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.
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It is difficult to take the measure of Natalie’s immense contributions to historical scholarship. She completed her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Michigan in 1959 on “Protestantism and the Printing Workers of Lyon: A Study in Religion and Social Class,” a pioneering work of social history that proposed to place culture at the very heart of our understanding of economic life and social class. Though her research would range far beyond the Rhône valley, in the experiences of workers in early modern Lyon’s print industry Natalie had found her great subject: reconstructing the lives, experiences, and stories of ordinary people. Her dissertation had been inspired by her leftist political commitments and informed by reading of Karl Marx and Max Weber. But Natalie proved less interested in mapping the structures of power than in tracking how those subjected to domination – peasants, women, apprentices, religious minorities, the poor, the enslaved, the marginalized – navigated these structures. She was always especially attentive to the ways her subjects probed the edifices of domination in search of cracks within which they might carve out spaces of liberation, however small, and, drawing from the cultural materials at their disposal, make sense of their lives and worlds on their own terms.
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). These early contributions played a crucial role in introducing historians to the methods and insights of cultural anthropologists like Arnold Van Gennep, Victor Turner, and Clifford Geertz. But Natalie was always more than a simple go-between or passeur culturel (terms that are often associated with her work). An image that better captures Natalie’s thought is the reader-as-poacher theorized by Michel de Certeau (a historian whom Natalie greatly admired). Like de Certeau’s poacher, Natalie borrowed elements from a broad array of methodological sources in search of analytical lenses which could help bring into focus a historical reality that, in her view, was too complex to be captured by any single theoretical system. From these materials, 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.
I once heard a distinguished historian make the case that every historian has a genre and length within which they work best. For some, like the great Annales historians Fernand Braudel and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, it is the sprawling, doorstopper monograph. But for Natalie, insisted this historian, it was the scholarly article. Whatever the merits of this theory, one thing is certain – Natalie’s articles are gems: their subjects chiseled from the raw materials of her sure-footed explorations in the archives with a clarity that transformed the unlikely and the improbable into self-evident themes for historical investigation; their historical questions articulated with laser-like precision; their arguments grounded in dazzling erudition worn always lightly; their interpretations opening up whole new vistas of historical understanding; their prose sparkling, punctuated by moments of bright humor, and marked always by the real empathy she always displayed for her subjects.
Few historians could chart out whole new programs of historical research in a ten-thousand-word journal article like she did, again and again. Her articles’ interrogations launched a thousand dissertations and research programs; years later, some have occasioned entire special issues of journals. In “The Sacred and the Body Social in Sixteenth-Century Lyon” (1981) Natalie maps the spatial and social boundaries delimiting Calvinist from Catholic to show how religion shaped social boundaries and group identity. In “The Rites of Violence: Religious Riot in Sixteenth-Century France” (1973) she argues that cultural frameworks like religion structured patterns of violence. In “The Reasons of Misrule: Youth Groups and Charivaris in Sixteenth-Century France” (1971) she drew theoretical inspiration from Mikhail Bakhtin to show how carnivalesque rituals like charivaris were important forms of symbolic action that communities mobilized to reaffirm moral and social norms. In “Sixteenth-Century French Arithmetics on the Business Life” (1960) she analyzed the history of mathematics in cultural context long before other scholars had turned such approaches into a mature field of research. In “Women and the World of the Annales” (1992) she excavated the decisive role played by the wives of prominent historians long before the patterns of invisibilisation of female intellectual labor within the academy had become acutely apparent. In “Ghost, Kin and Progeny: Some Features of Family Life in Early Modern France” (1977) – my favorite of her articles – Natalie explores the cultural architecture of the barrier separating the living from the dead, the past from the present (and future), and family from outsiders in various confessional groups and historical moments.
