Natalie Zemon Davis

The Natalie Zemon Davis Prize honors a historian who has expanded the boundaries of our discipline through more than half a century of path-breaking scholarship. Born in Detroit in 1928, Natalie Davis received her B.A. from Smith College, her M.A. from Radcliffe, and her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. She married the mathematician Chandler Davis in 1948. Together they raised three children while pursuing busy academic careers. Natalie Davis taught at Brown and the University of Toronto before becoming a Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley in 1972 and then at Princeton from 1978 to 1996. On her retirement, she returned to Toronto, where Chandler Davis had maintained his career, and continued to work with students and colleagues as an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto.

Natalie Davis’s 1959 dissertation, “Protestantism and the Printing Workers of Lyons,” was a pioneering work of social history that moved beyond theories of economics and class to consider the cultural, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of religious choice. Davis continued to focus on groups usually left to the margins of historical writing as she sought to recover the experience of workers, women, and peasants in Society and Culture in Early Modern France (1975) and The Return of Martin Guerre (1983), a work subsequently translated into at least twenty-two languages. Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (1987), Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (1995), The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France (2000), and Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds (2006) followed a broadening trajectory, as Davis enlarged her field of vision to encompass cultural crossings and exchange, while continuing to find innovative ways to read laconic sources. Her use of anthropology, literary theory, and film has been widely influential, yet she has never abandoned her love of the archives and continues, well into her ninth decade, to travel for research and speaking engagements.

Only the second woman to be named President of the American Historical Association, Natalie Davis was awarded the prestigious Holberg Prize established by the Norwegian Parliament in 2010 and received the National Humanities Medal from President Barak Obama in 2013. She was named Companion of the Order of Canada in 2012.

A charismatic and caring teacher, Davis created one of the first courses on women and gender with Jill Ker Conway in 1971 and continued to introduce new and comparative approaches throughout her teaching career. As a graduate teacher and mentor, she has always encouraged her students to find and pursue their own creative path. It is entirely fitting that the prize named in her honor should be awarded to the graduate student presenting the best paper at the Society’s annual meeting, thereby encouraging the profession’s novices to follow their own historical vision.

Barbara D. Diefendorf
Boston University