Davis, Natalie Zemon 1928-

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Davis, Natalie Zemon 1928-


Born November 8, 1928, in Detroit, MI; daughter of Julian Leon (a businessman) and Helen Zemon; married Chandler Davis (a professor of mathematics), August 16, 1948; children: Aaron Bancroft, Hannah Penrose, Simone Weil. Education: Smith College, B.A., 1949; Radcliffe College, M.A., 1950; University of Michigan, Ph.D., 1959. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Jewish.


Home—Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Office—Department of History, University of Toronto, Sidney Smith Hall, 100 St. George St., Ste. 2074, Toronto, Ontario M5S 3G3, Canada. E-mail—[email protected]


Brown University, Providence, RI, lecturer, 1959-61, assistant professor of history, 1961-63; York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, faculty member, 1963-64; University of Toronto, Toronto, assistant professor, 1963-67, associate professor of history, 1967-71, adjunct professor of history and medieval studies, 1996—; University of California at Berkeley, professor of history, 1971-77; Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, France, faculty member, 1977; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, 1978-96, director of Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies, 1990-96, professor emerita, 1996—; University of Oxford, Balliol College, professor, 1994-95. Historical consultant for the film Le Retour de Martin Guerre, 1982, and the opera The House of Martin Guerre, 1993.


American Historical Association (member of council, 1972-75; president of modern history section, 1980; president, 1987), American Academy of Arts and Sciences (fellow), American Antiquarian Society, Society for French Historical Studies (president, 1976- 77), Society for Reformation Research, Renaissance Society of America, British Academy (fellow), Royal Historical Society (fellow), Canadian Historical Association, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (research council member), 2001—.


William Koran Jr. Prizes, Society for French Historical Studies, 1968, 1971; outstanding achievement award, University of Michigan, 1975; decorated Chevalier Ordre des Palmes Academiques (France), 1976; Radcliffe Graduate Society Medal for Distinguished Achievement, 1983; Howard T. Berhman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities, Princeton University, 1983; New England Historical Association media award, 1985; Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching award, 1994; Smith College medal, 1996; Arnold Toynbee Prize, 2000; Sidney Hook Memorial Award, Phi Beta Kappa Society, 2000; Aby Warburg Prize, 2001; Cosmos Club award, 2003; Wallace K. Ferguson Prize, Canadian Historical Association, 2007, for Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim between Worlds; honorary degrees and prizes from numerous institutions, including Radcliffe College, Princeton University, Dartmouth College, University of Pennsylvania, Colby College, University of Massachusetts at Lowell, University of Oxford, Universität Basel, College of William and Mary, Harvard University, Universtät Osnabrück, Columbia University, Luther College, Northwestern University, George Washington University, New School for Social Research (now New School University), University of Chicago, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, University of King's College, University of Lund, University of Turku, Concordia University, Queen Mary, University of London, Central European University, University of New Brunswick, Amherst College, Halifax, and University of Warwick; the Natalie Zemon Davis Prize was named in Davis's honor, to be awarded for the best essay published annually in Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme.


Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 1975.

Le retour de Martin Guerre, Laffont (Paris, France), 1982, translated and published as The Return of Martin Guerre, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1983.

(Translator) Frauen und Gesellschaft am Beginn der Neuzeit, Wagenbach (Berlin, Germany), 1986.

Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 1987.

(Editor, with Arlette Farge) A History of Women, Volume 3: Renaissance and Enlightenment Paradoxes, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1993.

Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1995.

(Translator) Lebensgänge, Wagenbach (Berlin, Germany), 1998.

Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2000.

The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 2000.

L'histoire tout feu tout flamme, Albin Michel (Paris, France), 2004.

Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim between Worlds, Hill and Wang (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor to editorial boards of periodicals, including Comparative Studies in Society and History, History and Memory, Yale Journal of Law and Humanities, and Historical Reflections.

Contributor to works by others and to history journals, including Past and Present. Author's works have been translated into various languages, including French, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, Russian, Dutch, Japanese, Czech, Danish, Hebrew, Greek, Finnish, and Swedish.


Widely considered one of the pioneers of "microhistory," Natalie Zemon Davis is one of the most distinguished social historians in America. Davis, who retired from teaching history at Princeton University but continues to teach at the University of Toronto, is a specialist in reconstructing the lives of people, both well known and obscure, in early modern Europe. Although known by the general public for her role as consultant for the film The Return of Martin Guerre—a true history that Davis has covered in a book of the same title—among historians Davis's "reputation as an historian of the first rank rests squarely … on a single book," explained Financial Times reviewer Ann Geneva. That book is Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays, a collection that Davis published in 1975.