Natalie’s most-widely read work is without doubt The Return of Martin Guerre (1983), which retells the story of a sixteenth-century French peasant who returned to his village and family after going off to war, only to be unmasked as an imposter. The book grew out of her involvement in the production of the 1982 French film of the same name, first as historical consultant and then as one of its scriptwriters (the film was awarded a César – the national film award of France – for best original screenplay in 1983). The Return of Martin Guerre stands as one of the most compelling exercises in historical reconstruction ever put to film. For Natalie, it was a defining experience, a precious opportunity to experiment with historical film not simply as an exercise in crafting historically accurate representations, but as a laboratory for historical understanding, a medium with which to confront contemporary audiences with unfamiliar subjectivities and experiences in ways meaningful to them. Her interest in film as a medium for historical representation proved enduring, and she returned to the subject in her 2002 book Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision. Late in her career, Natalie was delighted to have an opportunity to test once again the possibilities of partnership between artists and historians when she began a collaboration with the Lebanese-French-Canadian playwright and theater director Wajdi Mouawad. She served as historical consultant for Mouawad’s play Tous des oiseaux, a multilingual love story centered on an Arab-Israeli couple in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict First performed in Paris in 2018, the play won ARTCENA’s Grand prix de littérature dramatique, one of France’s highest theater awards.
Its meticulous, deeply contextualized reconstruction of a single episode in the life of an ordinary French village makes Natalie’s book The Return of Martin Guerre one of the most important contributions to the genre of microhistory, an approach pioneered by Carlo Ginzburg and others in the 1970s that proposed to use small-scale case studies to illuminate broader historical problems. As richly researched as it is, Natalie’s study is above all an exercise in historical imagination, an attempt to think both seriously and creatively about the historical possibilities of human experience. The book seizes on the gaps and silences in the historical record, not as obstacles but as possibilities, places where the historian must go to ask what was left out, why, and what it means. Historical imagination was a central component of all of Natalie’s work, an instrument which, in her dexterous hands, she wielded judiciously in order to plumb the realms of historical verisimilitude and to cross the boundaries of space, time, and culture in an attempt to understand her subjects. This was, to be sure, a creative process, but she always spoke of her recourse to historical imagination as an analytical move, “thought experiments” rather than literary exercises. As she once put it, “You speculate and you make it clear you’re speculating. But even if you can’t resolve the matter, it’s important to venture it. Resorting to speculation is better than not asking the question at all.”
Probing the past meant probing the documentary traces that gave us access to the past, and this self-evident fact led Natalie to interrogate the very nature of the sources upon which historians established their claims. The result was Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (1987), a study of the letters criminals sent to the French king to petition for royal clemency. Taking inspiration from literary scholars, Natalie recognized in her sources not just dry judicial records, but rhetorical gestures which could be decoded to reveal cultural attitudes, gendered expectations, legal strategies, and the dense social contexts in which they were elaborated. The book not only brought Natalie’s work to the attention of many literary scholars, it proved an important moment in what has come to be known as the “archival turn”, seeing in the institutional production and archiving of knowledge an instrument of state power.
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 articles like “City Women and Religious Change” (1973) and “Women on Top” (1975) remain important models in the field. Natalie was no less committed to advancing the broader scholarly project of women’s history, publishing a historiographical essay on the nascent field in 1975 in an early issue of Feminist Studies and, together with Jill Ker Conway, a colleague and friend whose doctoral work on Jane Addams helped spark Natalie’s own interest in the question, they compiled Society and the Sexes: A Bibliography of Women’s History in Early Modern Europe, Colonial America, and the United States (1981). For all its dazzling richness, The Return of Martin Guerre’s most important move is its attempt to recover the perspective of Bertrande de Rols, the woman whose centrality as historical agent in this story had been erased by the judges who made the decisions that shaped her life and left the archive that records her story. With Arlette Farge, Natalie coedited the volume devoted to the early modern period in the landmark multi-volume A History of the Women in the West (originally published in 1990-91), a project piloted by Georges Duby and the pathbreaking French historian of women Michelle Perrot.
