away as he worked on the latest play he was going to do for the Rotary Club or for the USO during World War II. Liberal and adventurous, my father was a model for me as the writer in the family. He was also a model for me in his trying and competing. For instance, he was very proud of lettering in tennis at Michigan. As I recall, he was the first Jew to get such a letter: when his anti-Semitic coach refused to give him the letter because he was a Jew, someone (it might have been a football player) intervened, and he finally got that “M.” I still have it.

What about your own experiences of anti-Semitism, especially considering that you were born only seven months before another Jewish girl, Anne Frank, whose tragedy and diary have moved so many millions of Jews and non-Jews?

Yes, we are just about exactly the same age. I remember that very clearly, since my experience is tied up with a sensitivity that Jewish children had in those days. My family lived in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Detroit where only two Jewish families had homes. Christmas was a time of excruciating embarrassment for me because our house was dark. I remember when some Jewish children who were refugees from Nazi Germany, dressed in lederhosen, came to my grade school in the 1930s and the anti-Semitic furor this created. A boy on my block pointed at me and yelled: “You are a Jew!” “So what?” I responded.

One of the first poems I wrote for Sunday school goes as follows:

Fellow Jews in foreign lands
Whose lives are in a monster's hands,
Very soon will come relief
In God's power is our belief.

I remember Jewish anxiety over the Nazis and Zionist identification with Palestine, but there never was any talk then about the Arabs—as if they were not there. It's amazing how your parents could say something about anti-Semitism, and even though you were only half-listening to them, this could stick with you for the rest of your life. As a child I heard my parents mention names of famous persons, of whom I then knew nothing, but who later turned out to have collaborated with the Nazis. The ability to identify anti-Semitism became a part of my life without anyone sitting down and giving me a lesson in it.

Did you have any sisters or brothers?

I have a brother, a year and a half younger than I, who has had a wonderful career as a physicist. When we were children, he had to tag along with me and hear people say, “Oh, you're Natalie's brother.” We did a lot of things together when we were little, but as we grew up, our paths diverged. I skipped some grades and was three years ahead of him in school, which magnified the intellectual differences. I think I must have been quite self-centered and paid little attention to him. He grew very strong physically, and I remember when he beat me up.

After going to grade school in your neighborhood, you attended a private girls' school in suburban Detroit?

From the age of 12 to 16, I was enrolled as a day student at Kingswood, which then had a quota on the number of Jews admitted. There were two Jewish girls in my class of thirty. This was during World War II, when stories and pictures of the concentration camps were discussed in my current events class. At assembly, whenever we sang Christian hymns, I kept my fingers crossed so God would not be angry at me. I was an outsider at Kingswood, which probably made me all the more competitive to be a good little Jewish girl, make straight A's, and become a leader.

I was an excellent student. I loved history, especially the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, although I was drawn more to European than American history. I've subsequently met other historians of Jewish background who find Europe more interesting to study. I took some Latin and all the French I could get. I also loved the courses I took in literature and religion. Some of my teachers were very serious, and I particularly remember my teachers of English and ethics.

I was president of the student council during my senior year, when I tried to reform things by getting the girls to take a more active part in school affairs and not just leave everything up to our conscientious headmistress. I had some very lovely girlfriends at Kingswood, one of whom is still a friend. However, my competitiveness at Kingswood bothered me in that I did not like the way it made me relate to my classmates, many of whom came from great Detroit families and didn't bother to compete for grades or recognition. I remember really struggling with my competitiveness and being helped by Emerson's essay, “Compensations,” which explained that only a few people get fame or riches, but others can be compensated by simply taking satisfaction in their own accomplishments.

I found it excruciating to go to the parties at the country club which my parents belonged to—all those teenagers sitting around, preoccupied with clothes and cars. To me, these rich children of Detroit seemed as excessively materialistic as their parents. During my last year at Kingswood, I dated an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. He introduced me to his friends who were interested in ideas, unlike the boys at the country club. He's the one who first told me what Zionism was, and although I didn't exactly become a Zionist, I did come to understand what my mother's sister had been talking about all those years. I was starting to distance myself from the country club and the world of my parents even before I left for college.

Who decided you should go to Smith College?

My parents did. Joanie, a favorite cousin of mine, went there. I was also invited to go to Radcliffe, but my family decided on Smith and that was that.

Did you rebel in college?

Yes. I started to smoke (which I'm allergic to, so it didn't last very long, but that's what we did). In my first year at Smith, I started to read The Communist Manifesto for a history class. Moving from my sense of the injustice of anti-Semitism and my disgust over bourgeois materialism, I became a member of a little gang of Lefties at Smith. I was head of the Marxist Discussion Group one year, president of the Young Progressives another, and a member of the American Youth for Democracy. We protested the Marshall Plan because we thought the aid should not be tied directly to U.S. power but rather should go through the United Nations; we supported the Hollywood Ten, who were victims of the anti-Communist attacks led by Senator McCarthy; we opposed the Taft-Hartley Act because it limited collective bargaining and weakened the labor unions; and we worked for what was then called Negro self-determination. Years before the Montgomery bus boycott, any time I got on a bus, I always sat next to a black person.

What about women's issues?

I came to Smith right after World War II, when women's participation in public affairs had not yet been engulfed by the domesticity of the 1950s. This was also before concerns about peace and atomic power had been muted by McCarthyism and prosperity. What my gang at Smith then felt was that we had the same political and intellectual interests as men and that any group of smart men and women with the same political values would automatically see the world in the same way. Thus, our studying history linked us to the outside world rather than helping us to sort out our separate experiences as women.

How did your activism affect your studies at Smith?

It made me more passionately interested in history, which was my major. My political activism gave me a whole new way of looking at the past: I asked questions about classes, class conflict, the motors of historical change, the impact of ideas, and so on. My association with Marxism was not all that great, for I was then—as I am now—intellectually too eclectic to be narrowly ideological. At Smith, I was as impressed by reading Vico as I was by Marx.

I lived in the French House for two years, which helped me develop fluency. I didn't go to France my junior year, although I could have. I don't regret that, since I loved the Smith honors program so much that I am glad I stayed in Massachusetts. There were about ten history majors in the honors program. Three of them went on to become distinguished history professors and college presidents. Smith's history honors program offered small seminars that required lots of writing. We even had our own special room in the library where we talked incessantly about our papers. That Smith group was probably the best discussion group I've ever experienced.

Our teacher for the Renaissance and Reformation was Leona Gabel, who had come to Smith in 1923 after graduate work at Bryn Mawr. She accepted Burckhardt's Civilizations of the Renaissance in Italy, which argued that amid tremendous changes occurred the discovery of the individual, who no longer perceived himself merely as a member of a group but rather crafted and developed the self to make his own judgments in defiance of a state authority he no longer respected. Miss Gabel's course was one of the best I took at Smith. I remember how vividly she contrasted the human possibilities of the Italian humanists with the pessimism of the northern Protestants. Under her supervision, I wrote my honors thesis on Pomponazzi, an Aristotelian.

You eloped in the summer before your senior year?

In August 1948, I married Chandler Davis, a graduate student in mathematics at Harvard, whom I had met just a few weeks before at a meeting of the Young Progressives. He was from a big family—his religious background was Quaker, his roots were in New England, and his parents both had Ph.D.'s and were active in left-wing politics and didn't have much money. That was an incredible rebellion for me. My family and I had a big break—it took years to patch up with my mother, although my father came around sooner. My teachers also disapproved of my marriage but were supportive. It was illegal to get married at Smith without permission, and the college could have kicked me out, but still I was an all-A student and graduated with my class of '49.

Marrying Chandler, with his own career, his opposition to McCarthyism, his being blacklisted from U.S. universities, his case going to the Supreme Court, and his going to prison for his belief in free speech—all this dramatically affected your lives and those of your three children as you moved from Massachusetts to Michigan to New York City to Rhode Island and to Toronto. You've described this complicated period already, in your interview published in Visions of History in 1980. Since this period must be as painful for you to talk about as the anti-Semitism of your youth, let's concentrate here on how you continued to pursue history in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Marrying Chan also simplified my life in that I didn't have to worry about finding a husband who would respect me. I already had one. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't go on with my work in history. Chan and I believed in equality, though many things that happened in those years didn't amount to perfect equality.

During the academic year, 1949-50, while Chan was at Harvard, I took my master's degree at Radcliffe, working especially with its president, W. K. Jordan. My interest in early modern European history continued, and I did a paper for Myron Gilmore on Guillaume Budé, but my main interest now definitely shifted from individual intellectuals to society at large, especially lower-class people whom the French call menu peuple, that is, merchants, artisans, laborers, and peasants. I was very grateful for the support I received from Jordan, with whom I worked happily until 1950, when Chan and I went to the University of Michigan, where he taught mathematics and I started my Ph.D. We remained politically active at this time in opposition to the Korean War. Another graduate student and I wrote a pamphlet against the House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC], called Operation Mind, published by the Council of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions. Chan had signed the printer's bill, which was the basis for HUAC, university, and judicial proceedings against him that led to his being blacklisted by U.S. universities and having to take on several temporary jobs in New York City and Rhode Island. He served six months, minus time for good behavior, in Danbury Prison, while I was teaching at Brown University. I've often joked that Rhode Island is not a bad place to be in prison because of its tradition of dissenters. However, prison was no joke—it was horrible for him and for me.

In 1951, when I started my Ph.D. at Michigan, I liked the emphasis on interdisciplinary studies, drawing especially on the social sciences. I did a paper on Christine de Pisan, an upper-class woman of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, who was widowed early, and instead of remarrying as most women did in her day, found a way of supporting her children and her mother as a writer in that era before printing. Although Professor Palmer Throop encouraged me in this, I wasn't going to do women's history just because I was a woman. I didn't want to be categorized as a woman doing women's topics, since I was much more involved with issues of class. Reading the work of Henri Hauser, a French historian of the late nineteenth century, I came upon some peasant revolts in 1529 that had occurred in Lyon, France. After a year and a half at Ann Arbor, I crossed the Atlantic to go to Lyon's archives and explore possibilities for my dissertation.

Would you reminisce a little about your first trip to France in 1952?

I didn't even stop in Paris—I went right to Lyon, which was wonderful! I still sometimes remember how I felt, because it was so beautiful and so different from everything I had known. I loved the quality and elegance of the food. I loved the radical politics of postwar France. I met Catholic Leftists, Communists, and such writers as Frantz Fanon, born in Martinique, whose powerful depiction of blacks in The Wretched of the Earth was published about a decade later. I plunged into Lyon's archives just as I plunged into the life of the country. Chan came over for a short time and helped me with my work as best he could. During his visit, I became pregnant, so I stayed only six months in Lyon. Still, that was long enough for me to develop my adoration for archival research. What also made this trip so important was that such archival experience was then quite rare for U.S. historians of Europe, most of whom only worked with texts or printed sources before, during, and after the Second World War. I lacked the training in paleography my graduate students now get before they go abroad, but I was fortunate in that French scholars kindly helped me. Another reason why that first trip to Lyon has loomed so large in my imagination is because the State Department took Chan's and my passports away from us when we got back to the United States, and I could not return to Lyon until the end of the 1950s.

Apart from all the anxieties over your husband's situation, you had three children between passing your general exams for your doctorate in 1953 and completing your dissertation in 1959. How did you handle this? Did you have any role models, since the Bryn Mawr model of the 1920s persisted that women had to choose between pursuing a career and getting married and having children?

Without such role models, I remember wondering: “Can I do this? Will they take away my fellowship? Can I really manage this?” Somehow I just plunged in, and it worked. In several ways I benefited from this period. I think that having children has humanized me and made me a better teacher. The effortlessness of my pregnancies was completely different from my conscious historical work. When we were living in New York City and Rhode Island, Chan looked after the children as much as he could so that I could work in rare book collections. As a result, my use of sixteenth-century printed texts, along with my archival research, became hallmarks of my work.

Intellectually, the worst part of this period for me was the isolation. I now emphasize to students that they must have some collectivity with other students or historians who are actively engaging in research, going to meetings, and participating in scholarly exchanges to avoid becoming isolated.

I followed my own path and became my own historian with a style of research and writing that was my own. As a busy mother and wife, I managed to do articles instead of undertaking books. For instance, I published an article in the Journal of the History of Ideas, in which I examined math texts by the so-called reckonmasters who taught business arithmetic, including how to calculate and compound interest. This enabled me to explore how religion influenced business ethics. In my analysis, I tried to imagine my subjects in a dialogue with me. I always let them defend themselves even if I had the last word. In my writing, I always tried to avoid pedantry and verbosity. Chan helped me make every word work, since he wrote poetry and science fiction.

My isolation in the 1950s also meant that I escaped the demoralizing experiences some graduate students have, with their dissertation supervisor always looking over their shoulders, or of untenured faculty feeling pressured to publish fast, so they will get tenure. I didn't worry about my career when I started teaching at Brown University in 1959, for I was more concerned about Chan's case and three children.

Since Chan was blacklisted at U.S. universities, you must have been delighted when he was offered a professorship in mathematics at the University of Toronto in 1962.

Yes, indeed. The family moved to Canada, and I joined the history faculty in 1963. As with most American universities, Toronto then gave no consideration to women graduate students and faculty with children—no university nursery schools, no flexibility in scheduling, no accommodations for married students. Some graduate students and I did a questionnaire that we submitted to the administration, which ignored us.

By then, wasn't your historical work less class-oriented?

My understanding of class conflict and class consciousness had become more sophisticated while doing my dissertation on Protestantism and the printing workers of Lyon. I had to rethink the significance of social class, since the early Reformation in Lyon cut across, rather than reflected, class lines. For instance, not all wage earners in the printing industry went in one religious direction while the masters and publishers went another—the whole industry for several decades was primarily Protestant. Also, I had discovered that Protestantism in Lyon was much more complicated than I had first thought; the Reformation was partly a quarrel about paternal authority among adult men. I decided that I needed a multidimensional view of society rather than a focus on class determinism. When U.S. campuses were championing civil rights and protesting the war in Vietnam, I studied Lyon's youth groups, called charivaris. Returning to the Lyon archives on short trips in the early 1960s, when I could leave the children, I found lots of new material. For instance, I discovered material on early trade unions, compagnonnage, whose secret rituals baffled me.

Was this when anthropology became a part of your work?

The anthropological works I stumbled upon while at the University of Toronto helped me, as did a literary scholar with historical interests then visiting the campus. She read the draft of a manuscript I was then doing and suggested that I look into some literary sources on festivals. With the aid of some anthropological tools, I made better use of sermons, tales, proverbs, and pictures that were part of the life of Lyon's artisans and peasants. I also started looking at religious processions and rituals. Reading ethnographic studies gave me ideas about how I could examine informal interactions among neighborhoods in sixteenth-century France. I tried to see different parts of history relationally. Of course, this had been influenced by Marxism, but anthropology has become more important to me. Besides helping historians interpret symbolic behavior and suggesting how parts of a social system fit together, anthropological writings can teach historians how to observe living processes that provide clues to social interaction in the past and help historians understand materials from cultures very different from those in which they live.

What's the downside to historians using anthropology?

Some historians do draw the wrong lessons from anthropology. They take an idea of anthropology and then apply it uncritically to the historical case, having assumed that the concept is true because it comes from anthropology. Such historians do not give enough consideration to the peculiarities of the past and the evidence. Historians should consult anthropological writings for suggestions, not for prescriptions, much less for universal rules of human behavior. This is particularly true in the use of sexual categories. For instance, homosexuality is a term that should be used with caution, since it emerged as part of a given sexual economy only in the nineteenth century, when the belief developed that persons have a sexual orientation. In the Middle Ages, that notion barely existed; you didn't talk about a homosexual person, you talked about sodomy. The point is that sexual economies and matters of gender vary over time just as political economies change.

Eight of your articles that had already been published on both sides of the Atlantic were collected in your first book, Society and Culture in Early Modern France, with a poetic tribute to your approach to history by your husband and effective use of many illustrations. Since the book was first published in 1965, it has received much scholarly acclaim and has gone through many editions and translations. How do you account for this?

Since the book continues to be read so widely, I think that people simply want to know more about the common people of the past. This relates to the big appetite for social history that has increased since World War II. Perhaps the book's continued usefulness arises from my careful research and writing. Being published in the early stage of the women's movement was also important, because students and historians were curious about what a female historian had to say about women in sixteenth-century France. The book helped make me a model for women in history.

What about your subsequent articles on women and gender?

I'm glad you added the word “gender,” because I do not believe that women should be treated as a separate subject in isolation but rather should be seen in relation to society as a whole. Females should be understood with males in light of their different geographical locations, classes, occupations, families, religions, education, age, neighborhoods, and so on. I have done an article on women artisans and workers in sixteenth-century Lyon, whether paid and independent or unpaid assistants to their fathers or husbands. I published an article on Alice Clark, a British socialist, and Leon Abensour, a French Jew, both early twentieth-century pioneers who uncovered all kinds of material about women, peasants, the poor, the illiterate, and the young of both sexes—all those people underrepresented in preindustrial written records. I have written other articles that relate to family and individual identity in France during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that reveal a much wider variety of possibilities than historians used to believe. I have published an article on the different kinds of history several women in the British Isles and in Europe wrote between 1400 and 1820. My work shows that I approach women in very specific ways, as I do all other groups.

Hasn't your recent work on religion in Lyon exploded some simplified historical notions about religion in early modern European cities?

I have been able to challenge the historical view that the sacred was a residue from the village or from the tradition-bound premodern town and that lower-class millenarianism was a defense against the city. I have been able to show that early urbanization meant that secularization was not as complete as historians had thought. Religious responses to the city were much more varied than historians with biases against religion and/or the city have written.

You have the reputation of being a fine teacher, so could you tell us how you teach history to undergraduates and graduates?

I have been fortunate at Berkeley and Princeton in not having to teach survey courses that have to cover big time periods in large, impersonal classrooms. Because I have usually been able to choose the courses I teach, which have relatively small enrollments, I have enjoyed teaching, since I like to get to know my students. Of course, my approach is different for undergraduates and graduates.

I try to get undergraduates to think about history as a process, since there is nothing final about the past. When “book A” says one thing and “book B” says another, they can't both be right. I teach undergraduates that history is something that we work on, that we create, and that needs to be corrected. I like to use mostly primary sources, even in my undergraduate classes. Yesterday, in the first undergraduate class meeting of this semester, I said that I wanted to teach them the main historical changes in the systems, organizations, and cultures of sixteenth-century Europe so that they can put these things into a broad perspective. I also encourage undergraduates who are interested in film to think about what makes an historical film good. Good historical films have much more than authentic costumes or props: they must suggest something truthful about the past and be the visual equivalent of a written truth statement.

