Interview with Natalie Zemon Davis

Natalie Zemon Davis is a Professor of History (Emeritus) at Princeton University and currently teaches at the University of Toronto.  She has written nine books and over eighty articles, many of which focus on the social and cultural history of 16th century France.  Her latest work is Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds, which tells the story of al-Hasan al-Wazzan, a diplomat for the Sultan of Fez who was captured by pirates in 1518, and imprisoned by Pope Leo X.  When he converted to Christianity, al-Hasan was released and given a new name: Leo Africanus.  For the next decade Leo lived in Italy and worked with Christian scholars.  It was during this time that he wrote his Description of Africa, a famous text that would be reprinted throughout Europe.  Davis’ book retraces al-Hasan’s/Leo’s life and how he was able to bridge the two different worlds of Islamic Africa and Christian Europe.

We interviewed Professor Davis by email:

You first encountered the Description of Africa over forty years ago.  What was it about this text that interested you and when did you decide that you wanted to further explore the life of its author?


I first came across the Africa book of “Leo Africanus” when I was finishing my graduate work in the late 1950s.  I saw the 1556 French edition, Historiale Description de l’Afrique, at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.  My thesis was on the Protestant Printing Workers of Lyon, and the translator and publisher of the Historiale Description was one of those Protestants.  At the time I was simply curious about the taste of the translator, about the interest of Europeans in a book about Africa, and I was struck by the illustrations of an imagined Africa added to the book by the translator’s brother. But my focus on a new kind of local social history—one that would deepen our understanding of the social and cultural meanings of the Reformation in France—would not have led me to explore a figure like “Leo Africanus.”  He seemed too remote, too on the margins of the French social and religious experience I wanted to open up; the study of the menu people in Europe had hardly begun.

In 1995, when I got interested in exploring the Africa book and “Leo Africanus” in depth, the world and the field of historical inquiry had changed a great deal.  I had just finished my Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives – about the Jewish merchant Glikl, the Catholic religious Marie de l’Incarnation, and the Protestant artist-entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian—and I had followed the latter two across the Atlantic Ocean to encounters with the indigenous peoples of Québec, for the former, and with African and Indian slaves in Suriname, for the latter.  “Post-colonial” perspectives on encounters between Europeans and non-Europeans were becoming the order of the day.


I wanted to examine these relations in a new light, one that stressed forms of cultural crossing and communication, along with the more usual concerns about domination and resistance.  Here I was especially reacting to claims about pure and authentic identities and tight firm boundaries around a nation or a religion or an ethnicity or a gender.  It seemed to me that forms of mixture and multiple roles were more likely to be found in the historical record and in everyday common experience.

I remembered “Leo Africanus” and the Africa book.  By now, I began to think of him with the name in which he had been born in Granada and that he had during his years in Fez and as an ambassador throughout Africa and the Levant for the sultan of Fez: al-Hasan al-Wazzan al-Gharnati al-Fasi.  I could try to recreate his life during his Africa years, and then follow him in Italy after he was kidnapped by Christian pirates in 1518—-first as a prisoner in Rome, and then for seven years as a Christian convert writing books in Italian and Latin for European readers about the North African world and Islam in which he had grown up.

The big African manuscript was especially precious, but I used others as well, all but one of them versions of genres long established in Arabic writing: a biographical dictionary, a text on prosody, a multilingual dictionary and more.  In each case, I explored the writings for signs of his own cultural world, his mentality, and for the ways it had been changed by his years in Italy—- both through his incorporation of notions he had received in Italy (as in his use of certain European geographical terms not found in Arabic geographical writing) and through his adoption of writing strategies and “tricks” needed to sustain his double identity and vision—a Muslim curious about Christianity, a North African interested in exploring the world of Rome and Italy.

Your approach to a text like the Description of Africa tends to be different from most historians, as you will bring in a wider variety of knowledge, such as anthropology or literary theory, to help you analyze these sources.  How do you first approach a source and what kind of things do you look for as you read through them?


How do I approach a source?  I just look for every clue I can.  Of course, I follow the various leads in the content right off.  But I consider the genre in which the person is writing, the conventions he or she is expected to follow, or the rules for the writing of the document.  These rules may be literary, they may be legal (when I was working on the French letters of remission, the basis of the pardon tales in my Fiction in the Archives, the rules and expectations were both legal and literary).  When al-Wazzan did not mention a wife or wives in his various writings, I had to check other Arabic texts in the same genre to see if it was conventional or not to mention one’s wife, say, in a travel account.  (In fact, it was optional; he chose not to do so, for reasons I suggest in the book.)  I think about the expected audience for the document or text and ask what difference that would make.  I try to leave room for innovation by the writer: in the major legal publication in the Martin Guerre case, the judge Jean de Coras had actually changed the rules for legal exposition.  But I had to know what they were before I could see that.  For al-Wazzan’s Africa manuscript, even his spelling, use of the third person singular to refer to himself, and his familiarity with certain kinds of erotic slang in Italian were precious indices, especially since these were all eliminated or changed by the Christian editor of the printed edition of his book.

