U of T community mourns loss of renowned social historian, Natalie Zemon Davis

October 26, 2023 by A&S News

The University of Toronto is mourning the loss of Natalie Zemon Davis, a renowned social historian who brought to life the lesser-known lives of workers, women and peasants. She passed away on October 21 at age 94.

A Professor Emerita of History, Zemon Davis was featured in a New York Times article celebrating her life and accomplishments that includes more than half a century of path-breaking scholarship.

Known internationally for her extensive archival research, Zemon Davis chose not to focus on the history of royalty or aristocrats but rather on populations previously ignored by historians — workers, peasants, women and outsiders. Her work originally focused on France, but later broadened to include other parts of Europe, North America and the Caribbean.

Considered a trailblazer, Zemon Davis was one of the first female professors in the humanities at U of T and a mentor to a generation of historians. In addition, her teaching career took her to Brown University, the University of California at Berkeley, and Princeton University. Zemon Davis was also president of the American Historical Association in 1987, the second woman to hold the position.

In addition to her teaching, Zemon Davis was a prolific writer, with more than a dozen books and essay collections.

Her best-known book, The Return of Martin Guerre (1983), is the story of a 16th-century French peasant who abandoned his wife and lands — and later returns to discover an imposter has taken his place. The book generated worldwide attention and was translated into more than twenty languages. (A year earlier, she consulted on the French movie of the same title.)

Her book of essays, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (1975), is regarded as a landmark in historical anthropology and the history of women and gender. It combined her intensive archival research with the study of cultural rituals, violent chapters of religious wars and social work of women’s religious groups.

For her tremendous contributions to academic scholarship, Zemon Davis received several honorary degrees from universities around the world, including Harvard University, Yale University, the University of Edinburgh, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and others.

And among her many accolades and prizes, she was awarded the prestigious Holberg Prize established by the Norwegian parliament in 2010 and was named Companion of the Order of Canada in 2012.

In 2013, she received the National Humanities Medal from then U.S. President Barak Obama.

“The President spoke of the humanities and hope, and his words rang in my ears as he put the medal around my neck, for I have tried my best to be not only a truth-teller about the past, but also to be a historian of hope," said Zemon Davis in an interview with the Faculty of Arts & Science that year.

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