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Becoming Natalie Davis

As a young historian, she treated obstacles as things to understand rather than to skirt. The attitude persisted during her entire, stellar career.
NOV 05 2014

Becoming Natalie Davis

As a young historian, she treated obstacles as things to understand rather than to skirt. The attitude persisted during her entire, stellar career.


It was fall of 1952, and a rough knock came on the door of the apartment above the Campus Bike and Hobby Shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Natalie Zemon Davis, a University of Michigan history PhD candidate, and her husband, math professor Chandler Davis, were home that afternoon.

It was the FBI. “Are you communists?” they demanded. They instructed the young couple to hand over their passports – a not unheard-of request during the Red Scare – and left. Natalie was devastated. Not only was she worried about her own health as she was newly pregnant, but she was working on her dissertation and had just returned from six months in Lyon, France, researching in the archives there, and needed to return after her comprehensive exams the following spring. “I did not need this,” she recalls.

The incident left her with an arrhythmia that winter. She recovered, and son Aaron was born healthy that spring. But the couple’s political troubles continued and resulted in Dr. Davis losing his job two years later and eventually being jailed for six months for his defiance of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

In the meantime, Natalie Davis had to find research materials. She was writing about the social and religious origins of the Protestant Revolution in France via the printing workers of Lyon. She soon realized that many of the books these printers had worked on in the 18th century were now housed in rare-book libraries in the United States. So she focused on forewards, illustrations, and the way the content of books changed through multiple editions. She not only completed her PhD but, before even getting her degree, published numerous articles on a wide range of topics related to early modern France (on publisher Christophe Plantin, merchant Martin Ponthus, and the role of mathematics in trade and academia of the time). Many of her articles gained attention and even awards.

And so it continued for the rest of her career. While Dr. Davis was never truly marginalized, she always danced around the edges of her community – and yet seemed to come up with better ideas and techniques as a result. This bright woman from a well-to-do Jewish family married outside her faith, entered academia when she had few female peers, dared to have children young and keep up with her work, struggled to find a job early in her career and, when she did, had to move far from her close-knit family.

For some reason, instead of discouraging her, this series of obstacles seemed to help Natalie Davis become “Natalie Davis,” one of North America’s most noted historians, almost right out of the gate. That it took the academic world a bit longer to discover and laud her is but one more glitch in a stellar, yet glitch-laden, career.

She was born Natalie Zemon in 1928 and grew up in Detroit. She loved history in high school and excelled in languages. She went to Smith College to study history, literature and languages, and lived in French House. Her education was scholarly from the start and included small seminars and an undergraduate thesis.

While attending summer school at Harvard University in 1948, before graduating from Smith and embarking on her MA at Radcliffe College, she met a young mathematics graduate student who wrote poetry and science fiction, shared her leftist politics and was handsome to boot. She married Chandler Davis six weeks later.

Natalie Davis then started her PhD program at Harvard but when her husband got a tenure-track position at U of Michigan, she switched schools. The politically active couple was often seen on marches and at meetings. Natalie and a colleague wrote a pamphlet called Operation Mind that argued the House Un-American Activities Committee was a cover for censorship, since it was asking people about their political beliefs instead of looking for guns or affiliations with violent organizations. Chandler paid the printing bill, which is how HUAC found and began targeting him.

Natalie Davis's brilliant career

In early 1952, before the whole passport business, Natalie Davis combed the Lyon archives. There, she boned up on her spoken French and soaked up the open political and vibrantly intellectual climate. Meeting other young women there doing their work and carting around babies on bikes inspired the American couple to blend parenthood with their fledgling careers. “If I could just find a way to even work for a few hours every day to keep up with my work, that’s what I’d do,” she decided at the time. She recalls going into her oral exam at a huge seven months pregnant to a shocked panel. She aced her test.

Chandler Davis was fired in 1954 after being called to testify on his political views and pleading the first amendment. He was indicted for contempt, which was his intention as he wanted to challenge HUAC’s legality. The growing family – by now it included Hannah and Simone – began to move around to seek work: fellowships, part-time teaching at night school, an advertising gig, journal editing. Colleagues raised funds for legal fees.

Yet a few years spent in Brooksville, New York, gave Natalie Davis easy access to the rare book libraries in New York City and deepened her work. “This episode also expanded my notions of human response to situations of constraint, both my own and that of people in the past,” she wrote in a 2013 article in the New York Review. “I realized that between heroic resistance to and fatalistic acceptance of oppression, there was ample space for coping strategies and creative improvisation.”