Describing Davis's contribution to the body of historical works generated during the twentieth century, Geneva praised the historian for "avoiding the cinematic discursiveness of [Fernand] Braudel or the self-conscious fable-spinning of [Leroi] Ladurie," and commented on Davis's ability "to merge … the work of theorists with a broad range of primary sources: theoreticians of recreation, literary historians of festive customs, and anthropologists rubbed shoulders with abbey records, Renaissance theatre documents, and 16th-century printed scenarios" within her works. "Davis," concluded Geneva, "could write history as other historians only dreamed of doing." As Davis herself once explained to CA: "I'm especially interested in the ‘people,’ the artisans and poor of sixteenth-century French cities, and also in the culture of peasants…. I'm interested in the ways in which anthropology can help historians who are working on populations which are only partly literate."

"Davis's published work is … modest," noted Arthur Quinn in the New York Times Book Review. "She abstains from the big book, the grand synthesis, on which academic historians usually make their reputations. She prefers instead to produce exquisite miniatures whose scale reflects the lives she seeks to represent." One of these "exquisite miniatures" is The Return of Martin Guerre, Davis's account of a celebrated French court case of 1560. The story has been the core of at least two movies. A man claiming to be Martin Guerre showed up at his wife's doorstep after a long absence and resumed his life with her. Only after more years had passed did suspicious members of the Guerre family charge that "Martin Guerre" was an impostor. Davis's book follows the family's case through the courts and describes the events that occurred after the real Martin Guerre returned. Times Literary Supplement reviewer David Parker called the work "not merely a highly entertaining story but a vivid picture of the world which fashioned its principal characters. [Davis's] 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." Parker concluded that The Return of Martin Guerre "is a truly captivating story with which to pass a rainy weekend."

Davis's Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France offers another glimpse into French legal customs, this time exploring the creative means by which murderers and other criminals sought release from their sentences. In a style similar to that of The Return of Martin Guerre, Davis uses pardon letters to illuminate broader societal trends of that era. John Bossy observed in the Times Literary Supplement that the book contains "a great deal of solid knowledge … about what the sixteenth-century French were actually like. This is notably so about what it meant to them to be a Christian community, on which subject [Davis] adds to the huge gratitude she has already earned." London Review of Books correspondent Colin Jones wrote: "Davis has long enjoyed the reputation of being one of the most exciting social historians writing in English, and she excites not only because she writes with extraordinarily intense imagination and feeling but also because she seeks out dangers, takes risks and writes as if on the edge of a precipice."

In Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives, Davis uses diaries, letters, and a wealth of supporting documents to illuminate the lives of three very different women. Glikl bas Judah Leib was a Jewish businesswoman in Hamburg Germany; Marie de L'Incarnation was an ascetic nun and missionary among the Huron Indians; and Maria Sibylla Merian joined a radical Protestant sect and made a name for herself by illustrating texts on insects. Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Lorna Sage cited Women on the Margins for its "reverence for history as narrative" and its "patient and imaginative narrative," concluding that it was "marvelous … with no end of other stories waiting in the wings." In the Christian Science Monitor, Ruth Johnstone wrote: "This triptych of 17th-century women is a treasure. Davis has written a scholarly (120 pages of notes) and multilayered history, but her three subjects come alive. These ‘Women on the Margins’ are far from marginal."

Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision is an examination of five films about slavery—Spartacus, Burn!, The Last Supper, Amistad, and Beloved—with emphasis on the historical realism and the changing worldviews of both filmmakers and the theatergoing public. In the book, Davis explores the differences between film and book treatments of slavery and demonstrates that the five films are laudable, but imperfect, vehicles for disseminating historical facts. While Cineaste critic Robert Brent Toplin questioned Davis's lack of attention to the dramatic elements of the films in question, he nevertheless considered Slaves on Screen "one of the best books on cinematic history to appear in recent years." Other critics confirmed the book's significance. Black Issues Book Review contributors Booker T. Mattison and Kelly Ellis called it "a must for lovers of history and film, and everyone looking for a good read, in which they can learn some important lessons."

The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France once again demonstrates Davis's interest in microhistory, as it reveals gift-giving habits across all levels of society during the sixteenth century in France and how those habits reflect the society's mores. Davis notes that the offering of gifts during this period was a practice that bonded people and society, unlike contemporary gift giving, which she contends is often done for very different purposes. She includes a chapter on religious offerings, including acts of charity, and the opposing views held by the Catholics and the Calvinists. She writes that the most common gifts, then as now, were food and drink.

