Natalie Zemon Davis - In Memoriam

October 30, 2023 by Paul Cohen

It was with great sorrow that the world of history learned of the passing of Natalie Zemon Davis (b. 1928) in her Toronto home on October 21st, 2023.  Natalie leaves an extraordinary legacy as a scholar, colleague, teacher, mentor, and political activist.  Her historical insight, her uncanny gift for navigating archives, her talent for coaxing seemingly mute sources into speech, and the wondrous originality of her work profoundly reshaped the thinking of generations of scholars across the humanities and social sciences.  Her warmth and generosity touched the lives of countless family, friends, students, colleagues, and comrades around the world.

Natalie made landmark contributions to an astonishing range of fields of historical research.  Her doctoral work proved the starting-point for a strikingly fruitful series of investigations into early modern French social and cultural history, culminating in the landmark volume Society and Culture in Early Modern France (1975).  Drawing inspiration from cultural anthropology and mobilizing a remarkable wealth of archival sources, she fashioned a broader understanding of how social and cultural life were mutually constitutive, arguing that practices and the meanings people ascribed to them could only be understood with respect to each other.  Her work played a crucial role in defining cultural history as a field and putting it at the forefront of historical scholarship in the 1980s and 1990s.  The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) represents one of the most important contributions to the genre of microhistory, and the 1982 film which Natalie helped to shape stands as one of the most compelling exercises in historical reconstruction ever put to film.  Her 1987 book Fiction in the Archives, which reads early modern French judicial records as rhetorical gestures rather than neutral traces of historical fact, helped inspire the “archival turn” in historical studies.  Natalie was a pioneering figure in women’s history.  Her attentiveness to gender and women’s experiences was already evident in her earliest work, and her book Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (1995) was an important contribution to the field.  In Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds (2006), an exploration of the life and travels of Hassan al-Wazan, Natalie analyzed how figures who cross cultural boundaries can shed precious light on the malleability of culture.  She was at work on a much-awaited study of slavery in Dutch Suriname when she died.  In all her work, Natalie sought to recover who people subjected to domination – peasants, women, apprentices, religious minorities, the poor, the enslaved, the marginalized – probed the edifices of domination in search of cracks within which they might carve out spaces of liberation, however small.

Over the course of her remarkable career, Natalie taught at Brown University, York University, and the University of Toronto before joining the University of California at Berkeley in 1971 as Professor of History, and then moving to Princeton as Henry Charles Lea Professor of History in 1978.  Upon her retirement from Princeton in 1996, she returned to the University of Toronto as Professor Emerita.  An inspired and inspiring teacher, Natalie drew from her ideals and research to nourish her pedagogy.  She played a leading role in founding Berkeley's first women's studies program; a few years later, she would do the same at Princeton.  If her writing sparked many a historical vocation, she nurtured these callings for her many doctoral students at Berkeley and Princeton, training multiple generations of early modernists.  Wherever she taught, Natalie worked indefatigably to effect change and make them better places, and she was a forceful advocate for justice and equity within the discipline and the university world throughout her career.

Natalie played an important role in the history of the University of Toronto in particular.  In 1971, Natalie and her friend and colleague Jill Ker Conway designed and taught the first course on women's history to be offered by a Canadian university,  Conway and Natalie worked together to win women a bigger place and better learning and working conditions at the University of Toronto (and, indeed, in higher education more broadly), helping to lead a feminist-led struggle to open a daycare center on the University of Toronto's campus, and conveying female graduate student concerns to hostile administrators.  Her return to U of T as Professor Emerita heralded a long, happy, and astonishingly active second career, advising undergraduate and graduate students alike, weaving new collaborations with colleagues, pursuing new research project, an ever-present contributor to the intellectual life of the campus.  The Department of History at the University of Toronto mourns the loss of a distinguished colleague, teacher, leader, and friend.

– Excerpted and adapted from Paul Cohen, “Natalie Zemon Davis (1928-2023): In Memoriam