Natalie Zemon Davis, esteemed cultural historian and cherished mentor, dies at 94

Natalie Davis

Natalie Zemon Davis, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, Emeritus, and a social and cultural historian, died of cancer at her home in Toronto on Oct. 21. She was 94.

Davis, a 2003 recipient of the National Humanities Medal, joined Princeton’s faculty in 1978 and transferred to emeritus status 1996. She directed the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies from 1990 to 1994 and was a founder of the Program in Women's Studies (now the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies).

Her research and publications centered on the social and cultural history of 16th-century France and the early modern period in Europe. The focus of her later work extended beyond Europe, as she engaged with stories rooted in border-crossing and the impacts of colonialism. She was especially concerned to uncover the lives and values of peasants, artisans and women. Her work is widely read outside of academic circles, and she had a long history of political activism in civil rights, women’s rights and issues of free speech.

“Natalie Zemon Davis, who spent nearly two decades at Princeton, was one of the most creative and influential historians of her generation,” said Angela Creager, the Thomas M. Siebel Professor in the History of Science, professor of history and department chair. “She wrote about the everyday workings of power in early modern France, whether in religious riots or court cases, gender relations or gift exchange.”

Creager continued: “She was especially interested in trying to recover the views and voices of those on the margins of society. Throughout, Davis provided an inspiring model of personal empathy and scholarly rigor. In Princeton’s history department, she was an especially important mentor to women faculty and graduate students.”

She was the author of “Women on the Margins: Three 17th-Century Lives” (1995), “Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth Century France” (1988), “Society and Culture in Early Modern France” (1975), “Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds (2006), and  “A Passion for History,” a book of conversations about her life as a historian (2010), among others. She also published more than 70 book chapters, essays and articles in historical journals, in both French and English. At the time of her death, she had been working for some years on “Braided Histories,” about Europeans and enslaved Africans in 18th-century Suriname.

Davis is also popularly known for her book “The Return of Martin Guerre” (1983), translated into 10 languages — written after she served as a technical consultant to the 1982 French film “Le Retour de Martin Guerre,” starring Gérard Depardieu.

Princeton’s history department used an image of her acting as an extra in the film as the image for the department’s celebration of Davis’ 90th birthday. Several colleagues — each dressed as historical costumes — gave remarks in tribute, including William Jordan, the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History and director of the Program in Medieval Studies.

“Her generosity of spirit continuously impressed me, as did her capacity to energize others in their scholarship and teaching,” he said.

Jordan said he was honored when Davis invited him in 2011 to give the annual lecture series that bears her name at the Central European University in Budapest (CEU is now located in Vienna).

He said he felt “twice blest” by the invitation because Davis also served as discussant for his lectures. “She signified [the occasion] by giving me a small, elegant representation in stone of a Canadian loon carved by an Indigenous sculptor. I treasure it, as I treasure my memories of her as my colleague and my friend.”

Sandie Bermann, the Cotsen Professor in the Humanities, professor of comparative literature and director of the Program in Values and Public Life, said in a 2019 story for the University homepage that Davis was one of her early champions when she came to Princeton. “Certain women made all the difference at Princeton for me when there weren’t many women around,” Bermann said. “When I was going through the tenure process, the historian Natalie Davis, a valued mentor, suggested, ‘Just think about why you went into this,’ which was my way of getting through things.”

At Princeton, Davis taught courses including “Society and the Sexes in Early Modern Europe,” as well as courses in 16th and 17th-century French history.

Many of her students went on to prestigious careers in the field.

Peter Sahlins, who earned his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1986 and is professor of history, emeritus, at the University of California-Berkeley, said Davis was the reason he came to Princeton for his graduate studies.

“I first met Natalie in the late 1970s when she lectured at Harvard University, as I was searching for a career path,” said Sahlins, who earned his bachelor’s at Harvard in 1979. “Within 15 minutes,  she convinced me to become a historian and to study with her at Princeton. Brilliant, generous, eternally loyal, Natalie was an engaged and committed teacher and scholar whose breathless 6 a.m. telephone calls from the airport, having read my chapter, were actually cherished.”

The two stayed in touch for decades. “Natalie shaped my identity as an historian and teacher, but I was not alone,” he said. “Her scholarship transformed the field of early modern history, and her unrivaled ability to connect and to mentor changed hundreds of lives.”

In 1983, she received Princeton's Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities. She served as president of the American Historical Association in 1987 and on the selection committee of the Guggenheim Foundation starting in 1988.

She received her National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony in 2003 and also returned to campus that year to receive an honorary degree at Commencement. The citation read, in part: “Supremely gifted, she has made giving a way of life. She gives of herself to students, colleagues, friends, readers and viewers in the vast public touched by her words and moved by her spirit. She has made ‘the gift’ a subject of study along with such an array of other themes that her scholarship extends across the full range of the human arts and sciences. Not content to write about women on the margins, she has guided them to the center of university life; and she has enriched the university by opening it up to talent and ideas beyond the confines of disciplines and conventions.”

Davis served on the editorial boards of many scholarly publications, including the Journal of Social History, Comparative Studies in Society and History, History and Memory, and Literature and History. She was member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the British Academy, among many other honors. Named Chevalier des Palmes Academiques by the French government in 1976, she held honorary degrees from 20 institutions.

Davis was born in Detroit in 1928. A 1949 graduate of Smith College, she earned her master’s at Radcliffe College in 1950 and her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 1959. She joined the Princeton faculty after teaching at Brown University, York University, and the University of Toronto and the University of California-Berkeley.

She is survived by a son, Aaron Davis; two daughters, Hannah Taïeb and Simone Davis; a brother, Stanley Zemon; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Donations in Davis’ honor may be made to Medecins san Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).

View or share comments on a memorial page intended to honor Davis’ life and legacy.