My graduate history classes are much more focused and detailed than my undergraduate classes. I try to help these students learn how to develop research strategies, how to find materials in archives, how to read and interpret texts, and so on. I also encourage graduate students to form their own views and fight for them among themselves. I also discourage them from getting hung up on historiographical controversies, such as the crisis over the seventeenth century. While they need to know some of this for their exams—how historians “X,” “Y,” and “Z” approach an issue—this can become an end in itself and bores me. Much of what graduate students learn is learned by doing, especially when it comes to their writing and my helping them get their findings across to the reader. I try to give graduate students the kind of collegial criticism that has helped me so much.

How did you become involved in making the well-known French film entitled Le retour de Martin Guerre?

Apart from my lifelong interest in films, my work pushed me toward finding new ways to tell about the past. I wanted to reach a large audience and hoped that my work on sixteenth-century France could have significance for people outside the university. My interest in anthropology also led me to visualize the people in what some call the “lower orders.”

In 1976, I read Jean de Coras's book about the Toulouse court, published in 1561, and was captivated by the story of a French peasant disappearing for eight years and returning to face a trial against another man who had impersonated him, lived with his wife, and claimed his family's inheritance. I thought to myself: “What a great film this would make.”

In the spring of 1980, some people at Princeton encouraged me to write up a synopsis and talk to some directors in France when I went over there for a conference. I told the historian Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie about my idea, who not only knew the story but told me that two leading French film makers were about to start a screenplay on Martin Guerre. When I started to cry, I realized how very much I wanted to do this. Ladurie phoned the film makers, who had just read my Society and Culture in Early Modern France, which had just come out in French translation a few months before. The film makers and I talked on the phone, and I agreed to help with the film. That summer at Princeton's excellent library, I studied the region—its economy, institutions, and language. I wrote to the Frenchmen about a possible scenario, scenes, and characterizations. In August, I paid my own way to Paris and read their version of the script, which fascinated me in how they could transform so complicated a story into apt dialogue. They had already warned me that there were going to be some departures from the historical record, and I consoled myself by viewing it as an omission rather than a falsification. Here I cannot go into details, such as my great interest in the characterization of Bertrande, the wife of Martin Guerre, who, after having been abandoned, became attached to the man who impersonated him. Before the film was to be made, I wrote up all kinds of information to help the film makers achieve as much authenticity as possible.

When the shooting started, I was fascinated to be on location, watching and working with the director as he and the actors brought these figures of the sixteenth century to life on the screen, especially all that the actors brought to the characters they played. The tiniest details, the slightest gestures, all conveyed so much. Although I was pleased with most of the film when it came out, there were historical points that I still needed to make, so I wrote a short book that I dedicated to my husband and called The Return of Martin Guerre, which since its publication in 1983 has generated lively debates in several languages.

Do you have any more film plans to discuss?

Only that I am still very interested in the making of good historical films. Lots of historical movies have been made about the upper classes, and I like to see them when they are well done. But my historical expertise is with the lower classes. I might settle for making a film about upper-class people if a woman were central.

In the mid-1980s, you gave a series of lectures at Stanford that became Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France, which was published in 1987 and dedicated to your Princeton colleague, Lawrence Stone—“historian par excellence and storyteller, too.” Besides once again broadening historical understanding, hasn't this book also stirred up controversy?

Since historians are trained to work mostly with written evidence, I believe that we need to be careful not to become imprisoned by documentation. This I could illustrate by showing how notaries, lawyers, and others then in France were involved in preparing what were called letters of remission that could help the accused gain a royal pardon. Liking almost any good story myself, I was fascinated by the crafting of these narratives and what they revealed about accused people and how the French judicial system then functioned with these so-called pardon tales. This book also illustrated how the lower classes had more choices and options than history has presented. This book, too, is now being translated into other languages.

You have also recently examined some autobiographies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one of which is out, with your study of the other three to follow soon?

These autobiographies fit in with my interests in how people perceived “self” in early modern Europe. I did an essay on fame and secrecy for Mark Cohen's translation of the autobiography of a seventeenth-century Venetian rabbi named Leon Modena, called Life of Judah, which was published in 1988. Based on the Becker Lectures I gave at Cornell, I am now finishing a book on the autobiographies three women wrote in the same period—a Catholic French woman who went to Quebec and became involved with the Amerindians, a Protestant German woman who moved to France and recorded popular tales and common customs, and a Jewish French woman who borrowed the money to go Surinam to study insects.

Could we now turn from the specifics of your stimulating and productive scholarship to your 1987 presidential address to the American Historical Association, where you explored how five historians maintained the tension between the field of history that endures and their own brief embodiment of its claims? Doesn't this tension and your choice of these five historians tell us something about the way you view your own life's work in history?

My choice of those five historians is significant. Étienne Pasquier's sixteenth-century historical studies used evidence with great precision and protested against thieves who used his work and did not give him the credit due. David Hume, the eighteenth-century Tory historian, skeptically doubted what we could know but very much enjoyed renown. His contemporary, Catherine Sawbridge Macaulay, was a Whig with strong religious and political beliefs who saw liberty as a transcendent responsibility of the historian. In the twentieth century, I considered Marc Bloch and Eileen Power. Bloch, the coeditor of the Annales d'histoire économique et sociale, the journal that gave its name to one of the world's most influential historical schools since World War II, was descended from an old Jewish family and was a tragic victim of anti-Semitism. From relatively modest beginnings, Power was educated at Cambridge, traveled to Asia after World War I, and made contributions in London. She and Bloch studied history comparatively to explain how history can undermine assumptions about what was “natural” or “habitual” and help historians gain greater perspective on the contemporary world.

Stepping back now from all your scholarly productivity, could you give us your perspective on the symbiosis that you seem to have achieved between studying the “lesser orders” as a social historian and the “great thinkers” who have been the concern of historians of ideas?

As we become more conscious of the complexities of culture, we become as aware of popular culture as high culture. We can't all spend time digging around in the archives or in law books trying to find out what the common people were doing. Nor can we simply study the great thinkers without putting them into their historical place. By being aware of the multiple layers of association in a text by a figure such as Montaigne, the sixteenth-century essayist, we can ask new questions, learn of new persons to talk about, find new books to examine, and trace archival paths that have not yet been followed. We now know that lower- and upper-class worlds were reacting and reflecting on each other and even sometimes sharing rules and readers.

Could you comment more generally on some of the strengths and weaknesses you now see in the discipline of history?

One great strength is that so many new fields have been raising new questions, suggesting different ways to use old and new source materials, and incorporating interdisciplinary techniques into history. As for weaknesses, I have spoken already of how I do not identify myself as a professional historian associated with specialization and careerism. I do not object to historians enjoying the game well played, but history to me is much more than a game. I don't like those who think the most important thing in the world is where you get your professorship or which history department is best. People teach and write good history in different settings. Nor do I think the most important thing is getting good reviews. History is for the people, not the profession. The work of historians belongs to the readers once it has been published, and the most important thing is the effect history has on people. The historian's career has hierarchy and ritual. You need elder statesmen and stateswomen who stand for something, but I'm saying we've got to look beyond the profession.

What then is the place of the historian in the contemporary world, and how has your study of history affected your views of the future?

As I said in my interview in Visions of History, I want to be an historian of hope who makes people aware of possibilities in the future. The way history can show the range of choices and different paths followed in the past also suggests alternatives for the future. I'm not saying there are unlimited choices or free will, but I am arguing that choices have been made in past periods where different resources were available. My seeing such political importance to history may be a residue from the hopes of my youth. There may also be some maternal and Jewish feelings here.

Some of the news of today encourages me, while some of it makes me anxious. For instance, I was excited by the ending of repressive rule in Eastern Europe. Many close friends of mine were involved with what was going on there and in the Soviet Union. At the same time, I have been dismayed by the very impoverishment of social belief and political hope there, because people have become so disillusioned with ideology and dismissed utopian thinking. Still, though it may be gone awhile, I believe that it can come back. History never stays the same forever. Repair is evident in history, as things return that seem permanently lost. History can remind us that things come back, but hopefully not in the same horrible form of Stalinism that I had not understood in the 1940s. I do hope that the belief of making things better through cooperation will eventually come to Eastern Europe, where these notions now seem to be discredited.

As to the Persian Gulf, I think that war is unnecessary, gratuitous, and irrational from any point of view. I'm going to a public meeting tomorrow at Princeton to try to understand this situation better. Some students are saying oil and blood do not mix. Oil is one element of the war, but I can see no sense whatsoever for the United States expending so much life and energy when we have such grotesque problems in our own country. I see too much anger in all this, which really worries me.

Do you have any advice for historians, particularly the new honor students who have been initiated into Phi Alpha Theta and become new readers of The Historian?

Go where your tastes and interests carry you. Keep reading history. Do the kinds of exploring that seem important and appetizing to you. Although you might get good guidance from your elders, don't just follow them because they say it's the right thing to do. Follow where your own curiosity sends you.

Thank you.

Christine Adams (review date winter 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 variety of source material. Glikl wrote a detailed autobiography for her children, as did Marie de l'Incarnation, who also left extensive correspondence. Maria Sibylla Merian wrote and illustrated several naturalist texts. Davis adds to these sources, as she did in The Return of Martin Guerre, by plumbing the archives—but also by bringing her own extensive historical knowledge and imagination to this work. The result is a richly textured treatment of the lives and times of each of these women.

The book considers each of the women in turn. “Arguing with God” brings us into the world of the German Jewish merchant family, and specifically the world as seen through the eyes of Glikl. Davis moves effortlessly back and forth between a broad analysis of the problems facing seventeenth-century Jews, Glikl's narrative of her life, her ordeals and difficulties, and the various parable-like tales, recounted for the edification of her children, that pepper Glikl's account. Glikl, like many women, showed both energy and resourcefulness in dealing with the trials of her life. Davis' analysis of Glikl is most compelling when she places her stories side-by-side with the events of her life, to show how Glikl shaped her autobiography in part as a moral teaching for her children. But Davis also argues that Glikl was “exploring the meaning of suffering and seeking to find a way to accept what God sends.” (p. 53)

In “New Worlds,” Davis examines a woman very different from the family-centered Glikl. A young widow and mother of a son, Marie Guyart sought mystical union with God through mortification of her flesh and renunciation of the things of the world. Finally, at the age of thirty, she entered the Ursuline convent. But greater adventures awaited her. In 1639, Marie left France and set sail for Québec, where the Jesuits were teaching Amerindians about Christianity. She became the first Mother Superior of the Ursuline house in Québec, and set up a school for the Amerindian girls as well as daughters of French colonists.

Davis plays on the multiple meanings of the word “Metamorphoses” in her chapter on Maria Sibylla Merian, famous for her paintings and copperplates of flowers, plants, and insects. Merian was an avid observer of the world of caterpillars, spiders, and other such creatures, and her studies, according to Davis' careful analysis, focused on the process of change, the life cycle of these living creatures. But Davis also highlights the process of change in Merian's life. Married for twenty years, Merian experienced a dramatic religious conversion in 1685, and abruptly left her husband to join the Labadist religious community in Friesland. Six years later, she went to Amsterdam, where she found welcome among naturalists like herself. Finally, in 1699, she was moved to undertake, with her daughter, a long and expensive voyage to the Dutch colony of Suriname, a voyage that would allow her to write and illustrate her most important book, Metamorphosis.

All three women are fascinating, and Davis offers a creative and compelling look at her subjects. She brings Glikl and Marie de l'Incarnation to life more successfully, due to the nature of the sources—unlike the other two, Maria Sibylla Merian left only her naturalist texts, rather than personal letters or autobiographical sources. To a certain extent, however, the reader is left asking—as do the women themselves in the introduction—what brings these three lives together? Glikl seems a very traditional woman within the context of early modern Jewish society, certainly when compared to Marie de l'Incarnation and Maria Sibylla Merian, both of whom more explicitly challenged gender boundaries. In the case of Merian and Guyart, the comparisons are more obvious. Guyart's adventurous voyage to the New World of Québec parallels Merian's to the New World of Suriname. In fact, one wishes that Davis had drawn more explicit links between their experiences—for example, a closer comparison between Merian's views of the Africans and Amerindians of Suriname with Guyart's comments on the Amerindian women of Québec.

In fact, this comparative aspect is what this otherwise rich and original book lacks. While Davis does treat some common themes in each of the chapters that she highlights in her short conclusion—the nature of these women's work, the influence of religion in each of their lives, the gendered nature of their individual experiences, and the importance of family relations and experiences—more sustained comparative analysis would have brought the three chapters together into a more satisfying whole. Most notable, according to Davis, were the unique lives these women created for themselves on the margins. I was not entirely satisfied with her definition of “living on the margins”—most individuals throughout history have lived “on the margins,” away from centers of political power or formal centers of learning and cultural definition. However, her argument that “each woman appreciated or embraced a marginal place, reconstituting it as a locally defined center” (p. 210) is a persuasive and compelling one. Clearly, these women had an impact in their worlds, and their stories are well worth reading today.

Barbara J. Todd (review date December 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 entirely different book flourishes in 120 pages of scholarly notes addressing the multiple cultural contexts of the women, the provenance and accuracy of existing versions of their work (Davis has worked particularly hard to recover, and in the case of Glikl recreate through her own translation, the most accurate versions), and the genres in which each woman worked.

Ranging across half the globe from St. Petersburg to Surinam, and culturally from the Protestant Labadists to Carib and Montagnais peoples of the new world, she audaciously crosses as many disciplinary as geographical boundaries. As she explores the effects of women's role of imperialism on the margins of gender and race, Davis moves her focus from Guyart and Merian to the subject people with whom they interacted, considering parallel ideas of spiritual narrative in the case of the first nations in Quebec and Guyart, and comparing perceptions of the meaning and uses of nature of the African and Amerindian peoples of Surinam with those of Merian. In mobilizing ethnography and anthropology of the Americas to illuminate non-European spirituality, Davis may too easily conflate the complex cultural differences between the native American peoples. Nor while the project of defining a feminine style (more sympathetic, less judgemental, less likely to adopt negative stereotype) distinguishing Guyart's from Jesuit accounts and Merian's work from those of male naturalists is illuminating, differences between women's views (for example Aphra Behn's nearly contemporary version of Surinam, Oroonoko) and between the two Maries themselves prove to be as complex as any differences between the sexes. And sadly, ultimately, the subject people are still voiceless, their images filtered through European lenses, however skillfully refracted in Davis's analysis.

Davis's interest in genre leads her to highlight how Glikl inserted metaphorical prescriptive tales into her autobiography without comment, leaving to her children, and latterly her reader, the task of drawing the lesson. In her project of “comparative biography” Davis, like Glikl, too often merely juxtaposes, leaving to the reader the task of drawing the comparisons between the lives, a task complicated by the complex multiple differences between the women. Similarly, as Merian combined in a single botanical illustration larvae, caterpillars and moths and the plants on which they lived using the category of metamorphosis as her organizing criterion, rather than the generic categories being developed by her male contemporaries, Davis uses the historical techniques of coincidence, parallelism, and probability (often with little connective analysis) to mark points of comparison between the women, and their worlds. As she salutes Glikl and Merian for their narrative techniques as challenging the received categories of male colleagues, Davis herself challenges the categories of historical narrative and analysis, pushing on the margins of historical methodology and intention.

Some readers will doubtless find these aspects of the book irritating. Others will find them liberating. Weaving fragments of evidence together in a web of speculation is indeed one way of dealing with obstacles to writing the history of women and other archivally obscure groups. Is this how women's historians and historians of other partially documented group will push out the boundaries of the historical discipline? Or will it merely marginalize the enterprise of women's history? One wonders what Davis's energy and learning could have achieved if applied at greater length to one of these women, or better, to a woman less well known. Yet something is indeed gained by compressing these three women within the margins of one book. One comes away—and students will come away—with an enhanced sense of the huge diversity of European women's lives. That these three, peculiar in a few ways, but ordinary in most, could have lived at one time in such diverse ways and understood the world through such different eyes in itself reaffirms the value of a women's history that reveals not a single sex, but rather half of humanity.

Anne Jacobson Schutte (review date spring 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Of this trio, Glikl emerges as the most fully realized character, perhaps because Davis finds her particularly congenial and certainly because her memoirs provide direct access to her milieu and mind. Working from a Yiddish edition published in 1896, Davis corrects mistranslations and restores omissions that mar subsequent German and English versions. Exemplary tales, through which Glikl and her Jewish contemporaries made sense of their experiences in an ambiance separate from yet intimately connected with the Christian world that surrounded them, receive especially full and sensitive treatment. Drawing on extensive research in manuscript and printed sources and intelligent exploitation of modern works on Jewish social and economic life, theology, and folklore, Davis vividly and movingly represents both the constraints and the considerable room for maneuver in this seventeenth-century woman's life.

For several reasons, Marie de l'Incarnation proves less accessible to the author and her readers. One obstacle is the nature of available personal documents: a “relation” of her life written in 1654 at the behest of spiritual directors; a version of it refashioned by her Benedictine son into a conventional saintly vita; and a corpus of letters (the editorial fortune of which Davis does not explain) sent from Canada to Marie's fellow Ursulines, other supporters, and her son in France. Oddly, having paid close attention to Glikl's linguistic and literary resources, Davis refrains from thoroughly investigating and speculating about Marie's. Passing reference to contacts with Jesuit confessors cannot account satisfactorily for the ability of a bourgeoise who came late to her formal religious vocation—a woman functionally literate in French but not systematically trained in Latin—to master and embrace such sophisticated mystical concepts as the Incarnate Word. Alluding with a verbal smile to Marie's claim that her knowledge of Amerindian tongues was miraculously infused, Davis does not sufficiently probe the crucial matter of language acquisition by either natives or nuns in the Ursuline compound at Québec. Hence her suggestive comparison between Marie's optimistic, “universalizing” view of Amerindians and the Jesuit missionaries' pessimistic and perhaps better informed opinion is less persuasive than one might wish.

