The truth about fiction

November 10, 1995

Natalie Zemon Davis, the author of The Return of Martin Guerre, tells Claire Sanders how she uses narrative to illuminate the past

Natalie Zemon Davis chooses to begin her story with her great grandparents. "I am from a typically American immigrant family. In my case Eastern Europe Jews who came from Lithuania and White Russia in the 19th century. My parents were typical second generation Americans - they would never talk about the old country."

Her desire to understand her own history led her first to Europe and then to France. Born in 1928 she is now one of the most respected historians in the United States, holding the Henry Charles Lea chair of history at Princeton. Last year she became the first woman to occupy Oxford University's prestigious visiting professorship, the Eastman Chair. She is not only a first-rate scholar, but also a wonderful story teller, and her work bubbles with an irrepressible interest in people's tales - and how they tell them.

She also has a desire to be generous about the work of others, forever breaking off halfway through a criticism to add a qualification. This is not based on a wish to please, but it is based on a desire to communicate. As she says: "I think it is interesting to define periods not so much in terms of what people believed, but what they chose to debate, to argue about. Positions should never become too rigid."

In recent years Davis has become associated with a school of history called the "narrative school" or "micronarrative". Her book The Return of Martin Guerre, about an imposter in a 16th-century French village, which was made into a film, is often quoted as an example of how historians have used narrative, or an individual's story, as a way of illuminating wider aspects of a particular society. As Davis says in her introduction to the book, she wanted to describe the "peasants' hopes and feelings; the ways in which they experienced the relation between husband and wife, parent and child; the ways in which they experienced the constraints and possibilities in their lives".

She adds: "I chose to advance my arguments . . . as much by the ordering of narrative, choice of detail, literary voice and metaphor as by topical analysis." But as she makes clear a conscious interest in narrative as a historical tool only appeared in her work in the 1970s. It was present in some form before then, but her path towards narrative has incorporated a number of approaches - all of which are still present in her work today. "There is often this contrast between what is loosely termed old and new history," she says. "I think this contrast is sometimes exaggerated, it is more that you ask new questions as well as the old ones."

Davis's development can very much be seen in these terms, forever adding new questions to her repertoire. She traces her interest in history back to school. "Within my family there was no historical depth, everything was oriented towards becoming American. I went to a girls' high school and I fell in love with history. I liked it so." Looking back at her interest in European history, which also developed early on, she says: "I have often thought that at that moment in my life it was easier for me to have a historical connection with European things than with American things, since my family were not old White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants." Then she adds, in her now familiar spirit of reconciliation: "But I married a man from an old WASP family."

By the time she went to college, which was the prestigious but conservative all-women's Smith College, she knew that she wanted to study history. But what has informed her scholarship throughout has been a love of literature, of stories and of drama. Combined with these intellectual interests came a politial activism that both informed and fed off her work. "I think my political involvement strengthened my sense that history is deeply meaningful to the present. I have always taken very seriously the Marxist idea that men, or humankind, make their own history - much more seriously than the more deterministic side of Marxist history."

Davis' political involvement was not, however, to be without a price. Her protests against McCarthyism, in particular the publication of a pamphlet called Operation Mind, meant that she had her passport taken away for six years - a tragedy for a young academic building a reputation as a historian of France. But it was an adversity that she turned to her advantage. Denied access to French archives, she looked instead at what she could lay her hands on. "They are not going to keep me down," she says, recalling her sentiments of the time and clenching her fists. Her subsequent use of printed and archive matter has marked her out.

It was while at Smith College that Davis married Chandler Davis, a graduate student in mathematics at Harvard. As Smith College forbade marriages she had to elope, but she did go on to graduate. The marriage led to the birth of three children in the 1950s and was a profound influence on her life. "Most of my decisions in life have been life choices. I had to balance my many different roles as a mother, as a wife and as an academic. There were no role models for me at that time. Most of the teachers at Smith were single women living alone."

Chandler Davis was an equally active opponent of McCarthyism. In 1954 he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, partly because he had signed the printer's bill for Operation Mind. He refused to answer the committee's questions, taking the first amendment. He lost his job, and five years later the Supreme Court ruled against him and he went to jail for six months in 1960, leaving behind his wife and three young children. Davis dwells very little on those days. "This is maybe not very interesting, but just in terms of source material it had a big influence on me."

She began her graduate training at Harvard, where she really began to develop her interest in social history. Her original work was on English social history, and it was only when she and her husband moved to Michigan that she switched to France. "I'm actually rather glad that I did, although maybe I shouldn't say that," she says, before clarifying. "I would rather know about English history but be based on the continent so that I can do cross-referencing. So many people do English history and don't pay attention to other places."