The 1990s marked a break in her career, as her boundless curiosity drew her away from France. The seeds for this move were already there in work she had begun years before. She had taught about Glikl bas Judah Leib, a seventeenth-century German Jewish merchant, Marie de l’Incarnation, an Ursuline missionary in French Canada, and Maria Sibylla Merian, a German naturalist and painter who traveled to Dutch Guiana to study tropical insects, in her courses on the history of women and gender as far back as the 1970s (and she included a contribution on Glikl in A History of Women in the West). Natalie pulled much of this material together to write Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (1995).
This was an important contribution to early modern women’s history, but it was also a plea to consider how the view from the margins of historical experience could contribute to our historical vision. She returned to this idea in her 2006 book Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds, an exploration of the life and travels of Hassan al-Wazan, a Muslim geographer who, after his capture by Spanish corsairs, was taken to Rome, where he converted to Catholicism, before returning to North Africa and reconverting to Islam. She pursued her interest in liminal figures in her most recent book, Listening to the Languages of the People: Lazare Sainéan on Romanian, Yiddish, and French (2022). In it she retraces the complex personal, professional, and intellectual trajectory of the great Romanian Jewish linguist Lazare Sainéan. Natalie was completing Braided Histories when she died, a much anticipated reexamination of slavery in Dutch Surinam that considers the histories of European Christian and Jewish plantation owners and enslaved people as a complex set of entangled experiences.
It could be said that margins, boundaries, and braids were the key words of Natalie’s broader intellectual project in the final decades of her life. For Natalie, margins were good places to think from. To decenter one’s perspective could both broaden and sharpen our understanding of the past. To follow Marie de l’Incarnation and Maria Sibylla Merian across the Atlantic offered a rare laboratory for observing how these women drew on their specific European cultural repertories to make sense of their new American environment. These repertories in turn provided the resources with which they could imagine new life possibilities for themselves. In this, Natalie proposed to think about culture in new and more interesting ways, not as a homogeneous bloc or a comprehensive system of cultural attitudes, but as a set of practices, strategies, and styles which Europeans, say, could mobilize, adapt or even abandon in new contexts like Canada or Surinam. So too with the far-reaching African and Mediterranean travels of the sultan of Fez’s ambassador, Hassan al-Wazzan. In Trickster Travels, Natalie invites the reader to contemplate al-Wazzan’s stay in Renaissance Rome not from the perspective of the capital of the universal church militant, but from that of Dar al-Islam, the house of Islam from which al-Wazzan came – and to follow how this learned and well-traveled diplomat drew on the rich resources of his own North African world to make sense of and carve out an altogether original path in sixteenth-century Italy.
Natalie’s insistence that we follow boundary-crossers and marginal types like Marie de l’Incarnation and al-Hazzan represents something more than an opportunity to think about the ways in which their Counter-Reformation Catholic or Muslim cultures were tested by their experiences in alien cultural universes. It is precisely the ways in which their experiences changed these historical actors, how the dialogue between Indigenous and French or Italian Catholic and Moroccan-Muslim produced something new – in Natalie’s words, a braided history – which she proposes should command our analytical attention. A view firmly anchored on the margins and within encounter and mixing helps to lay bare the limits and conceptual blinders intrinsic to more familiar ways of telling history, focused as they are on organizing principles – national spaces like ‘France’ or categories like the ‘state,’ ‘structure’ or ‘center and periphery.’ Human experience, Natalie reminds us, is always a matter of boundary crossing, mixing, and cross-cultural dialogues.
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Natalie produced this rich body of work over the course of a remarkable career. She taught at Brown University, York University, and the University of Toronto before joining the University of California 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. There she began a long, happy, and astonishingly active second career as Professor Emerita, advising students and weaving new collaborations with colleagues, an ever-present contributor to the intellectual life of the campus. In the same period she also embarked on a long and fruitful partnership with the Central European University.
