Natalie Zemon Davis genius

Natalie Zemon Davis

Natalie Zemon Davis 

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Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
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I have two goals. First, that readers be interested, drawn by a historical account, amused by its comic aspects, saddened by the tragic elements, captured by the possibilities of the past; and second, that readers be aware that there could be another way of looking at things besides the one I offer. I’m not giving a lesson or a sermon, I’m offering a dialogue, as I said before.

Natalie Zemon Davis is a Canadian and American historian of the early modern period. She is currently an Adjunct Professor of History and Anthropology and Professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto in Canada. Her work originally focused on France, but has since broadened to include other parts of Europe, North America, and the Caribbean. For example, Trickster Travels 2006 views Italy, Spain, Morocco and other parts of North Africa and West Africa through the lens of Leo Africanus's pioneering geography. It has appeared in four translations, with three more on the way. Davis' books have all been translated into other languages: twenty-two for The Return of Martin Guerre. She was the second female president of the American Historical Association the first, Nellie Neilson, was in 1943 and someone who "has not lost the integrity and commitment to radical thought which marked her early career".

She has been awarded the Holberg International Memorial Prize and National Humanities Medal and been named Companion of the Order of Canada.


Natalie Zemon Davis was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1928 to a middle-class Jewish family. She traces her intellectual path to her Jewish heritage, although her work hasn't centered on Jewish issues. Davis attended Kingswood School Cranbrook and was subsequently educated at Smith College, Radcliffe College, Harvard University, and the University of Michigan, from which she received her PhD in 1959. In 1948, she married Chandler Davis.

She and Davis had difficulties in the U.S. during the era of the Red Scare. He lost his professorship in Michigan, and in the 1960s, they moved to Canada Toronto with their three children.

Natalie Zemon Davis subsequently taught at Brown University, the University of Toronto, the University of California at Berkeley, and from 1978 to her retirement in 1996, at Princeton University, where she became the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History and director of the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies. In addition to courses in the history of early modern France, she has taught or co-taught courses in history and anthropology, early modern Jewish social history, and history and film. She has also been an important figure in the study of the history of women and gender, founding with Jill Ker Conway a course in that subject in 1971 at the University of Toronto: one of the first in North America. Since her retirement, she has been living in Toronto, where she is Adjunct Professor of History and Anthropology and Professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto.

Research interests

Natalie Davis' main interests are in social and cultural history, especially of those previously ignored by historians. She makes use of numerous sources such as judicial records, plays, notarial records, tax rolls, early printed books and pamphlets, autobiographies and folk tales.

In her book best known to the public, The Return of Martin Guerre 1983, she followed a celebrated case of a 16th-century impostor in a village in the Pyrénées so as to see how peasants thought about personal identity. Often linked with Carlo Ginzburg's microhistory The Cheese and the Worms about the radical miller Menocchio, Davis's book grew out of her experience as historical consultant for Daniel Vigne's film Le retour de Martin Guerre. Her book first appeared in French in 1982 at the same time as the premiere of the film.

Davis's interest in story-telling continued with her book, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in 16th-century France 1987, a study of the stories people of all classes told to the king to get pardoned for homicide in the days before manslaughter was a possible plea. In her Women on the Margins 1995, she looked at the autobiographical accounts of three 17th-century women—the Jewish merchant Glikl Hamel, the Catholic nun Marie de l'Incarnation, who came to New France, and the Protestant entomologist-artist Maria Sibylla Merian—and discussed the role of religion in their lives.

Her book on The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France 2000 is both a picture of gifts and bribes in the 16th century and a discussion of a viable mode of exchange different from the market. In Trickster Travels 2006, she describes how the early 16th-century North African Muslim "Leo Africanus" Hasan al-Wazzan managed to live as a Christian in Italy after he was kidnapped by Christian pirates and also sees his writings as an example of "the possibility of communication and curiosity in a world divided by violence." In 2017, she served as historical consultant for Wajdi Mouawad's new play Tous des Oiseaux that premiered in Paris at the Théâtre de La Colline. Set in present-day New York and Jerusalem, the play follows a German/Israeli family riven by conflict when the geneticist son wants to marry an Arab-American woman who is doing her doctoral dissertation on Hassan al-Wazzan/Leo Africanus, the subject of Davis' Trickster Travels Her book in-process, Braided Histories on 18th-century Suriname studies networks of communication and association among families, both slave and free, on the plantations of Christian and Jewish settlers.