The couple lived simply and focused on their children and work. Without a formal supervisor for her PhD, Dr. Davis finally completed it in 1959. The following year, while they were living in Providence, Rhode Island, Chandler’s case wound up and he served six months for contempt. When he got out, no U.S. school could hire him without suffering repercussions. In 1962, he accepted a tenure-track position at the University of Toronto. The family emigrated to Canada.

Natalie Davis found part-time work in the history department at U of T and teaching humanities at Atkinson College, York University’s continuing education program. Then the political economy department at U of T, which had an economic history wing, noticed her work on labour and finance in 16th-century France and gave her an assistant professorship. But this was not truly her field.

So, when the University of California, Berkeley offered her a history job, in 1971, she and Chandler agreed it was a real opportunity for growth. Her daughters registered at a high school in California while her son and husband stayed in Toronto and came and went when they could. She published her first book in 1975 – already a full professor, this was rather late in her career. She started to get noticed. “She was a huge figure intellectually,” recalls Thomas Laqueur, who joined the history department at Berkeley two years after Dr. Davis. “But she was not yet the Natalie Davis she was going to be.”

In 1978, a job offer from Princeton University was perfectly timed. The bi-coastal commute was a drain on the couple, who now would be able to visit each other on alternate weekends, and on their children, now at various stages of their own careers (both Hannah and Simone did PhDs and work in academic-related jobs while Aaron became a musician).

At Princeton, Dr. Davis turned her successful career as a historian into an illustrious one. Her most famous book, The Return of Martin Guerre, published in 1985, was made into a film at the same time (she served as a consultant). She headed up the Davis Center for Historical Studies (named after donor Shelby Davis). Rebecca Scott, now a history and law professor at University of Michigan, recalls how Dr. Davis would stand up and offer a verbal summary of the centre’s weekly lecture. “In five minutes, she could summarize complex ideas given over a two-hour period.” Dr. Davis stayed at Princeton for 18 years, an era that she says “flew by.”

In 1996, she retired and moved to Toronto permanently, taking on a year-long visiting professorship. Then she was named an adjunct professor of history and medieval studies and a senior fellow in the Centre for Comparative Literature. More recently, her title changed to professor emeritus for the history department.

Despite a few years of part-time teaching at U of T, her goal in semi-retirement was to write: she’s produced dozens of articles and three books so far. She travels extensively to do research, attend conferences, speak and collect prizes. Those include the Holberg International Memorial Prize in 2010 (which called her “one of the most creative historians writing today”), Companion to the Order of Canada in 2012 and the U.S. National Humanities Medal in 2012.

Even with her first essays, Dr. Davis was doing unique work, say her peers. “She always gathers many little bits from different places, rather than doing an in-depth analysis of a single document. She’s always looking for clues in the little bits and pieces,” says Elizabeth S. Cohen, a history professor at York who studied under Dr. Davis at U of T. The dizzying number of footnotes she cites reveal a range of sources: old academic works, autobiographies, ship’s logs, court documents, illustrations and marriage and death records, among others. “She mines the archives right to the bottom. And then she’s able to pull back out and tell a story in a way that’s narratively engaging,” says her former Michigan colleague Dr. Scott.

Her narrative-style writing was influenced by her husband, a published science fiction writer as well as a mathematician, who actually penned a poem for the opening of her first book. He advised Dr. Davis to write with clarity so non-academic readers could follow her, and he still serves as first reader for all her work.

In Martin Guerre, she blended elements of conjecture with wide-ranging research. When discussing the marriage of the main character and the bride Bertrande, Dr. Davis offers a quick overview of dowry traditions in the region and surmises the couple would have been given 50 to 150 livres – and then she states factually they also got a vineyard called Delbourat. When Martin disappears and another man shows up, taking his identity, Dr. Davis theorizes, based on Bertrande’s personality and the sense of identity and pride peasant women would have had at the time, about why she kept up the falsehood, even during the ensuing trial.

Early in her academic career, Dr. Davis was one of an emerging group of social historians looking past political and religious leaders to focus on regular people, says Hendrik Hartog, a colleague from Princeton. At the time, she incorporated anthropological context in her work, zeroing in on France, but always pulling in an awareness of gender, ritual and tradition from elsewhere.

She has had a way of seeking out topics that feel fresh, yet obvious in retrospect. In the “Women on Top” chapter in her first book, she explores cross-dressing in early modern festivals, plays and protests, how the practice helped expand ideas about women’s roles in society, and made rioting and demonstrating more socially acceptable.