An inspired and inspiring teacher, Natalie drew from her ideals and research to nourish her pedagogy. At the University of Toronto in 1971, Natalie and Jill Ker Conway designed and taught the first course on women’s history to be offered at a Canadian university. Natalie blazed a similar path at Berkeley with her “Society and the Sexes in Early Modern Europe” course. 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 these institutions better places. Central to her friendship with Conway was their shared concern for assuring women a bigger place and better learning and working conditions at the University of Toronto (and, indeed, in higher education more broadly). They were both leaders in a feminist-led struggle to create a daycare center on the University of Toronto’s campus. Still operating today, it opened in 1969 as a family-run cooperative in a vacant university-owned building squatted by parents. When the university slated the building for demolition in 1970 and hundreds of protesters occupied the university’s central administrative building (the first significant sit-in in docile U of T’s staid history), Natalie was one of the lead negotiators who relayed their demands to a hostile Board of Governors. She was a forceful advocate for justice and equity within the discipline and the university world throughout her career.
One of the first women to take up leadership positions within the historical profession, Natalie served as president of the Society for French Historical Studies and the American Historical Association (only the second woman to hold this position). Amongst her many honors and distinctions, she was awarded the Toynbee Prize, the Aby Warburg Prize, the Holberg Prize, and the National Humanities Medal; she is Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques and a Companion of the Order of Canada.
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As remarkable as her career was, Natalie led an even more remarkable life. Over the years, Natalie spoke at length about her life experiences in a number of published interviews and in the 1997 Charles Homer Haskins Lecture. What these accounts make clear is that Natalie thought deeply about how historical context had shaped her own life, weighing how the twentieth-century moment had denied possibilities and opened up others, shaping the spaces within which she could make choices, and offering up the historically specific languages and ways of seeing with which she had fashioned her own understanding of the past, the present – and of herself. In this, she spoke of herself in terms little different than those she used in her brilliant, often moving, assessments of modern historians and thinkers like Marc Bloch, Lucie Varga, Clifford Geertz, Michel de Certeau, or Lazare Sainéan.
Born in Detroit in 1928 to a middle-class Jewish family, Natalie discovered left-wing politics as an undergraduate at Smith College. It was while she was at Smith that she met her husband, then a graduate student in mathematics. And it is impossible to talk about Natalie without also talking about Chandler Davis. He would go on to become a distinguished mathematician and a prominent figure of the American left. Partner, co-parent of three children, intellectual interlocutor, perfectly paired foil, best friend, and comrade in struggle, Chandler was Natalie’s life partner in the fullest sense of the word.
After embarking on her PhD at Harvard where Chandler was completing his own doctorate, Natalie transferred to the University of Michigan when Chandler took up a faculty position there. It was in Ann Arbor that Natalie and Chandler would become victims of the McCarthy-era Red Scare. After Natalie helped write a pamphlet condemning the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the FBI traced the anonymously-published pamphlet back to Chandler (who was treasurer of the group that had paid the printer’s bill). Called before the HUAC in 1953, Chandler refused to comply. He was dismissed from the University of Michigan the following year, and, his judicial appeals exhausted in 1959, he served six-month prison term for contempt of Congress in Danbury, Connecticut. Blacklisted from American higher education, Chandler accepted a teaching position at the University of Toronto in 1962, and it was then that the family moved to Canada.
When measured against the many and formidable obstacles she was forced to overcome, then, Natalie’s extraordinary career only becomes more impressive. She completed her Ph.D. dissertation after switching graduate programs midstream, while raising young children and supporting Chandler through his six-year legal ordeal, and largely without any substantive faculty supervision. Her first decade of teaching as an adjunct at Brown, York, and U of T was marked by precarity. She faced sexism and anti-Semitism at what were deeply conservative institutions. Many of her U of T colleagues in this period looked askance at her research interests, and her efforts to teach women’s history met with institutional hostility. When Natalie relayed female graduate students’ concerns to U of T administrators, she later recalled, they “just laughed and dismissed the concerns”. When she could finally enjoy tenure in departments with colleagues excited by some of the same historical questions that animated her own work, the commute from Toronto to California and then New Jersey posed new challenges. In short, Natalie had firsthand experience of many of the most painful realities early career academics face today, and she often drew from this when mentoring and supporting others in the profession.
