Natalie Zemon Davis, an 81-year-old history professor at U of T, has received the prestigious Holberg International Memorial Prize. The Holberg is awarded for excellence in law, theology, the arts, humanities, or social sciences. It is worth over $768,000.
Davis has been called one of the most creative historians writing today and praised for her multi-faceted approach to the study of history, which includes politics, class, gender, folklore, and personal identity.
Some of her most notable works are those of “micro-history.” The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) is about an imposter living in a village in the 16th century. Trickster Travels (2006) features a Muslim, Leo Africanus, living in Christian Italy in the 16th century after being kidnapped by Christian pirates, and explores ideas of cross-cultural communication.
Davis took some time to chat with The Varsity about her narrative approach to history and how she ended up meeting science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.
The Varsity: The award committee cited your narrative approach to history. Can you tell me about that approach and why it is important for the kind of historical stories you tell?
ND: My work has quite a range and some of it is narrative in the sense that it’s storytelling. Some of the books I’ve written have been more thematic. I did a book on gift-giving in the 16th century and though there were lots of stories along the way in the book, the narrative was a developmental narrative on the topic of gifts.
I try very hard to make people come alive in the writing, because I feel I owe it to them to see the world, to see it as they saw it, and I owe it to my readers to make it accessible.
TV: Can you tell me a bit more about your cross-discipline approach? What inspired you to have this inclusive history?
ND: I was doing social history, which tried to bring in a social economic dimension. I wasn’t doing the story of states or a kingship, I was doing a story about working people and their attitude to the Protestant Reformation to start off with, and right from the very start the economic life of these artisans and their thought about religion had to be part of the story. So it started out in a way that was already interdisciplinary.
In the early ’70s, I got really interested in anthropology. I had certain kinds of problems dealing with rituals of working people and things that happened in carnival that I couldn’t make sense of with the kind of rational theory from standard economic history or standard social history.
The final thing was when I got interested in literature and narrative, so looking at historical sources in a new way. Often when historians look at a text they decide “is this really from the 16th century?” and so on, and then they extract the meaning of the text. What I started to do was pay attention to the way they told the story.
The Varsity: You mentioned that you are writing about slavery in Dutch colonies. What other future projects do you have planned?
ND: [Laughs] That’s a challenging book, the one about slaves in Suriname, it’s going to take me a little while to finish that, because I’m doing it stubbornly once again. I am telling two family stories in which I bring in everything. One is a family over four generations, which starts with the African great-grandfather and goes through the daughter slave, the granddaughter slave, and the great-grandson that is manumitted. Then I am telling a second story in the same colony through a set of Jewish plantation owners. This is a real challenge I have given myself, not just doing these general patterns, which I could do tomorrow, but this story through these lives.
I have another one of these “crossing boundary people” that I want to write about, another micro-story. In this case, a Romanian Jewish French folk linguist who lived in the 19th century.
TV: Your husband, Chandler Davis, is a retired mathematician and also a writer—he wrote for Astounding Science Fiction.
ND: Yes, he’s a science fiction writer, that’s correct!
TV: Has he continued that work? How did he get involved in that?
ND: He has been a fan since he was a teenager and started writing things in college, and started publishing things in the ’50s. There is going to be a book coming out in the spring with some of his stories and some of his occasional political writings, and that’s already out of the boards.
He wrote for Astounding and then later for Galaxy. When I first met him, I was a historian, I wasn’t into science fiction. He introduced me to Isaac Asimov and Ted Sturgeon.
TV: What was it like meeting Isaac Asimov and Ted Sturgeon?
ND: Isaac Asimov and his wife were just wonderful. Ted Sturgeon was a rather a poetic type. Then Judy Merril, she was very friendly with Chan and I knew her too. [Merril was a science fiction writer, known as “the little mother of science fiction.”] She founded the science fiction library.
TV: I know. I go there a lot, since I’m a huge fan of science fiction.
ND: This is just an interesting coincidence. I rushed to the library to find out who Holberg was after winning the prize. Ludwig Holberg was an absolutely fascinating man. The government of Norway founded this [prize], but Holberg died in 1758 and he was a polymath. His greatest specialty was as a historian.
I was quite tickled by this because wonderful people have won this prize and I admire them all so much, but none of them have been a historian first and foremost. Holberg was first and foremost a historian, but he also wrote memoirs, poems, and science fiction! He wrote Journey to the Centre of the Earth [not to be confused with the Jules Verne book of the same name], which he wrote first in Latin and then translated into Norwegian.