Not all her topics are as sexy, but she’s adept at taking gift giving, union formation and the publishing of a bible, and illuminating that act far beyond itself. “She creates stories out of the smallest details,” says Kenneth Mills, a U of T history professor who worked with her for 10 years at Princeton. Her essay on a 17th-century rabbi who wrote an autobiography, for instance, takes his texts, and other similar works of the time, and spins it into a discussion on Jewish identity during the Reformation.

“In part, it’s about analytics. She asks really interesting questions about the past that others haven’t asked,” says Dr. Hartog. For example, can public cross-dressing have a feminist, activist bent?

Meanwhile, Dr. Davis has always raced headlong into taboo topics. Violence, protests and slavery are recurring themes. She teased out the meaning in precisely how Protestants and Catholics chose to kill each other in 16th-century France, says Dr. Hartog, and he calls her depictions of violence in the slave colony of Suriname “almost pornographic.” Her recent essay on crime and punishment in the region describes how masters punished their slaves using “extended beatings with whips chosen for their sting, after which the open wounds were rubbed with lime juice and Spanish pepper, and of the “Spaansche Bok” (the Spanish buck, as it was called), when the slave was whipped first on one side then on the other, with hands tied around the knees and a stick holding him or her to the ground.”

Whether writing about oppressed labourers, women or slaves, she doesn’t “litter her prose with easy judgmental statements,” says Dr. Scott. “She does something much stronger. She makes sure that when you read her narrative, it takes your breath away, and the moral judgment you make, you make as a reader.”

In 1990, Dr. Davis undertook a conscious effort to move away from her beloved France and expand the geographic reach of her work. “From the very beginning I was not what I would call a national historian. I was interested in France as a case,” she says. The crossing of cultures, and the people who travelled and negotiated being an outsider, fascinate her. Hence 1995’s Women on the Margins, which profiles three 17th-century women of different religions (Jewish, Catholic and Protestant) living in different parts of the world (Germany, Canada and Suriname).

Now, she’s devoting herself to researching the Dutch slave colony of Suriname in South America (for which she’s taught herself Old Dutch). She’s done several articles and talks on the topic and is working on a book that follows four generations of slave women from the region. She’s exploring the exchange of power (many of these women had white lovers) and communication between slaves and colonists.

As an on-campus presence, Dr. Davis often revealed her activist tendencies. In the mid ’60s, she and a colleague put out a faculty questionnaire to see if there was a need for a daycare at U of T. There was, but the school was not interested. A few years later, when students took over an empty building with a daycare sit-in, she helped negotiate to get them out, with a promise to build a daycare.

Around the same time, she and historian Jill Ker Conway, much to the chagrin of many faculty members, created the school’s first women’s history course, and then she did it again at Berkeley. At both Berkeley and Princeton, she helped found women’s studies programs. Naysayers – and there were many – at Princeton in particular argued there weren’t sufficient research materials on the topic to sustain true scholarship. Dr. Davis not only argued the point, but produced an array of heavily researched essays on women starting in the early ’70s that spoke for themselves.

Also, at Princeton, she met Medieval Jewish historian Mark Cohen and they and a third colleague created a course on early modern Jewish history. While it was hugely popular with students, and it led to a further branching out of Davis’s work, traditional Jewish scholars were not impressed. “I wasn’t worried about what people thought, I just went about my business.” Indeed, being a social historian using storytelling techniques and peppering her work with speculation was criticized in the early years. To this day, she writes about topics she finds interesting, paying little mind to their currency with others.

Yet she does care very much for her friends and colleagues in academia. Dr. Scott says she always gets asked about her son first, then her work. At conferences and roundtables Dr. Davis is usually the most senior and well-known face in the room, yet she’ll often pull aside grad students to ask about their work – and how they’re juggling it with family. Today, Dr. Davis has an open-door policy for any U of T graduate student who wants to come over for a cup of tea to talk.

At 86, Dr. Davis has made some concessions to age: she and Chandler recently moved their study from the third floor to take over two second- floor bedrooms, all to avoid excessive stair climbing. The couple gave up tennis a decade ago in favour of ping-pong, which they play on an outdoor table that resides on their back deck protected by a tarp between games. There’s time with adult kids and the grandkids. There’s travel to conferences and to the archives in the Netherlands.  And lots of research and writing. “She’s not content to sit and be famous and be Natalie Davis,” says Dr. Mills. “She says what she believes, and she believes what she believes.”

Diane Peters
Diane Peters is a Toronto-based writer and editor.
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