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Awards & Honors: 2012 National Humanities Medalist

Natalie Zemon Davis

Few historians have combed the archives of the early modern world with the meticulous erudition of Natalie Zemon Davis. Fewer still have emerged from those archives with the embarrassment of gifts that, over the past five decades, she has presented to her discipline. Focusing less on the great moments and movers of history and more on the everyday lives of those relegated to the boundaries of power—peasants, artisans, women—and the opportunities that they made of their circumstances, Davis has tackled some of the most elusive facets of human experience. To get at her subjects, she has drawn on the resources of anthropology, literary scholarship, and film studies (to name just a few of her interdisciplinary excursions), producing seven books and  numerous scholarly articles, nearly all of them pushing in some way at the limits of the historical enterprise itself.

Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1928, Davis traces her intellectual path back to her Jewish heritage and the respect for learning that came with it. Her father was in the textile industry and her mother a homemaker. Though neither was the scholarly type, she grew up surrounded by books, especially theater books and Shakespeare.

She fell in love with history at Kingswood School Cranbrook, a girls’ finishing school in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, where she discovered, as she later put it, “the extent of human aspiration in the past, the hope to make things better,” and her own bent for the rudiments of historical study—memorizing dates, outlining, underlining—“all those things that are supposed to turn high-school students off and make them hate history.” Not so for Davis. After Kingswood, she was off to Smith College to study the revolutions, intellectual movements, and literatures of Europe; then to Radcliffe for more of the same; and, finally, to the University of Michigan, where she earned her doctorate in 1959, writing on Protestantism and the printers of sixteenth-century Lyon.

Davis has taught at Brown, the University of Toronto, Berkeley, and Princeton, where she is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emeritus. She has received honorary degrees from institutions in the United States and Europe, served as president of the American Historical Association, and, in 2010, was awarded the Holberg International Memorial Prize.

Over the years, the scope of her research has grown from Lyon to Western Europe to North Africa and the New World, all while maintaining a remarkable continuity of thought and theme. “I work on something,” she says, “and it often leads me to something else, requires me to go in a new direction.” As a consultant and scriptwriter for the film Le retour de Martin Guerre (1982), a slightly fictionalized account of a sixteenth-century peasant impostor, she was struck by the questions that the actors (among them, Gérard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye) asked her about their roles. “They weren’t,” she says, “the kinds of questions that a historian would ask,” but, for just that reason, they gave her fresh ideas to explore in her own prose history of the subject, The Return of Martin Guerre (1983). When she had finished that book, which was based principally on two contemporaneous written accounts, Davis found herself wondering how the largely illiterate peasantry of the time would have told the story. For answers, she turned to letters of remission, documents dictated to notaries by capital offenders who hoped to secure a royal pardon, and ended up writing Fiction in the Archives (1990).

Despite her predilection for the early modern world, the present is never far from Davis’s work. During the 1980s—an era marked, as she puts it, by “a passion for consumer culture and capitalism”—she began to develop the material that eventually became The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France (2000), an anthropological approach to the history of gifting, charity, and reciprocal obligation that engaged popular discourses of its own time. After September 11, she fleshed out what was originally intended to be a long chapter on Leo Africanus, an African Muslim-turned-Christian in sixteenth-century Italy, into a book-length study of his life and work, Trickster Travels (2006). “Twentieth- and twenty-first-century questions can nourish a historical subject,” she says—provided one “stays true to the historian’s rules of presentation and interpretation.”

That proviso is important to Davis. Imaginatively constructed and beautifully written, it is easy to forget that her work is also thoroughly grounded in rigorous archival research. But the archive is a special place for Davis. Of her experiences in the Old World repositories, she has written: “The room itself became closely identified with the traces of the past I was examining: the smell of its old wood, the shape of its windows, the sounds from the cobblestone streets or running stream. The room was . . . the mysterious hole under the roots of a tree through which one falls for a time into another world.” The great delight and reward of Davis’s work is that those who encounter it fall with her into that other world, learn what she has learned there, and, for that journey, come to understand and appreciate more deeply how people long gone chose to make their way in the world.

— by James Williford

James Williford is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.