On the Spot: Natalie Zemon Davis

‘I’d like to meet the 16th-century Leo Africanus’

National Assembly at Versailles, 17 June 1789.

Why are you a historian of the early modern period?

I like the interchange between new religious and social forms and traditional ones; and the expansion of contact between European and non-Europeans.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?

Never give up hope. No matter how violent the times, there were always those who sought to bring remedy and tell stories for those who came after them. 

Which history book has had the greatest influence on you?

Marc Bloch’s Société féodale, but I’ve read many good ones since.

What book in your field should everyone read?

The Essais of Montaigne. 

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

It would be interesting to sense the excitement in 1789, when the Estates General turned itself into the National Assembly.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?

The most important influences on me are anthropologists like Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner and literary scholars like Mikhail Bakhtin.

Which person in history would you most like to have met?

I’d like to meet the 16th-century Leo Africanus, to see if I’ve got his thoughts right on theatre. 

How many languages do you have?

French, Latin and German.

What’s the most exciting field in history today?

The history of slavery, the history of gender, the senses and the history of the book.

Which genre of history do you like least?

Any field or type of history can be interesting if it’s done well. 

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?

Early on, I dropped the notion of historical ‘stages’ and instead looked at societies and their changes ethnographically.  

Is there a major historical text you have not read?

Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes.

What’s your favourite archive? 

The Archives municipales de Lyon, in its beautiful old setting.

What’s the best museum? 

The Royal Ontario Museum.

Normans or Anglo-Saxons? 

Why should one choose?  

Rome or Athens? 

Both were imperial slave societies, both great centres of culture. I’m not choosing. 

Braudel or Gibbon? 

I’d rather compare them.  

Michelangelo or Frida Kahlo?

Both are high on my list, but Michelangelo is part of the world I am now writing about.

What is the most common misconception about your field?

It concerns the overuse of the term ‘Renaissance’.

What will future generations judge us most harshly for?

Failing to deal sufficiently with the issues of climate and global warming.


Natalie Zemon Davis is Adjunct Professor of History and Anthropology and Professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. Her many books include Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford, 1975); The Return of Martin Guerre (Harvard, 1983); Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (Harvard, 1995); and The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France (University of Wisconsin, 2000).