Reconstructing Merian's inner itinerary presents a formidable challenge, since the meticulously illustrated books about the metamorphoses of insects and a few surviving letters of Merian—unquestionably a “learned lady,” though we are told nothing about her acquisition of Latin—contain almost no intimate references. Davis seeks to meet this challenge by positing as the critical turning point Merian's conversion to Pietism, her departure from her husband, and her retirement for five or six years to the Labadist community at Wieuwerd in Friesland. That this experience freed her to settle independently in Amsterdam and then to pursue her entomological quest in Suriname appears likely. Davis's contention on the other hand that Merian's attraction to and subsequent disenchantment with Pictism precipitated not only a decisive shift in her attitude toward God's governance of the natural world but also an unusually sympathetic view of indigenes in the Dutch colony strikes this reader as forcing possibilities beyond the margins of plausibility.

Notwithstanding the belated statement and strained application of the thesis and shortcomings in the second and third sections, both general and scholarly audiences will find Women on the Margins, like Davis's previous books, a marvelous read. In her accustomed lucid and eloquent fashion, she maps three terrains hitherto familiar only to specialists in one or another of them. By pursuing leads in her copious endnotes—not an easy task, given the lack of a bibliography and the exclusion of modern authors' names from the index—students and scholars will be able to undertake explorations of physical, intellectual, and psychological terrae that, thanks to Davis, are no longer virtually incognitae.

Orest Ranum (review date June 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 diversity, not only in their lives as women but also in their creative energies.

The impediments to and possibilities for living the lives they wished to lead form the overarching structure of the book, with female powerlessness in male-dominated Europe the leitmotif. This powerlessness is presented as a given; it is not analyzed except in the most obvious terms. To say, for example, that the superior of a religious community is powerless when she is in frequent contact with colonial officials who are obliged to consider her views is anachronistic. The power exercised by a woman as head of a religious community is thus not given the importance it deserves, but power and politics are not really what interest Davis in this book.

The three women were raised in urban settings and had skills and possibilities for self-esteem characteristic of life in artisanal families and communities all over Europe, but their different religious and regional cultures would seem to militate against the usual comparative history techniques. For Davis, this was the challenge: to work out a triadic history beyond comparative history. The results are brilliant. The centripetal differences apparent in the European backgrounds pale almost to insignificance in light of the enormously increased cultural diversity resulting from their careers and travels.

While responses to European cultures by native American populations is not the focus of the book, Davis notes the upheavals in Canada and Surinam as a result of disease, the world economy of sugar, slavery, and the fur trade. The efforts to convert Amerindians in Canada, with all their languages, beliefs, dreams, and customs solemnly, if luridly, described for publication in Europe, demonstrate just how acculturation occurs and can leave some activist participants more complete in their lives. There is almost an Aristotelian notion of the self as fulfillment at work throughout the book.

Marie Sibyll Merian differed in her studies of insects from other pioneers in the field of entomology because, instead of being obsessed by classification, she wished to capture the entire life cycle of insects on the engraved and painted page. Like the early modern approach to capturing an “event” in illustration (those of St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, for example), four or five scenes would be placed in collage together to constitute a narrative of the event. Merian's descriptions of insects are their life stories, and this is essentially what Davis does with the lives and creative accomplishments of the three women. Their similarities are in the order of things, natural and cultural, with a transcendent impulse being central to human nature. Whether in and through the meshalim of Northern European Yiddish-speaking Jews, or the interior voices of Christian and Amerindian souls, or the life cycles of insects, it is the attempt to understand and order experience sympathetically that Davis elucidates. Stories about bears differ from culture to culture, dreams were taken much more seriously by Amerindians (before Freud) in Canada than Europeans, and the Jewish moral tale is ambiguous in meaning and requires argument for understanding, but together they and other strains of thought make up something for Davis that is to be pursued and enjoyed, not necessarily rationally but rather as testimony to the richness of human experience.

Deepening religious perspectives in the lives of Glikl Bas Judah Leib and Marie de l'Incarnation and the transitions from German Lutheranism to Labadist communitarianism to what would seem to be Deism in the life of Merian are all pieced together as well as the sources permit. Just how these women lived their faiths is the center of attention, with religion offering possibilities for understanding and justifying the boundaries between the needs for autonomy and belonging in the family.

Events occurred totally beyond Leib's control, but by recounting stories of different and similar incidents she held on and thanked God for the good that happened. The accounting of honor and shame (in both German and Yiddish) for the family as a whole was as important to her as her children, her husband, her autonomy, and her understanding of God. There is every reason to believe that Leib wrote down what would have remained oral in a family so closely knit had its members been able to live in closer proximity to one another. Her writing is almost speaking.

When Marie Guyart became Marie de l'Incarnation, she prayed to become someone else, obedient to Christ, and a part of him after the Salesian-Acarie example. Her own mystical sensibility centered on an interior union of her soul with Christ. The souls of Amerindians were for her qualitatively no different from her own, and therefore possibilities for their conversion to Christianity were not only great but essential. Her acceptance of male spiritual directors and her work with Jesuits, bishops, and governors with more rationalist doctrinaire ideas about conversion were not atypical of the first generation of women religious nourished on the teachings of Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales, Charles Borromeo, and Jean de Bernières. Guyart's life poses the genre problem squarely. Autobiography and hagiography go well together ethnographically in the seventeenth century. There is no doubt that Guyart did all the things that she recorded; that she experienced almost entirely the same things in her heart as those recorded by other intensely devout women confronts the interpreter with many difficulties. The likeness and genderless quality (or being) of all souls before Christ offers distinct universalist understandings of the self and the “other.”

Merian was born into a leading European art printing family whose engravings of cities and political events were known all over Europe. Her drive for finding unknown insect specimens pulled her toward increased specialization and scientific pictorial description. What exactly happened to her marriage remained a secret that Merian carried to her grave; she and her two daughters left comfortable Frankfurt for life in a separatist Protestant community, the Labadists, and then headed for the capital of the “art of describing,” Amsterdam. Just how her approach to painting insects relates to her intellectual and religious thought merits more reflection. Her strength of purpose and unwillingness to conform to what other entomologists were developing were remarkable; through painting insects, she joined creative scientific inquiry with art and commercial savoir-vivre.

Refracted in the solid history of three lives is the late twentieth-century modernist paradigm. There is the secrecy about one's past that is so important to anyone wishing to start life anew; there are writing for self discovery, abortion (noted by Merian without moral comment), the search for autonomy within and without the family, intense community relations, and above all the pursuit of self-understanding through religious and universalist thought. Is this histoire exemplaire at the primordial level and especially for women? Superficially it would seem so. Fortitude and fulfillment in success may create a gendered distance between women today and these three remarkable women of the seventeenth century.

As Davis steps from the shadows in the dialogue that opens the book it is evident that hers is the fourth voice, the historian's, whose name on the book's spine is surrounded by the signatures of the three women who are its subjects. Bertrande, wife of Martin Guerre, also learned to sign her name. Western cultural history has come a long way from the three “good women” of Montaigne's Essais (1580), whose virtue was willingness to die with their husbands in order to share their adversity. Perhaps not as far as one would think.

Patricia Seed (review date July 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 nineteenth century. The timing of each woman's appearance in print seems to have been related to the demand for their different types of authorship. Maria Sibylla's early appearance resulted from the tremendous commercial success of the genre of illustrated natural histories during the seventeenth century, and Marie de l'Incarnation's from an upsurge of interest in the colonization of Canada. Glikl owes her print debut to an interest in Yiddish literature during the nineteenth century.

Although the disparate stories of these women might have created difficulties, Davis pulls her accounts together by employing the conventional narrative structure of biography—birth, marriage, children, death—and the reassuringly familiar topics of relations to parents, husbands, and children as well as the equally recognizable themes of obstacles, personal tragedies, and success. Maria Sibylla temporarily embraced a radically ascetic Protestant faith, leading her husband to abandon and divorce her, before she headed out with the Dutch West India Company to Surinam. Marie de l'Incarnation, married and widowed before the age of twenty, longed for a life apart from the concerns of daily existence and entered a convent at twenty-nine. Glikl bas Judah Leib, widowed at forty-three, supported her eight children for a decade as a trader before remarrying, only to have her spouse soon become bankrupt.

Two of Davis's three subjects also participated in European colonization of the Americas. Glikl had no overseas connection, but both Marie de l'Incarnation, who is a staple of Canadian schoolchildren's histories, and Maria Sibylla ranked high among Europeans colonizing the Americas. On this part of the story, Davis is less effective than elsewhere. Because present-day history writing requires sensitivity to the impact of colonizers on the lands they colonized, Europeans arriving in the New World do not attract automatic attention and sympathy from a reading public to the extent they once did. Had Davis shifted her standpoint to the view of Native American women and men, her subjects would have appeared in a very different light. Far from being “women on the margins,” to Native American women and men Marie de l'Incarnation and Maria Sibylla occupied the pinnacle of colonial power. What natives saw, understood, and were forcibly constrained to do—as laborers, servants, or converts—was defined by the actions of such women, equipped with the resources, money and colonial authority to direct and control native lives and labor.

Although in European terms none of these women could be conventionally understood to occupy an elite position, the transit of two of them across the Atlantic radically shifted their relationship to others. Many powerful European colonizers emerged from the same humble circumstances as Maria Sibylla and Marie de l'Incarnation. Indeed, having great power, wealth, or religious impact in Europe reduced the incentives for traveling overseas. More ordinary than elite European women and men exercised extraordinary influence overseas. In this respect, Marie's and Maria Sibylla's ambitions and social positioning appear largely indistinguishable from many of their male counterparts.

Had Davis acknowledged the complexity of these women's positions—nonelite in Europe, elite in the New World; central to some historic themes, peripheral to others—the complexity of her tales would have been enhanced. These three literate and well-read women occupied ambivalent positions, sometimes decidedly central, at other times unmistakably marginal. Perhaps every social status, including elite, is complex in similar ways. Yet overall, Natalie Davis has provided a gracefully written contribution to the growing canon of historical writing on early modern European women.

Karen Ordahl Kupperman (review date December 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 governed by events outside of their control, but their context did not provide any sure support.

The title of the book is a double entendre; it carries the connotation of marginalized women, yet the margins are also interstitial spaces in which women and others without standing were able to create work and accomplish much for themselves. Mixtures of public space and private preserve, cutting across established boundaries, run through the three lives. Glikl bas Judah Leib had no interest in the lives or opinions of “the nations of the world,” as she called non-Jews. Her manuscript was private, an “ethical will,” an autobiography woven around stories and myths and drawing lessons for her children and their children. Yet she was active in a largely Christian world, and she helped to create an eruv, a symbolically enclosed Jewish space, that was actually public and cut across properties of Christian neighbors.

Marie de l'Incarnation exemplifies in her life another mixture of the public and private spheres. So intense was her longing for unbroken spiritual union with God that she chose to enter an enclosed order, the Ursulines, leaving her eleven-year-old son an orphan to be brought up by her sister. Yet the enclosure over which she eventually presided in Canada was a distinctly public private space, a hybrid cultural arena in which a shifting population of Indian clients as well as the cloistered French sisters conducted their lives. Her manuscript spiritual and physical autobiography, written for her theologian son, was intended to be strictly private. Instead of following her instructions to burn it, he gave it to the world (and to us) by publishing it.

Maria Sybilla Merian's story is more difficult to get at because she left little in the way of private writings. Member of a family of artists, she produced beautiful studies of insects in their context and through their life cycle. Merian ignored the constraints of the conventional classificatory system of her day in which specimens were presented each in its own separate, private, blank space to create an organic, ecological representation where plants, animals, and insects mixed together as in nature. She published and marketed her own books, adapting presentation to the finances of the purchaser. She left an unhappy marriage to join a Labadist religious community where her life was rigidly organized and her private pursuits were forbidden. After leaving the community and in pursuit of her subject, she traveled to Suriname with her daughter, where she presided over a household/workshop that included Indians and African slaves all working together; like Marie de l'Incarnation's convent, it was a hybrid culture in an alien environment.

Each of the women was affected by one of the religious movements sweeping through Europe. Glikl bas Judah Leib's family prepared to go to the Holy Land with the self-proclaimed messiah, Sabbatai Zevi. Maria Sybilla Merian became a Labadist. Marie de l'Incarnation found direction for her mystical spiritual longings in the newly arrived Feuillant order in Tours; her Ursuline order was also part of the Catholic reform movement.

Religious self-definition led to issues of pride and humility. Marie spent her life humbling herself, yet she clearly took inordinate pride in her ability to accept humility beyond the strength of others. She also wrote proudly of her ability to bring others to humility, and especially liked her American converts for their simplicity and fervor. She was justly proud of her acquisition of native languages and wrote extensively in them, a form of learning that was meaningless in France. Nothing of her writing in American languages survives. For Glikl bas Judah Leib, pride and honor were inextricably linked and central to her sense of self as a Jewish woman. Wealth and the esteem of the community were essential to honor; bankruptcy equaled dishonor. Maria Sybilla Merian's pride was expressed in the books she created and published. In later life she had become a famous woman, and she created a version of her private life, her rejection of the constraints of marriage and of her religious community, that accentuated her autonomy.

Davis offers the reader deeply contextualized representations of the three lives and their themes, but she resolutely refuses to discuss them in terms of traditional historical interpretations. Thus the reader becomes her partner, and joins the three subjects, in reading meaning into these stories. Glikl and Marie each began writing in times when events made them question their own sense of self. Writing was a mode of self-discovery and self-shaping. Maria Sybilla took her own course, initially obtaining and raising caterpillars in order to witness the phases of their lives and then expressing her knowledge in a way that made sense of her observations.

Finally, each woman's work was appropriated posthumously by her child. Glikl's son copied out her manuscript, and it was his copy that survived to be published. Maria Sybilla's daughters became her publishers; one placed her own name on the title page as publisher, and new plates done by the other were added. Marie's son not only published his mother's private spiritual autobiography, prefaced by the letter in which she asked him to keep it from the eyes of others, but he substantially rewrote it to tone down its mysticism and make its language more elegant. But these children lived their lives along the lines laid down by their formidable mothers.

Keith Thomas (essay date 21 December 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Mauss the act of giving was inherently ambivalent, at once generous and self-interested.

Mauss was not the first to reflect upon this ambivalence. Nearly four hundred years earlier, Thomas Hobbes had asserted in Leviathan (1651) that “no man giveth, but with intention of good to himself.” In his remarkable essay “Gifts” (1844), Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that charity wounded those who received it, while Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883) warned that the unreciprocated gift left the recipient feeling inferior and revengeful. Gifts might appear to be generous, but they were often a way of asserting superiority and creating dependency.

Mauss believed that, with the expansion of the market, the sphere of gift exchange had contracted. Roman law drew a distinction between persons and things, a distinction that dispelled the primitive notion that a gift contained the spiritual essence of the giver and could not go unreciprocated without danger. The gift was redefined as a unilateral act, different from a loan or a contract in that it required no reciprocity.2 The growth of the state created an alternative form of solidarity, making unnecessary the bonds created by the exchange of gifts. There were survivals of the rite, of course: alms-giving; tips and gratuities; the exchange of invitations and courtesies; and potlatch-like acts of conspicuous consumption. Within the family and among friends, presents and hospitality retained their importance. But although large-scale philanthropy helped to make capitalism more acceptable, modern society was no longer held together by the exchange of gifts.

Mauss seems to have regretted this. He was a socialist who was hostile to the market and to usury. He believed in the duty of giving and the social responsibilities of the rich. His portrayal of primitive society as governed by reciprocity rather than profit was an explicit critique of Western civilization, which, in his view, had turned people into inhumane calculating machines. The essence of the gift had been that it united self-interest and moral obligation, whereas the crime of the market was to create an unprecedented opposition between the two.3

These propositions have stimulated a huge volume of writing by anthropologists on gifts and exchange.4 Some have enthusiastically developed a distinction between gifts, which are freely exchanged, and commodities, whose movement is governed by market contracts. Others have observed, more skeptically, that if a gift involves reciprocity, then it is essentially no different from any other kind of exchange, even if the return is delayed in time and different in kind. If all transactions are attempts to maximize profit, whether material or symbolic, then the distinction between economic and noneconomic exchange loses much of its value.

The debates among the anthropologists have not passed unnoticed by historians, particularly those concerned with reciprocity in the classical and early medieval world. But, with a few notable exceptions,5 the role of gift exchange in more modern societies has been largely neglected. It is therefore particularly welcome that a historian of Natalie Zemon Davis's exceptional talents should have turned her attention to this revealing topic. Her new book continues the dialogue with anthropology which has been such a feature of late-twentieth-century historiography. It is intended as “an ethnography of gifts” in sixteenth-century France, a study of “their status, meanings and uses.” “Who presented what to whom?” she asks. “When and why, and what did it mean?”

The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France has been a long time in gestation, originating in lectures given in the early 1980s. It is based on an intimate acquaintance with the printed literature of sixteenth-century France, together with a great deal of work in archives, particularly on wills, and a general alertness to the currents of late-twentieth-century intellectual life. The result is not the vast monograph which the subject might be thought to have required, but an elegant and relatively short essay, suggestive rather than definitive, yet bristling with intellectual excitement.

Davis begins by firmly distinguishing the gift from other forms of exchange. As she sees it, there are essentially three kinds of transaction, or what she calls “relational modes.” These are sale, coercion, and gift. Goods and services may be bought and sold in the market; they may be extracted by compulsion, theft, or violence; and they may be given away freely, without any return being explicitly required. The three modes overlap, but they are distinct and each has its own rules and etiquette. At any particular time, one of them may predominate, but the others will never be wholly absent. Davis thus rejects Mauss's evolutionary belief that gift exchange gradually gives way to the market. In her view, the gift mode may shrink, but it never ceases to be socially important.

She begins with a discussion of sixteenth-century views on what Montaigne called “the science of benefit and gratitude.” The morality of the day taught that it was more blessed to give than to receive. Christian doctrine held that everything in life was a gift from God, for which human gratitude could never be adequate, while classical authorities, from Aristotle to the Roman moralist Seneca, portrayed human society as held together by the reciprocal exchange of benefits. The obligation engendered by gratitude was at least as important a social bond as contract or coercion.

Davis identifies four contemporary ideals of giving, each with its own particular flavor, but all embodying the essential spirit of the gift: Christian charity; aristocratic liberality; the exchange of favors between friends; and mutual help between neighbors. In each case, the donors were expected to give freely without thought of return; yet the recipients were supposed to reciprocate appropriately. As Seneca noted in his much-cited work On Benefits, “a good turn passing orderly from hand to hand doth nevertheless return to the giver.” (This doctrine was reflected in the contemporary story of how Sir Walter Raleigh once dealt his son “a damned blow over the face” at the dinner table; his son, hesitating to hit his father back, struck the gentleman who sat next to him, saying, “Box about: 'twill come to my father anon.”)

