Publication Date

April 1, 2010

Perspectives Section


Natalie Zemon DavisNatalie Zemon Davis, a former president of the AHA, and one of the most distinguished and versatile historians of modern times, has been awarded the prestigious Holberg International Memorial Prize for 2010. She will receive the prize, which was established by the Norwegian Parliament in 2003, at a special ceremony to be held on June 9, 2010, in Bergen, Norway.

In conferring the award on Davis, the Holberg Prize Academic Committee declared:

“Natalie Zemon Davis is one of the most creative historians writing today, an intellectual who is not hostage to any particular school of thought or politics. Her writing is richly textured, multi-faceted and meticulously documented. She shows how particular events can be narrated and analyzed so as to reveal deeper historical tendencies and underlying patterns of thought and action. Her work brings gender to the fore, while insisting that the relationship between men and women is always embedded in the cultural discourses and social organizations specific to their time.

Davis’ imaginative approach to history, coupled with intensive archival research, makes the past come alive; her fundamental method is to pursue a dialogue between the past and the present. The uniqueness of her work lies in connecting early modern Europe with new areas of comparative history, exploring cultural, geographical and religious interchange.

Her current work examines slavery in Suriname through the lens of generational encounters and crossings between slave and free, black and white, and people of different religions.

Natalie Zemon Davis’s contribution has provided many opportunities for innovative cross-fertilization between disciplines. She writes beautifully and knows how to tell a story, while at the same time remaining scrupulous in handling her empirical sources. The creativity and fearlessness of her work have inspired many younger historians, encouraging them to follow their own curiosity. As she herself has said: ‘I want to be an historian of hope who makes people aware of possibilities in the future’.”

Davis is adjunct professor of history and professor of Medieval studies at the University of Toronto, and the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emerita at Princeton University. Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, she graduated from Smith College and then received her master’s degree at Radcliffe College in 1950. She received her PhD from the University of Michigan in 1959 and has since been awarded many honorary degrees. Her teaching career has taken her to Brown University, the University of Toronto, the University of California at Berkeley, and Princeton University. Davis was president of the American Historical Association for 1987, the second woman to hold the position. Her AHA presidential address, “History’s Two Bodies,” can be read online at

Davis is the author of several books, all of which demonstrate the immense range of her scholarship. Her first book, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (1975), which emphasizes the dynamics of change and the agency of the individual, is widely acknowledged as path-breaking. The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) demonstrated to a broader public how an individual event in early modern France could illuminate overall mentalities and cultural contexts. Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (1987) analyzed the “fictional” character of legal documents, including first person testimonies. The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France (2000) used the notion of “gifting” to illuminate the intricate forms of pre-market exchange and reciprocity. It has been called a model of historical anthropology.Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (1995) and Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim between Worlds (2006) focus on individuals who belonged to different religions or moved between different societies, exploring the translation and transmission of cultures. Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision (2000) dealt with the changing reception and the alteration of historical material in contemporary film. A forthcoming book (to be published in May 2010),A Passion for History, sets out—in conversations with Denis Crouzet—Natalie Davis’s views on history, its methods, and philosophies.

The Holberg Prize, currently worth $785,000, is awarded annually by the Board of the Ludvig Holberg Memorial Fund for outstanding scholarly work in the academic fields of the arts and humanities, social sciences, law and theology. As the recipient of the 2010 Holberg Prize, Natalie Zemon Davis will join a small, but brilliant galaxy of previous laureates: Ian Hacking (2009), Fredric R. Jameson (2008), Ronald Dworkin (2007), Shmuel N. Eisenstadt (2006), Jürgen Habermas (2005), and Julia Kristeva (2004).

—Based on a press release from the Holberg Prize office and material on the prize web site at

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