Natalie Zemon Davis is the winner of Holberg memorial prize 2010. (Photo: Guri Gunnes Oppegård)
Facts/ Natalie Zemon Davis
* Natalie Zemon Davis is Professor of History and Professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. She is also an emeritus professor of history at Princeton University.
* She completed her doctorate at the University of Michigan in 1959. Davis has received many honours and has taught at a number of universities, including Brown University, the University of Toronto, Berkley and Princeton University.
* Davis was president of the American Historical Association in 1987. She is the second woman to hold this position.
* Her first book Society and Culture in Early Modern France (1975) widely acclaimed as a pioneering work, underlines the dynamics of change and the ability of the individual to take action.
* The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) showed a wide audience how a single occurrence in early modern France can illustrate general ways of thinking and cultural contexts.
* Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (1987), explores the fictive character of legal documents, including first person testimonies.
* The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France (2000) uses the idea of gifting to analyze complicated forms of exchange and reciprocity in pre-modern society, and is considered exemplary historical anthropology.
* In Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (1995) and Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim between Worlds (2006) Davis explores cultural exchanges and relocation by focusing on individuals who had different religious connections or who moved between different communities.
* Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision (2000) looks at changes in reception and re-interpretation of historical material in contemporary films.
Professor Natalie Zemon Davis is fascinated by individual stories and hopes that these stories can teach us that there is always someone who dares to criticise inhumanity. She is the recipient of the Holberg Prize.
By Guri Gunnes Oppegård
Professor Natalie Zemon Davis greets På Høyden with her usual friendly smile and several questions about Bergen, about the university and about the marvellous springtime.
Her eyes sparkle when she tells of her fascination for individual stories and the gratitude she feels towards the people who wrote their stories down.
Because without all of these books, all of the documents and notarial records, I wouldnt have become a historian, says Natalie Zemon Davis and smiles again.
Read Ida Bloms chronicle on Davis (in norwegian)
Natalie Zemon Davis is Professor of History and Professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada. She is also an emeritus professor of history at Princeton University and has an impressive research career behind her. She defines herself as a social and cultural historian. She has studied early modern French history and Western Europe, North Africa and the Caribbean. Thematically, she has tackled social and religious conflict, gifts and bribes, story-telling and festivity.
But its not the power of the middle and upper classes that spark Davis curiosity.
I choose people that are not part of the power structure, but workers such as artisans, farmers and women women from all walks of life. During the last twenty years, my focus has changed from just being interested in the working people of Europe to trying to see everything in perspective from a larger part of the world. I have expanded the geological area for my research, because I dont just want to study history as seen from a European viewpoint, she says.
Not a western point of view A story about three women would radically contribute to changing Zemon Davis standpoint. In the book Women on the Margins: three seventeenth-century lives, she writes about the lives of a Jewish woman, a Catholic woman and a Protestant woman who lived around the year 1600. Two of the women travelled to America, one as a missionary to Quebec, Canada and the other as a botanist and entomologist, to the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America.
I had previously told my tales within a western framework, mainly because my subjects lived in Europe. It was not until I began working on the book about the three women in the early 90s, that I changed course and started to think about exploring history from another perspective than that of Europe, says Davis.
The Botanist Maria de lincarnation used African and Indian slaves to collect flowers and insects in Surinam. Davis began to look for the slaves story. She wasnt satisfied with describing how the slaves were regarded by their employers, but wanted to find out what the slaves thought about Maria de lincarnation and her botanical project.
This was an important change of course for me. Even when I write about Europe, as I am doing now, I dont think of myself as bound by European categories and history. I try to see history in a broader perspective, says Davis.
Window on the past Individual stories fascinate Davis and she doesnt attempt to hide the fact. The magnificent archives in Surinam originating from the plantations of the 1600s, would prove to hide stories such as the one about the African slave with a European lover and the one about the descendent of a Jewish settler who attained an important position in the Dutch colony.
But it is the context and what we can learn, about how people lived in the past, which make the stories worth telling.
Some of my work explores the various behavioural patterns of the individuals that I used as subjects. In the book about the exchanging of gifts (The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France) I had hundreds of examples. I saw the exchanging of gifts as a motive and examined the phenomenon from all angles the exchanging of gifts between like-minded people, between friends, between master and servant, between king and citizen. The aim was to use the exchanging of gifts as a framework, and at the same time give a picture of France, as the exchanging of gifts was such an important part of society, says Davis.
She believes that exemplifying the complexity of general theories is important if people are to understand what generalisation is. Because they can see something in detail, how it is transformed and brings folk to life. Like a window on the past.
Crossing Cultures Much of Davis research during the last twenty years has involved culture crossing. The Balkan wars during the first half of the 1990s were instrumental in awakening this interest.
I started with projects that circled around cultural mixes and cultural crossovers around 1995, partly because I lived in a time and still do when boundaries regarding ethnicity, religion and identity were very strong. The same applies to the demand for an absolute identity, says Davis and raises her hands in resignation.
But people have so many identities. There is a constant crossing of identities in each an every one of us.
The Balkan war and the conflict in the Middle East became the framework for finding historical examples of people who crossed borders.
I was interested in this in relation to a broader cultural situation. I am not naïve; I know that some of these situations generate enormous violence. But I tried to explain that this was not the entire story, says Davis.
Amongst all of the tales that arose from the past, was the tale of the three women. One of them led her to the Surinam of the 1800s.
I decided that I had to come back to Surinam, when working on Maria de lincarnation. This is a fantastic place, with marvellous sources that stem from the plantations. I knew that there was fantastic material to be found here, says Davis.
How do you think society can learn from your work?
First of all, I hope that people will find the stories as interesting as I have. I write partly to share my own fascination regarding humanbeings. Look what they have achieved! Perhaps the stories can make a suggestion as to how we ought to behave. Just a suggestion. History doesnt always repeat itself, stresses Davis and continues:
When times are difficult, its important to remember that there is always someone willing to criticise, willing to talk about inhumanity and try to resist these forces. We can learn from the stories of others and use them as a foundation for understanding our global world, and gain knowledge about our own past and that of others, and learn about hope! The mind - the spirit that mankind is capable of criticism when criticism is necessary will never die, says Davis.
Will share generously Cabinet minister Tora Aasland presented the Holberg International Memorial Prize for 2010 to Natalie Zemon Davis in Håkons Hall. The prize winner believes that this distinction is recognition of the way in which she researches history.
I dont just feel thankful for myself, I am also happy for other scientists that study history like I do. I am not a historian who says that mine is the only correct method. But I think this method is brilliant! It means a lot that this method receives recognition, including the gender research that I do, and research regarding working people and non-europeans, says Davis.
Davis creative and intrepid work has inspired many young historians to be inquisitive. Davis thanks the Holberg Committee for the prize, and wishes to use some of the prize money to support various important projects, in the spirit of peace and tolerance, which she believes the Holberg Prize represents.
I will use some of the money to help young students. I am therefore extremely grateful to be given the opportunity to be more generous than I am normally able to be, with my pension, says Natalie Zemon Davis.