After setting out these principles of reciprocity, Davis gives a concise account of French gift-giving in the sixteenth century. All the main calendar festivals were accompanied by an exchange of presents: New Year gifts (les étrennes), Easter offerings, harvest suppers, food left out for the dead on All Souls night, and other seasonal offerings which involved the giving of alms to the poor and carnivalesque begging by gangs of young people. A person's life cycle was normally marked out by what Natalie Davis calls “an intricate choreography of gifts.” Births, baptisms, initiation rituals, betrothals, marriages, and funerals all involved the exchange of presents, tokens, meals, and alcohol. At every social level, the exchange of food and drink was the conventional means of cementing relationships, whether in neighborly gifts of fruit and vegetables, or the tavern sociability of workmates, or the banquets and open-house hospitality of the great seigneurs. Within the family, parents made transfers to children during their lifetime and bequeathed them property after their death.

Davis shows that the early modern state, far from making gift exchange redundant, rested on an intricate system of patronage and clientage which involved the unceasing exchange of favors. Clergy and scholars dedicated their books to their noble patrons. Seigneurs extended hospitality and protection to the peasantry, receiving loyalty in return along with small gifts of produce. The rural nobility endlessly exchanged presents of game with each other. Social relations were sustained by the language of gift, service, and gratitude.

In the learned professions it was widely believed that it was wrong to take payment. Knowledge was a gift of God, which ought not to be sold. Clerics, academics, and physicians relied on “voluntary” presents as much as on fees. So did barbers, surgeons, and midwives. (Even today a visiting lecturer at an American university will be paid an “honorarium,” not a fee.)

At the apex of this pyramid of giving and receiving was the Crown. The king's most important gifts were grants of office, a source of profit to the recipient, as well as of power. Officeholders were bombarded with gifts by clients and suitors, both on their initial appointment and as an accompaniment to individual transactions. When the king made his royal entry into a town, he received presents from the municipality. In return, he confirmed the city's privileges, released prisoners, and touched sufferers from scrofula. Ambassadors presented the monarch's gifts to foreign rulers, while trying to avoid receiving them in return because of the obligations they would entail. At every social level, the discharge of a service was typically accompanied by the payment of a tip or douceur.

Nowhere was the ambiguity of these gifts more evident than in the administration of royal justice. Like other officers, judges regularly received gifts in the course of daily business. But when did a friendly gesture turn into corruption? Revealingly, there was no sixteenth-century French word for “bribe”; there were merely dons and présents inappropriately bestowed. Corruption was legislated against, but the endless flow of gifts was an integral part of the courtesies of public life.

In sixteenth-century France, in short, the giving of gifts was an essential social lubricant. Gifts eased relations between equals and softened the hierarchy of superior and inferior. With their aid, people sought loyalty, honor, practical help, personal affection, and divine approval. Gift exchange was a way of achieving protection, alliance, and advancement. It marked status, reduced tension, and created solidarity.

Yet gifts could also evoke ingratitude and a sense of intolerable obligation. Parents employed their will-making power in heavyhanded attempts to control the marriages and religious choices of their children. Women were coerced into obedience by fathers and husbands who held the purse strings. The law encouraged these petty tyrannies by permitting donors to revoke their donations should the recipient prove ungrateful. King Lear had many contemporary analogues. In a piquant chapter entitled “Gifts Gone Wrong,” Natalie Davis suggests that the gift mode generated dissimulation and falsehood. The relations between client and patron, courtier and monarch, were tarnished by the constant need to solicit favors and simulate gratitude. Montaigne, in his essay “On Vanity” (1588), bitterly evoked the misery of living on the favor of others; far better to pay one's own way. The impersonality of free contract and the candor of honest speech seemed infinitely preferable to the maze of obligation and deceit created by the workings of gift exchange.


Natalie Davis presents an absorbing picture, but is there anything about it that was distinctive either to France or to the sixteenth century? The publication twenty years ago of Muriel St. Clare Byrne's great edition of The Lisle Letters revealed that the upper classes of early Tudor England were just as heavily engaged as their French counterparts in the repeated exchange of “tokens” and “remembrances”: whether gastronomic delicacies, like boars' heads, sturgeons, quails, lampreys, pies, lemons, and quinces; or pet animals, like parrots, monkeys, linnets, hawks, spaniels, and greyhounds; or ladies' knickknacks, like purses, needle cases, gloves, bracelets, rings, and toothpicks. Even children were lent out to other households on temporary exchange. Gift exchange was universal in the early modern period and, in its essentials, Davis's account of gift exchange in France could be closely paralleled in any other European country.

The rise of monarchical absolutism, however, gives the French story a particular twist. As the Crown enhanced its authority, the gift relationship between the monarch and his subjects was quietly superseded. The reciprocity implicit in the old royal entries into French towns, when the king dispensed favors in return for gifts and hospitality, gave way to the notion that the king was entitled to his subjects' unquestioning homage. The last royal entries took place in the reign of Louis XIV, by which time they took the form of virtually unilateral tributes to a glorious ruler by his humble people. The idea that taxes were free grants to the king by his subjects assembled in the Estates-General was superseded by the doctrine that they were justifiable impositions, levied from above.

These political changes apart, Natalie Davis concedes that the rhythms of gift-giving and quarrels over gifts described in her book “would look the same well before and well after the sixteenth century.” Yet in one respect, her period was truly distinctive and that was in its radical reappraisal of the gift relationship between human beings and their maker. In her most original chapter, “Gifts and the Gods,” Davis suggests that the theological disputes which accompanied the European Reformation were essentially arguments about gifts; in particular, about whether human beings could reciprocate God's gifts to them, and whether God could be put under an obligation.

Davis identifies four models of mutual obligation between God and humankind. The Catholic version was one of complete reciprocity, in which spiritual transactions were represented as an exchange of gifts: between the living and the dead; between the clergy and the laity; between the rich and the poor; and between God and man. The living prayed for the souls of the dead in Purgatory, who reciprocated by ghostly interventions and the intercessions of the saints. The clergy offered prayers and masses for the laity; who responded by giving church equipment and monetary offerings which varied in size, so as to make it clear that they were gifts, not payments. The rich gave alms to the poor, who were expected to pray for their benefactors. God's gifts to mankind were reciprocated by masses, which were represented as sacrificial returns for favors received.

The second model was that of complete fusion between human and divine. In place of the intermittent rhythm of gift and obligation, mystics like Saint Teresa sought total union with God, just as Montaigne described his friendship with Étienne de la Boétie as a seamless union of souls. When all was shared, there were no gifts. Robert Olivétan, the translator of the first French Protestant Bible (1535), did not regard the vernacular scriptures as a gift to be rewarded by some patron. There could be no property in the word of God: it enriched the recipient without impoverishing the donor.

Equally radical was the third model of the relationship between God and man, that of the Calvinists. John Calvin rejected virtually all the old Catholic notions of reciprocity. For him, God's gift of Christ to man was a free donation, made out of gratuitous goodness. The kingdom of heaven was not a payment to be earned, but an inheritance bestowed on those whom God adopted as his children. Calvin flatly denied that God could be put under any obligation and utterly rejected the possibility that human beings could make an adequate return for God's grace. In his eyes, the Catholic sacrifice in the form of the mass was an impertinent attempt to offer payment for Christ's redemption of mankind. He rejected the doctrine of Purgatory, thereby putting an end to reciprocity between the living and the dead, and also between rich and poor; for all the poor had to offer were prayers for their benefactors, and those were now deemed to be useless.

Calvin thought it wrong for the rich to expect reciprocation for their benevolence. They had a unilateral obligation to give to the limits of their abilities; and it was wicked to try “to subjugate a person to whom you have done a benefit by making him obliged to you.” In Davis's words, “Calvin's theology refused to conceive of human solidarity in terms of any measured reciprocity.” In place of interested relationships between individuals, he envisaged a more general obligation to the community as a whole.

The fourth model of human solidarity, in Davis's view, was that expressed in Rabelais's Tiers Livre (1546) by the trickster Panurge. Borrowing and lending should be joyously accepted because they kept the world together in harmony; mutual indebtedness was the cement of human society. This was essentially a restatement of the Catholic view; and Rabelais allowed it to be strenuously refuted by the wise prince Pantagruel, who, in Reformist mode, invokes Saint Paul's injunction to owe nothing to anyone, save mutual affection. For Davis, this opposition between Catholic reciprocity and Protestant gratuitousness neatly encapsulates the theological debates of the sixteenth century.

Natalie Davis has mined a productive seam. By applying anthropological theories of the gift to the understanding of history, she has illuminated the texture of social and personal relationships in sixteenth-century France; and she has also suggested a new way of looking at the Reformation. Yet her treatment is so tantalizingly brief that some key problems remain unresolved. In particular, one misses any sense of scale or quantity in her work. She shows abundantly that gift exchange persisted in sixteenth-century France. She does not, however, tell us whether more or fewer goods and services changed hands by gift than through the market or by coercion. Of course, exact statistics are impossible. But it would have been helpful if some attempt had been made to give rough proportions to the process, rather in the way that the British social anthropologist John Davis has estimated that, in the late twentieth century, something like 7 to 8 percent of UK consumer expenditure goes to presents6; or, more daringly, in the way that the historian Craig Muldrew recently calculated that, in late-seventeenth-century England, there were 427,866,000 market transactions annually, and probably nearly as many a century earlier.7 Yet Natalie Davis, having outlined her three relational modes of gift, sale, and coercion, leaves us wholly unclear about which of these, if any, was predominant at this period. She is so bewitched by the descriptive mode of cultural anthropology that she neglects the quantitative requirements of the economic historian.

Of course, Davis's three relational modes overlapped so much in practice that they cannot always be distinguished, let alone easily quantified. As she points out, the boundary between payments and presents was very fluid: most professionals subsisted on a mixture of the two. Just as supposedly free donations were seldom free of self-interest, so economic transactions were often accompanied by gifts. Indeed they often had an important element of gift built into them, something Davis tends to overlook. She comments on the range of petty indebtedness in sixteenth-century France and mentions in passing the existence of “friendly,” i.e., interest-free, loans. But she does not consider the possibility that interest-free credit, based on trust and reciprocity, may have been the largest form of gift exchange there was. Craig Muldrew has recently exposed the huge scale of petty borrowings in early modern England; at every social level, people were bound together by a web of mutual indebtedness. The internal market in France was less developed, but the situation cannot have been all that different.

Natalie Davis earns our gratitude for drawing attention to the centrality of the gift mode in sixteenth-century France and for exploring many of the nuances of behavior and relationship which it involved. But she offers disappointingly little in the way of a conclusion. Like so many other essays in ethnography, The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France presents a static snapshot rather than a moving picture. We are left to surmise how and why the gift mode subsequently contracted in some spheres and expanded in others.

Yet Davis's brief allusions to the Marshall Plan, political “corruption” in the form of payoffs, and the grants made by academic foundations remind us that gift exchange has remained a prominent feature of the twentieth century. Indeed it has recently been powerfully argued that, in some respects, reciprocity has even extended its sway as a consequence of economic growth.8 Gift exchange is fundamental within the household and between the generations. It permeates the marketplace, where personal “bonding” between buyer and seller is held to be a crucial element of good salesmanship; and it can be found wherever people work in small groups or face to face.

Not all modern giving is based on reciprocity. Appeals to citizens to give blood, or bequeath their bodily organs, or support human rights in other countries, or subscribe to the relief of some distant disaster depend upon the concept of the absolutely free gift, anonymous and with no possibility of reciprocity. That concept developed in tandem with the emergence of the amorality of the market, with which it contrasts. It was wholly alien to Marcel Mauss's “archaic” societies, where generosity and self-interest were hopelessly entangled.9

Yet even the utterly gratuitous gift is never wholly without some return, even if it is only the inner glow of satisfaction which it bestows on the donor. The aid given by the West to third world countries is far from disinterested; and so is much of the work of the not-for-profit sector. Those in receipt of charity, whether earthquake victims or inhabitants of a third world country, are seldom left without some feeling of obligation, even if it is only one of resentment. Mauss was right. The completely free lunch continues to elude us.


  1. Translated by Ian Cunnison, with an introduction by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, as The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (Cohen and West, 1954), and, more accurately, by W. D. Halls, with an introduction by Mary Douglas, as The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (Routledge, 1990).

  2. On this see Jane Fair Bestor, “Marriage Transactions in Renaissance Italy and Mauss's Essay on the Gift,” Past and Present, Vol. 164 (August 1999), p. 24.

  3. This point is emphasized by Jonathan Parry and Maurice Bloch in their introduction to Money and the Morality of Exchange (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

  4. An excellent introduction is provided by The Logic of the Gift, edited by Alan D. Schrift (Routledge, 1997).

  5. For example, Felicity Heal, Hospitality in Early Modern England (Clarendon Press, 1990). This fine work seems to have been missed by Natalie Davis, who cites only the author's earlier article on the subject in Past and Present, Vol. 102 (February 1984).

  6. John Davis, Exchange (University of Minnesota Press, 1992), p. 50.

  7. Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation (St. Martin's, 1998), p. 92.

  8. Avner Offer, “Between the Gift and the Market: The Economy of Regard,” Economic History Review, Vol. 50, No. 3 (August 1997).

  9. As is emphasized by Jonathan Parry, “The Gift, the Indian Gift and the ‘Indian Gift’,” Man, Vol. 21, No. 3 (September 1986).

Dalia M. Leonardo (review date winter 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Christian charity, noble liberality, the favors of friendship, and neighborly generosity provided further scenarios deemed appropriate for offering gifts. All gift connections, whether occurring between members of the same social group or between a peasant and his lord, were tempered by “setting, phrases and gestures that allowed giver and recipient to understand that a gift relation had been established” (14).

Davis describes the recurrent and seasonal gift relationships that occurred during such periods as Lent, Easter, and the popular New Year's feasts. One such New Year's gift was the “collection” prevalent among peasant and artisanal circles and designed to help the needy within one's community. Gift practices were also determined by the events and rituals surrounding the human and family life cycle (birth, marriage, and death). For instance, after the birth of a child, the godparents and the community at large would celebrate the newest addition to their group by offering gifts to the baby and the new parents.

Davis also explores circumstances where gifts became the source of contention, as when family dynamics were disrupted by a disputed inheritance, or within the judicial realm where even the smallest of tokens were frowned on lest they cloud a judge's fairness and impartiality. Another interesting category that Davis considers is the process of gift exchange between the French and the indigenous populations of the New World, a process that was clouded by mutual fear and distrust and by Europeans' sense of superiority.

Davis examines a variety of primary sources including letters, archival materials, and iconography to provide fascinating insight into the social and cultural life of sixteenth-century France. The book is a valuable work for professional historians, graduate students, and undergraduates alike.

Jonathan Powis (review date 20 April 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 attested by proverbial wisdom: “who gives, God gives to him”. In the Ethics, Aristotle had sketched the logic of a system of exchange still potent in the sixteenth century: the sorts of giving appropriate to different circumstances—and, crucially, the appropriate response to them. So, now, gifts formed part of the cycles of “generosity” and gratitude that linked grandees and dependants; or of the “friendly” or neighbourly relations between social equals. The bonding power of the gift was importantly temporal, with the hope of exchanges renewed into the future; this was why La Rochefoucauld called the too-rapid return of a favour a kind of ingratitude.

The phenomenon of the gift has intrigued French social theorists from Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss on. It became, in effect, an item in the dossier against reductionist individualism (the Anglo-Saxon heresy?), and against the clunking determinism of class analysis: grasp how people give, and you have a means of grasping, without “ethnocentricity” (Pierre Bourdieu's way of putting it), their sense of themselves and of their world. Professor Davis is alert to all this; but with an unfailing lightness of touch, and no monolithic theme or methodology of her own to impose. So vignette follows vignette, with implications to pause over and tease out. The popular religion she describes centred largely on offerings to God and the saints; scrupulous clergy had to wean their people away from the expectation of too-direct divine favour in return. An austere Jesuit bewildered his Lyonnais congregation when he rejected their cash gifts on that account. The formidable apparatus of the French State was lubricated by a constant circulation of gifts and pots-de-vin at all levels. Families often freed up entailed wealth by a gift entre vifs: a device in favour of relative, or friend, or more detached business associate. In all these matters, gifts could go wrong, as Davis illuminatingly shows, when accident or malice turned plans and expectations sour. The jurist Charles Du Moulin was an expert on the law of donations; but this was no help when he fell out with his brother over a gift (or was it a trust fund?) with litigation to follow, and a vendetta that afflicted the next generation of the family. And some central aspects of giving remain far from clear: notably, what the author calls the “indeterminate” area where exchange-by-gift shaded towards market-driven sale. An important figure here is the notary, whose role placed him at a key point between the personal intention of the donor (or vendor) and its enactment in a public and enforceable legal instrument.

How much was actually changing in the ways Davis sees the gift being used? She cites Gilles de Gouberville's journals to sketch a deeply traditional rural Normandy, with its familiar round of entertaining among the gentry, gifts duly offered and received. This was a community bonded by exchange, almost as Mauss might have imagined it: almost, but not quite. There has been an abundance of recent work on French noble culture (patronage and gift-giving to the fore) that might lead some readers to imagine the entire body politic as itself no more than a magnified system of exchange relations. But, as Peter Lewis showed long ago, the “polity” of France, with its laws and its royal religion, involved a good deal more than that. De Gouberville himself devoted great care to steering his local business around the thickets of the royal ordinances. Some of Davis's most powerful suggestions point to shifts in impersonal and normative forms of obligation: changes in sixteenth-century culture that changed the context of the gift and other forms of exchange. For some jurists, the dignity of the crown eclipsed obligations between individuals; gifts to judges—traditionally part of the judicial routine, proper tokens of respect—were recast into encroachments on the principle of royal sovereignty. Jean Bodin took this line, on occasion; and so (more consistently) did Jean de Coras, the judge from Toulouse whom readers of Davis will already have met in her study of the Martin Guerre affair. Bodin and Coras both had strongly developed views on God's sovereignty as well as on the King's; their high notion of the unique obligation owed to public authority here below was no doubt shaped in part by their sense of divine omnipotence above and beyond us. When Calvin recast eucharistic doctrine—strikingly recounted here—he turned Christ's unique sacrifice into a correspondingly unique gift. His followers might go out into the world, and give generously as Christians should, but with no expectation of return. Traditionally, giving expressed and reinforced obligations in the world. Now, some fertile intellects were intensifying and internalizing notions of obligation to the point that personal exchanges could appear dangerous; or perhaps a matter of purely private choice. When Montaigne approached the subject in his essay “On Friendship”, it was the relationship with La Boétie that itself took on this kind of internalized potency, beyond mere gift or favour: “it was because it was him, and because it was me …”.

