Natalie Zemon Davis has spent a lifetime showing history is far more than kings, queens, wars and politics.
History is peasants, artisans, actors, Catholic nuns, Jewish linguists.
It is the enslaved man in Suriname seeking emancipation; the 16th-century woman willingly accepting an imposter husband; the kidnapped-by-pirates Muslim convert to Christianity whose writings sculpted medieval Europeans’ view of African geography.
Davis – who at age 92 continues to research, write and make history – is to be awarded an honorary doctorate from Western during fall convocation.
The honorary degree from Western will be conferred to Davis on Friday, Oct. 22 in one of three virtual convocation ceremonies that will also see the graduation of about 3,000 students. (See more complete convocation details below.)
From the beginning of a career that has spanned almost seven decades, Davis has been interested in illuminating historical people, themes and patterns others have often overlooked.
“I think of history as the path that shapes us, shapes all people. That’s the delight in it – it’s something that’s both close to home but can lead you, and ought to lead you, far afield,” Davis said.
She examines how ordinary and extraordinary people move within and between worlds. How ritual, race and religion intersect and sometimes collide.
Her scholarship has shaped the study of history around the world.
Davis has been lauded nationally and internationally: in Norway, with the Holberg International Memorial Prize in 2010; in Canada, with the Companion of the Order of Canada in 2012; in the U.S., with the National Humanities Medal in 2013; and with scores of honorary degrees.
“I’m deeply moved by receiving them. This may sound strange, but I don’t take them personally, I take them socially – that is, I am happy if my life’s work stands for something useful for other people. If my example can be useful to others, I’m so glad and I’m grateful for that opportunity.”
The diversity of stories and experiences that runs through Davis’s historical narratives also runs through her life.
Born in Detroit to a middle-class Jewish family, she married mathematician professor and fiction writer Chandler Davis, a political activist who in the 1950s challenged the constitutionality of the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee that perceived a communist threat in every corner. He was jailed for six months, fired by his university and blackballed from academia in the U.S.
The family moved to Canada in the 1960s to continue their work and lives. In 1987, Davis became only the second woman president of the American Historical Association. Now, after decades of writing books, articles and holding professorships at prestigious universities in North America, Natalie Zemon Davis is rounding out her career associated with the departments of history and medieval studies at University of Toronto.
All of that is shorthand for an extraordinary life as scholar, feminist, mother, wife, humanist and activist – as a person who exemplifies the academic ideal of learning how to think widely and act wisely.
“I embrace all those roles – those things I was born into, or that I chose – as giving me resources, not limits, and a way to go live and to live in the world. I think of myself mostly as a fellow human being, with shared humanity.”
Dialogue with history
Davis said she has learned so much about political, social and cultural life in every discovery she has made through obscure archival documents and other primary sources.
History is dialogue, she said, a discourse among people of the present and their counterparts from the past. “I strongly believe we all have our own history, but we should also read other people’s and they should be critical, back and forth.”
And to those who may be indifferent to historical disciplines, she urged a second look. “It doesn’t have to be practical to begin with, it’s just so much fun to read and discover things you never knew.”
History is also instructive, even if the present can never be a replica of the past. “When I say you can learn from history, it’s only in a general sense of getting insights or suggestions, possibilities. I think it’s worth studying for the possibilities that cast light on the present.”
Virtual Convocation details:
Western is celebrating graduating students through a virtual fall convocation beginning at 7 p.m. EST on Friday, Oct. 22. Three degree-specific, pre-recorded ceremonies will be posted online on Western’s fall convocation 2021 page, allowing graduates, their families and loved ones to watch the ceremony that applies to them, whenever they like. Each ceremony will include celebratory music by Convocation Brass, with administration and faculty on stage, and remarks from this year’s honorary degree recipients.
An orator will read out each graduating student’s name, which will also be featured on individually displayed slides throughout the ceremony. Approximately 3,000 graduating students will then join 328,000 Western alumni from more than 160 countries. Graduates will receive their parchments by mail.