Laureation address: Professor Natalie Zemon Davis

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters
Laureation by Professor John Hudson, School of History

Friday 13 September 2013

Natalie Zemon Davis is one of the world’s most distinguished historians.  She is most widely known in connection with The Return of Martin Guerre, the tale of an imposter who claimed to be a peasant returning from war to his French village. His story was made into a film in 1982, directed by Daniel Vigne and with Professor Davis as historical consultant. Subsequently, Professor Davis wrote a book under the same title, published in French in 1982 and in English in 1983. Both projects are typical of her treatment of history as a ‘thought experiment’, efforts ‘to try to speak true about the past’, and to imagine the thoughts of the past with the discipline provided by intensive research into the historical evidence.

Natalie Zemon Davis was born in 1928, in Detroit, Michigan – a very appropriate location to start a life that has straddled the United States and Canada; in 2007 she became a Canadian citizen, thereby enjoying dual US-Canadian citizenship. She took her undergraduate degree at Smith College, and then a masters at Radcliffe.  Next she moved back to Michigan, to undertake a doctorate in early modern history at Ann Arbor. Her researches were punctuated with events that make the quality of her work all the more remarkable. During the period of researching and writing her thesis she had three children. In addition, in 1952, when planning her second trip to the archives in France, she and her husband had their passports confiscated by the US State Department, for their major role in the writing and production of a pamphlet entitled Operation Mind. This pamphlet reviewed interrogations undertaken by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and encouraged readers to protest that its announced visit to Michigan was unconstitutional. Political engagement has remained a feature of Professor Davis’s life; as an historian her hero is the great mediaevalist Marc Bloch, who was executed by the Gestapo in 1944 for his role in the French resistance.

Professor Davis received her doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1959 for her thesis on Protestantism and the Printing Workers of Lyon: A study in religion and social class. The dissertation was an early exploration of the social history of the Reformation, from the point of view of the artisans rather than that of theologians and rulers, as well as an early example of book history, another subject that now flourishes at St Andrews. She then taught at Brown, University of York in Toronto, and the University of Toronto, before spending much of the 1970s at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1978 she moved to Princeton, where she was Henry Charles Lea Professor of History until 1996. During four of those years she was Director of the Davis Centre for Historical Studies at Princeton, a position admirably suited for her skill at bringing together a wide range of historians. She now retains connections with both Princeton and the University of Toronto, the latter the city in which she lives.

Professor Davis was the President of the American Historical Association in 1987. In 1994-5 she was Eastman Professor at Balliol College, Oxford. She has been closely involved with the Central European University in Budapest, where there is now a Natalie Zemon Davis Annual Lecture Series.  In 2010 she won the Holberg International Memorial Prize. In 2012 she was elected a Companion of the Order of Canada and was also presented with the National Humanities Medal by President Obama.

Professor Davis’s scholarly work concentrates on the early modern period, and is diverse in its range and subject-matter, embracing Marc Bloch’s desire for an histoire totale. She has told of how the confiscation of her passport between 1952 and 1960 forced her to move from being an archivally-based social historian to one with a wide range of interests in cultural history, driven by her fascinating discoveries in the great collections of early modern rare books in the US, for example at the Folger Institute and the New York Public Library. Her first book, published in 1975, was a highly influential set of inter-related essays on Society and Culture in Early Modern France.

Wider fame came with The Return of Martin Guerre, a story that was itself discovered in a rare book of 1560; Professor Davis’s volume has been translated into twenty-one languages. The subject was further developed in her 1988 book Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France, which also shows her interest in the history of crime, a subject to which she has recently returned. At the same time she was working on gift-giving in early modern France; I can vouch for the inspiration that her lectures on the subject gave to historians not just of her period but of earlier and later ages, lectures delivered with great dynamism and sheer love of her subject matter. Her book on the subject appeared to great acclaim in 2000.  Like much of her other work, this displayed the interdisciplinary nature of her approach, most obviously in this case with the influence of the anthropologist Marcel Mauss. She was also developing her ideas on the relationship between historical writing and historical film, and in 2000 published Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision. This book took five films, including Spartacus, Amistad, and Beloved, and explored them as historical treatments of slavery and slave revolts. She insists that historical film-makers should share the characteristics of the good historian, whilst also arguing that properly employed imagination is a vital part of the historian’s craft.

In 1995 she had published Women in the Margins: Three Sixteenth-Century Lives, taking her beyond France to the rest of Europe and beyond, and also more deeply into women’s history and Jewish history than had her earlier writings.  The book investigated three women, one Catholic, one Protestant, one Jewish, who travelled beyond the worlds in which they were born, to distant lands such as Canada and Suriname. Her interest in relations between religions and between cultures is also manifest in her most recent book, Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim between Worlds. This recounts events in the life of Hasan al-Wazzan, known in the West as Leo Africanus, to explore cultural worlds in the first half of the sixteenth century. The book has just appeared in Turkish, and a play being written about Leo’s life draws on her work. Her latest project is an investigation of four generations of a slave family in colonial Suriname.

All these works display Professor Davis’s great skills as a historian, always conveyed in a prose that academics and Amazon reviewers alike refer to as both crystalline and energetic. In-depth study of a particular subject is developed to reveal the society and culture in which that subject is positioned. Such is the method of some of her most famous essays, notably on festivals of mis-rule and the charivari in early modern Europe; what might simply be treated as fascinating exotica are instead examined to reveal social dynamics and the mentalities of people small and great. In lesser hands, such approaches can amount to superficial cleverness; with Professor Davis it is the depth of her archival work that allows her to explore the thoughts of her subjects. She takes records of criminal proceedings concerning slaves in Suriname to reveal the words of slaves and owners alike; in a world without tape recordings only sensitive use of such sources can allow us to make the thoughts of the past thinkable once more. And through such thoughts and such understanding she seeks to find in history a source of hope for the present and the future.