This is Montaigne at his closest to the modern reader: writing an account of what we take intimacy to be like, with giving ours—yours, mine—to decide on as we please. In “On Vanity”, Montaigne returned to the self-defining intensity of true friendship: and now he went on to berate his contemporaries' obsession with the wrong sort of giving as well—the greasing of palms, the calculus of services rendered. How much better, he thought, to treat all-comers, friends and strangers, on an equal footing: an observation that has generated a wealth of speculation on the writer's deepest preferences (bourgeois aspiration? premonitions of Anglo-American liberty? the prospect—even—of free agents giving as and when they chose?) But as Davis points out, the text's most direct bearing on the real world is in its reaction against it. The essay repeatedly takes the reader back to the potency of the obligations, the favour-seeking, the giving-and-returning that bore in on Montaigne and his contemporaries: “more than half of me lives from the favours of others …”. Montaigne's was after all a life lived in the narrow interconnectedness of provincial France, his family and La Boétie's linked to and among a whole micro-society of local notables. Perhaps the celebrated friendship had its “transcendent” side, as Davis says, but we could also call it over-determined. Indeed, it may be that the changing culture of the sixteenth century worked not so much to displace old notions of gift and favour as to generate new spaces in Church and State and intellectual life, where they could proliferate in more or less new forms.

In a large, rambling work that makes occasional appearances in Natalie Zemon Davis's end notes, La Roche-Flavin, a generation after Montaigne, suggested something along these lines. He was a jurist, capable of writing proper Bodinian accounts of sovereign justice, and denouncing actions that might pollute it. So was it pollution for judges to accept gifts? Well, no, at least not in moderation, La Roche-Flavin thought: because the King uses his own sovereign power to extend gifts and favours to those who do him service. Here was royal authority reinforcing, not undercutting, familiar patterns of exchange. La Roche-Flavin described this exercise of power as “absolute”: very French, or at any rate very ancien régime.

Peter N. Miller (essay date 30 April 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 treated as innocent repositories of pure facts, but contain already formed narratives lying in wait for unsuspecting readers. Women on the Margins (1995) drew together some of the important themes of Davis's recent work—the history of writing, of women, and of Jews—in a study of three seventeenth-century Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant women through their autobiographies.

First presented in the early 1980s and perfected in the late 1990s, Davis's new book spans this period of great intellectual and scholarly success. Its long gestation has meant that Davis has been pipped to the post by many other books on “the gift” and gifts; but this gives her work a depth lacking in many of those studies. For her loyal readers it has the effect of making this book a kind of super-commentary on the books that she wrote at the same time but happened to publish first.

In Davis's hands, “the gift” is a key that opens a closed door to sixteenth-century France. She begins with a discussion of two “age-old core beliefs” about the need to give freely, as if in imitation of God (the vertical model), and the need to give widely, as social life could not exist without reciprocity (the horizontal model). On these axes, she says, the history of civilization itself can be plotted. Davis does not try to account for the origin of these beliefs, but she does describe four “languages” of gift-giving that were alive and thriving in the sixteenth century: Christian charity, noble liberality, the favors of friendship, and neighborly generosity. Behind all this largesse, of course, lurked the Bible and classical literature. Exactly how words affected deeds, especially in the context of the unlettered or the under-lettered, is not addressed.

In this conceptual setting Davis turns to describe the life of gifts in chapters forthrightly titled “Gift Practices and Public Times,” “Gift Practices and Social Meanings,” “Gifts and Sales,” “Gifts Gone Wrong,” “Gifts, Bribes, and Kings,” and “Gifts and the Gods.” These are rich and dense in illustration. Beyond giving us the past as it was concretely lived, the specific examples contribute to Davis's ongoing project of making more complex our historical understanding of early modern France, and more precise the repertory of analytical tools at our disposal for interpreting it.

All this is true to her declaration that “this book is not so much about The Gift as it is an ethnography of gifts in sixteenth-century France and a cultural and social study of what I call a ‘gift register’ or a ‘gift mode.’” Ethnography is the central term in this description; but one does not even have to open the book to discern the over-arching importance of what we might be tempted to call the anthropological register. The book's title is enough. For it refers explicitly to L'essai sur le don, or The Gift, by Marcel Mauss. Echoes of anthropology are everywhere in Davis's earlier work; but in this new book the identification, even the homage, is made explicit, and central to the historical endeavor. Before we can properly engage with Davis's book, we need to answer two questions: Who was Marcel Mauss? Why should historians be interested in his work?


Marcel Israël Mauss was born in Epinal, France in 1872, the grandson of Rabbi Moïse Durkheim of Epinal, and the nephew, and later the student, of Émile Durkheim, the founder of French sociology. He became a socialist and abandoned his religious practice, though he returned to Epinal for holiday meals long into adulthood. In the 1930s Mauss sat on the Central Committee of the Alliance Israelite Universale, and he wore his yellow star during the German occupation of Paris. For some unknown reason he was not deported, and he died at home in 1950.

Mauss's professional career was built in the service of his uncle. He helped to found the Institut d'Ethnologie in Paris. He was awarded a professorship at the Collège de France, at the advanced age of 59; and he held the chair in “The History of Religions of Non-Civilized Peoples” at the École des Hautes Études. Mauss is now a name to conjure with. There are references and citations in works strewn across the whole range of the social sciences. There is even a learned journal titled La Revue du MAUSS (which refers to Mouvement anti-utilitariste en sciences sociales). And all this eminence is owed mostly to a slender monograph originally published in the Durkheimians' journal in 1924.

The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies is built upon a close study of the gift practices of Polynesians, Melanesians, and Northwest Coast Indians. Mauss documents the existence of a complex system of exchange driven by the giving of “gifts” that must be reciprocated. A part of the appeal of Mauss's terse and allusive book has to do with its everyday resonances: we have all had the experience of being given a gift, being unable to refuse it, and thereby being obliged to give a gift in turn. We may have been made uncomfortable by a gift, and sometimes we may even have been harmed by it. Like the American Indians described by Mauss (and the Parisians to whom he refers off-handedly), we, too, occasionally engage in competitive gift-giving and entertaining, trying to demonstrate our power and our wealth by conspicuous donation and, sometimes, even destruction.

The Maori concept of the hau, the spirit of the thing given, anchors Mauss's argument. Owing to the hau, a gift must be reciprocated in order to maintain a kind of cosmic balance. Failure to do so was a spiritual crime deserving even of death. By means of the hau, things connected humans in a web that could unite families, villages, and even peoples. From the obligation to give and to receive, and from presents to people, Mauss passed on to charity and to presents to the gods. He was fascinated by the historical connections between archaic societies that could be laid bare by the comparative study of their attitudes to gifts. By “archaic”—and this is crucial for appreciating the nature of Mauss's thought and its relation to the discipline of history—he meant those living in his own time but far away, and also those who lived in the same place but a long time ago.

This desire to go back in time by travelling through space was a discovery of late Renaissance humanists. They wanted to understand what it was like to live or to think like an ancient Roman or an ancient Judaean; and so they investigated the practices of present-day Americans or Africans or Asians. Mauss took this early glimmer of anthropological history a step further. He looked to the islanders of the Pacific in order to discover a chapter of European history whose existence could otherwise not be proved or even glimpsed.

The structure of his book, as is often the case, inverts this important and provocative idea. Mauss begins with the practices of Polynesians and surveys the practices of the Melanesians and then of the Indians of the Pacific Northwest before reaching his Western goal in a chapter called “Survivals of These Principles in Ancient Systems of Law and Ancient Economies.” It is here that Mauss suggests that the ethnographical material presented earlier was interesting not merely “as curiosities, or at most for comparison” with the present.

There was a stronger claim to be made. The story that Mauss was telling made it possible “to understand a stage in social evolution.” The institutions of gift exchange “provided the transition towards our own forms of law and economy. They can serve to explain historically our own societies.” Living Pacific Islanders could be made to illuminate dark corners in the received picture of the evolution of human society. Mauss's leap forward to the parallels of these Pacific practices—though in his view they were not parallels, they were survivals—in Roman, Hindu, German, and Chinese law sets forth the framework for a new narrative of the origin of modern, commercial society.

Thus the clan, the tribe, and peoples have learnt how to oppose and to give to one another without sacrificing themselves to one another. This is what tomorrow, in our so-called civilized world, classes and nations and individuals also, must learn. … In this way nations today can make themselves strong and rich, happy and good. Peoples, social classes, families, and individuals will be able to grow rich, and will only be happy when they have learnt to sit down, like the knights [of the Round Table], around the common store of wealth.

Mauss's sense of a world of social interaction and wholeness that disintegrated somewhere along the high road to capitalism is palpable throughout his text; and political sympathies may still explain his book's appeal so many years later. But by far the most interesting aspect of The Gift is the way Mauss sought to make a historical argument that gathered its evidence from the field rather than the archive. Mauss saw the Pacific Islanders as the ancient Romans revived. The status of Northwest Coast Indians who failed to reciprocate gifts, he wrote, was “really comparable in nature and function to the Roman nexum [debt slavery].” Of the Indians' term for borrowing, Mauss comments that “there is no need to point out the identical nature of this and the Roman expression.”

At the end of his survey, Mauss explained that his purpose was “posing questions to historians and ethnographers.” It is almost as if he hoped to win converts from among the card-carrying historians to anthropology—which he called “comparative sociology,” after Durkheim—by stressing the historical commitments in his own work. “The historians feel and rightly object to the fact that the sociologists are too ready with abstractions and unduly separate the various elements of societies from one another. We must do as they do: observe what is given. … The study of the concrete, which is the study of completeness, is possible, and more captivating, more explanatory still in sociology.”


Among anthropologists, Mauss's call for a dialogue with history went unheeded for a long time. Claude Lévi-Strauss's introduction to a volume of Mauss's essays that appeared in 1950 was largely responsible for this oblivion. Only a year after the appearance of his first major work, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, Lévi-Strauss used the platform offered him by Mauss's editors to insist on the superiority of his own approach, which presumed the existence of “unconscious mental structures,” to account for parallels and similarities among distant peoples. Mauss's attachment to lived experience occasioned the admonition that this kind of “ethnography would dissolve into a verbose phenomenology, a falsely naive mixture.”

Historians have proved to be more attentive listeners. For anthropology has had a decisive influence on the practice of history in the second half of the twentieth century, and especially after 1968. Real people and their beliefs have been recovered by an approach to documentary sources that has focused on the maximum extraction of meaning, in the same way that anthropologists in the field try to pull a vast range of meanings from appearances. The flowering of the French history of mentalities (mentalités), the Italian practice of micro-history (microstoria), and the German history of everyday life (Alltagsgeschichte) all reflect the power of anthropology in a time that has been suspicious of the relevance of high politics and grand narratives of any sort.

What can historians hope to gain from thinking like anthropologists? A survey of some of the best known of these works offers some clues. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's remarkable recreation of the world of Cathar peasants in the Pyrenees in Montaillou treats the inquisitor's record as an ethnographer's notebook. Carlo Ginzburg's recovery and re-creation of the world picture of a sixteenth-century miller from Friuli in The Cheese and the Worms, again from the files of the Inquisition, is an intellectual history of a non-intellectual, and so stands in for the myriads who never communicated their thoughts to such ready pens. Peter Burke's many essays, a representative sample of which were collected in The Historical Anthropology of Early Modern Europe, are an explicit attempt to explore the past from this unified perspective.

What historians have learned from anthropology has been, first, to take seriously themes that had not attracted much notice from historians, and, second, to write the history of non-literate people. But anthropology has also helped history by suggesting contexts of interpretation where none seemed apparent. Ginzburg, for example, noted that his miller's creation myth of worms emerging from curdling cheese was not as bizarre as it might seem, since the same story also circulated among the Mongolian Kalmuks; but further than that he would not go. In an extraordinary study of agrarian cults in sixteenth-century Friuli, Ginzburg acknowledged that his evidence suggested the existence of a general European phenomenon, but he resisted simply projecting Friuli onto that broader canvas. He suggested that there are others—folklorists and historians of religion—who might be more comfortable with such general conclusions. He was only a cautious comparatist, “or, to be more precise, I have availed myself of only one of the two comparative methods identified by M. Bloch: the more strictly historical one.”

If we wish to understand the relationship between history and anthropology, at least as it appears to the historian's perspective, we ought to turn back to the work of Mauss's younger contemporary Marc Bloch, a great French medievalist, a co-founder of the Annales, one of the most important historical journals of the past century, and—a Jew in the Resistance—one of France's most famous twentieth-century martyrs. (He was executed by the Nazis in a field near Lyon in June 1944.) Bloch's historical horizon took in thoughts as well as deeds, the famous few as well as the faceless, voiceless many. Readers of Feudal Society, the masterwork of his maturity that was published in 1939, will not forget the astonishing chapter devoted to “Modes of Feeling and Thought.” With this inquiry Bloch opened another twentieth-century path back to Burckhardt and the beginnings of modern cultural history—a trail in some ways parallel to the one that was blazed a few years earlier in Leiden by Johan Huizinga, who was himself fascinated by the potential of sociology, as his Homo Ludens demonstrates.

For Bloch, Durkheim's sociology provided the inspiration, if not exactly the method, for his historiography; and “comparison” provided the key. Durkheim had gone so far as to define “comparative sociology” as “sociology itself, as long as sociology stops being purely descriptive and aspires to account for facts.” His disciple Mauss added, in the introduction to The Gift, that “we have followed the method of exact comparison,” moving from ethnography to literary history, but only in such cases where there existed “documents and philological studies” that gave access “to the consciousness of the societies themselves.”

At the same time that Mauss was using the comparative method to understand gifts, Bloch was using it to understand the healing powers attributed to medieval English and French kings. He confessed that its origins “elude the historian altogether, and only comparative ethnography seems able to cast a certain degree of light upon them.” But what was “comparative ethnography,” and how did it work? Bloch took the work of James Frazer, the pioneering English social anthropologist and the author of The Golden Bough, as his example. He discussed Frazer's view of sacred kingship in Polynesia and its possible relevance for understanding the European practice of kings curing by their touch sufferers of scrofula, a condition characterized by a “cheesy degeneration of the lymphatic glands, particularly of the neck” (the so-called “touching for the king's evil”). Bloch called this an “argument from analogy.” There was much in such an argument that appealed to him, but also much that counseled caution. “The comparative method is extremely fertile, provided that it is confined to general proportions: it cannot be used to reconstruct details.”

The historian, by implication, was the one for whom the reconstruction of details was the essence; while the comparative ethnographer—in the next sentence Bloch writes of “comparative sociology,” using the terms interchangeably like a good Durkheimian—worked on a vast canvas. This distinction was elaborated still further in a famous article in 1928, originally a lecture delivered at the same Institute for Comparative Research in Oslo that sponsored Mauss's work on nations and nationalism. In this essay Bloch spoke of two kinds of comparison, one between societies so widely separated in space and time that no mutual influence or common origin was possible, and the other between those whose histories were so intertwined as to make it difficult, if not impossible, to tell the story of one independently of the other. Bloch himself preferred the solidity of the conclusions that could be drawn from the second sort of comparison.

What, then, could historians hope to gain from the more distant comparisons drawn or implied by ethnographers? Those extended comparisons, he wrote, could help fill in some “gaps in documentation by means of hypotheses based upon analogy.” They could also open up new avenues of research. More importantly, comparison helped to remind historians that the past was a foreign country. Centuries of studying and emulating the Greeks and the Romans had made them false friends; but anthropology restored their strangeness, and so it made possible a genuine encounter with the past, and not some sham engagement with a mirror image of the present. As Bloch observed, “we could certainly understand much less well the Roman gens or the Greek genos if we did not know the Australian or American clans.

For Bloch, the most useful service rendered by the comparative ethnographer was to explain the meaning of otherwise inexplicable cultural survivals. “I am thinking here of customs which have survived,” he wrote, “and become crystallized after the original psychological environment that gave them birth has disappeared, customs which would seem inexplicably strange if the examination of other similar cases in other civilizations did not make it possible to reconstruct precisely this vanished situation.” One catches here an echo of Aby Warburg's contemporaneous project to recover the “historical psychology of expression” that lay behind the survival and the renewal of pagan antiquity.

In an essay called simply “Comparison” that was published two years later, Bloch insisted that whatever the benefits for historians of thinking anthropologically, “it is worth remarking that so extended a comparison suggests more than it explains, or explains fully.” Finally it was this distinction between explanation and suggestion upon which Bloch relied to separate the standard of historical proof from that of the comparative human sciences. Distant comparison of the sort that drew on Polynesian customs to make sense of European kingship ritual was lamentably like “interpolating a graph.” Bloch also feared that this sort of comparison inevitably proved what it first assumed: “the fundamental unity of the human mind.” The historian in him rebelled at the circularity of proving the existence of what had already been presumed. The philosopher in him balked at the assumption that all human beings were alike.

Demonstrating that everyone was the same seemed much less exciting to Bloch than discovering just how much everyone differed. This was the historian's credo. That is why, in his posthumously published statement of belief, Bloch identified the good historian with “the ogre of the legend. Wherever he senses human flesh, he knows that there lies his prey.”


Natalie Zemon Davis has written that it was her encounter with Bloch's Feudal Society that made her want to be a historian. Indeed, her scholarly exploits and her talent for empathy have made her a worthy heir of the founding “ogre.” Since anthropology looms so large in The Gift, Bloch's discussion of its relationship to history and the historian provides us with the best framework for evaluating its achievement.

The most obviously anthropological feature of Davis's volume is its title and its subject. It is hard not to be struck today by the inevitably nostalgic picture that Mauss painted of a traumatic descent from archaic exchanges to modern ones. He has been criticized for presenting this as a linear development. Marshall Sahlins, for example, has offered an alternative: he has described a spectrum of exchange relations that ranged from a “generalized reciprocity” in which gifts were given and no return specified, to a “balanced reciprocity” in which return was expected soon, all the way to “negative reciprocity”—something for nothing. Davis is sympathetic to Sahlins's attempt to overcome Mauss's dichotomy between voluntary return and obligatory return. She dismisses the simple notion that bad money drives out good gifts, insisting that the gift mode and the sale mode coincided. Still, Davis talks about the various ways in which the gift mode was under “pressure” during the sixteenth century, as if suggesting that it was soon to pass away entirely. And, like Mauss, her conclusion focuses on “moral concerns,” on the “yearning for plenitude, this intuition of abundant generosity available in the world and in our own selves as givers and receivers.” One senses a sympathy that transcends its strictly historical boundaries.

