Natalie Zemon Davis

Daniel Snowman meets the historian of ‘Martin Guerre’.

What is history? What is it about and how should it be portrayed? Such questions are much in the air these days. But few have examined them more consistently and imaginatively than Natalie Zemon Davis.

Widely revered as (variously) a leading historian of early modern France, a left-leaning intellectual who helped pioneer the shift from social to cultural history, and one of the great iconic figures of feminist history, Natalie Davis is not ‘simply’ any of these. The sheer versatility of her skills, and her capacity to incorporate multiple meanings, defy simplistic labelling. Like a jeweller turning a diamond this way and that in different lights, Davis insists on the multivalent meanings of the historical record. If you come across (say) an early edition of the essays of Montaigne, she insists, check not only its contents but how and by whom it was printed and bound, who bought it from whom and who gave it to whom, what the inscription says and what the handwriting is like, and which pages are particularly frayed. You may not have hard and fast evidence to answer all the questions that arise; but, given all the other things you know – be brave, use your imagination. ‘What I offer you here is in part my invention,’ Davis acknowledges in the introduction to her most famous book, The Return of Martin Guerre, ‘but held tightly in check by the voices of the past’.

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