History as human experience: Natalie Zemon Davis

Professor Natalie Zemon Davis

As mentioned in comments to the last post about the interviews in Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke’s The New History, one of the others is with Natalie Zemon Davis. It’s clear from the interview that she and Dr Pallares-Burke got on, and she presents an insistently personal attachment to her subjects and field. She has an impressively active radical personal history, as well as a fairly impressive bibliography, and comes over as feeling strongly about justice and injustice as well as about history. Several things she said also chimed with this blog’s regular preoccupations, so I thought I’d make sure that was registered.1

Pallares-Burke’s introduction says that, “Her message to historians and the general public is that the study of the past can be seen as a lesson in hope, because it shows that, however domineering society may be, there are always alternatives open for people to make their own history. ‘No matter how static and despairing the present looks, the past reminds us that change can occur.'”2 For all that it chimes with my own concentration on historical figures as agents of change, that seems almost naïve to me, and it must be said that Professor Davis doesn’t actually say it in the interview. What she does say is actually more interesting, and it comes out in a question where she is asked about studying groups from outside or inside. She gives the example of reading Nazi literature in order to better understand the Holocaust, and argues that you have to avoid taking a judgmental perspective, such as we were discussing here a short while ago, even when dealing with the sources that sit least well with your own morals, partly because of their obvious explanatory value, but partly because they open your mind to the range of human possibility. This seems to be what she thinks is the real purpose of history, as a window or a mirror for the breadth of what being a human being can mean, a real literature of human experience. I can certainly see that point, and it does justify the incredibly deep work that she’s done on communities in Lyons, for example, but there must be quite a lot of work that it fails to justify because we already knew humans did this. So it may work for her but it leaves general history and survey works struggling rather, doesn’t it?

The other thing that she said that did resonate, though, did so for wrong reasons. She was asked about how she’d adapted to criticism of her work, and replied that, among other things, it showed how much you had to repeat a point before it actually got through to readers. I’ve always felt that not getting your point across is a bit of a failing of writing by the author, but I’ve certainly had reviews where the reviewer says that I should have said something about such and such or made such and such a point, and I rather thought I had. My lesson from this is always, ‘well, that needs to be clearer I suppose’, but it was comfortingly galling, if that’s not paradoxical, to see someone else finding that their reviewers just hadn’t read the damn text closely enough…

Searching for the links for this post reveals, also, that the one I’m talking about is not the only interview Professor Davies has done, so if you want a flavour of the woman’s words yourself, you can hie yourself to medievalists.net where another one is up.


1. Natalie Zemon Davis, interview with María Lucía Pallares-Burke, London, November 1998, ed. Pallares-Burke as “Natalie Zemon Davis” in eadem, The New History: confessions and conversations (Cambridge 2002), pp. 50-79.

2. Pallares-Burke, “Natalie Zemon Davis”, p. 53.

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2 responses to “History as human experience: Natalie Zemon Davis

  1. The one and only real purpose of history?

  2. Well, I’m unsure. As I say in the post, if micro-history intended to focus on extraordinary boundary-pushing humans is where it’s at, what purpose does that leave for grand sweep or survey work, or even institutional history? Is the job of most historians just to provide context for the micro-historians? One of the questions Dr Pallares-Burke asks several of the interviewees in this book, including Dr Davis, is to respond to a critique of John Elliot that “there is something very wrong when the name of Martin Guerre is better known than that of Martin Luther”. The best replies are along the lines of saying that good micro-history has to connect to a wider field so as to tell us anything. I’m not sure Dr Davis would say that this was necessary, but the wider field has to be there for micro-history to have meaning. The book I’m working on has a cast of possibly hundreds of incidental people who appear in charters, and about whom we basically know nothing. They have names and I try and find them space when they turn up in something larger that I am talking about, because I wonder, and perhaps the reader will too, what this priest called Espirs who seems to have founded a village but then sold it in several parts to a local viscount was like, and what made him decide to do that. But I wouldn’t give Espirs the space had he not dealt with that Viscount, because the viscount is part of something bigger. I don’t have a Martin Guerre in my material, the best early medieval material won’t sustain more than an article about non-noble families I think. But the people are there anyway, and I want to rescue them from total obscurity, but really, I’m not writing a liber memorialis, I’m trying to say something about the functioning of power in early medieval society. My subjects have got to fit the agenda to access the record, unfortunate though that be. The validity of their own experience can’t be the sole criterion, because we also need history to function on a scale which gives us a framework for understanding my subjects’ lives as well as someone about whom there survives as much material as the two Martin Guerres managed to leave behind them.

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