Natalie Zemon Davis, CC (born 8 November 1928) 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
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 is a hero
to many historians and academics, as "one of the greatest living
historians", constantly asking new questions and taking on new
challenges, the second woman 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
Holberg International Memorial Prize and
National Humanities Medal
National Humanities Medal and been named Companion of the Order of
2 Research interests
3 Awards and recognition
6 External links
Davis was born in
Detroit into a middle-class family, the daughter of
19th century Jewish immigrants to the United States.
She 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
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
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
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
Anthropology and Professor of Medieval Studies at the University
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. She is a proponent of cross-disciplinary history, which
consists of combining history with disciplines such as anthropology,
ethnography and literary theory. In her Society and Culture in Early
Modern France (1975), she explored the lives of artisans and peasants:
their relation to the Protestant Reformation, their carnivals,
uprisings, and religious violence, and the impact of printing on their
ways of thinking.
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
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.
Davis's studies of the past have sometimes had present-day
resonance. 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
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
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
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, 1975.
"Ghosts, Kin, and Progeny: Some Features of Family Life in Early
Modern France" pages 87–114 from Daedalus, Volume 106, Issue #2,
"Gender and Genre: Women as Historical Writers, 1400–1820" pages
123–144 from University of Ottawa Quarterly, Volume 50, Issue #1,
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,
The Return of Martin Guerre, Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press,
Frauen und Gesellschaft am Beginn der Neuzeit, Berlin: Wagenbach,
"`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
Natalie Zemon Davis ... [et al.], 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. [Originally published in Italian in 1991.]
Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-century Lives], Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1995.
A Life of Learning:
Charles Homer Haskins
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,
The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France, University of Wisconsin Press
Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision, Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 2002
Trickster Travels New York: Hill & Wang, 2006.
Adams, R.M. Review of Fiction in the Archives page 35 from New York
Review of Books, Volume 34, Issue No. 4, March 16, 1989.
Adelson, R. Interview with
Natalie Zemon Davis
Natalie Zemon Davis pages 405–422 from
Historian Volume 53, Issue No. 3, 1991.
Benson, E. "The Look of the Past: Le Retour de Martin Guerre" pages
125–135 from Radical History Review, Volume 28, 1984.
Bossy, J. "As it Happened: Review of Fiction in the Archives", pages
359 from Times Literacy Supplement, Issue 4488, April 7, 1989.
Chartier, Roger Cultural History Between Practices and
Representations, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988.
Coffin, J. & Harding. R. "Interview with
Natalie Zemon Davis
Natalie Zemon Davis "
pages 99–122 from Visions of History edited by H. Abelove, B.
Blackmar, P.Dimock & J. Schneer, Manchester, UK: Manchester
University Press, 1984.
Diefendorf, Barbara and Hesse, Carla (editors) Culture and Identity in
Early Modern France (1500–1800): Essays in Honor of Natalie Zemon
Davis, Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan
University of Michigan Press, 1993.
Finlay, R. "The Refashioning of Martin Guerre" pages 553–571 from
American Historical Review Volume 93, Issue #3, 1988.
Guneratne, A. "Cinehistory and the Puzzling Case of Martin Guerre"
pages 2–19 from Film and History, Volume 21, Issue # 1, 1991.
Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel "Double Trouble: Review of The Return of
Martin Guerre" pages 12–13 from The New York Review of Books, Volume
30, Issue #20, December 22, 1983.
O'Connor, J.E (editor) Images as Artifact: the Historical Analysis of
Film and Television, Malabar, Florida: R.E. Krieger, 1990.
Orest, R. Review of Women on the Margins pages 808–810 from American
Historical Review, Volume 102, Issue #3, 1997.
Quinn, A. Review of Women on the Margins page 18 from New York Times
Review of Books, December 10, 1995.
Roelker, N.L. Review of Fiction in the Archives pages 1392–1393 from
American Historical Review Volume 94, Issue #5, 1989.
Roper, L. Review of Women on the Margins pages 4–5 from Times
Literacy Supplement 4868, July 19, 1996.
Snowman, Daniel "Natalie Zemon Davis" pages 18–20 from History Today
Volume 52 Issue 10 October 2002.
^ Johan Kwantes, "'Everything I do is directed towards making the
world a better place': Interview with Lisa Jardine," NIAS Newsletter,
Fall 2008, p. 8.
^ a b Wells, Colin (2008). A Brief History of History. The Lyons
Press. pp. 294–5, 298–304. ISBN 9781599211220.
^ Christian Rioux, "Wajid Mouawad triomphe a Paris,"Le Devoir,
December 5, 2017.
^ Contemporary Literary Criticism vol. 204, "
Special issue on Natalie
Zemon Davis, 1928–", pp. 1–65 (2005).
^ CBC Arts, "U of T Scholar Wins $768,000 Holberg Prize."
^ CBC Canada, "Ralph Klein, Pat Quinn named to Order of Canada"
^ President Obama to Award 2012 National Medal of Arts and National
Humanities Medal White House. Retrieved 30 June 2013
Natalie Zemon Davis
Natalie Zemon Davis – interviewed in May 2007, from
Natalie Zemon Davis: A Life of Learning (
Charles Homer Haskins
Charles Homer Haskins Lecture
A Star Historian Opens a New Chapter: Jewish Slaveowners, The Jewish
Forward, August 17, 2006.
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ISNI: 0000 0001 2025 9894
BNF: cb118988329 (data)