The book is the product of terrific archival sleuthing. Davis has a keen eye for visual evidence, and she is a wonderful storyteller. Inspired by Mauss, she has found her own evidence for the role of gifts in pre-modern France. The power of the well-chosen parallel was the first of the uses of anthropology for historians that Bloch mentioned. The others are also in evidence here: showing real people in action, making clear how much has changed since then, and reminding us that relics of past cultures survive, like dead metaphors, into the present. (Think for a moment about housewarming presents and party favors.)

As much as Davis's book tells us about French men and French women of the sixteenth century, and about her own view of the present, it does not really try to change our view of sixteenth-century French history. An exception is her discussion of the fluid borderline between gifts and bribes in a political system over which French kings were just then struggling to assert their supremacy, with the help of theorists such as Jean Bodin, whom many credit with the modern doctrine of sovereignty, and whom Davis recruits to her argument. But even here there is no effort to convey to the reader that this issue might have had wider resonances in a Europe riven by divisions about power so sharp as to drive nearly every nation into civil war in the hundred years from 1550 to 1650. This gap, and others, may be a function—or a cost—of following Mauss's “tunnel” history too closely.

But perhaps Mauss is not required for a serious reflection on the importance of gifts in early modern Europe. Perhaps only the accelerated waning of a classical formation, and with it access to the common culture of pre-twentieth-century Europe, may have made it seem necessary to travel to Melanesia to learn that “what we need is a discussion of gifts and the rules for a practice that constitutes the chief bond of human society.” Or that “nothing is more disgraceful than the fact that we do not know how either to give or to receive.” Or that “the benefit itself is not something that is counted out and handed over, just as, likewise, the honour that is paid to the gods lies, not in the victims for sacrifice, though they be fat and glitter with gold, but in the upright and holy desire of the worshippers.”

Those observations—and many similar ones could be cited—are from the treatise De beneficiis, or On Benefits, written by the Roman philosopher Seneca in the first century C.E. His tract is a long discussion of the morality and the mechanics of giving and receiving gifts. Seneca was concerned with the social context of giving. Not surprisingly, he also recognized the connection between the giving of benefits and the making of friends: what we might describe as the politics of gift-giving.

Seneca's letters are full of praise for friendship, but they are especially celebratory of the friendship that bound men through the pursuit of common goals. He recognized the tension between friendships that could be made by giving and the friendships that transcended a merely mercantile nature; and so giving and friendship were joined, in Seneca's account, to a third category, that of “constancy.” This was the strength of mind that enabled individuals to distinguish between fleeting, superficial good and the rational good that abided. Gifts exchanged between friends bound by reason would not go wrong, nor would they corrupt. In the wider society, of course, this sort of bond could not be hoped for; but even there gifts had to be exchanged if order was to be maintained and violence was to be averted—a minimal objective of politics and political philosophy.

Seneca's ideas circulated continuously across Europe in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in manuscripts and then in books. The story of how they were put to work would provide a fine example of Bloch's second sort of comparative inquiry, in which a long history of contact and borrowing lets the modern inquirer explain rather than merely suggest. If juxtaposition with the furthest and the strangest is sometimes necessary for a clear look at what we see every day, it is also true that sometimes only everyday contact can develop a fine sensitivity to subtle changes of form and content.

As Davis and others have noted, there was a great deal of interest in Seneca's works in the second half of the sixteenth century. She does not try to explain this fact, though she does link it to the high profile of gift-giving. But if we think about the long history of Seneca's presence in the West, then the marked increase in the editions of his works and the discussion of his ideas must surely be a signal that there is something here that must be explained.

Seneca's vision of the degrees of social solidarity, from the intimate to the impersonal, was articulated in the cynical decades of Nero's reign. (He himself fell victim to the emperor's lack of self-control.) The threats to integrity lay all around: it was a moral and political challenge, rather than an economic one, that elicited the philosopher's discussion of gifts and sociability. Might this help to explain the popularity of On Benefits in sixteenth-century France, or in seventeenth-century Italy, or in eighteenth-century England?

Surely Seneca mattered so much in all those places because he spoke to readers who experienced the unhinging of community and the threat to social solidarity at all these levels of personal relations. This was, in the first instance, a consequence of the warfare that racked every part of Europe in the century before 1648. No greater material threat to social life can be imagined than its physical extermination. We know of this fate befalling French communities during the civil wars of religion that marred the last forty years of the sixteenth century—though the wars and the attendant chaos are not mentioned by Davis as having any effect on gift-giving.

Another powerful threat to the traditional order was, of course, the Reformation. Davis's discussion of Protestant and Catholic views on gifts is fascinating. She shows how the interpretation of the mass could turn on an interpretation of the “gift.” Catholics thought it possible and proper to give gifts to God, while Protestants believed this to be an inappropriate act of bribery. Calvin's diatribe against any reciprocity between God and man, when seen in this light, takes on a broader social coloration, thought it also meant that he had to struggle to find an alternative basis for relations between men.

But Davis, owing perhaps to her fascination with real people, focuses exclusively on men's gifts to God (works) rather than on God's gift to men (salvation). The abstractions of soteriology were far from the concerns of ordinary worshippers. And yet if we want to explore the full ramifications of gifts in Reformation culture, this is an absolutely essential stop: in the seventeenth century both Dutch society and English society were riven by conflict over precisely this issue.

This silence is characteristic of Davis's discussion of the Reformation: assuming its shattering impact, she focuses only on its refraction in the ocean of gift practices. And yet there might have been a greater profit to her emphasis on gifts if she had reversed the direction of the argument and shown how different views about gifts could give us a different view of the Reformation as a whole. There is the faintest suggestion, at the end of her introduction, that the Reformation in France had a decisive impact on the gift register—“Some people tried to rethink the nature of reciprocity, but could they persuade their fellow Christians, and would God listen?”—but by the time we get to her concluding chapter no effort is made to present religion as the keystone of her argument.

A third movement that corroded social bonds in the Old Regime was the spread across Europe of the Italian fashion for self-presentation. Beginning in the Renaissance, and immortalized in such popular works as Baldassare Castiglione's The Courtier, which was written sometime around 1516, it spread across the Continent on the backs and in the book bags of aristocratic travellers. The emphasis on style and savoir faire re-made the way in which Europeans thought about “living well,” from Scotland to Transylvania.

Far from eliminating gift-giving, this new fashion for being fashionable made giving all the more important. But it did transform completely “the reason for exchange.” Some of the most perceptive social thinkers of the seventeenth century recognized in this movement out of Italy a threat to the moral integrity of the old-fashioned lifestyle that Davis anatomizes. The Duke de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) in France and the Jesuit Balthasar Gracián (1601-1658) in Spain were the keenest critics of the new social regime that found its first followers among the attendants at court, and that later spread down the fashion food chain to the likes of Molière's Monsieur Jourdain and, eventually, to the eighteenth-century English readers of Addison and Steele's Spectator. By then, the cynicism of gift-giving had been exposed by one of the sharpest-eyed and most wicked observers of modern times. Bernard Mandeville even justified the self-interested manipulation of exchange relations on the grounds that out of private immorality some public good could come. “Private vices make public virtues” was his slogan.

This Senecan story, had it been presented to the reader, could have added depth and purpose to the importance that Davis ascribes to gifts in early modern France, and also conveyed some sense of its European dimension. But there is an even bigger prize to be won by following Seneca's early modern trail: a true counter-history of civilization that inverts Mauss's understanding of the gift altogether. For Mandeville's definition of commercial society included the exchange of passions and sentiments as well as goods and services. Three decades later, one of Mandeville's most attentive readers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, located the origin of this competitive manipulation of others' feelings in the earliest beginnings of settled life. But this means that Mauss's Melanesians, already much advanced on Rousseau's “noble savages,” were as much the victims of a market—in passions, not in cash—as Mandeville's Londoners. There was simply no difference in the “reason” for exchange among ancients and moderns; no degeneration that was not already present in “primitive” society; no difference, perhaps, between “archaic” and “modern.” The evils associated with the market were rooted deep in human psychology, in the fundamental desire to be liked. Small wonder that Mandeville's and Rousseau's enemies were Mauss's teachers.


Ethnographers travel to distant, difficult places, and they give us vivid and precise snapshots of a people at a particular time and place. The choice of place is rarely articulated: the reason is usually just that there is where the subjects were. But there is a more fundamental justification for the ethnographer's choices: exemplarity, or the assumption that there is a common human nature—that what they now are, we once were.

Davis has undertaken such a journey and brought back her field notes on how, when, where, and why sixteenth-century Frenchmen gave gifts to one another: “I am asking what were the status, meanings, and uses of gifts in France of the sixteenth century.” And why the sixteenth century? We are never really told. Davis writes that “the century of Rabelais, Marguerite de Navarre, and Montaigne also had special consequences for gift practices,” but every age has its own unique features. Of course the Reformation and the spread of printing are truly epochal, but so, too, is the Hundred Years' War for the medievalist and the advent of the Sun King for the dix-septièmiste.

Nor are we anywhere told why France is the best place in which to study the vicissitudes of an archaic gift culture in crisis. This leaves the implicit claim that we study sixteenth-century France in such detail because a great deal of detail exists; and that we make this effort because in this way we can also understand Italy in the fifteenth century, England in the seventeenth century, Germany in the eighteenth century, and so on—because all peoples are the same, and the close study of one of them can tell us much about all of them.

But historians are not supposed to think this way. They are trained to believe that all people and all peoples are distinct until proven similar. They are also taught that they must be able to explain why their questions should be of interest to others. Solipsism is the specter stalking the true lover of the past. If it can never be entirely overcome, it must at least be wrestled to a draw. Otherwise the historian, like the ethnographer and his subjects, may find himself marooned on his own island in time.

Robert Brent Toplin (review date summer 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 making The Return of Martin Guerre (1983). Vigne's acclaimed movie dramatized a real-life case of a love triangle in a small village in sixteenth-century France. Davis provided abundant historical information for the project and coached filmmakers and actors regarding the life of the common folk. Later she published a book-length historical study of the case of Martin Guerre under the same title as the movie as well as intriguing articles that dealt with connections between film and history. Her subsequent books, which concentrated on social conditions in early modern France, enhanced her reputation for solid research and innovative interpretations. With Slaves on Screen, Davis returns to an interest that her participation in Vigne's production helped to provoke.

Davis explains that her work on the Guerre case excited curiosity about the challenges of presenting history in prose and on the screen. The dual experience of working as a scholar and counselor to a filmmaker convinced her that “historical narration through film could become both more dramatic and more faithful to the sources from the past.” In other comments as well Davis suggests that skillful and imaginative artists can sometimes engage audiences quite effectively. She praises the creators of Spartacus for their “historical sensibility,” applauds the writer and director of The Last Supper for dramatizing a micro-history of Cuba that is tightly linked to the island's past, and acclaims the “historical power” of Demme's Beloved because it sensitively examines traumas associated with slavery. Davis believes dramatic film can arouse the public's thinking. She argues that the five motion pictures under study are “sometimes insightful and novel, engaging spectators in fresh dialogue with the past.”

Slaves on Screen is not, however, a simple-minded celebration of films and filmmakers. The author is a demanding critic. In a hard-hitting chapter entitled “Telling the Truth” she urges screen artists to “respect” historical evidence. Imagination, invention, and dramatic flourish have their place in history-oriented films, she acknowledges, but exercises in artistic license should spring from the facts. When filmmakers manipulate their historical sources, fashioning composite characters or changing the time-frame of events, they should operate in the “spirit of the evidence.” Movies should relate stories that are plausible, she argues; they should not mislead audiences. Davis recognizes that counter-factual portrayals can sometimes promote intriguing speculation about the past, but she recommends that filmmakers who engage in these exercises “let the audience in on the game.”

Davis expresses disappointment about the way screen artists frequently design cinematic history to look and feel exactly like the present. In their attempts to make dramas appear relevant to contemporary viewers, filmmakers often fail to communicate the “strangeness” of history. Audiences want to know what is different about the past as well as what is familiar, she writes. To some degree, all of the movies under examination speak to the times in which they were exhibited. Spartacus contains messages for Americans in the days of the Cold War and the Red Scare. Burn! and The Last Supper relate to national revolutions. Amistad and Beloved reflect the shadow of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, she argues, motion pictures come up short if “wish fulfillment” about contemporary messages guides most of the storytelling.

Davis reserves her sharpest criticism for Steven Spielberg's Amistad. While finding much of value in the film, she nevertheless questions Amistad's handling of evidence and its present-mindedness. The movie “went off the track,” she concludes. Despite a $40-million budget and a stellar list of historical consultants, Amistad failed to deliver a sophisticated picture of the past. Characterizations of important historical figures, such as Roger Baldwin and John Quincy Adams, strayed far from the evidence. With a little research and imagination, says Davis, the movie's creators could have teased fine drama from the historical sources. Particularly troubling are the filmmakers' exaggerated efforts to make their story speak to Americans of the late twentieth century. For instance, John Quincy Adams and the slave leader, Cinque, sound like acquaintances of the 1990s when Adams (Anthony Hopkins) tells members of the U.S. Supreme Court about “my friend Cinque, who was over at my place the other night.” Davis suggests some ways that Spielberg could have made the Adams-Cinque relationship more evocative of nineteenth-century conditions. In this fascinating commentary we see how Davis might have worked with Spielberg if she had a role in the production of Amistad similar to her advisory role in the making of The Return of Martin Guerre.

Interestingly, Davis draws our attention to the people who fashioned the films, noting that many of them worked with a passionate interest in the subjects they dramatized. Kirk Douglas, the leading actor and a producer of Spartacus, read Howard Fast's novel on the subject and found it meaningful. Douglas reported that he came from a “race of slaves” that had fled Egypt. Howard Fast, in turn, had been in prison for refusing to answer questions during HUAC's investigations of Hollywood, and the screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, was a victim of blacklisting in the days of the Red Scare. Gillo Pontecorvo (Burn!), a Jewish Italian who had been involved in Communist resistance to fascism, was highly sensitive to the ordeal of oppressed peoples (evidenced by the subjects he chose for his films). Oprah Winfrey viewed the making of Beloved as an opportunity to express empathy for women and children who had been abused in slavery. Winfrey believed in the therapeutic value of bringing terrible experiences out into the open, as evidenced by the interviews she conducted on her television show. Debbie Allen, producer of Amistad, had seen Schindler's List and believed African Americans needed to view emotionally powerful stories about their own people's Holocaust. Through these references to the filmmakers' motivations, Davis helps us to see that the makers of cinematic history do not operate solely out of a drive for profits. Some key individuals involved in the five productions found the subjects personally meaningful.

Generally, Davis privileges questions about historical presentation, and gives considerably less emphasis to concerns about the movies' dramatic appeal. Her judgments about good filmmaking relate primarily to cinema's sophistication in interpreting historical issues. Questions about the films' dramatic power and their success in drawing large audiences to the theaters and video stores need stronger consideration, for little is achieved intellectually if a motion picture addresses important topics but fails to attract viewers. Entertainment and education are not necessarily at odds. Some popular films manage to present engaging stories and stimulate thought as well. Patton (1970), Glory (1989), and Schindler's List (1993) are a few good examples from recent decades. For three of the films under study, the matter of audience appeal is particularly significant. These movies were released with impressive star power, strong financial support from major studios, and expensive media blitzes. In the case of Spartacus, the effort worked; it proved a big hit. Audience and critical reception for Amistad was mildly disappointing, especially in view of its direction by Steven Spielberg, Hollywood's greatest ticket seller and winner of the Best Picture and Best Director award for his story about Oskar Schindler. Beloved proved greatly disappointing, both as drama and as an investment.

Davis heaps so much praise on Beloved for its historical sensitivity that she tends to overlook the film's dramatic flaws. Oprah Winfrey spent eleven years trying to get Toni Morrison's notable book turned into a movie, and the TV star experienced profound disappointment when Beloved became an expensive flop. Early reviews of the picture were mostly damning. Critics complained that the three-hour story was confusing and boring. Even African Americans tended to stay away from the theaters, and box-office sales for Beloved compared unfavorably with other current releases that dealt with much less weighty themes. Despite Oprah Winfrey's tireless promotion of the movie on her television show and her own appearance in the film in a major acting role, Beloved quickly disappeared from view. Beloved's difficulties showed that creation of a memorable example of cinematic history calls for more than just a serious examination of the past. If historical interpretation is not married effectively to entertainment, audiences will not show up for the history lesson.

At the end of the book Davis criticizes popular film in a manner that has been addressed in numerous publications by historians and cinema-studies specialists. She expresses a wish that filmmakers make stronger efforts to alert audiences to the “truth status” of stories they bring to the screen. Davis asks: can filmmakers manage to raise questions about historical explanation, as writers often do when they review history-oriented films? The author notes that some “art cinema” (as opposed to “classical cinema”) jolts viewers, confronting them with unsettling questions. Through experimental techniques such as sudden interruptions and unrealistic effects, filmmakers can draw attention to the complexities of interpretation. Rashomon, for example, challenges audiences with multiple perspectives, suggesting that interpretation is open, not fixed.

Davis has addressed this intriguing question over the years, asking the creators of cinema to explore techniques that provoke thinking. She poses a significant challenge, one that movie artists will find difficult to meet. “Seamless” stories that do not draw attention to the complexities of interpretation are usually much more appealing to audiences. Traditional modes of storytelling are more workable as mass entertainment than the financially risky forms of experimental cinema. Rashomon will probably continue to serve as the scholars' favorite, little-imitated dream movie.

Davis's book invites debates about these issues and intelligently examines ways that dramatic film can engage the past. Davis never confuses reel history with scholarly history or suggests that motion pictures should interpret in the same manner as books. Instead, she views films as “thought experiments,” explorations that can prove enlightening when their creators effectively combine sound history with vivid imagination. Advantaged by her own lengthy experience as an accomplished historian and as a major contributor to a fine historical film, Natalie Zemon Davis has produced one of the best books on cinematic history to appear in recent years.

