Natalie Zemon Davis: How the FBI Turned Me On to Rare Books

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Natalie Zemon Davis is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton and Professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. She is the author most recently of Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds. (May 2008)

My passion for history has been life-long: an unending fascination with the past and its meanings for us in our own time. Within that frame, I’ve had several turnings as I tried to give voice to people often ignored in the great historical narratives. Let me take as an example an event that seemed at first like a downturn.

The year was 1952. I had spent six months in France doing the first research for my PhD thesis on “Protestantism and the Printing Workers of Lyon.” I was trying to explore the Reformation from the vantage point of artisans, rather than just that of the theologians like Luther and Calvin and the great princes. To find evidence about working people, many of whom are illiterate, you have to go to archives: to government lists, and church records, to criminal prosecutions and marriage contracts. I came back to Ann Arbor with packets of three-by-five cards filled with the names of Protestant pressmen and typesetters and other artisans—people who were finding ways to disguise Protestant tracts so they could get by the eyes of the Inquisitors and mocking the Catholic clergy in popular songs. I planned to go back to France after I took my general exams....



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