Natalie Zemon Davis, 1928-2023

cd people natalie zemon davis

Holbergprisen, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Natalie Zemon Davis, 8 November 1928-21 October 2023

Faculty members will wish to know that Natalie Zemon Davis died this weekend. She was aged 94.

Natalie was Eastman Professor at Balliol in 1994-5, the first woman to hold the Chair. She received an Honorary Doctorate from our university and was in so many ways part of Oxford’s intellectual community. She gave numerous lectures and seminars at Oxford and no-one who heard her lecture would forget her inspirational energy or her ability to evoke the people of the past.

The essays which made up the modestly-titled Society and Culture in Early Modern France  (1975) – ‘Women on Top’, ‘The Rites of Violence’ and many more are still read today and remain central to our curriculum. She contributed hugely to women’s and gender history, championing it before it was accepted by the academy, and together with Jill Ker Conway she taught one of the first university courses in women’s history (University of Toronto). Her The Return of Martin Guerre and the film (starring Gerard Depardieu) to which she was consultant brought early modern history to a wide public. She pioneered what later became known as microhistory, and showed what could be done with criminal records, or how one might think about space and religious geography in early modern towns. Later she took up the challenges of global history, writing Women on the Margins and Trickster Travels, a study of Leo Africanus. A historian of religion, she studied Jews and Muslims as well as Christians of many kinds. Her most recent book, Listening to the Languages of the People, was published by Central European University Press; and at her death she was working on Braided Histories, a book that would bring together the stories of slaves and free people living on plantations owned by Christians and Jews, in eighteenth-century Suriname.

Natalie Zemon Davis changed history-writing by putting people at its centre. She brought a to her writing a luminous ability to widen the scope of human sympathy. She cared deeply about peace as a moral value and tried constantly to understand both sides, and to explore why conflicts, especially religious conflicts, happen. The poem her husband, the mathematician Chandler Davis, wrote about her in 1975 captures best her vocation as a historian:

Born abroad, she longs for you, compagnons.
She longs to shake your hand, to share your wine.
She longs for home, four hundred years away.
Through the pane she hears you but is not heard.
She deserves your pity but will not have it.
The songs you think are vanished once they're sung,
The pleas you think are wasted if turned down,
Jokes you dismiss if no one laughs or winces,
She listens for. You speak sometimes too soft.
And since there is no God
she notes your prayers.
And since there is no God
she marks your fall.