All the more admirable then how Natalie always sought to make of grim necessity virtue. When the FBI confiscated Natalie and Chandler’s passports in 1952, making it impossible for her to return to the archives in France for a number of years, she turned her attention to rare book repositories in the United States. At work at the New York Public Library and the Folger, she began to take early modern print books seriously not just as the products of her Lyon print workers’ labors, but as material objects and rich cultural artefacts in their own right. It was when she happened on a collection of early modern arithmetic and account works in Columbia University’s library in this period that she found the sources with which she wrote her “Sixteenth-Century French Arithmetics on the Business Life” article. (With characteristic grace and good humor, Natalie wrote of this internal research exile of sorts in an essay entitled “How the FBI Turned Me On to Rare Books”.)
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Everyone who has ever met Natalie has a story. There was who she was, of course, and what she had written. But these stories all speak to something bigger than either her life experience or her intellectual contributions. There was about Natalie a charisma of kindness and curiosity, of presence in the moment and genuine interest in who you were, what you were about, what you had to say, an abiding concern to understand the world’s ails, big and small, and to seek to repair them.
I had the unhoped-for privilege to count Natalie as a teacher, interlocutor, model, and friend. I first met her at Princeton when I embarked on my Ph.D. in 1992. Small of stature, Natalie loomed large in every room she entered, a happy, learned whirlwind of energy, ideas, and textual references, liberal with her thinking and ever hungry to learn from others. Teaching ex cathedra was anathema to Natalie, and her courses were instead research workshops, the conversations always freewheeling, their syllabi filled with drafts of new work by exciting scholars that had not yet made their way into print. In my second year I took her seminar on “The Gift,” a veritable laboratory for thinking through the sources and ideas that she would later develop in her book The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France (2000). Ahead of her time as always, Natalie had us reading Karl Polanyi twenty years before his recent rediscovery by historians of capitalism; I did not then fully appreciate how our conversations about anthropological and sociological perspectives on gift exchange were Natalie’s invitation to imagine a world outside of capitalism. A graduate-school friend recently reminded me of her informal early-morning paleography seminar, Natalie cheerfully cycling to campus at 8AM to meet a sleepy group of graduate students to work through handwritten sixteenth-century French manuscripts together, we humbled by the knowledge that she had already been up for hours, dispatching letters, reading drafts, and preparing her classes.
Natalie’s early mornings never ceased to amaze me. As email became our dominant mode of communication, the time stamps on her rapid responses and quick turnarounds of drafts I had sent for feedback provided incontrovertible evidence of the predawn habits that I came to think of as a kind of superpower – one that helped make both her astounding productivity and her collegial generosity possible.
Her mentorship, in graduate school and ever since, was always one of gentle guidance, bounded by an absolute respect for the intellectual autonomy of her students and interlocutors, grounded in her faith in the virtues of intellectual conversation. The real value was in her questions, each opening up fruitful new lines of thinking. In the moment her queries often struck me as tangential, throwaway lines, and I foolishly ignored them more often than not, only to realize well down the road that she had been right all along. She wasn’t just ahead of her time in her own scholarship, she was always steps ahead of you in your own research.
