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  • Daniel Woolf

A Tale of Two Historians: Remembering Natalie Zemon Davis and Donald R. Kelley

Daniel Woolf

In the past four months several prominent historians of early modern Europe have died, but their contributions remain. In mid-December, J.G.A. Pocock, the eminent historian of both historical writing and political thought, especially but not limited to Britain and its offshoots, died at 99. Barely three weeks earlier, the French historian of the environment (and much else), Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, died at 94. I knew and was greatly influenced by Pocock, whereas I knew Le Roy Ladurie only from his many publications. But it is of two other scholars who also died in their 90s since the middle of August that I write here, both American-born historians of France: Natalie Zemon Davis (1928-2023) and Donald R. Kelley (1931-2023). I was personally acquainted with the former slightly, and only in recent years, and with the latter rather better for several decades. I write this primarily as an admirer and intellectual debtor of both.

The breadth of Natalie Davis’ enormous legacy is difficult to summarize concisely, and to call her a “historian of early modern France” dramatically underestimates her scope and vision. It would be more accurate to say that she was a student of life in the broader early modern world. An early adopter of insights from anthropology and ethnography, human behavior in the past fascinated her—especially the lives of people on the margins of mainstream society, such as the three women, a Jew, a Catholic and a Protestant, whom she discussed in her 1995 study, Women on the Margins. This attention to the excluded and overlooked—and “marginal” is a better term here than the postcolonial “subaltern”—is the thread that connects most of her work, most famously treated in her 1983 book, The Return of Martin Guerre. This retold the story of an impostor named Arnaud du Tilh who assumed the identity—and his wife, child and property—of a vanished villager, Martin Guerre, in a mid-sixteenth-century southwestern French village. Arnaud was eventually exposed, confessed, and duly executed after the real Martin reappeared. Using contemporary accounts including that by the principal judge, a humanist parlementaire named Jean de Coras, Natalie had previously advised the director and scriptwriter of the eponymous 1982 film starring Gérard Depardieu. She wrote her account to add texture and detail missing from the movie. The book became an early example of “microhistory”, a highly readable genre especially popular from the mid-70s to the late 1990s, which resurrected the interesting lives of previously obscure men and women.

Like other works of microhistory, Natalie’s Martin Guerre paid especial attention to the mentalities of her subjects and—perhaps most significantly—to what was going on in the mind of the real Martin’s wife, Bertrande, as she initially accepted and then ultimately renounced the false Martin after sharing his bed for over three years. Natalie’s imputation of both agency and calculation to Bertrande drew fire from evidentiary purists for filling in gaps in the historical record with conjecture and speculation. She was able to find a safe middle ground between asserting that all historical narratives involve some degree of speculation on the part of the historian, on the one hand, and a postmodern denial of the primacy of evidence. Many historians practicing today would agree with her common-sense view that there is a very wide spectrum between a Dragnet-style “just the facts ma’am” approach to historical documents and complete historical fiction. Moreover, and also in part thanks to Natalie, it’s widely recognized that the documentary record itself may be a window into the past but it’s one made of frosted glass that obscures and stands between us and those we study. In one of her most significant, and entertaining works, Fiction in the Archives (1987) Natalie used the genre of “pardon tales” invented by those charged with homicide who sought forgiveness from the French crown in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In retirement, she ventured well outside France to examine the career of the Andalusian Muslim Leo Africanus, a diplomat and traveler of the early sixteenth century, and protégé of two Medici popes, dwelling between Islam and Christianity. That book, Trickster Travels, shows the possibilities of interfaith and transcultural relations in the past, something we should keep in mind in dark times of intolerance such as the present.

Natalie Davis | wikimedia commons

Natalie’s own life was at least as interesting as that of some of the people she wrote about, unfolding in a peripatetic career that first brought her from a middle-class Jewish family in Detroit to undergraduate education at Smith College and graduate school at the University of Michigan. At Ann Arbor, the brilliant young Natalie Zemon met an equally brilliant mathematician, Chandler Davis. The two wed in 1948 and remained so until his death 74 years later, 13 months before her own—a “marriage of true minds” if ever there were.  Both spouses were actively left-wing at a highly risky time to be so in early Cold War America. Chandler’s political engagement, including defiance of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, briefly put him in jail and permanently deprived him of his professorship at the University of Michigan, where Natalie in 1959 had completed her PhD thesis on the printing workers of sixteenth-century Lyon. After a brief period at Brown University (where she was the only woman faculty member in its history department), and by now a mother, Natalie followed Chandler to Toronto in 1962 where he would remain for the rest of his career.

