Radical US historian Natalie Davis, academic superstar over there, look s set to ruffle a few feathers over here Oxford `Instead of staring at our subjects like gormless tourists, we ought to converse with them'
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The Independent Culture
NATALIE ZEMON DAVIS, one of Princeton's most prized professors, is on loan this year to Oxford, where she is the first woman to occupy the prestigious Eastman Chair. In America, like France but quite unlike Britain, they have academic superstars and Davis belongs firmly in their ranks. Her brilliant studies of 16th-century France - Society and Culture in Early Modern Europe, The Return of Martin Guerre - and her latest book, Women on the Margins, about a trio of 17th- century lives, are savoured by historians and non-historians alike.

A small, wiry, dark woman, in lectures Davis gives the impression that she can hardly wait to tell you about her latest finds. "She is," a former student remarks, "willing to share everything she has." One anecdote relates how Davis appeared on her bicycle, cheque-book in hand, just as 85 Princeton students were being arrested for their part in an anti-apartheid demonstration; having heard of their plight, Davis had come to offer bail.

Davis's sympathy for her politically active students makes particular sense in the light of her own life story. Born to a comfortable Jewish family in 1928, Davis attended a private girl's school in her native Detroit before going on to Smith College, one of America's "Seven Sisters" (the female equivalent of the Ivy League). Though Bunny Zemon, as Davis was then known, was a success in the pearls and pageboyish world of Smith, she was hardly a typical Smith girl. An avid fan of Vico, Marx and Weber, Davis was herself a campus radical.

At a meeting of the Young Progressives, an off-shoot of the Communist Party, 19-year-old Bunny Zemon met Chandler Davis, a graduate student in mathematics at Harvard. Within a matter of weeks, the two eloped, an act which Davis described as "a terrible rebellion": not only was her new husband not Jewish but Smith College forbade student marriages. Despite these initial obstacles, however, Natalie went on to graduate summa cum laude. More impressive still, she and Chandler are still married.

As McCarthyism became an increasingly powerful presence in 1950s America, Chandler and Natalie Davis began to encounter less negotiable obstacles. While studying for her PhD in history at the University of Michigan, where her husband was now teaching, Davis and another student responded to McCarthy's infamous "investigations" by conducting an investigation of their own, the results of which they published in a pamphlet, Operation Mind. The pamphlet gave a brief history of the House Un-American Activities Committee, using witnesses' testimonies and other evidence to show how the committee had taken to prosecuting even the most blandly liberal points of view. Operation Mind was published anonymously in 1952, shortly before the Davises left for a summer of research in France. On their return their passports were revoked, putting a temporary but devastating stop to the "life-long affair with the archives" Natalie Davis had just begun.

Things soon got much worse. In 1954, Chandler Davis was called before HUAC, where he was asked a host of questions, many of them about the printer's bill for Operation Mind, which he had signed. Davis, who has been described as "the quintessential anti-authoritarian personality", refused to answer the committee's questions, taking the First Amendment. Fired from Michigan and blacklisted, it was now impossible for him to find a regular academic job. After five lean years, the Supreme Court ruled against Davis. In 1960 he left behind his wife and three young children to serve a six-month term in prison.

Meeting Natalie Davis, some 30 years later, at Eastman House in Oxford, she describes the atmosphere of the McCarthy years as "a miasma of anxiety" hanging over everything she and her husband did. Struggling to raise the children and finish a PhD on 16th-century French history was, she admits, "very hard". The proverbial Pollyanna - or perhaps just the consummate historian - Davis insists on pointing out the few "good things" that came out of "that period of panic": her lack of a passport prompted her to discover the printed collections stored in various rare book-rooms of New York; ever since, her work has made unusual use (for an historian of popular culture) of printed as well as archival material.

Davis's determination to stress the good things that came from her and Chandler's struggles reflects one of the features of her work; her dislike of that favourite Left-wing category, the victim. She has always favoured an approach which sees everyone asable to direct their lives to some extent. Of the urban working people she writes about in Society and Culture, she says "I have seen them as actors, making use of what physical, social and cultural resources they had in order to survive, to cope, or sometimes to change things."

Davis's concern to do justice to the resourcefulness of the people she writes about - and her impatience with social historians' tendency to explain everything in terms of class - help to account for two other features of her work: her interest in narrative historical writing, and her involvement in film. After all, it is much easier to see an individual as a free and creative agent if you treat them like a character in a novel, or as a character in a film, than if you count them as just one more historical statistic. Davis, who collaborated closely on Daniel Vigne's fine movie The Return of Martin Guerre and who teaches a course on history and the cinema, plans to take early retirement to work on films full-time.