Starting a conversation with Natalie more often than not meant the beginning of a lifelong exchange. The emails she regularly dispatched sharing sources and scholarship she had stumbled upon related to my own work were gifts, marks of her generosity and fidelity. In the years I lived in Paris teaching in my first academic position, Natalie and I would at her insistence periodically catch up, seated at the dining room table in her daughter’s Paris apartment. My guess is that Natalie was never entirely comfortable with the hierarchical dimension of mentorship, which is why intellectual exchange so naturally opened up onto friendship. One of my most powerful memories of Natalie is the uncontained joy she expressed at learning that my wife and I had welcomed a child.
It was in France too that, as I began to meet some of Natalie’s many friends and collaborators there, I began also to fathom just how broad her networks of conversation and friendship really were. Natalie’s voice was singular, her insights profoundly original, but she always imagined history as a collective enterprise. She was always engaged in conversation, seeking out communities, ever in dialogue, recognizing intellectual debts and giving of herself to others. One need only consider the long list of collaborators, co-teachers, and friends she has worked with over the years – it is a list which would begin with Conway of course, but would include Perrot, Geertz (with whom she cotaught a course at Princeton), Mouawad, Joan Scott, Robert Darnton, Denis Crouzet, and countless others. If her historical work contained worlds, she too contained worlds in the many far-flung circles she helped give life to.
Perhaps more than anything else, conversation was for Natalie the real motor of historical reflection. This I think helps to account for her willingness to participate in so many published interviews. This too sheds light on her insistence on respectful dialogue. My time at Princeton coincided with her tenure as director of the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies. There she succeeded in transforming the Center’s weekly research seminar from what had long been something of a fearsome gladiatorial combat into something very different, a warm, collegial, but no less intellectually rigorous enterprise.
The dialogic metaphor wasn’t just an ideal of scholarly exchange, it had for Natalie real analytic purchase. She often spoke of how historical inquiry was for her a conversation with the past, an attempt to establish a dialogue across time and space. In the poem that he wrote as an epigraph to Society and Culture, Chandler (who was also an accomplished writer of science fiction) imagines Natalie attempting to engage the print workers of Lyon in conversation. Separated by the centuries, however, they cannot respond: “She longs to shake your hand, to share your wine. ... Through the pane she hears you but is not heard.” It is precisely this idea that Natalie wished to convey in her imagined conversation with Marie, Glikl, and Maria with which she opened Women on the Margins. Natalie’s conversation with the past is more than a simple quest for information. This dialogic attempt to glimpse the luminous coherence of a past culture rendered obscure by strangeness carried a powerful ethical dimension, insofar as it represented a good-faith effort to bridge boundaries of difference and foreignness. Right when she had begun work on her Braided Histories project, I recall the puzzlement and sorrow with which she spoke of a painful question that had in part motivated her investigation: how is it that Jews, for whom the story of the Israelites emancipation from slavery in Egypt looms so large in defining their community, could own slaves in Dutch Suriname? If this might seem a naive question, it was in fact quite the opposite. For Natalie, to interrogate a Jewish tradition that was deeply meaningful to her was simply to ask the kind of questions every historian must ask at the start of an investigation: about the historical specificity of the historian’s own values and worldviews, about the complexities and contradictions, virtues and failures, insights and blind spots embedded within every cultural framework – and how these in turn shape the historian’s view of the past. In the address she delivered as AHA president in 1987, Natalie put her vision this way:
I have been thinking how I might give an image to History that would suggest the complexity, commitment, and multiple vision that I believe must be at its heart. ... My image of History would have at least two bodies in it, at least two persons talking, arguing, always listening to the other as they gestured at their books; and it would be a film, not a still picture, so that you could see that sometimes they wept, sometimes they were astonished, sometimes they were knowing, and sometimes they laughed with delight.