For a printed book, I pay a lot of attention to physical object: who’s printed it; dedication; author portrait, if there is one; the format and what it tells us about expected readership; marginalia, and the like.  Of course, for a manuscript, you ask similar questions.

In all of this, I’m not slighting the actual content and the world of reference it brings with it.  That’s clearly the core activity, that the historian follows up with as much research and imagination as she/he can.  But these other quests bring insight as well.


One of your early influences was Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou, which examines the daily lives of Pyrenean villagers in the 14th century, using Inquisition sources.  Could you expand on which historians (and other writers) and their works have influenced your own writing and storytelling?

Other influences (historians, etc.) besides le Roy Ladurie.  I’ll mention only a few. When I was still a graduate student and in my early years, I much appreciated the work and friendship of Rosalie Colie (she taught in the English department at U.Toronto for a time in the late 1960s, but I got to know her in the 1950s).  I was much impressed by her interdisciplinary cultural history of the 16th and 17th century and by the way she placed ideas in a broad nexus of communication among scholars and across national boundaries.  I loved her book on paradoxes, Paradoxia epidemica, and her book on “genre,” The Uses of Kind.  She was the first literary scholar who influenced me.  She was also something of a mentor, when I was a graduate student with three small children, and she continued to take me seriously as a scholar.

The late anthropologist Clifford Geertz was another important influence.  I so benefited from his Interpretation of Cultures when it appeared in 1972, especially the way he saw culture and religion as both shaped by and shaping social experience.  I used it often with my graduate students to introduce a seminar.  And later when I taught at Princeton, we gave a seminar together one year—historical and anthropological approaches both.  I’ve read many of his other books as well, and enjoyed his experiment with style.  He’s not the only anthropologist whose work influenced me—I also learned much from Victor Turner and Mary Douglas among others—but Clifford Geertz was especially close.

I might mention, too, that already as an undergraduate, Marc Bloch was something of a model for me—a Frenchman and (like me) of Jewish origin, I appreciated his blend of innovative historical writing on the Middle Ages and of political engagement during the Occupation and resistance of World War II.


Do you have any advice for emerging historians (medievalists, early modernists, or other fields) on what areas of research they should consider exploring?

Being deeply interested in your subject, really loving it and savoring it, is important.  In addition, look at whatever subject you choose, even if its very local or about a single person or family, with “global” eyes.  Don’t just bring to your topic a “western” perspective or set of questions; try to ask questions about it that tie it to larger perspectives.

Besides your own books and articles, what would you suggest as good reading for people who enjoy history?

I always have a novel, biography or autobiography going, and read a little every day, and I recommend that to others.  Often I read novels or autobiographies from the part of the world I’m working on at the moment, even though the time period may be very different.  While working on “Leo Africanus,” I read many novels from the Arab world, from all across North Africa and the Levant, in translation.  Meanwhile, I found Vikram Seth’s Two Lives a splendid study of cultural crossing, quite apart from the amazing story of his one-armed dentist uncle and his German-Jewish aunt.  Of course, there are many scholarly history books to read, but for general reading I’ve enjoyed William Darymple’s books on Delhi and India, Thomas Reiss’ curious book The Orientalist, and Fritz Stern’s Five Germanies I have Known, a successful interweaving of his family and personal history with the changes in Germany over a century and a half.

Lastly, I was wondering what is next for you?  I understand that you are preparing a new book, tentatively titled Braided Histories, which looks at slavery in 18th century Suriname.   How is that coming along?

Yes, I am working now on the plantation worlds of Suriname in the last half of the 18th century.  I’m calling the book Braided Histories because I’m following through certain figures on certain plantations and the networks around them and how they connect: a mulatto slave woman, the European with whom she had a child, her own parents, her relatives and connections; free Blacks and their families; a learned Jewish physician with slaves and his connections, etc.  I’ve just come back from what I hope is my final trip to the colonial archives in the Netherlands, and have a rich trove on my cast of characters.  It’s still very hard to get at the attitudes of individual slaves, but I’m working on it.  Again a challenge, but one that I’m enjoying.

We thank Professor Davis for her answers and wish her all the success in her research.