Her book, Society and Culture in Early Modern France, is a product of these years. Its concern with social issues, with class, with Protestantism and its relation to class is clear. But what also emerges is her interest in rituals, in festival occasions. In a piece called "Rites of Violence" she looks at the behaviour of religious crowds, at why Catholic and Protestant crowds behaved as they did, what motivated and formed their seemingly irrational behaviour. She concludes: "Even in the extreme case of religious violence, crowds do not act in a mindless way . . . if we try to increase safety and trust within a community, try to guarantee that the violence it generates will take less destructive and cruel forms, then we must think less about pacifying 'deviants' and more about changing central values."

It was this fascination with rituals, with festivals, that was to set Davis apart from the annale school of history, so dominant in France at the time, and from more traditional social historians. The annale school, with its interest in structures, and deeper currents of history, appears at first sight to have little in common with a historian like Davis, who probes into the smallest affairs of a village community, and listens to the individual stories of its people. But it would be wrong to see her too much at variance with this annale school. Davis was fascinated by its work, and did much to popularise it in the US. "It is not so much that I felt in opposition to the annale school," she says. "It was more that we were doing different things."

To some extent it was the same with more traditional social historians, particularly those preoccupied with social movements in terms of what they showed about class conflict. "When I studied printing organisations, for example, I felt out on a limb because I was interested in their rituals, while other social historians looked more to the strike actions and demands of such organisations," says Davis. Instead she turned to the work of anthropologists. While the annale school drew on the structuralist work of the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, Davis looked to the work of anthropologists on ritual and performance. And here again her interest in narrative, drama and film, re-emerged.

"Anthropologists were able to talk to their subjects, to converse with them," she says. "And it was only through making a historical film that I felt that I could get anywhere near this." She describes working on the film, Return of Martin Guerre, as the nearest she has got to an anthropologist's experience. "The actors came to me and discussed their roles, and said how they thought the characters would have behaved and why. I found that fascinating. Gerard Depardieu, the film's star, really did think what it was like to be a 16th-century French peasant." What is so fascinating about the Martin Guerre story is how Arnaud de Tilh manages to persuade a village and his wife that he is the long lost Martin Guerre. Equally interesting is the role of the wife Bertrande de Rols, who chose to believe the imposter - a charming and intelligent man, by all accounts, when contrasted to her true husband - and who betrayed him in the end. But although Bertrande eventually admits that she has been duped - the price of complicity being death - she relates only those details of her marriage that Arnaud de Tilh can confirm. As a result it is not until the real Martin Guerre returns that the truth becomes apparent and the imposter is sentenced to death. Sadly the film version chose to simplify Bertrande, portraying her as a woman who stands by Martin Guerre to the end, instead of the fascinating mix she was.

The appeal of the story is in part the universal appeal of the imposter, but takes its strength from the fact that it was so grounded in 16th-century France. "It is a plot embedded in issues of property, heirship, and bastardy, enacted in a society without ample frontiers for new village lives, and where memory is the main guarantee of identity," says Davis. This concern with stories and their place of telling is again apparent in Davis's book Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in 16th Century France. In this book, published in 1987, Davis argues that she wants the "fictional" aspects of the documents to be the centre of the analysis. She explains: "By 'fictional' I do not mean their feigned elements, but rather, using the other and broader sense of the root word fingere, their forming, shaping, and moulding elements: the crafting of a narrative." What she is after is how "16th-century people told stories".

This year, Women on the Margins: three 17th century lives is published. It is the story of three women's lives - one a Jew, one a Catholic and one a Protestant. At the beginning Davis gets as near to a conversation with her subjects as she can, crafting a fictional dialogue with them, in which they criticise her work. In particular, her decision to put all three in the same book. Merchant and mother of 12, Glikl bas Judah Leib, the Jew, living in Europe, mystic Marie de l'Incarnation, the Catholic in North America and painter and naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, who joined a radical Protestant sect in the Netherlands - women with different lives, yet facing common challenges. It is one of her first books specifically to give vent to her feminist leanings, although she has always been interested in women's history. "When I had my babies in the 1950s I began a dossier on 16th-century women's pregnancies," she says. "And I have always been particularly interested in women's voices. In this new book they come to the fore."

It is hard to find a disparaging critique of Davis' work. Peter Burke, reader in cultural history at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Emmanuel, describes her as "the leading female historian in the US." And even Richard Cobb, who wrote a critical review of her work in The Spectator in 1975 accusing her of intervening too heavily to interpret the thoughts of her subjects, describes her today as "a very good example of someone whose conclusions have all been strictly based on very sustained research in French urban archives."

Davis's interest in film, narrative and history has not ended. She plans to retire early so she can work on films in the mould of Martin Guerre. In the 1950s she sought work as a film assistant in New York - but was unsuccessful. Today, 35 years on, she has been able to combine her interest in history and drama to produce the perfect happy ending.

Natalie Zemon Davis: "I have always been particularly interested in women's voices."

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