Natalie Zemon Davis giving a talk in
Cole Assembly Room, May 22, 2005.
Photo by Frank Ward
2005 Honorary Degree Recipients
Natalie Zemon Davis
Doctor of Humane Letters
Natalie Zemon Davis is an innovative historian, widely regarded as a fearless scholar, a talented teacher and an outstanding mentor. A leading social historian who focuses especially on previously neglected areas, she uses nontraditional source material (including bank documents and travel records) and unusual genres (including fiction and film) to reshape our understanding of the past.
Davis’s work leaves open the possibility of multiple and mutually inconsistent truths. By focusing on unfamiliar subjects and previously untold stories, Davis’ scholarship reminds us that there is no universal experience, no single way of interpreting that which has come before. In these new insights, there is optimism. “No matter how static and despairing the present looks, the past reminds us that change can occur,” she has said. “At least things can be different. The past is an unending source of interest, and can even be a source of hope.”
Davis is perhaps best known as the author of The Return of Martin Guerre, but she has written widely, and always across disciplinary boundaries, on a range of topics, especially 16th-century France. She currently is working on a book about cultural mixture.
Although she works outside the constraints of traditional subjects, sources and style, Davis has been recognized at the highest levels of her profession. She is a past president of the American Historical Association, and the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies annually presents a prize named for her.
Davis studied at Smith and Radcliffe, then received her Ph.D. degree from the University of Michigan. The Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emerita at Princeton University, she is currently Adjunct Professor of History and Medieval Studies and a Senior Fellow at the University of Toronto.