Notes from History's Margins

Natalie Zemon Davis will be awarded the 2010 Holberg International Memorial Prize on June 9 for the way in which her work "shows how particular events can be narrated and analyzed so as to reveal deeper historical tendencies and underlying patterns of thought and action."

Davis describes her work as anthropological in nature. Rather than tell the political story of a time and place, concentrating on an elite narrative, Davis' work is often from the point of view of those less likely to keep records of their lives. TAP spoke with Davis, an 81-year-old professor emerita of history at Princeton University and current adjunct professor of history at the University of Toronto, about her innovative approach to history.

You're known for focusing your research on subjects that are not frequently studied, such as the lives of individual women or members of the working class. What motivated you to study these subjects, and what are the difficulties unique to conducting this type of research?

One, I had my own background. I was from a Jewish family, not recent immigrants, but we were not from an elite American family. I myself had the experience of being what you might call part of an unstudied group. That was the first thing.

In high school, I was already very interested in the great ideals of the French Revolution, enlightenment, democracy, and so on. By the time I was in college, I was very interested in liberal left politics, and that made me interested, not exclusively in working-class people but in things that had to do with the people.

In terms of the challenges, when I first started back in the 1950s, people would say -- and they said the same about women, too -- they said, "Oh, you?re not going to be able to find anything in the archives. You're not going to be able to find anything." Well, that's the exciting challenge. You do find things in the archives. It's all over the place; you just have to know where to go to look. By the time I had got to work on women, which wasn't really until the 1970s, I was so used to people saying you couldn't find it that I didn?t even worry about it because I knew that you have to go to wills, you have to go to criminal cases, you have to go to apprenticeship records, you have to go to marriage contracts. Then there's all kinds of literary sources that you learn how to use. So the challenge has been a big one, but it?s one I love to face.

Even when I'm working on peasants or workers, learned people or upper-class people are part of the story because you always must tell a story in a relational way. Even when I looked at more elite people, I have always tried to include the others. I've tried to always do what I call a de-centered history. It doesn't just look at elite figures; it looks at networks and others.

Can you describe how your approach differs from traditional historical analysis?

My narratives were social-history narratives. I did a book in which the subject matter was gift giving, bribes, and corruption, the practices of gifts in 16th-century France. When I looked at it, I didn't take the political story as my main narrative. It was just one of the chapters. I looked at it in a more anthropological way, all the practices of gift giving among peasants: within families, between employer and servant. When I got to the government story, I had already looked at the ethnography of gifts and quarrels about gifts. So politics was just one aspect, rather than being the main line, of my history tale.

I tried also very hard to bring my people to life as much as I could, and that?s done by others as well. I tried to do it in a way that while grounded in scholarship, and in lots and lots of research, was not fictional. I tried to ask some of the questions that novelists might ask, but tried to answer them as a historian would.

How do you respond to criticisms that your narrative style is too speculative?

I still feel very, very strongly about grounding in evidence. I research everything I do very, very deeply.

The one thing that is connected with speculation is that I have high stakes when I do history. There are certain kinds of questions that I want to ask. If I'm working on slaves, as I am right now, I'm not going to have a diary. Most slaves are illiterate. I want to think not merely about the slaves' working hours or do an economic description of the slaves' production or do a report on the slaves' punishment, but if I want to know how the slaves react to that, how they react to their situation, how a slave woman reacts to a relationship, in some cases an enduring relationship, with a white freeman, if it's important to me to ask that, I've got to work very, very hard to try to find the evidence.

I don't want to just write a history in which I neglect the human reactions of my subjects. I ask questions that you can't always answer with certainty because you have to get the evidence somewhat indirectly. If you?re a historian and not a novelist, who can make things up, then you use a marker which is "perhaps" or "we may think that." You make it very clear that this is something that you think is very likely and that you want your reader to consider it. I think that in this way you expand the possibilities of thinking about the past.

The other thing I would say is that the most seemingly empirically minded and empirically based research in fact is often making similar interpretative leaps but doesn?t recognize it.

What can contemporary readers gain from studying the histories of these lesser-known individuals?

First of all, I would hope that they have a good time, the way I do, that they find it fascinating to see how other people lived, in some ways very differently from our way, in some ways they might have some leap of recognition.

Secondly, I feel that my work shows that even in very, very difficult circumstances, tragic circumstances, circumstances where people have behaved with passionate cruelty, there are ways that people have survived, have tried to find ways to invent or improvise to at least survive and maybe to try to make things a little bit better for those around them. That feature of human life is something that is worth remembering when we face our own challenges. There are no automatic lessons from the past but the possibilities that the past shows both of tragic loss and constant struggle but also of survival and improvisation.