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It is a measure of Natalie Zemon Davis’s influence as a historian that most people would struggle to name more than a handful of Renaissance monarchs, but a good many have heard of an obscure 16th-century French peasant called Martin Guerre. Or, to be precise, they know about the imposter who assumed Guerre’s identity and took his wife and property, before his deception was exposed and he was executed for his crime.
Davis, who has died at the age of 94, published her groundbreaking The Return of Martin Guerre in France in 1982 and in the English-speaking world a year later. The book reached a readership beyond the dreams of most professional historians because, even before its publication, the makers of Le Retour de Martin Guerre, a hit French film starring Gérard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye, had used her as a consultant.
In the academic world, her book earned fame for different reasons. Alongside Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, published in Italian in 1976 and in English translation in 1980, The Return of Martin Guerre was an early, captivating example of what came to be known as microhistory. In this branch of the discipline, scholars focus on an individual, a community or a local event as a way of drawing out larger historical lessons about the society of which they were part.
A concern for ordinary people on the margins of conventional history — meaning, in the 16th and 17th centuries, women, religious minorities, commoners accused of murder and the like — was the hallmark of Davis’s career. “I’ve never felt I was the historian for queens and kings . . . It’s the others who need me,” Davis told the University of Toronto magazine in 2010.
Her methods did not wholly convince everyone. In the introduction to The Return of Martin Guerre, she wrote that “what I offer you here is in part my invention, but held tightly in check by the voices of the past”. Robert Finlay, an American historian, was among those who questioned whether she had reconstructed and interpreted events in ways not explicitly supported by the incomplete source material.
Born in Detroit on November 8 1928 to parents of Jewish eastern European origin, Zemon Davis became involved in leftwing politics at Smith College, Massachusetts. In 1948 she married Chandler Davis, a mathematics graduate student and fellow radical. In these early years of the cold war, their activism attracted the attention of the US government, which seized their passports in 1952 after her return from a research trip in France.
At this point, her chief scholarly interests were in 16th-century French society, a field that took her beyond historians’ traditional focus on the royal court in Paris and France’s wars of religion.
It was a blessing in disguise, she wrote in a 2013 article for the New York Review of Books. Unable for years to revisit France, she immersed herself in rare book collections in the US, gathering much material for her future works.
Among her books are Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (1995) and Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds (2006).
“I had to think of history as a vocation because I grew up outside the mainstream of American society,” she said in a 1991 interview. “I did not follow the ordinary academic path owing to my marriage and children, my husband’s and my political activities, my independent style of thinking and writing . . . ”
After years of part-time teaching, Zemon Davis and her husband took jobs at the University of Toronto, where she taught history from 1963 to 1971.
She moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where she was only the second woman in the history department, before going on to Princeton University from 1978 to 1996. She then returned as an emerita professor to Toronto, where she spent her final years.
In 2013, President Barack Obama presented Davis with a National Humanities Medal, a prestigious US award. Davis recalled: “The president spoke of the humanities and hope and the words rang in my ears as he put the medal around my neck, for I have tried to be not only a truth-teller about the past, but also to be a historian of hope.”
Davis and her husband had three children, Aaron, Hannah and Simone. In a tribute, the history faculty of the University of Oxford, where she lectured in the 1990s, said: “Natalie Zemon Davis changed history-writing by putting people at its centre. She brought to her writing a luminous ability to widen the scope of human sympathy.” Tony Barber
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