Natalie Zemon Davis

(Ralph Alswang, courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities)

(Ralph Alswang, courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities)


It is a hugely talented and rare historian who herself makes history. Natalie Zemon Davis is...... and has. In a career that has spanned half a century, she has happily upset academic conventions. She was a pioneer in women's history. She brought Martin Guerre to the world.

And she has created new ways of knowing people who lived in the 16th and 17th century - impostors, peasants, performers and traders, people who barely had a voice when they were alive. In the words of another historian, Margaret MacMillan, Natalie Davis has played a real part in expanding what we think of us as suitable subjects for history and what we use as evidence for understanding them.

And yet this woman - now 84 - who loves nothing more than the perfume of a rare book library, whose heart beats faster in a dusty archive - is very much in the 21st century.

She won the 2010 Holberg Prize, one of the world's top academic prizes, in recognition of her unique contribution to the humanities. And a few weeks ago, she was honoured with a 2012 National Humanities Medal, presented by U.S. President Barack Obama.

    Natalie Zemon Davis taught at Berkeley, and for 18 years at Princeton. But she has come back to live in Toronto - where she taught in the 1970's - and is now at work on the story of the story of a slave family in colonial Suriname. Dr. Davis is still active in her work at the University of Toronto. She spoke to Michael Enright in January of 2011.


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