All throughout her career she modeled what an academic should be – a way of being with students, with colleagues, and in the world. It often seemed effortless, but she always measured the true weight of her responsibilities as historian, teacher, friend, and citizen of the world. She took mentorship seriously, especially her role supporting other women in the academy. As it happens, I was Natalie’s last doctoral student, a fact that obliged her to fly back to Princeton for my defense, several years into what I then imagined was a restful, well-earned retirement. It was when I later joined the University of Toronto that I discovered that Natalie’s retirement was in fact nothing of the sort. More than her constant presence on campus, giving or attending talks, or her ongoing ability to create new communities, or her frequent research trips to Suriname, the Netherlands, and beyond – more even than the marvelous scholarship she continued to produce right up until her death, what amazed me the most was the gradual realization of just how many students, graduate and undergraduate alike, had sought her out and found mentorship.
Natalie and Chandler always opened their home and made it a place where the bonds of friendship and the threads of conversations begun elsewhere could be taken up once again. It was a space, in short, where the kind of dialogue she imagined in her AHA address could take place. Though these gatherings could at first glance resemble the salons of Old Regime and nineteenth-century France, Natalie and Chandler’s abhorrence of the forms of social competition and hierarchy that marked the historical ruelles made these something very different. Talk there were at once serious – the world is a dark place, and Natalie and Chandler cared above all else about thinking through how we might chart a more hopeful path – and, in its warmth and polyphony, joyous. Rather than a literary salon, I like to think that Natalie had something else in mind as a model. Something more along the lines of the Abbaye de Thélème utopia conjured up by François Rabelais at the close of Gargantua. Théleme is place whose watchword is Fay çe que vouldras (Do what you will), and whose happy inhabitants live a life that is at once one of radical freedom and radical community.
For those who knew her, it was hard in recent years not to nurse a kind of secret, impossible hope that, perhaps, her energy, her smile, her ideas, her writing might all carry on just a little bit longer. That we might experience once again the social miracle that took place in each conversation she facilitated. That perhaps she might live on forever. I will confess that each time I said goodbye to her, I dreamed that the Thélème-on-Toronto’s-Euclid-Avenue might continue on eternally.
Significantly, I think, Natalie often spoke of the role of hope in her own work. Taking up an idea she expressed at many different junctures and in various ways, she concluded one of her personal reflections with the following words: “I have wanted to be a historian of hope. We can take heart from the fact that no matter how dire the situation, some will find means to resist, some will find means to cope, and some will remember and tell stories about what happened.” These words are surely inspirational to many, but they are also I think a challenge. They remind the historian that they carry a heavy responsibility, a debt owed as much to the past they are called on to understand and share as they do to their own moment.
Natalie had much to say about debts in another context. I first encountered Panurge’s praise of debt in Rabelais’s Tiers Livre in Natalie’s Gift seminar at Princeton. Panurge’s frenetic argument that the more people are indebted to each other, the happier society will be is, of course, written as satire. But as with cycles of gift exchange, Panurge’s vision of the circulation of debt offers a glimpse of a society both free and held together by felicitous bonds of solidarity and mutual responsibility. For Natalie, who always viewed narrower conceptions of individual liberty with a certain suspicion, this was a glimpse, perhaps, of a happier, more Thélème-like world.
How can we create the conditions for hope? How can we honor the debts we owe, both to the dead and to the living – debts which Natalie took very seriously indeed. Natalie’s life, writing, and teaching inspire, but they also embody a broader ethic of respect, responsibility, and dialogue, a duty to work towards emancipation, in whatever forms each historical moment might allow, and whatever the obstacles. This attentive reader of Marcel Mauss was liberal with the gifts Clio graced her with, through her writing and teaching; but she was also a liberal giver of gifts – gifts of her time, mentorship, friendship, hospitality, counsel, laughter, empathy, tears, support, comradeship. She never seemed to expect anything in return. But now I wonder. I think she did want one thing from us: that we do the same.
- Paul Cohen, University of Toronto
After completing this text, I discovered upon reading Joan Scott and Francesca Trivellato’s moving tribute to Natalie that I wasn’t the only one that nursed these secret hopes. https://www.ias.edu/ideas/natalie-z-davis-1928-2023.