The late History Professor Natalie Zemon Davis, who passed away this year, taught at UC Berkeley for six years. But in this short period of time, she made a lasting impact on many scholars. “In particular, for the students with whom she interacted,” says a Berkeley History alum, who recently donated seed money to start an endowment in Professor Davis’ name.
When the donor first met Professor Davis, her scholarship focused on the history of women, the sexes and gender. “She was deeply engaged in giving voice to the disempowered within the historical scope of early modern European culture and society,” says the donor, who wishes to remain anonymous. As the years went by, Professor Davis continued to expand her historical lens out into the Atlantic and beyond.
“Given the widening scope of her work and knowing that she was approaching the end of her life, I asked her directly what she wanted an endowment that I was planning to create in her honor to encompass," the donor said. "Following clearly articulated wishes she conveyed to me just a few weeks before she passed away, the endowment will support student and faculty research, workshops, and seminars related to the history of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, including their connections with other peoples and societies.”
The donor's generous support established the Natalie Zemon Davis Endowment to continue to contribute to Professor Davis' far-seeing historical vision. Below is our conversation with the donor, in which she shares more about her experiences at UC Berkeley and the legacy that Professor Davis left behind.
Tell us more about your relationship with Professor Davis—how it started and continued since then; what did you and other students find inspiring in her as an educator?
One crisp fall day in 1972, I found myself walking down Sproul Plaza with some other graduate students and a new professor who had recently joined the faculty, Natalie Zemon Davis. I had heard that she was a practitioner of what was then called the “new social history” and wanted to know more about her and what she taught. In animated conversation, Natalie described a course that she was planning for the following year. She was calling it “Society and the Sexes in Early Modern Europe.” The significance of the title became clear as time went on: it was one of the first courses in the U.S. not only to examine the history of the sexes but also to insist on studying historical men’s and women’s lives and experiences in tandem.
I became a “reader” for the course, which meant happily imbibing her many perspectives on an increasingly visible and important subject: the constraints and possibilities that operated in the lives of early modern European women in relation to power, culture, and religion. Natalie built her lectures upon an array of primary as well as secondary sources, both historical and theoretical. In detailed and graphic ways, Natalie revealed the everyday lives of ordinary people, including artisans, merchants, and peasants from centuries ago. She showed slide images of women and men that she had gathered from broadside literature, artworks, prescriptive writing, and sermons. She taught her students how to compare these figurations to the historical realities of people’s everyday life by sharing her own archival research. In these ways, Natalie gave voice to the concerns and struggles of ordinary people and helped explain the underlying beliefs that motivated their actions.
During this same period, I joined Natalie’s advanced graduate seminar, which focused on aspects of early modern social and cultural history that earlier generations of historians had ignored or misinterpreted. She asked each of us to choose a topic of study related to hospitals, domestic service, the provisioning of restaurants and taverns, childbirth and midwifery, or prostitution. She introduced us to the French Annales School of social history that explored long historical shifts and structures as well as mentalités over the longue durée. She also helped us see how folklore, anthropology, art history, and literary theory could inform our work—as it did hers.
When I headed to the French archives to do my own dissertation research, I was a very naïve and inexperienced young woman who did not really know what to expect to find. I had never been in an archive nor had I mastered sixteenth-century handwriting! Gradually and with the help of the head archivist in the municipal archives of Lyon, I learned to read and interpret many different hands while also learning about the power dynamics that the minutes of the city council meetings revealed and the kinds of challenges the city fathers confronted during turbulent times whether due to the devastation caused by frequent waves of plague; religious disorder; or conflict among and between the various guilds.
Always on the lookout for her graduate students, Natalie insisted that I meet two members of a Lyonnais family with whom she had lived when she had been doing research for her own thesis, twenty years before. I, too, then lived with this family for several months while doing research in the archives. Their hospitality made my stay in Lyon richer and fuller and led to life-long friendships. My French also improved much more than if I had lived alone!
I corresponded with Natalie throughout my séjour to report on the progress I was making in my research; she took time to respond with detailed advice. This very personal and caring approach, made me ever more diligent in my work. In her letters to me, Natalie would suggest where to look for the materials I was seeking and how to approach the various archivists and scholars I encountered. She generously shared her thoughts about the significance of what I found in notarial, criminal and hospital records as well as seeing me through the arduous process of writing a doctoral thesis.
After I finished my Ph.D., Natalie and I continued to correspond as well as to see each other, particularly on special occasions. She managed to be present at my wedding and even to visit me when I had very young children. Over the years, we continued to communicate by letter and phone in the earlier days, and then, more recently, by email. At one point, she connected me with an editor of “The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe,” which at the time was the only scholarly series that published early modern women’s writings. The gift of that connection not only brought me years of fulfilling and collaborative scholarly research but also made audible the voice of yet another early modern woman for a modern English-language readership. The skills I acquired by researching and writing this volume were invaluable as were the scholarly connections it created. Really, it was the chance of a lifetime; one that I could never have had without Natalie’s support and contacts.
What drove Professor Davis' interest in the study of women, gender and the historically disempowered? How did that reflect on her values and her interactions with you and others?
By placing ordinary people—especially but not exclusively women—at the center of her research and writing, Natalie influenced how history is written. She explored the human condition in all of its complexity and from different viewpoints—including those of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and of Muslims, Jews, and Christians from a wide spectrum of social classes—in order to understand their underlying assumptions and beliefs and their impact on their behavior. She cared deeply about peace and social justice; she hoped that by shedding light on what she called “braided history,” humanity would find more ways to resolve conflict without resorting to violent conflict or enslavement in any and all of its forms.
In 1980, Natalie wrote that the historian’s task is "to show that even when times are very difficult, men and women have found a way to face what was happening and perhaps to resist. I want the men and women of today to be able to connect with the past by considering the tragedies and sufferings, the cruelties and hatreds, but also the hopes, the love and the beauty of the departed. I am interested in the cracks and fractures that shake societies and force us to change things. I want to be a historian of hope. Natalie’s search for hope and positive change in both calm and troubled times inspired many students, including myself to follow her lead. My hope is that the Natalie Zemon Davis Endowment will allow others in academe to contribute to Natalie’s mission.
To learn more about supporting the history department at UC Berkley, please reach out to Anya Essiounina