Award-wining historian Natalie Zemon Davis talks to American Prospect

Historians in the News

Natalie Zemon Daviswill be awarded the 2010 Holberg International Memorial Prize on June 9 for the way in which her work "shows how particular events can be narrated and analyzed so as to reveal deeper historical tendencies and underlying patterns of thought and action."

Davis describes her work as anthropological in nature. Rather than tell the political story of a time and place, concentrating on an elite narrative, Davis' work is often from the point of view of those less likely to keep records of their lives. TAP spoke with Davis, an 81-year-old professor emerita of history at Princeton University and current adjunct professor of history at the University of Toronto, about her innovative approach to history.

You're known for focusing your research on subjects that are not frequently studied, such as the lives of individual women or members of the working class. What motivated you to study these subjects, and what are the difficulties unique to conducting this type of research?

One, I had my own background. I was from a Jewish family, not recent immigrants, but we were not from an elite American family. I myself had the experience of being what you might call part of an unstudied group. That was the first thing.

In high school, I was already very interested in the great ideals of the French Revolution, enlightenment, democracy, and so on. By the time I was in college, I was very interested in liberal left politics, and that made me interested, not exclusively in working-class people but in things that had to do with the people.

In terms of the challenges, when I first started back in the 1950s, people would say -- and they said the same about women, too -- they said, "Oh, you?re not going to be able to find anything in the archives. You're not going to be able to find anything." Well, that's the exciting challenge. You do find things in the archives. It's all over the place; you just have to know where to go to look. By the time I had got to work on women, which wasn't really until the 1970s, I was so used to people saying you couldn't find it that I didn?t even worry about it because I knew that you have to go to wills, you have to go to criminal cases, you have to go to apprenticeship records, you have to go to marriage contracts. Then there's all kinds of literary sources that you learn how to use. So the challenge has been a big one, but it?s one I love to face....

Read entire article at The American Prospect

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