Historian contributor John M. Headley wrote: "Because the book is concerned with human solidarity and the rhythms of a society's cohesion, the reader emerges with the sense of having been privileged to peer into the innermost workings of sixteenth-century France as well as the rupture produced by the Reformation."

Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim between Worlds is Davis's account of the life of Hasan al-Wazzan, known to Westerners as Leo Africanus. He was born in Granada in the late fifteenth century and moved to Morocco as a child in 1492. Al-Wazzan was the author of books that included the first geography of Africa. He was widely traveled in Africa and the Mediterranean region and lived much of his life in Medici Rome after being captured by Spanish pirates who handed him over to the pope when they realized that he was too valuable to be sold as a slave.

Library Journal contributor David Keymer called this a "brilliant study." Journal of World History reviewer Edmund Burke III wrote that Davis's history is "a work of enormous energy and erudition that combines aspects of a historical detective story, an innovative reimagining of Medici Rome (viewed as a point of multicultural, multilingual crossings), and a comparative history of the Renaissance Italy and late Marinid Fez. Only Davis could have written this book. No other historian possesses the range, historical imagination, and knowledge of multiple languages and literatures. It is quite simply a tour de force."



Diefendorf, Barbara B., and Carla Hesse, editors, Culture and Identity in Early Modern Europe (1500-1800): Essays in Honor of Natalie Zemon Davis, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1993.


Biography, summer, 2007, Olivier Christin, review of Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim between Worlds, p. 426.

Black Issues Book Review, November, 2000, Booker T. Mattison and Kelly Ellis, review of Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision, p. 66.

Booklist, September 15, 2000, Vernon Ford, review of Slaves on Screen, p. 200; February 15, 2006, George Cohen, review of Trickster Travels, p. 33.

Christian Science Monitor, October 26, 1995, Ruth Johnstone, review of Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives, p. B1.

Cineaste, summer, 2001, Robert Brent Toplin, review of Slaves on Screen, p. 56.

Financial Times, January 13, 1996, Ann Geneva, review of Women on the Margins.

Historian, spring-summer, 2002, John M. Headley, review of The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France, p. 813.

History: Review of New Books, winter, 2001, Dalia M. Leonardo, review of The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France, p. 76.

History Today, January, 1997, William Lamont, review of Women on the Margins, p. 52; October, 2002, Daniel Snowman, review of The Return of Martin Guerre, p. 18.

Journal of Social History, spring, 2002, Mack P. Holt, review of The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France, p. 734; fall, 2002, Sam Wineburg, review of Slaves on Screen, p. 218.

Journal of World History, September, 2007, Edmund Burke III, review of Trickster Travels, p. 372.

Kliatt, July, 2002, Patricia A. Moore, review of Slaves on Screen, p. 43.

Library Journal, August, 2000, Mary Salony, review of The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France, p. 124; September 15, 2000, Anthony J. Adam, review of Slaves on Screen, p. 79; March 1, 2006, David Keymer, review of Trickster Travels, p. 102.

London Review of Books, November 23, 1989, Colin Jones, review of Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France, pp. 19-20.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 7, 1996, Lorna Sage, review of Women on the Margins, pp. 3, 12.

Middle East Journal, summer, 2006, Caldwell Bailey, review of Trickster Travels, p. 616.

National Forum, spring, 2001, John E. O'Connor, review of Slaves on Screen, p. 40.

New Statesman, January 15, 2007, Sam Alexandroni, review of Trickster Travels, p. 57.

New York Times Book Review, October 2, 1983, Arthur Quinn, review of The Return of Martin Guerre, pp. 13, 29.

Publishers Weekly, July 10, 2000, review of Slaves on Screen, p. 57; August 7, 2000, review of The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France, p. 84; January 30, 2006, review of Trickster Travels, p. 53.

Renaissance Quarterly, winter, 2002, Sheila Ffolliott, review of The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France, p. 1412.

Spectator, February 3, 2007, Andro Linklater, review of Trickster Travels.

Times Literary Supplement, June 15, 1984, David Parker, review of The Return of Martin Guerre, p. 620; April 7-13, 1989, John Bossy, review of Fiction in the Archives, p. 359.


University of Michigan Web site,http://www.umich.edu/ (December 15, 2007), "An Interview with Natalie Zemon Davis '59 Ph.D."

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