Natalie Zemon Davis has uncovered three lost lives of women who were neither muses, mistresses or martyrs
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The Independent Culture
A FAD in 17th-century France inspired breathy odes to modern amazons, albums with engravings of viragos, anthologies of pen-portraits to heroines of all kinds, and even passionate encomia to bluestockings. The tradition was keen to uncover new paragons: one learned enthusiast, in a survey of female philosophers, included Hippo, the daughter of Chiron the centaur.

In Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives, Natalie Zemon Davis, one of the most inspired historians of early modern France, has pushed out the usual borders of female blazons by choosing three women who weren't muses, mistresses or martyrs. In a life of assiduous archival burrowing, Davis has consistently focused on the historically insignificant: on silk workers in Lyon, on husband- murderers suing for the king's pardon by describing the batterings they had received, on the compromises made by such characters as the wife of Martin Guerre who accepted the man who said he was her husband, even though she wasn't sure (in Davis's book) or knew he wasn't (in the film on which Davis acted as a consultant). But in this new work, Davis has chosen three personalities of singular gifts and appetite for self-transformation, and the strength of character to achieve it. Their stories don't overlap much; the selection arises from the intrinsic interest of their remarkable lives.

They were all three businesswomen of a sort, urban, restless, industrious, assertive, united by their "manner of work ... [and] they all had a sure expertise - they could tell a good jewel, a good embroidery design, a good insect specimen, among other judgements." But above all, Davis chose to write about them as a trinity because each of them lived in "a borderland that allowed new growth and surprising hybrids". The "margins" they inhabited were various: the Jewish communities of Germany and France, the "woodlands of Quebec" during early French settlement, and the rain forests and plantations of Dutch Suriname, on the "Spanish Main".

Glickl bas Judah Leib (more commonly known till now as Glickl of Hamelin) traded successfully in jewels and pearls from Hamburg, had 12 children, and, when her first husband stumbled on a stone in the street and died, began at the age of 43 to write her autobiography, which reached seven volumes. It addresses her offspring, and charts her departure to Metz to marry a very rich and pious merchant in a match brokered by one of her sons. But within a few years, Hirsch Levy was bankrupted, disgraced, and Glickl raised once again her furious lament to the Lord. (One suspects that the Jewish joke is true in her case: when the Messiah comes, he will be greeted with the words: "Well, you certainly took your time about it.")

Glickl wrote in Yiddish, and discusses matchmaking, business and the precariousness of the Jewish community. She plaits together popular fables, Talmudic fragments, furious argument with God's arrangements, sententiousness and recipes. It's interesting that her first editor and translator was Bertha von Pappenheim, who as "Anna O", the hysterical patient of first Breuer, then Freud, initiated "the talking cure".

Davis doesn't quote very much, preferring to sum up (was Glickl prosy, one can't help wondering?). But some of the stories need the sound of the author's voice, perhaps even in Yiddish (with translation added): Glickl recalls, for example, getting up in the night with her mother to nurse their babies and getting confused in the dark as to which belonged to whom. As a moralist, she was equally honest, showing a taste for homespun without illusions: her book opens with the story of a father bird who, carrying his fledglings , asks them what they will do for him in his old age. When the elder two make extravagant promises, he unceremoniously drops them in the stream below. But the youngest, who honestly says he will only care for his own young in the same way as his father, is allowed to survive.

Marking out ritual boundaries in the city, the Jewish community in Hamburg created an "eruv", a special corridor between their homes and the synagogue which allowed them to move though Gentile geography on the Sabbath without danger of pollution. This quest for a personal space, cast like a shadow across habitat shared with others, also drives the careers of the two other subjects of Davis's study. The Ursuline nun, Marie Guyart de L'Incarnation, who was a mystic given to ecstatic self-mortification, had a vision of a far mountain and a long journey. Her Jesuit confessor recognised the scenery as the new French territory of Canada, and she set sail for Quebec in 1639, to evangelise "les filles sauvages".