Daniel Snowman (essay date October 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, given all the other things you know—be brave, use your imagination. ‘What I offer you here is in part my invention,’ Davis acknowledges in the introduction to her most famous book, The Return of Martin Guerre, ‘but held tightly in check by the voices of the past’.

Martin Guerre was a sixteenth-century French peasant who deserted his wife and family to become a soldier of fortune. A few years later ‘Martin’ returned from the wars and took up again with his wife—until the ‘real’ Martin returned and the man living in his place was tried and executed as an impostor. Davis was consultant to the film (starring Gérard Depardieu), and her ground-breaking book, first published in 1983, has been translated into some twenty languages. Meanwhile, the Martin Guerre story has ridden off into all sorts of new directions, among them the film Sommersby and a musical version. Evidently, Davis had touched upon a story with profound reverberations for our own times. And not only in Martin Guerre. Impostorship, uncertain identity, multiple portrayals: these themes run throughout her work.

Their roots go back to her childhood. Born to a prosperous, liberal-leaning Jewish family in Detroit in 1928, Natalie Zemon grew up straddling different worlds. An all-American girl, she became increasingly conscious of her European ancestry. Attending a private girls' high school, she'd go to Christian chapel but cross her fingers lest her Old Testament God be angry with her. As a politically active undergraduate at Smith College after the war, she gravitated towards the radical ‘Progressivism’ of Henry Wallace just as the national mood was swinging towards the anti-Communist right. A history major, she loved reading European (especially French) literature, thought about working in film—and went to a Harvard summer school to study the philosophy of science.

In general, Natalie thrived as she bridged her disparate worlds. But the foothold faltered. At Harvard, she met and married a young (non-Jewish) mathematician, Chandler Davis, receiving opprobrium, especially from her mother, for marrying ‘out’, while the political radicalism she and Chandler shared brought the young couple into conflict with the House Un-American Activities Committee. The HUAC confrontation led to the withdrawal of Natalie's passport, which distressed her deeply as it put a (temporary) end to the PhD research she was undertaking in Lyon. But there were beneficial by-products. Pregnant with her first child, she realised it was perhaps no bad thing, at least temporarily, to forego transatlantic commuting. Also, living in the New York area, she began to encounter some of the incomparable rare book collections on her doorstep.

Davis was a thirty-year-old mother of three before she completed her PhD, and she held teaching posts at Brown, York (Toronto), the University of Toronto and at Berkeley before she published her first book. When it came, it was a collection of highly researched and tightly-compressed essays (several of them published earlier) under the almost blandly academic title Society and Culture in Early Modern France. But it was a debut book with a difference. For between its respectable covers, Natalie Davis concealed a series of little bombshells as, in essay after essay, she contrived to enter the minds of ordinary people, the ‘menu peuple’, so often left out of the history books. What was it like, she asked, to be a printworker, derided as a ‘scold’ or accused of a capital crime in small-town France at a time when Reformation ideas were beginning to take hold? How did the wider processes of history interact with the personal and the individual—particularly when the individuals were often illiterate and left little formal documentation?

Here was a historian able to use the insights of anthropology and ethnography—one, moreover, not afraid to speculate when ‘proof’ was unavailable. But even more striking than her methodological ingenuity were some of her conclusions. In a number of essays, notably one entitled ‘Women on Top’ (long before the phrase became a cliché), Davis examined ritual occasions when those lower down the social hierarchy were temporarily permitted to subvert the rules and mock their supposed betters. A period of calculated ‘Misrule’ was a feature of most societies in early modern times, and had generally been regarded by historians as a kind of social safety valve—the historical counterpart of Speakers' Corner. What Davis found, especially when examining rituals permitting cross-dressing, was that such occasions could, on the contrary, prompt participants to new ways of thinking about traditional social and sexual hierarchies. Women, far from being on the receiving end of history, had, it seemed, sometimes been able to use such rituals of social engineering to their own betterment. The very subtlety of Davis's message, and the impeccable scholarship with which it was delivered, added to its weight.

Already something of a heroine to feminist intellectuals, Natalie Davis, by now a professor at Princeton, was soon to become one of the most widely read historians of her generation. When she first came across accounts of the Guerre story (notably by Jean de Coras, one of the judges of the court case), she thought: ‘this story would make a great movie’. By coincidence, at that very time, the Depardieu film was being set up and Davis was engaged as historical consultant. As she helped the actors (including many from the local population) think themselves into their characters, Davis realised that she was participating in a direct ‘dialogue with history’, an event that paralleled the one they were all struggling to portray, as members of a tight-knit community began to imagine that they were other than they appeared. Furthermore, as the film-makers inevitably smudged some of the historical detail, Davis decided to write a book on the Guerre story and found herself reflecting further on the nature of historical invention. What is historical truth? Did Martin Guerre's wife Bertrande ‘know’ for sure that the man with whom she shared her bed was not her husband? If she did—how can we know?

Famously, and controversially, Davis ‘invented’, that is surmised. On the basis of her intimate knowledge of not only all the historical sources but also the location and its modern-day denizens, she was able to portray, like a novelist, the day-to-day texture of life in Martin's part of France—and then to show how someone like Martin would have ‘dreamed of life beyond the confines of fields of millet, of tileworks, properties, and marriages’. Did Martin and the man who later impersonated him ever meet? Probably not. But that does not stop Davis picturing the scene that might have occurred if they had, a device that neatly enables her to pick out some of the detail each might have noticed about the other. As for Bertrande, local lore insisted there is no mistaking ‘the touch of the man on the woman’, so she must have known that the man she took to be her husband was not Martin. Did she not feel guilty at her complicity? Perhaps. But Davis shows that Protestant ideas were beginning to become fashionable in this part of France so that, while Bertrande doubtless felt guilt, she might not have felt obliged to confess as a sinner. ‘It is possible,’ Davis concludes, ‘even probable, that the new Martin and Bertrande … were becoming interested in the new religion, in part because they could draw from it another justification for their lives.’

This is breathtaking stuff. But is it history? Not in the narrow Gradgrind sense, perhaps; the ‘facts’ aren't there in the record. But, as Davis points out, the job of any historian is to examine the available evidence and then to make intelligent and informed conjectures. That means knowing not only all the ‘hard’ evidence, such as the documents and artefacts people left, but also their psychological processes: their hopes, their fears, and what they understood by words and concepts (‘sin’, ‘adultery’, ‘lord of the household’) that have taken on a different hue over the centuries.

Like a preacher, Davis loves to recount a story, tease out the detail, make inferences and where appropriate incorporate her own experiences and persona into what she has to say. Unlike most preachers, however, she tends to avoid clear-cut conclusions, preferring (relishing, one feels) an element of ambiguity. Thus, Martin Guerre ends, not as you might expect with an exegesis about impostorship and historical truth, but with a section on those who first documented the story (among them not only the judge, Coras, but also Montaigne who wrote a contemporary commentary)—each of whom has his own perspective on the story. Davis believes that, by allowing an element of fabrication, or ‘creative fiction’, into her writing, she has probably come closer to the truth than anyone else who has written about what remains a supremely enigmatic historical episode.

There is an element of storytelling—of ‘fiction’, indeed—in much of her writing. Her next book was actually entitled (provocatively you might think) Fiction in the Archives. In this she looked at letters of remission in which people in sixteenth-century France begged to be pardoned after having been found guilty of capital crimes. What interested Natalie Davis was the way such letters would be crafted, shaped, moulded and sculpted to enable the writer to put the best possible ‘spin’ (as we would now say) on the story of the crime. The very fabrication of such letters, says Davis, provided new insights into the way people thought at the time. In Women on the Margins, similarly, Davis takes off from stories, in this case the lives of three seventeenth-century women, one Jewish, one Catholic and one Protestant, each of whom left a somewhat ‘fabricated’ record. All three were women of some substance, yet ‘on the margins’ in the sense that they crossed boundaries of geography, politics and culture: the Catholic went out to New France to bring Christ to the Canadian Indians, while the artistic and scientific interests of the Protestant took her as far afield as Suriname.

As Davis pursued her three women hither and yon (and there is a wonderful sense of place in each of the three narratives), she sensed herself also traversing new intellectual frontiers. Here was a book in which the entire cast consisted of women—a book, moreover, of comparative history that took Davis for the first time beyond the confines of France. The Jewish woman was from Hamburg and this required Davis to read documents in Yiddish, the language of her forebears, and, for the first time in her life, to spend extended periods in Germany. While Davis largely lets her characters weave their own tapestries, leaving us to draw what conclusions we may, there is no mistaking the intensity of her personal involvement with her subject-matter. Indeed, in an extraordinary prologue, she imagines the women meeting to discuss the book—and rounding on the author for what they see as her misrepresentations of them. ‘Let me explain,’ says Natalie as she steps from the shadows to join them. ‘You have a lot of explaining to do,’ the women riposte. If Guerre reads at times like a novel, the prologue to Women on the Margins reads like a filmscript.

When I first met Natalie Davis some years ago, she talked animatedly about her desire to work again in film. A movie option on Women on the Margins was taken up, but nothing materialised. But her next book, Slaves on Screen, contained a string of chapters on several famous feature films about slaves, among them the Kirk Douglas movie Spartacus (directed by Kubrick), Gillo Pontecorvo's Burn, Spielberg's Amistad, and Beloved, based on the novel by Toni Morrison (a friend and colleague from Princeton). What, asks Davis, is the nature of the historical ‘truth’ available to the filmmaker? Why should we assume that a conventional history book, in prose form, is necessarily better able to capture and communicate aspects of the past than a partly fictionalised film? Film, by its capacity to reproduce the visual imagery and passions of the past, can tell an ancient story with a vraisemblance unavailable to the writer (a theme on which she elaborated in an address to the British Academy earlier this year). Davis is adamant, however, that filmmakers, like academic historians, should be honest about their intentions and the nature of their evidence. Thus, she praises Pontercorvo for making it clear that his grainy, documentary-style The Battle of Algiers was made with actors and contained no authentic newsreel or documentary footage, while she has no truck with those who, affecting to present history on the screen, distort what they know to be the truth. But within these constraints, Davis believes film ‘can be both good cinema and good history’.

I asked Natalie Davis about other historians she admired or who were important influences upon her. She talked warmly of contemporaries, like Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Carlo Ginsburg, who, like her, were among the first to absorb insights from cultural anthropology in their writings on the past. If she has a hero, it would be Marc Bloch, the great French (and Jewish) historian who was executed by the Gestapo, while her most recent book, The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France, was partly inspired by the work of another pre-war French (Jewish) writer, Marcel Mauss.

The Gift took Davis back to sixteenth-century France and is packed with stories and instances. But, unusually for Davis, the book is highly schematic, structured by concept rather than story. There are sections on the nature of gifts and giving at birth, marriage and death or during the seasons of the year and the Christian calendar, gifts that go wrong (bribes, contested wills, deceptive sales), the power relationships arising from gift giving and receiving, gifts across social boundaries (royal bounty, tips, alms), and gifts to and from God. It is an astonishing book, dense in texture and not always easy to read. But you emerge reflecting that just about every transaction contains an element of emotion-laden giving and receiving.

A brisk and vigorous seventy-three, Davis continues to read and write and think—and talk—with an intensity and energy that would be impressive in a woman half her age. She is now in the early stages of a major new project on ‘Cultural Mixture’ (the topic of an address at last summer's Anglo-American Conference in London), which will consider the lives of a number of people from earlier centuries who crossed traditional thresholds. The stories are rich and colourful, and Davis held me in thrall, like the Ancient Mariner, as she told me of a Dutch-Scottish soldier in Suriname; a Romanian-Jewish linguist living in Paris—and of a Muslim who was born in Granada shortly before the expulsion of 1492 and raised in Fez who travelled across north Africa, as far south as Timbuctou, across Europe to Istanbul, was kidnapped by Christian pirates, handed to Pope Leo X for baptism and went on to become a writer and teacher in Italy under the name of Johannes Leo Africanus.

As Davis works these stories towards book form, she will doubtless find herself yet again at the vanguard of those whose presentation of the past helps us come to terms with the struggles and preoccupations of our own times—post-colonial guilt, racial prejudice, globalisation, Christian-Islam perceptions, immigration and identity politics and the rest. She and I started to talk about these issues, when I suddenly realised there was a more immediate struggle to confront: the dense traffic on the Euston Road. I had promised to run Natalie to the British Library where some rare documents awaited her. My last view of her was of a dynamic, compact figure, her thirst for intellectual adventure clearly unquenched, as she marched towards yet another threshold.

Robert A. Rosenstone (essay date December 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 around a single theme. True, Robert Toplin and I have each published collections of our occasional essays on history and film, as has French historian Marc Ferro, who should certainly be designated the founding father of this subfield. True, too, Cinema Studies scholars such as Robert Burgoyne and Leger Grindon have published books on historical film with broad if disconnected themes, but the questions posed in such works are rather different from those about historical discourse that are of interest to historians. Among professionals in the field, only Pierre Sorlin of the University of Paris has previously attempted such a more-or-less unified work.1 All this underlines the notion that writing on film by historians has been an occasional, even fugitive, phenomenon.

Slaves on Screen is not, it should be stated at the outset, either a broad or exhaustive examination of its topic. Growing out of a series of lectures delivered at the University of Toronto and aired over the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the book is less an extensive argument than a suggestive foray. It consists of five short chapters that examine five films dealing with slavery, placing each work in both historical and historiographical contexts. Without using the word, Davis here ventures into the realm of “historiophoty,” that term coined by Hayden White in 1988 to describe “the representation of history and our thought about it in visual images and filmic discourse.”2 Her broad aims are to investigate “what kind of historical inquiry” (121) these films undertake, and, in a sense, to elaborate on her ideas of film as a kind of “thought experiment” (xi), ideas which were first voiced in conjunction with her work as historical consultant on The Return of Martin Guerre some twenty years ago.

Throughout Slaves on Screen, Davis struggles with the dilemma that troubles all historians (here I certainly include myself) who see film as a potential medium for both effectively telling the past and raising historical questions in new ways—the dilemma of being caught between our hopes and visions of what the dramatic feature might possibly do for, and the grim reality of what it all too often does to, the past. Like all who have gone before her, Davis ultimately fails to work her way out of this dilemma, or to solve what may after all be an insoluble problem based on the realities of the world—films are made not by historians but by filmmakers who, however much they care about history, must always keep another consideration at the forefront of their minds: how to keep an audience sitting in its seats, staring at a screen. Yet because Davis faces, more systematically than any previous historian, the question of how (and if and what) a group of dramatic films can teach us about the past, the book is an important contribution to ongoing debates.

The achievement of Slaves on Screen can be best understood by surveying the arguments over the visual media that have been made in the last three decades. In the first half of the twentieth century, historians so rarely commented upon the topic that Peter Novick's lengthy survey of professional practices in America, That Noble Dream, contains but a single reference to motion pictures. A critical 1935 letter, sent by Louis Gottschalk of the University of Chicago to the president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, contains a sentiment with which most historians (then and now) would probably agree: “If the cinema art is going to draw its subjects so generously from history, it owes to its patrons and its own higher ideals to achieve greater accuracy. No picture of a historical nature ought to be offered to the public until a reputable historian has had a chance to criticize and revise it.”3

Not until the 1970s did historians begin to take film seriously enough to begin producing essays, books, and conferences on the topic. The first major work was a 1976 volume entitled The Historian and Film, a collection of essays in which a group of mostly British academics examined questions of how to use newsreels in the classroom or how to evaluate feature films as historical evidence. Five years later came the publication of Feature Films as History, another group effort, this one focusing on dramatic works, and more particularly on the question of how clusters of films made in certain periods could serve as windows onto particular ideologies or climates of opinion—anti-Semitism in Europe, the Popular Front of the 1930s, or national consciousness in Germany and France in the 1920s.4

A single essay in the volume tentatively edged in a radical new direction. In dealing with Sergei Eisenstein's classic work, Battleship Potemkin, D. J. Wenden of Oxford considered the question of how a film, even though fictionalized, might yet illuminate a historical event. After comparing the film's account of the ship's mutiny with written histories on the same topic, Wenden suggests that rather than creating a literal reality, Eisenstein makes “brilliant use of the ship's revolt as a symbol for the whole revolutionary effort of the Russian people in 1905.”5 This is the first instance (at least the first known to me) in which a historian suggests that film might have its own way of telling the past, that the very nature of the medium and its practices of necessity create a particular kind of history (here dubbed “symbolic history”) that is different from what we expect to find upon the page.

Two historians in France during the 1970s also took short steps towards a notion of film as historical discourse. Marc Ferro, whose pathbreaking essays were eventually collected in Cinéma et histoire (1977), focuses most of his effort on the notion that film (but not necessarily historical film) is a cultural artifact, one which not only reveals much about the time period in which it is made but that at its best provides what he calls a “counter analysis” of society. Only in the last essay in the volume does he confront the more problematic (and interesting) issue: “Does a filmic writing of history exist?” Ferro's initial response is “No.” Filmmakers, he argues, blindly incorporate either a national or a leftist ideology into their renditions of the past, and their films thus end up being no more than transcriptions “of a vision of history which has been conceived by others.” But—and here a new notion begins to emerge—Ferro admits that there are exceptions to this rule. A few directors (he names Andrei Tarkovsky, Russia; Ousmane Sembene, Senegal; Hans Jurgen Syberberg, Germany; and Luchino Visconti, Italy) possess strong historical visions that transcend the ideological forces and traditions of their countries. Such filmmakers are able to create independent interpretations of history and thereby make “an original contribution to the understanding of past phenomena and their relation to the present.”6

Pierre Sorlin, who devotes all of The Film in History (1980) to the issue of how the dramatic feature “restages the past,” does not venture as far as Ferro. A certain ambivalence towards film as history runs through the volume, and the internal confusion of his chapter on Sergei Eisenstein's October mirrors the difficulties historians inevitably have in dealing with works about the past in a medium that can seem so elusive. Initially Sorlin dismisses October as no more than “propaganda,” but a long analysis leads him to contradict himself, by the end of his chapter terming it a view of the Russian Revolution that is independent of Bolshevik ideology—a judgment which at least tends toward Ferro's “filmic writing of history.”7 The more general problem Sorlin has with historical films is that they are ultimately “all fictional.” Even those based on historical evidence “reconstruct in a purely imaginary way the greater part of what they show.”8 Nonetheless, he does demonstrate how, with regard to certain topics (the French Revolution, the Italian Risorgimento, the American Civil War), groups of historical films do relate to the larger realm of discourse generated by professionals in the field. In an argument too often ignored by historians (and journalists) today, Sorlin suggests that just like written histories, films must be judged not against our current knowledge or interpretations of a topic but with regard to historical understanding at the time they were made. This means that when, say, we are condemning the vicious racism of D. W. Griffith's classic, Birth of a Nation, we must keep in mind that the film was neither a bizarre personal nor a purely commercial interpretation of Reconstruction, but in fact a pretty good reflection of the best academic history of its own time, the early twentieth century.

