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Davis, Natalie Zemon (1928–) - History of France and Early Modern Europe

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Natalie Zemon Davis was born on November 8, 1928, in Detroit, Michigan, of Polish-Jewish and Russian-Jewish ancestry. Her father was a successful businessman in the Detroit textile industry and an amateur playwright; her mother was a homemaker and businesswoman. In her intellectual pursuits, Davis was influenced by her father, an avid reader and writer. Davis was also influenced by growing up a Jew in a neighborhood where only two Jewish families had homes. “The ability to identify anti-semitism,” she later recalled in an interview with Roger Adelson, “became a part of my life without anyone sitting down and giving me a lesson in it.”

After attending elementary school at the Hampton School in Detroit, Davis went to Kingswood, a private girls’ school in suburban Detroit. As one of only two Jewish girls in her class, Davis was an outsider. She turned her attention to her studies, earning excellent grades, and to leadership, serving as president of the student council. “I loved history,” she remembers, “especially the Enlightenment and the American Revolution.”

Davis attended Smith College, participating as a student activist and applying questions offered by her political work to her honors program in history. She was tremendously influenced by Leona Gabel, who supervised Davis’s honors thesis on Pomponazzi, an Aristotelian. Davis earned her bachelor’s degree in 1949, a year after she eloped, much to the consternation of her parents and professors, with Chandler Davis, a graduate student in mathematics at Harvard University. Natalie and Chandler remained active in political work, protesting the Korean War and the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Davis pursued her intellectual work, completing a master’s degree at Radcliffe and finding her interests turning more toward the history not of elites but of merchants, artisans, laborers, and peasants. She continued her political work as she pursued a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. Between 1953, when she passed her general exams, and 1959, when she completed her dissertation, Davis had three children, Aaron Bancroft Davis, Hannah Penrose Davis, and Simone Weil Davis. As she told Adelson, she did not follow an ordinary academic path, “owing to my marriage and children, my husband’s and my political activities, my independent style of thinking and writing, and because I have always been deeply concerned with and wanted to reach an audience wider than the narrow circles of scholarship.”

In 1959 Davis received her first academic appointment, at Brown University. During that time, Chandler Davis served six months in Danbury Prison for charges brought against him by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Since Chandler was blacklisted in U.S. universities after that, both Davises took jobs at the University of Toronto, he in 1962 and she in 1963. Natalie Zemon Davis also taught at the University of California at Berkeley and at Princeton University, where she was named Henry Charles Lea Professor of History in 1978 and where she continues to teach today.

Natalie Zemon Davis’s early work focused on class dimensions in early modern Europe, particularly in France. While at Toronto, she began to explore both literary and anthropological materials and approaches, and her work exemplifies what she calls a multidimensional view of society. Her first book, a collection of essays entitled Society and Culture in Early Modern France , has received tremendous scholarly acclaim and has gone through many editions and translations. “I think that people simply want to know more about the common people of the past,” Davis argues. And because she wrote about women in this book, Davis was recognized early as a historian of women and of gender. Over the course of her career, Davis has helped to transform our understandings of both the common people and the elite, arguing that “lower- and upper-class worlds were reacting and reflecting on each other and even sometimes sharing rules and readers.” In doing this work, Davis has developed an international reputation as a brilliant and challenging scholar. She has published, in addition to six books, over seventy scholarly essays.

Davis is also well known for her participation in the making of the film Le retour de Martin Guerre . As a historian consulting on a historical film, Davis struggled with some of the filmmakers’ decisions. There were points about the story she felt needed to be made, so she wrote a short book, The Return of Martin Guerre , which, as Davis herself puts it, “has generated lively debates in several languages.” The book has more than 78,000 copies in print.

Davis is currently one of two co-editors for the Bedford Series in History and Culture, published by St. Martin’s Press. The series, which currently has seventeen volumes in print, is expected to grow to twenty-eight volumes by 1996, and many other volumes are in the planning stages or under contract. She is also editor of a recent series volume, A History of Women in the West: Renaissance and Enlightenment Paradoxes . According to reviewer Lindsay Wilson, Davis and co-editor Arlette Farge “have succeeded admirably” in creating a history of women from various points of view, summarizing recent research and raising new questions, and bringing the pleasures of reading history to new readers. Like all of her books, her most recent, Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives , will be translated into several languages, including Italian, German, and Finnish.

The recipient of many awards and fellowships, including twenty honorary degrees, Natalie Zemon Davis also served as president of the American Historical Association in 1987. She has been named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the British Academy. In 1984 she received the American Historical Association’s Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award.

In July 1996, Davis took early retirement from Princeton and moved to Toronto, where her husband lives, and where she is a research associate in the comparative literature department at the University of Toronto. She looks forward to having more free time for writing history books and history film scenarios. Davis also has three grandchildren, Sofia, Max, and Gabriel.

Davis, Ossie (1917–2005) [next] [back] Davis, Gussie Lord(1863–1899) - Composer, lyricist, entrepreneur, Early Career Path, Songwriting Successes, Chronology

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