Natalie Zemon Davis passes away

Many of our readers will be saddened to learn that Natalie Zemon Davis, one of the leading historians of the pre-modern world, has passed away. She was 94 years old.

Born in Detriot, Michigan in 1928, Natalie earned her PhD from the University of Michigan. She taught at Brown University, the University of California at Berkeley, and Princeton University in the United States, but her career was often centred at the University of Toronto in Canada. Natalie and her family would become Canadian citizens and reside in Toronto.


Natalie’s research focused on social and cultural history, ranging from the end of the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century. She developed a reputation for being able to make use of neglected sources to tell powerful stories centred on individuals. This can be seen in her most famous book, The Return of Martin Guerre, published in 1983, which told the story of a 16th-century French peasant who became an imposter, pretending to be a long-lost person named Martin Guerre and living with Martin’s wife and children for three years.

There were many other books and articles too, which revealed a wide range of interests: France, women, slavery, pardons, gift-giving. Her book Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds was among those that earned much praise for telling the story of Al-Hasan al-Wazzan / Leo Africanus. You can also read an account of Natalie’s life and career in A Life of Learning.


Among the many awards received by Natalie are 18 honourary degrees, the Holberg International Memorial Prize, the National Humanities Medal, and the Order of Canada. To know about Natalie’s work as a historian, you can read this interview we did with her in 2008, or can listen to her speaking with Danièle Cybuslkie on The Medieval Podcast from 2019:

Last year, her husband Chandler Davis passed away. “He was my life companion for 74 years- so splendid a man, so fine a father and husband, and a citizen of the world,” said Natalie. Together, they had three children: Aaron, Hannah, and Simone.

News of Natalie’s passing was first shared on social media by University of Toronto historian Paul Cohen. Since then, many others have gone online to express their thoughts about Natalie:

A few personal reflections: I had the distinct honour of meeting with Natalie on several occasions. In each of these she came across as extremely intelligent but kind and gentle. She made me feel like I was a special person and offered some much valuable advice. Two of these experiences stand out – the first one was when ‘An Evening with Natalie Zemon Davis’ was being held at the University of Toronto. Taking place at the Pontifical Insitute of Mediaeval Studies, it was held in a room where 60 people could sit comfortably. Double that number turned out to see her, and all but two of us were women. The conversation dealt with the challenges that women face in the field of history and academia. Natalie understood that she was a mentor to many a young scholar, and took that role seriously.


The other experience was at Natalie’s home. There were so many books there! They spilled out into every nook and corner – the side tables were completely covered in books too, in piles of three or four high. A historian’s paradise. In speaking with Natalie then, and despite her being in her 90s, she came across as vibrant and passionate, still ready to be a historian and a storyteller. Natalie was strong.

I, like so many others, looked up to Natalie Zemon Davis as a historian and a person. And I, like so many others, will miss her. ~ Peter Konieczny