Adventure and Empathy

One of the world’s leading historians reflects on her craft.

In the prologue to Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth Century Lives, Natalie Zemon Davis imagines a remarkable dialogue with her three women subjects. The three rise up in protest against Davis and her book about them. They are not mere “women,” they insist, nor do they see themselves as “on the margins.” They are Catholic, or Protestant, or Jewish; they are mothers or have abandoned motherhood; they have followed their beliefs and their callings. In this dialogue, Davis reveals to her readers the historian’s dilemma: she cannot help but see the past through modern lenses such as “gender,” but she knows that this past will resist such categories. How can a modern historian access the foreign territory of history? For Davis, navigating such dilemmas is all part of the “adventure” of historical writing.

Perhaps it is this sense of passion and adventure that has made Natalie Zemon Davis one of the most important historians alive today. Author of innumerable books and articles, Davis has taught at the University of Toronto, Princeton and the University of California, Berkeley. She has been the recipient of several honourary degrees and prizes, including, most recently, Norway’s prestigious Holberg International Memorial Prize in 2010. It is difficult to overestimate her influence on the field of history—her articles and books are required reading for graduate students across North America. Davis has made Canada her home since she retired in 1996, returning to Toronto where her husband, Chandler, has lived and taught since the 1960s. She continues to be active in scholarly endeavours, and she is still adjunct professor of history at the University of Toronto.

Davis’s scholarly success and the fascinating path that took her to the top of her profession are subjects worthy of a biography, and one hopes that Davis will some day get the biographer that she deserves. For now, those interested in Davis’s life and thought can turn to A Passion for History: Conversations with Denis Crouzet, which presents the transcription of interviews with Davis conducted by the French historian. Out of the dialogue between these two scholars, a picture emerges of Davis as an original, contemplative and (exceptionally for the academic world) charitable woman whose success rests firmly on her love for the craft of history.

In the 1970s, Davis was one of the early practitioners of “history from below.” Like E.P. Thompson, Robert Darnton and others, she rejected the narrowly elitist focus that had dominated the historiography of Europe. She sought to recover the voices of those ignored: the voices of peasants, women, outsiders. She did so with a particular passion—she felt that the voiceless “needed” her to tell their stories. To investigate lives that often left few traces, Davis took inspiration from the fields of anthropology and literature, and turned to sources such as rituals, protests and popular tales for clues to understanding larger questions such as gender relations and legal practices. In A Passion for History, Davis explains her fascination with charivaris, or French popular rituals that humiliated those who had violated community norms (such as men who married much younger women or beat their wives). Within these rituals, Davis found unique ways to understand popular conceptions of marriage, the family, gender roles and status hierarchies in early modern France.

Davis’s most engaging works are those that investigate individual lives as “microhistories” of the larger societies in which they lived. These microhistories are successful because of Davis’s intensive investigation of the literary, cultural, social and political contexts in which her subjects are embedded. She is also unafraid of the conditional voice—she openly and honestly speculates on the interior lives of her characters, even when documentary evidence is scarce. Her most famous bit of detective work is The Return of Martin Guerre, which tells the convoluted 16th-century tale of Arnaud du Tilh, who poses for three years as the missing Martin Guerre and is accepted as such by Guerre’s wife. When the real Guerre returns, Tilh is executed for his deception. The story was, of itself, fascinating enough to inspire a movie. But the added value of Davis’s book is the skilled reconstruction of the wider social practices and beliefs that enabled such a brazen deception to succeed.

The Return of Martin Guerre and other books by Davis seek anomalies and gaps in the historical record—unusual events that are revealingly unique and only imperfectly explained by standard historical evidence. To fill these gaps, Davis uses deep contextual research into surrounding mentalities and mores, reconstructing what was “possible” for her subjects to think. She signals these interpretive conjectures with conditionals such as “perhaps,” and “maybe”—thus painting vivid pictures of individual lives while always, in her own words, “leaving open to my readers greater freedom to say, ‘But no …’”

In A Passion for History, Davis insists that historians must preserve the “strangeness of the past,” and avoid moulding history to the prejudices of the present. She criticizes films in which the 16th-century “massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day is modeled after the twentieth-century Holocaust,” but she is also attentive to the biases that affect her own understanding of history. Although she herself is secular, she is highly aware of the importance of religion in early modern life; although she is of the left, she is suspicious of interpreting historical eras as more or less “progressive”; although she is a pioneer in women’s history, she knows that gender is a thoroughly modern social category. Davis engages in a conversation with her subjects, in which she is willing to speak and interpret, but also listen and absorb.

Davis consistently sees her historical characters as active, creative and intelligent human beings. For Davis, men and women shape their destinies, if not entirely as they please. Even the most ordinary and voiceless people of the past—such as peasant women—should never be portrayed as mere victims of social forces. In patriarchal societies, for example, Davis found that women cleverly manipulated gender roles to serve their own ends. In The Return of Martin Guerre, Guerre’s wife, Bertrande de Rols, was no victim of Arnaud’s deception, but—for her own reasons—did everything in her power as a “wife” to persuade others he was actually Martin Guerre. The Marxist historical writing still dominant on the left in the mid 20th century made historical actors prisoners to economic forces. Davis’s subjects have agency and individual dignity. Her histories, in turn, spark a human interest that the mechanical Marxist productions could never inspire.

In the latter part of A Passion for History, Denis Crouzet does his best to link Davis’s scholarship to her contemporary politics—resulting in a relatively fruitless line of questioning, in part because Davis’s politics are perfectly conventional in academic settings (George Bush and Osama bin Laden are “holy warriors,” the election of Barack Obama was “a moment of hope” for the United States), and in part because Davis herself often quietly seeks to place distance between her politics and her historical approach. More tantalizing are the hints of Davis’s sometimes unconventional views on questions more relevant to her scholarship. She is skeptical of the more radically chic claims of postmodernism—that there is no such thing as historical proof, or that individual identities are mere historical and social products. She encourages female graduate students to avoid the ghettoization of pure women’s studies and to take on subjects where gender is not the central theme. Inside the ivory tower, at least, there is a certain iconoclasm to these opinions.

In many ways Natalie Zemon Davis’s life story is as fascinating as her scholarship, and A Passion for History provides a tantalizing glimpse into her own past. She was raised as a Jew in a mostly Christian neighbourhood, and became a scholar in a family that discouraged female careers. She was married at 19 and had three children, but managed to pursue her studies in an era when such pioneering women were few and far between. Charity permeates her account of her own struggles. She relates, without resentment, the undoubtedly painful story of how her mother refused to speak to her for marrying a non-Jewish husband. More remarkably, she calmly describes how her husband was hounded for his communism by both his employer—the University of Michigan—and the U.S. Congress’s notorious House Un-American Activities Committee. She is content to say that it was “not as if we had been dragged off to a concentration camp in Germany or to the Gulag.” True, but her husband lost his job, and both of them lost their passports. These events brought them to Canada, where they were offered positions at the University of Toronto. Many academics have worked up far more anger about much more minor violations of academic freedom, real or imagined.

Natalie Zemon Davis is prone neither to indignation or to condescension. These interviews, and her scholarship, reveal a measured and reflective personality. She has achieved that trait most necessary in first-rate history: empathy for her subjects. Whatever one thinks of her books—and they were often controversial—it is impossible not to empathize with her in turn.