Anyone reading these words will no doubt know that the last two decades have seen an explosion of scholarly interest in history and film. Some of this has been fueled by particular works such as JFK and Schindler's List, and the controversies surrounding them: does a conspiracy lie behind the Kennedy assassination? Can the Holocaust be represented by the activities of a single good German who saved Jewish lives? No doubt more important has been the technological revolution that brought the VCR (and more recently the DVD) into common usage, and made both doing research on films and teaching history with film into relatively easy and inexpensive tasks. To make this personal: when I created a History on Film course in 1977, I knew of no other such class being taught. Today a brief surf through the world wide web will show that there are hundreds of courses in history and film offered at universities around the world, many of them at leading research institutions. Today panels on film are common at our annual meetings, reviews of films are published in leading historical journals in the United States and Europe, and conferences on the topic have been held in the U.S., the U.K., Italy, Spain, Finland, Australia, and South Africa. Yet the vast bulk of this activity has avoided the broader implications of history on the screen, and has tended to focus on a kind of ad hoc analysis of individual works. When it comes to a theoretical approach as to how the screen tells the past, nobody but yours truly (shall I blush?), and this only in a number of disparate essays, has faced the questions raised by the work of Wenden, Ferro, and Sorlin. For that reason alone, the publication of a work by a historian as savvy as Natalie Davis about both theory and practice has to be taken as a kind of landmark, an attempt to push the discourse in new directions.

The first question that has to be asked by anyone writing historiophoty is that posed by Ferro: can there be a filmic writing of history? Davis puts this in different language: “What is film's potential for telling about the past in a meaningful and accurate way?” (4). If the whole book is an attempt to provide an answer, the theoretical underpinnings of the argument are present in the first chapter, “Film as Historical Narrative.” Not that her answer is crystal clear. Davis noodles around the issue of “whether we can arrive at a historical account faithful to the evidence if we leave the boundaries of professional prose for the sight, sound, and dramatic action of film.” She describes the change in ideas of telling the past from Homer to Herodotus to Thucydides, then going on to invoke Aristotle's distinctions between poetry and history, between “what happened (and) … what might happen,” between the “general truths” of the poet and the “specific events” of the historian. (These classical distinctions, she points out, “were often blurred in practice”—the speeches recounted by the supposedly rigorous Thucydides were largely invented, and he often resorted to the “possible” rather than the actual in order to round out his historical accounts [3].) Still, Davis is onto something here: the ancients are important as an oblique way of legitimating film. Implicit is the notion that because history has over time been practiced according to different rules, it is now legitimate to devote one's energy to a study of the practice of history in this (relatively) new medium.

Or, to be specific, one kind of practice. For purposes of this work, Davis has chosen to analyze only dramatic features, because she finds them “a more difficult case than documentary films”—more difficult because, though people, especially in cinema studies, like to create a sharp contrast between “fiction films” as products of the “imagination” and nonfictional documentaries as carriers of “truth,” it is precisely this dichotomy she wishes to question. Ostensibly more indexical in its relationship to reality, the documentary also involves a “play of invention,” while the dramatic feature, despite fictive elements, “can make cogent observations on historical events, relations, and processes” (5).

Such dramatic works communicate to us in a medium which has had but a century to develop its genres, a brief moment compared to 2500 years in which Westerners have developed, explored, and discarded many different forms for written history. Davis distinguishes between two kinds of historical films—those based on documentable events; and those with imagined plots but in which verifiable events are intrinsic to the action. She sees the normal feature film as recounting the past in one of two modes: the historical biography or the micro-history (which she herself has written). The former may address such questions as “how and why political decisions are made in different historical regimes, and their consequences.” The latter, like good social history, can let us in on the dynamics of family life, or let us share the experience of “people at work,” medieval peasants sowing and harvesting, Chinese dyers staining cloth in great vats, women in twentieth-century factories bent over machines. This said, we still must beware of succumbing too much to their “reality,” for ultimately films do not quite show, but, rather, “speculate on … how the past was experienced and acted out, how large forces and events were lived through locally and in detail” (7).

The note of caution in this statement marks the rest of the opening chapter—indeed, the rest of the book. On the one hand, Davis exults in what she calls the “multiple techniques” with which film can narrate the past and make it coherent and exciting, the very visual and aural language that makes this such a powerful medium: image, acting, color, editing, sound, location, design, costume. On the other, she insists on the importance of traditional requirements for telling the past as “developed over the centuries” (11). These include following the obvious ideals (often violated in practice, as she knows) that are taught in graduate school: seeking evidence widely, keeping an open mind, telling readers the sources of the evidence, revealing one's own assumptions, not letting normative judgments get in the way of understanding, never falsifying evidence, and labeling one's speculations for what they are. Since the dramatic film, by its very nature, cannot fulfill most of these requirements (something Davis can never quite get herself to admit directly), it seems to be relegated to a subsidiary role in telling the past. Bearing in mind “the differences between film and professional prose,” she says we can take film seriously “as a source of valuable and even innovative historical vision.” We can even “ask questions of historical films that are parallel to those we ask of historical books.” But we cannot wholly trust the answers, for ultimately filmmakers are not quite historians, but “artists for whom history matters” (15).

With such ideas in mind, Davis approaches five films made between 1960 and 1998, treating them chronologically and, in a general way, setting them against the historiographical context of postwar studies on slavery by such scholars as M. I. Finley, David Brion Davis, and Eugene Genovese. Each film is also loosely connected to a particular social mood. The classic spectacle, Spartacus (1960), based on the Howard Fast novel and directed by a young Stanley Kubrick, gets linked both to the Cold War and to scholarly concerns over the “slave personality.” Two foreign films of the 1970s reflect the outbreak of revolution and independence movements in the Third World—Burn!, directed by Italy's Gillo Pontecorvo (best-known for the anti-colonialist masterpiece, The Battle for Algiers), the story of a failed revolution on a fictional sugar-producing island; and The Last Supper (1976), by Cuba's Tomas Gutierrez Alea, based on a prize-winning (from the American Historical Association) book by historian Morena Fraginal, El Ingenio (translated as The Sugar Mill), which describes a 1790 revolt on a plantation. Two American productions from the 1990s belong to our growing concern with the horrors of victimization. Stephen Spielberg's Amistad, the story of the takeover of a slave ship by African slaves, and the subsequent trials of its leaders in Massachusetts, and Beloved, the Jonathan Demme production (from the Toni Morrison novel) that explores the psychic scars left on ex-slaves after gaining their freedom, were produced, in Davis's words, “under the shadow of the Holocaust” (70).

The strategy for analyzing each work consists of three parts. First the genesis—who got the idea for the film, what were its sources, how did various producers-writers-directors bring it to the screen and what were his/her/their intentions? Second, a synopsis, one which highlights the characters and events, and also points to the major deviations from the historical record. Third, the judgment(s)—why should we care about the film, what does it contain that makes us think seriously about the past, and how might it be changed to make it more valuable as a historical work? With Spartacus, for example, we learn such things as how actor Kirk Douglas, writer Dalton Trumbo, and director Kubrick managed to bring the Fast novel to the screen; and how Laurence Oliver, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov changed their lines during the shoot. The film's historical successes—created not just with story and acting, but also with camera work, editing, color, and music—include “the portrayal of the gap between high and low,” slave and free, in Roman society; the depiction of the training in the school for gladiators; the final battle sequence with its chaotic fighting and close combat between slaves and legionnaires; and the portrait of illegal marriages and personal relationships among the slaves, taken as a fitting emblem of resistance. Among the shortcomings are an inaccurate picture of the makeup and functioning of the Roman Senate; a failure to mention the long tradition of slave revolts in the Roman Empire that preceded Spartacus; and the final speech of our hero, which exhibits an anachronistic universalism, born of ideas from the Enlightenment rather than the ancient world. Weighed against the historical record, Davis gives the film a “mixed report—some successes, some missed opportunities, some failures” (36).

A similar mixed assessment holds for the other films, save that the two made outside the United States get much higher marks for complex historical consciousness. Part of this is visual: the unsentimental eye, risky camera movement, and offbeat editing choices of filmmakers (European and Third World) willing to stretch the experience of an audience used to the comfort of Hollywood film language, in which the location of places and people on the screen is always clearly demarcated. Burn!, based on events that took place in a dozen Caribbean and Latin American countries, but fictional in its central story, is a “successful experiment” that evokes the rituals and ceremonies of a slave society, and manages to portray the way in which events are experienced both by groups of people and individuals. Through the personal rivalry of two men—the native leader of the revolution and the British officer (Marlon Brando) sent to suppress it—the film provides a splendid example of “the microhistorical potential of film” (52). The same is true of The Last Supper. “Tightly linked to evidence from the Cuban past” (62) and to its source, El Ingenio, the work is set during Holy Week 1790 on the plantation of the Count de Casa Bayona. This pious, elderly man who enjoys the humility of those “rites of inversion” which have him washing the feet of his slaves, changes quickly into a bloody tyrant when these same slaves lead a revolt, one he suppresses with merciless efficiency and the execution of all its leaders. If the portrait of the count is not “nuanced” enough for Davis, she applauds its representation of a gallery of social types—overseers, priests, technicians, slaves—and its gritty depiction of the daily working world of the plantation and mill.

It is no doubt a measure of our (or her) current state of mind that makes Davis give by far the longest chapter to the films she sees as shadowed by the Holocaust. Like Spartacus, the report on Amistad is mixed. Viewers may come away from the film “with a general sense of the movement of events, the interests at stake, the arguments being offered and challenged, and the popular excitement and zeal stimulated” by the trials of the Africans and the question of whether they are to be set free or sent back into slavery, but the film is not, as promised by director Spielberg, the “mirror … [of] actual events as they unfolded” (79). Like all historical films, this one, to increase suspense or add to character developments, indulges in fabrications. Davis is of two minds about such fictional moves—she has no objections to inventions that seem to add depth to the story, only to those which appear to be arbitrary or unnecessary. (Indeed, she occasionally makes suggestions for inventions which to her would have been more plausible and apropos than those created by the director.)

No inventions are called into question in Beloved, for as a film based upon a novel, the work is entirely an invention, thus doubly removed from the historical world of slavery. Worse yet from a traditional historian's point of view, one of the characters is a ghost of a baby girl, murdered by her mother to keep her from the slave-catchers. Yet such obvious fictions in no way prevent the film from providing a powerful, heart-rending account of the long-lasting trauma caused “by the wounds of slavery, inflicted and then self-inflicted through resistance” (108). When describing Beloved, Davis's prose often moves from the scholarly towards the rhapsodic. Fictional they may be, but each of the characters provides us with “historical insight” into traumatic events; each haunts us “with the tragedies and hopes of the past” (119).

What more, one might ask, can one expect of a historical film? Apparently no more than that it focus on “Telling the Truth,” the title of Davis's final chapter. But what truth? The factual truth, the narrative truth, the emotional truth, the psychological truth, the symbolic truth? In drama, biography, even historical writing, these are often at odds. Knowing this, Davis in the final chapter dances around the issue that torments all historians who deal with film: the fact that the dramatic feature film inevitably and always indulges in fabrication and invention—of characters, incidents, events, moments, dialogue, settings—and not just to make its stories more commercial or palatable to a large audience, but because both the medium and the genre insure that such invention is intimately involved in every moment on the screen. Partly this is due to time constraints, the need to compress large events into short sequences; partly to the greediness of the camera, which demands more specificity of detail than any historian could possibly know about a particular setting or incident in the past; partly to the fact that however good our actors (Davis particularly admires Anthony Hopkins as John Adams), they are impersonators who utilize a vocabulary of gestures, movements, and words to create historical figures whose voices and movements are in many cases (like Adams) wholly lost to us and therefore have to be wholly invented.

Ultimately ignoring the extent to which fiction is deeply implicated in every frame of dramatic historical films, Davis focuses on the overt fabrications that seem unnecessary or, worse, derive from a wish to make the beliefs of a past era more closely resemble those of the present (for example, Spartacus's universalist speech). She faults filmmakers for “too cavalier an attitude toward the evidence about lives and attitudes in the past” and for “underestimating film audiences,” and argues that to be engaged by a historical film “spectators do not need to have the past remade to seem exactly like the present” (130-131). She urges directors to be more honest about their sources (list them in the credits), and to admit to the uncertainties of the past by finding filmic equivalents for the “perhapses” and “may have beens” of prose. This can be done, she suggests, by utilizing devices such as a reporter looking for a story and finding more than one version to tell; or by filling the screen with witnesses and documents that contradict each other; or by adopting the kind of experimental, multi-perspective narration used in the Japanese classic, Rashomon, with its four accounts of the same event, or the French Lieutenant's Woman, with its parallel stories set both in the present and past.

Even if these five films lack such devices, the argument of the book is that they have much to tell us about slave systems in their various forms across the centuries. Spartacus lets us glimpse the political struggles of Rome, and see the development of a major social revolt against Imperial power. Burn! and The Last Supper show us a colonial system of investment, labor, and politics in the context of the customs, tales, songs, and dances of African and Caribbean people. Amistad and Beloved involve us in the horrific psycho-social conditions of the Middle Passage and the Southern plantation system, and teach us that notions of freedom can stem not just from Western but also from African roots. Though all can be faulted on some counts, these films, taken together, engage with the larger historical discourse and even add, through the powers of the medium in which they are rendered, something to our understanding of the costs of slave systems for both masters and slaves.

Despite her effort, Davis at times betrays a certain uneasiness about historical film, a feeling that peeks through her balance sheets of what individual works do right and what they do wrong, her suggestions for better inventions (which often ignore the dramatic aspect of film, the fact that a screenplay is a kind of intricate machine which, if one part is pulled out, may no longer function properly), and her recurrent insistence on the standards of traditional history. At times it almost seems as if (and I slightly caricature the argument) her answer to the shortcomings of films would be to make them more like books. But even were this possible, what would be the point? We already have books, and a lengthy tradition of evaluating their evidence, arguments, and interpretations. What we don't yet have is a very good sense of historical film, and more precisely, its coordinates in the space-time of our thoughts about the past; what we don't know is where history rendered in the visual media—with its movement, sound, and color—is located with regard to traditional history; what we don't know is how to accept the inevitable “truthful fictions” that are an inevitable part of dramatic history on the screen.

“Historical films should let the past be the past,” David says on the last page of the book (136). But this is surely the one thing we historians never do. It is our task precisely not to let the past be the past, but to hold it up for use (moral, political, contemplative) in the present. One is tempted to respond to Davis: “Let historical films be films.” Which means that, rather than assuming that the world on film should somehow adhere to the rules of written history, why not let it create its own standards, appropriate to the possibilities and practices of the medium? (Is this not what happens when one kind of history upstages another?) Better yet, why not admit that filmmakers have been creating such standards for a century, and see it as the job of we who do history on the page to investigate, explicate, and critique what they have done? As outsiders or theorists of historical film, we cannot prescribe a right and wrong way to tell the past. We need to derive theory from practice by analyzing how the past has been and is being told—on the screen. Davis begins to do this, and for that we are in her debt. But she doesn't go far enough. Her grip on the standards of traditional history put as much of an unfair burden on filmmakers as one would put on historians by judging our renderings of the past in filmic terms and asking why, compared to the color, movement, and excitement of the screen, are our books so slow, stuffy, measured, colorless, and silent? Doesn't film, for all its inventions, provide us a kind of experience of or interaction with history impossible for the written word to convey? Might its practices point up limitations in our own? What does the page lack that film can convey in its rich language so different from the one made up of words in our written histories, a language, as described by historian and filmmaker Bruno Ramirez, that is “dramaturgical and visual” rather than “conceptual and explicatory”?9

History is not a natural process like eating, breathing, or sleeping. It is a learned activity. We must be taught how to turn the past into history, and we must be taught how to read what we have done. A new medium of moving images on a screen with aural accompaniment creates an enormous change in the way we tell and see the past—and think its meaning. To call filmmakers “artists for whom history matters” is to ignore evidence that the best of them are something more than that—they already are historians, if by that word we mean people who, confronting traces of the past (tales, rumors, documents, buildings, sites, legends, oral and written histories), work to create stories that make meaning out of this material for us in the present. The codes, conventions, rules, and practices which let them bring the past to the screen are different from those of written history. How could it be otherwise? Clearly, film as a dramatic form and time-bound medium uses data in a much looser way than does academic history. Just as clearly, the past on the screen, no matter how “realistic” its portrayals, is not meant to be the literal past (is history on the page?), but a suggestive, symbolic, metaphoric, interpretive, and—here may be where it comes closest to written history—moral argument. The best of historical films, as Davis herself shows, intersect with, comment upon, and add something to the discourse of history out of which they grow and to which they speak. That “something” is what we who care about the past need to learn how to read, to understand, and to better situate with regard to our own realms of history. By studying what filmmakers have done, we can come to know better the rules of engagement of the dramatic feature film with history—and begin to glimpse what this visual medium can add to our knowledge of and feelings for individuals, groups, moments, movements, situations, and events of the past.


  1. Robert A. Rosenstone, Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995); Robert Toplin, History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996); Marc Ferro, Cinema and History, transl. Naomi Green (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988); Robert Burgoyne, Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at U.S. History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); Leger Grindon, Shadows on the Past: Studies in the Historical Fiction Film (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994); Pierre Sorlin, The Film in History: Restaging the Past (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1980).

  2. Hayden White, “Historiography and Historiophoty,” American Historical Review 93 (1988), 1193.

  3. Quoted in Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity” Question and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 194.

  4. The Historian and Film, ed. Paul Smith (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1976); K. R. M. Short, Feature Films as History (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981).

  5. D. J. Wenden, “Battleship Potemkin—Film and Reality,” in Short, Feature Films, 40.

  6. Ferro, “Does a Filmic Writing of History Exist?,” in Cinema and History, 158, 161, 163.

  7. Sorlin, The Film in History, 159, 186.

  8. Ibid., 21.

  9. Bruno Ramirez, “Clio in Words and in Motion: Practices of Narrating the Past,” Journal of American History 86 (December, 1999), 1002.


Principal Works


Further Reading