Natalie Zemon Davis

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Natalie Zemon Davis

Davis in 2010
Davis in 2010
Born (1928-11-08) November 8, 1928 (age 94)
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
OccupationHistorian, writer
NationalityAmerican, Canadian
Alma materUniversity of Michigan
Cranbrook Kingswood School
SpouseChandler Davis

Natalie Zemon Davis, CC (born November 8, 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 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, her book, 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).

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.[1][2] Davis attended Cranbrook Kingswood School 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.[3]

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.[3]

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 and 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[edit]

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.[4] She is a proponent of cross-disciplinary history, which consists of combining history with disciplines such as anthropology, ethnography and literary theory.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[7] 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.[7]

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.[9] 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.[10]

Davis's historical writings sometimes resort to speculation through her use of 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.[citation needed] 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.[11]

Awards and recognition[edit]

Honorary degrees[edit]

Natalie Zemon Davis has received several honorary degrees from several universities around the world. These include[19]

Honorary degrees
Location Date School Degree Gave commencement address
 Massachusetts 1977 Smith College Doctor of Humane Letters (DHL)[20] Yes
 Illinois 1983 Northwestern University Doctor of Humane Letters (DHL)[21] Yes
 Connecticut 1984 Wesleyan University Doctor of Letters (D.Litt)[22] Yes
 New York 1986 University of Rochester Doctor of Humane Letters (DHL)[23] Yes
 District of Columbia 1987 George Washington University Doctor of Humane Letters (DHL)[24] Yes
 Massachusetts 1987 Williams College Doctor of Letters (D.Litt)[25] Yes
 Massachusetts 1987 Tufts University Doctor of Letters (D.Litt)[26] Yes
 Ontario October 1991 University of Toronto Doctor of Letters (D.Litt)[27] Yes
 Pennsylvania 1992 University of Pennsylvania Doctor of Humane Letters (DHL)[28] Yes
 Massachusetts 1996 Harvard University Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[29] Yes
 Scotland 1998 University of Edinburgh Doctor of Letters (D.Litt)[30] Yes
 Israel 2000 Hebrew University of Jerusalem Doctorate[31] Yes
 Quebec June 2004 Concordia University Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[32] Yes
Massachusetts 2005 Amherst College Doctor of Humane Letters[33]
Connecticut May 2013 Yale University Doctor of Humanities[34]
 Scotland September 13, 2013 University of St Andrews Doctor of Letters (D.Litt) [35][36] Yes
 Nova Scotia May 14, 2015 Mount Saint Vincent University Doctor of Humane Letters (DHL)[37][38] Yes
Ontario October 22, 2021 Western University Doctor of Letters (LL.D)[39]


  • "The Rites of Violence: Religious Riot in Sixteenth-Century France", Oxford University Press, 1973.
  • 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.
  • "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.
  • Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth Century France, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1987.
  • "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 ... [et al.], Princeton : Princeton University Library, 1990
  • 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 Lecture for 1997, New York: American Council of Learned Societies, 1997. [1]
  • "Religion and Capitalism Once Again? Jewish Merchant Culture in the Seventeenth Century" from Representations No. 59 (Summer, 1997).
  • Remaking Impostors: From Martin Guerre to Sommersby, Egham, Surrey, UK: Royal Holloway Publications Unit, 1997.
  • 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.[40]
  • Listening to the Languages of the People: Lazare Sainéan on Romanian, Yiddish, and French. Budapest, Central European University Press, 2022,[41]