Marie de L'Incarnation had been widowed young, and took up her mission with an implacable vocation: she left her 10-year-son behind in France. We know he cried and protested and pleaded with her not to go because she describes these scenes in her copious letters and the autobiography, which he, when he grew up and became a priest, cajoled her into writing. Later, he edited her life: she became one of the heroic paragons of the century's fad.

Marie's loving embrace of hardship and danger coincides with her male counterparts' new search for martyrdom, but, Davis argues, her love for her Indian girls and women, her knowledge of their languages and customs and stories, and her attendant "colour-blindness", subsumed their strangeness into one like-minded, happy universal Catholic world ( a kind of United Colors of Benetton). In this she differed, Davis argues, from male missionaries who frequently show profound repugnance and scorn for "the savages", even after they have converted to the faith.

Maria Sibylla Merian, the third of Davis's women, also possessed a remarkable appetite for changes of scenery. She too first found shelter from marriage in religion, but then rejected that course as well. Born into a dynasty of artist-publishers (her father Mathias succeeded in the business to his father-in-law Theodore de Bry, engraver of images of the New World), she showed precocious skill in the family trade. She was captivated, early on, by caterpillars, and kept specimens, watching for their metamorphoses and logging every change; as Davis points out, Merian pioneered a fully ecological approach, for she included leaves and plants on which the grubs were feeding, and even showed the parasites that lived on the creatures themselves. In 1679-83, she published her intense, indeed creepy volumes of caterpillar studies, which were translated into English as Wonderful Transformation and Singular Flower-Food of Caterpillars. (The young Nabokov came across Merian's work in his grandmother's library in St Petersburg - with well-known consequences.)

Her book invoked the beauty of God's creation throughout, and closed on a pious but not extreme note of Christian humility: "Let me, lowly little worm, be at they command." But Maria Sibylla Merian suddenly underwent a radical conversion to the Ladabists, an extreme sect who practised a utopian form of Christianity, holding all goods in common. She joined the community in Wieuwerd in Frisia, taking her mother and her three daughters with her, but rejected her husband's pleas to join them.

However, five or six years of the radical Christian life were enough, and with her youngest daughter, the artist set off for the Dutch colony of Suriname. Other painters had been commissioned - by Prince Mauritz of Nassau for example - to record the inhabitants and the flora and fauna of the colony, but Merian went on her own initiative, without patronage. She produced, from Suriname, an even more absorbed mapping of natural translations, of the cycle of change, of food chains in action, of spices and poisons, medicines and drugs.

Davis adjusts her ear to pick up the pitch and timbre of Merian's thoughts about herself, as a white woman in Suriname, who owned slaves, and was using their knowledge in her work. She catches some interesting resonances: one Indian tells the artist about the abortifacient powers of the peacock flower, for instance. She also speculates provocatively that Merian's engravings of large, very hairy "bird-eating" spiders were influenced by local Anansi tales, about the trickster who sometimes outwits Tiger, the tyrant.

Merian is the most fascinating of the book's trinity, though she also remains the most muffled, for she did not write any autobiography. Women on the Margins is short, densely researched and closely argued; Davis, who knows about telling stories to a purpose, calls on her three heroines to meet the contemporary hunger for new narratives about the existence of races and creeds, for fresh, humbler accounts of the European powers' imperial enterprise, and for a reassessment of the cultural legacy bequeathed to the centre by the margins. But in this respect, her exemplars fail her; the implicit hope that these three women's chosen migrations contain benign histories of social integration unfortunately shows frequent signs of strain. Her subjects prove as stubborn to bend to contemporary needs as they were gritty in their pursuit of dynastic well-being or personal and religious fulfilment; they will not behave like angels of history, and turn their faces towards the storm of the future.

! 'Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives' by Natalie Zemon Davis is published by Harvard at pounds 15.95.