At Toronto, Natalie helped to establish the Women’s Studies program—among the earliest such programs in its day—while slowly establishing a reputation as a historian.  So prolific did she eventually prove that it is easy to forget that her first book did not emerge till she was closing in on 50. That work, an extraordinary collection of essays entitled Society and Culture in Early Modern France, appeared during her appointment (1971-78) at Berkeley where, once more, she was the sole female in her department. Moving to Princeton University in 1978 she exerted an influence both large and benevolent as a mentor, role model, and for a time director of Princeton’s Shelby Cullom Davis Center (no relation) for Historical Studies. In 1987 Natalie became the first female president of the American Historical Association since the early 1940s (and only the second up to that year), opening the door for the several women who have followed her into the AHA’s highest office since then. On her retirement from Princeton in 1996, she returned to Toronto and continued to produce incisive, original, and highly readable scholarly work, such as her study of the place of gift-giving in sixteenth-century France (2000) up until her death from cancer in October, just short of her 95th birthday. Having exchanged emails with her only a month or two previously I was as shocked as the rest of the scholarly community that so bright a light had finally been dimmed.


Donald Reed Kelley was a very different historian, a student of ideas more than of individuals, though his own prolific corpus of works included one fine intellectual biography, that of the sixteenth-century Huguenot (French Protestant) jurist François Hotman, a key figure in the political debates during France’s wars of religion. Don’s subjects, unlike Natalie Davis’s, were rarely on the margins of society though they might, like Hotman, belong to persecuted minorities. For the most part they were invariably well-educated intellectuals: political theorists, philosophers, linguistic scholars, jurists and historical thinkers. 

Born in Illinois and educated first at Harvard College and then at Columbia University, Don did not experience political exile as the Davises had, though he did spend two years in the army as an MP in the mid-1950s (given his robust and bearded bodily presence, it’s hard to know this factoid and not think of a midwestern, mid-century intellectual version of the fictional former MPs Jack Reacher and Cormoran Strike). Having not completed his PhD until 1962, he took (like Natalie Davis) several more years to produce his first book. This delay perhaps occasioned a weird historiographical coincidence of two books on virtually the same subject appearing in the same year (rather like the phenomenon of two films with similar plots appearing near simultaneously—think The Matrix and The Fourteenth Floor, or Armageddon and Deep Impact).  Don’s Foundations of Modern Historical Scholarship was published by Columbia University Press in 1970, as was the Chicago-based historian George Huppert’s The Idea of Perfect History. Both books dealt, in slightly different and complementary ways, with the achievements of sixteenth-century French philologists, philosophers and jurists to the development of modern historical thought and method—exactly the Renaissance humanist milieu that produced Jean de Coras, the principal official in the false Martin Guerre’s trial. While Huppert was focused more on the philosophical outlook of his subjects, Don’s Foundations built on the late John Pocock’s first book The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law to examine early modern historical methods. A dog-eared copy of Foundations, like Pocock’s book and Huppert’s, has never been far from my desk since I bought it in 1981.

Where Natalie Davis remained more or less firmly anchored in the sixteenth century, Donald Kelley would move both backward and forward from there. In many ways, he was a late example of the continental philological tradition stretching from Renaissance humanists like Lorenzo Valla and Guillaume Budé, via Enlightenment and nineteenth-century classical scholars such as F.A. Wolf, Barthold Niebuhr, and August Boeckh, all the way up to Friedrich Nietzsche. After publishing The Beginning of Ideology (1981), an insightful investigation into the process whereby political beliefs coalesce into what we now term ideologies, Don bade farewell to the sixteenth century. Shortly thereafter, in 1985 he assumed the editorship of The Journal of the History of Ideas (JHI), the leading English-language journal of intellectual history. It was a venerable periodical that had become a bit stale by the mid-1980s, stuck in an older model of intellectual history established decades earlier by the journal’s founding editor Arthur O. Lovejoy; its pages were filled with the development of “great ideas” and the works of predominantly white, western European thinkers.