Though Davis's historical writings are extensively researched, she sometimes resorts to speculation, using analogous evidence and inserting words like "perhaps" and phrases like "she may have thought." Some critics of her work find this troubling and think that this practice threatens the empirical base of the historian's profession. Davis's answer to this is suggested in her 1992 essay "Stories and the Hunger to Know", where she argues both for the role of interpretation by historians and their essential quest for evidence about the past: both must be present and acknowledged to keep people from claiming that they have an absolute handle on "truth". She opened her Women on the Margins with an imaginary dialogue, in which her three subjects upbraid her for her approach and for putting them in the same book. In her Slaves on Screen 2000, Davis maintains that feature films can provide a valuable way of telling about the past, what she calls "thought experiments", but only so long as they are connected with general historical evidence.

Awards and recognition

In 2010, Davis was awarded the Holberg International Memorial Prize, worth 4.5 million Norwegian kroner ~$700,000 US, for her narrative approach to the field of history. The awards citation described her as "one of the most creative historians writing today" who inspired younger generations of historians and promoted "cross-fertilization between disciplines". The citation said her compelling narrative "shows how particular events can be narrated and analyzed so as to reveal deeper historical tendencies and underlying patterns of thought and action".

In 2011, Davis was elected to the American Philosophical Society.

On 29 June 2012, Davis was named Companion of the Order of Canada, the highest class within the order.

On 10 July 2013, Davis was awarded the 2012 National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama for "her insights into the study of history and her exacting eloquence in bringing the past into focus."

On 13 September 2013, Davis was awarded an honorary degree from the University of St Andrews.


  • Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1975.
  • "Women's History" in Transition: the European Case" pages 83–103 from Volume 3, Issue 3, Feminist Studies, 1976.
  • "Ghosts, Kin, and Progeny: Some Features of Family Life in Early Modern France" pages 87–114 from Daedalus, Volume 106, Issue #2, 1977.
  • "Gender and Genre: Women as Historical Writers, 1400–1820" pages 123–144 from University of Ottawa Quarterly, Volume 50, Issue #1, 1980.
  • "Anthropology and History in the 1980s: the Possibilities of the Past"pages 267–275 from Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Volume 12, Issue #2, 1981.
  • "The Sacred and the Body Social in Sixteenth-century Lyon", pages 40–70 from Past and Present, Volume 90, 1981.
  • "Women in the Crafts in Sixteenth-century Lyon" pagers 47–80, Volume 8, Issue 1, from Feminist Studies, 1982.
  • "Beyond the Market: Books as Gifts in Sixteenth-century France" pages 69–88 from Transactions of the Royal Historical Society Volume 33, 1983.
  • The Return of Martin Guerre, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.
  • Frauen und Gesellschaft am Beginn der Neuzeit, Berlin: Wagenbach, 1986.
  • "`Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead': Film and the Challenge of Authenticity" pages 457–482 from The Yale Review, Volume 76, Issue #4, 1987.
  • Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth Century France, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1987.
  • "Fame and Secrecy: Leon Modena's Life as an Early Modern Autobiography" pages 103–118 from History and Theory, Volume 27, Issue #4, 1988.
  • "History's Two Bodies" pages 1–13 from the American Historical Review, Volume 93, Issue #1, 1988.
  • "On the Lame" pages 572–603 from American Historical Review, Volume 93, Issue #3, 1988.
  • "Rabelais among the Censors 1940s, 1540s" pages 1–32 from Representations, Volume 32, Issue No. 1, 1990.
  • "The Shapes of Social History" pages 28–32 from Storia della Storiographia Volume 17, Issue No. 1, 1990.
  • "Gender in the academy : women and learning from Plato to Princeton : an exhibition celebrating the 20th anniversary of undergraduate coeducation at Princeton University" / organized by Natalie Zemon Davis ... , Princeton : Princeton University Library, 1990
  • "Women and the World of Annales" pages 121–137 from Volume 33, History Workshop Journal, 1992.
  • Renaissance and Enlightenment Paradoxes, co-edited with Arlette Farge, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1993. Volume III of A History of Women in the West.
  • Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-century Lives, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • A Life of Learning: Charles Homer Haskins Lecture for 1997, New York: American Council of Learned Societies, 1997.
  • "Religion and Capitalism Once Again? Jewish Merchant Culture in the Seventeenth Century" from Representations No. 59 Summer, 1997.
  • Remaking Imposters: From Martin Guerre to Sommersby, Egham, Surrey, UK: Royal Holloway Publications Unit, 1997.
  • "Beyond Evolution: Comparative History and its Goals" pages 149–158 from Swiat Historii edited by W. Wrzoska, Poznan: Instytut Historii, 1998.
  • The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France, University of Wisconsin Press 2000
  • Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002
  • Trickster Travels New York: Hill & Wang, 2006.

More facts

Gender: Female
Best Known For: Trickster Travels (2006)
Fulfilled his Potential: Yes
Number of spouses: 1
First Marriage To: Chandler Davis
Children: 3
Citizen Of: United States
Natalie Zemon Davis
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