It is easy to see other connections between Davis's life and work. The essays in Society and Culture in Early Modern Europe often evoke the '60s, the decade in which most of them were written. A ground-breaking article on popular violence, for example, written in 1968, is obviously inspired by that year's famous evenements. After a subtle analysis of French 16th-century cases, Davis quickly shifts from the past to the present tense. Rites of violence, she concludes, are not (as historians too easily assume) irrational or pathological, but forms of collective action with a sense of moral purpose. If we wish to avoid such disturbances in our community, "we must think less about pacifying `deviants' and more about changing the central values". It's clear where Davis's sympathies lie.

Other essays also end as cautionary tales. "Proverbial Wisdom and Popular Errors", a study of how the condescension of 16th and 17th- century savants contaminated their study of popular culture, is directed at Davis's own colleagues. "We current historians of popular culture," she concludes, "have a strong streak of interest in the people. But I am not sure we respect their ways very much." Instead of "just watching our subjects" like gormless tourists, we should converse with them, imagining not just that "they are in some sense equivalent to us" but also that they are "able to answer us back".

Davis's later work is much more playful, "true stories" rather than scholarly essays, her skill with narrative to the fore. She's still keen to show the creativity of ordinary people, but she interjects sly strategies to question the nature of historicalknowledge. The opening to The Return of Martin Guerre, which Davis wrote after she collaborated on the film, reminds us that her work is "in part my invention, but held tightly in check by the voices of the past".

The Return of Martin Guerre tells the story of a legendary impostor, Arnauld du Tilh. After managing to impersonate a rich peasant, Martin Guerre, for three years, du Tilh is on the verge of convincing the court of his authenticity when the real Martin returns to reclaim his wife and property from the impostor. Davis's Martin Guerre is a virtuoso performance, a dazzling display of historical detective work and storytelling. But it is also a clever inquiry into the element of trickery and imposture in the historian's own profession.

In a recent book, Fiction in the Archives, Davis describes how 16th-century criminals used stories to save their skins. The "tales" are taken from letters of remission that condemned men and women dictated in their efforts to obtain the King's pardon. The 16th-century voices come through to us clearly, and the lurid letters are make us think about the line between fact and fiction, responsibility and license. (At the beginning of the book Davis asks her husband for mercy - "I hope he will pardon me for countless interruptions to hear one more bloody tale or to discuss one more interpretation, even though I have no excuse and do not promise to mend my ways." At the end she wonders whether she should ask her "long-dead subjects" to forgive her for the fact that she has often found their grievous tales funny.)

Davis's books have generally received rave reviews - and not only from "serious" scholarly journals. One exception was a particularly critical review of Society and Culture that appeared in The Spectator, where Richard Cobb accused Davis herself of failing to respect her subjects - her "didactic attitudes", he argued, made it impossible for them to "speak for themselves". More interesting, perhaps, were Cobb's other complaints. Davis has always tried to enliven social history with concepts culled from anthropology (and more recently literary theory); anthropologists, after all, are supposed to be especially interested in doing justice to the coherence and resourcefulness of their subjects' lives. But Cobb found all this too much, criticising her "intellectualising" and her "anxiety to blaze the trail". While the first point reflects a hard-headed British empiricist, convinced that "popular history is not an intellectual exercise", the second suggests a peculiarly British antipathy to "trail-blazing",whether intellectual or not. This may be a clash of American and British sensibilities: Davis's idiosyncratic approach - either too playful or too earnest, too newfangled or too eager - is distinctly unBritish.

Which leads us to wonder how she is making out in Oxford. Davis is reserved on the subject. At one point she implies that Oxford's social and cultural historians are methodologically rather backward, but when pushed, prefers put the point "positively", explaining that she's a "fan" of Peter Burke at Cambridge and Roy Foster, Oxford's new Professor of Irish History, whose Inaugural Lecture she has just heard. Asked about her Eastman Chair - founded in l929 for "American scholars of the highest distinction" - she can't resist making the point that she's the first woman to receive it, but quickly adds that she is pleased it's going to another woman next year.

So Davis's two selves - the formidable campus radical and the nice Smith girl - are still struggling with each other. In attacking Oxford's lamentable record on women professors, for instance, her radicalism takes on a politer expression. Recalling the political battles of her youth, though, she admits she no longer has the same utopian views, but she still believes that "as long as they don't involve terrorism, revolutionary hopes - hopes for extra-ordinary change - have their role to play".