  1. ^ "Natalie Zemon Davis". The National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved December 18, 2020.
  2. ^ "Natalie Zemon Davis". Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved December 18, 2020.
  3. ^ a b Wells, Colin (2008). A Brief History of History. The Lyons Press. pp. 294–295, 298–304. ISBN 978-1-59921-122-0.
  4. ^ Davis, Natalie Zemon (2003). "The Historian and Literary Uses". Profession. 2003: 21–27. doi:10.1632/074069503X85544. ISSN 0740-6959. JSTOR 25595753.
  5. ^ "Natalie Zemon Davis, History, University of Toronto | Townsend Center for the Humanities". Retrieved August 22, 2022.
  6. ^ Davis, Natalie Zemon (1975). Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays by Natalie Zemon Davis. Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0-8047-0868-5.
  7. ^ a b c "Natalie Zemon Davis". Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved August 16, 2021.
  8. ^ "Martin Guerre: fictional character". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved August 16, 2021.
  9. ^ Christian Rioux, "Wajid Mouawad triomphe a Paris,"Le Devoir, December 5, 2017.
  10. ^ "A Star Historian Opens a New Chapter: Jewish Slaveowners". The Forward. August 17, 2006. Retrieved June 18, 2020.
  11. ^ Contemporary Literary Criticism vol. 204, "Special issue on Natalie Zemon Davis, 1928–", pp. 1–65 (2005).
  12. ^ CBC Arts, "U of T Scholar Wins $768,000 Holberg Prize."
  13. ^ "APS Member History". Retrieved April 2, 2021.
  14. ^ CBC Canada, "Ralph Klein, Pat Quinn named to Order of Canada"
  15. ^ "Natalie Zemon Davis' Order of Canada Citation". Governor General of Canada. Retrieved November 2, 2021.
  16. ^ "Natalie Zemon Davis' Order of Canada Profile". Governor General of Canada. Retrieved November 2, 2021.
  17. ^ "Natalie Zemon Davis' Diamond Jubilee Medal Citation". Governor General of Canada. Retrieved November 2, 2021.
  18. ^ President Obama to Award 2012 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal White House. Retrieved June 30, 2013
  19. ^ "Natalie Zemon Davis". Institute for Advanced Study. December 9, 2019. Retrieved November 2, 2021.
  20. ^ "Honorary Degree Recipients". Smith College. Retrieved November 2, 2021.
  21. ^ "Honorary Degree Recipients". Northwestern University. Retrieved November 3, 2021.
  22. ^ "Honorary Degree Recipients". Wesleyan University. Retrieved November 3, 2021.
  23. ^ "Complete Listing of Honorary Degree Recipients". University of Rochester. Retrieved November 3, 2021.
  24. ^ "George Washington University Honorary Degree Recipients 1827-2021". George Washington University. Retrieved November 2, 2021.
  25. ^ "Honorary Degrees Database". Williams College. Retrieved November 3, 2021.
  26. ^ "Honorary Degrees". Tufts University. Retrieved November 9, 2021.
  27. ^ "University of Toronto Honorary Degree Recipients 1850-2021" (PDF). University of Toronto. Retrieved November 3, 2021.
  28. ^ "Honorary Degree Recipients" (PDF). University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved November 3, 2021.
  29. ^ "Honorary Degree Recipients 1981-2021" (PDF). Harvard University. Retrieved November 9, 2021.
  30. ^ "University of Edinburgh Honorary Degrees Database". University of Edinburgh. Retrieved November 2, 2021.
  31. ^ "Honorary Degree Recipients Database". Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Retrieved November 3, 2021.
  32. ^ "Honorary degree citation - Natalie Zemon Davis". Concordia University. Retrieved November 2, 2021.
  33. ^ "Natalie Zemon Davis | Honorary Degree Recipients | Amherst College". Retrieved August 22, 2022.
  34. ^ "Natalie Zemon Davis | Honorary Degree Recipients | Yale University". Yale University. May 20, 2013. Retrieved January 10, 2023.
  35. ^ "Laureation address: Professor Natalie Zemon Davis". University of St Andrews. Retrieved August 16, 2021.
  36. ^ "University of St Andrews Honorary Degrees". University of St Andrews. Retrieved November 2, 2021.
  37. ^ "Natalie Zemon Davis, Chantal St-Cyr Hébert and Kathleen Taylor to receive honorary degrees". Mount Saint Vincent University. Retrieved November 2, 2021.
  38. ^ "Honorary Degrees". Mount Saint Vincent University. Retrieved November 2, 2021.
  39. ^ "Western News - Natalie Zemon Davis to receive honorary degree". Western News. October 20, 2021. Retrieved August 22, 2022.
  40. ^ Buchan, James (January 13, 2007). "Review of Trickster Travels by Natalie Zemon Davis". The Guardian.
  41. ^ "Listening to the Languages of the People | Reviews in History". Retrieved April 15, 2023.


  • 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 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 " 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 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 October 10, 2002.

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