Don modified this orientation, opening the journal up to articles on non-traditional subjects in the history of ideas, to thinkers (including women) well outside the western philosophical canon, and even, albeit more occasionally, to topics drawn from beyond Europe, especially China and the Islamic world. In 2005, his last year as editor of JHI, Don himself could see the changes wrought by his tenure as he reflected on the state of intellectual history in an emerging “global age.” Meanwhile, he was supervising graduate students at Rutgers University, whither he had migrated from the University of Rochester in 1991 with his partner, the eminent historian of gender, Bonnie G. Smith (herself an alumna of the same Smith College that had also produced Natalie Davis).

Don’s interests, like Natalie’s, could not be contained by the boundaries of France, and in the 1980s and ’90s he released a stream of books on law, historiography, and ideas, including The Descent of Ideas (2002), a history of intellectual history itself. As a historian of historiography, I cannot omit mention of Don’s magisterial late-career trilogy of books tracing the history of historical writing in the Western world, and his Versions of History from Antiquity to the Enlightenment (1991), an anthology of key historical thinkers. Above all, Don Kelley taught that both language and law were critical to understanding the history of thought across all disciplines and their Renaissance precursors.

He made no fetish of interdisciplinarity, but he favored an “eclecticism” which, in a 2001 article, he saw as nothing faddishly new but rather as something quite basic and essential to the long history of ideas: “disciplines” are themselves a relatively recent byproduct of the need to organize knowledge into more manageable chunks. And if a postmodernism for which he had little affection has warned against the slipperiness of language, and the barrier that language (like the frosty-windowed archives) poses between us and past reality, Don showed us the opposite—that without attention to language, so effectively modeled in the French philologists whom he revered, there can be little access to the past at all, outside physical remains. A scholar’s scholar whose humanity, sense of humor, and kindness belied an outwardly somewhat gruff demeanor, I fondly remember his stylistic critique of an early-career article I’d submitted to the JHI. Channeling his own Columbia mentor, Garrett Mattingly, Don was moderately positive on the content (he did not do “fulsome” praise) but reproved me for “too many chatty footnotes.” Over the next decades, he would be of great assistance to a number of my own editorial projects and I was pleased to have contributed both to one of his own books and, later to the festschrift in his honor edited by Anthony Grafton and the late John Salmon.

Two very different historians, two complementary visions of the past, and two equally valuable bequests to future historical scholarship: one showed us how to look beyond the documents and between the lines to imagine long-lost lives and coax them into the light; the other proved that rigorous attention to texts remains our best line of sight to the complicated meanderings of the human mind over the longue durée.  Gone but not forgotten, Natalie and Don.*


Daniel Woolf’s research has focused on two areas, early modern British intellectual and cultural history, and the global history and theory of historical writing. He is the author of five books and co-editor of several others, including the two-volume A Global Encyclopedia of Historical Writing (2 vols 1998). His 2003 monograph, The Social Circulation of the Past, won the John Ben Snow Prize of the North American Conference on British Studies in 2004 for the best book on British history pre-1800. His most recent books include A Concise History of History (Cambridge University Press, 2019) and History from Loss: a Global Introduction to Histories Written from Defeat, Colonization, Exile, and Imprisonment (co-edited with Marnie Hughes-Warrington; Routledge, 2023). He is a contributing editor for Marginalia Review of Books, and his articles have appeared in journals such as Past and Present, The American Historical Review, History and Theory, Renaissance Quarterly, and The Journal of the History of Ideas. He is series editor of Cambridge University Press’s "Elements in Historical Theory and Practice."


*With thanks to Professors Nikki Shepardson and Michael C. Carhart (on Donald R. Kelley); and to Professor Paul Cohen’s testimonial and Megan Kirby’s 2019 Queen’s University Master’s thesis (on Natalie Zemon Davis).


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