Synopses & Reviews
As she did with Martin Guerre, Natalie Zemon Davis here retrieves individual lives from historical obscurity to give us a window onto the early modern world. As women living in the seventeenth century, Glikl bas Judah Leib, Marie de l'Incarnation, and Maria Sibylla Merian, equally remarkable though very different, were not queens or noblewomen, their every move publicly noted. Rather, they were living "on the margins" in seventeenth-century Europe, North America, and South America. Yet these women--one Jewish, one Catholic, one Protestant--left behind memoirs and writings that make for a spellbinding tale and that, in Davis' deft narrative, tell us more about the life of early modern Europe than many an official history.
All these women were originally city folk. Glikl bas Judah Leib was a merchant of Hamburg and Metz whose Yiddish autobiography blends folktales with anecdotes about her two marriages, her twelve children, and her business. Marie de l'Incarnation, widowed young, became a mystic visionary among the Ursuline sisters and cofounder of the first Christian school for Amerindian women in North America. Her letters are a rich source of information about the Huron, Algonquin, Montagnais, and Iroquois peoples of Quebec. Maria Sibylla Merian, a German painter and naturalist, produced an innovative work on tropical insects based on lore she gathered from the Carib, Arawak, and African women of Suriname. Along the way she abandoned her husband to join a radical Protestant sect in the Netherlands. Drawing on Glikl's memoirs, Marie's autobiography and correspondence, and Maria's writings on entomology and botany, Davis brings these women to vibrant life. She reconstructs the divergent paths their stories took, and at the same time shows us each amid the common challenges and influences of the time--childrearing, religion, an outpouring of vernacular literature--and in relation to men.
The resulting triptych suggests the range of experience, self-consciousness, and expression possible in seventeenth-century Europe and its outposts. It also shows how persons removed from the centers of power and learning ventured in novel directions, modifying in their own way Europe's troubled and ambivalent relations with other "marginal" peoples.
Davis, with customary virtuosity, explores the lives of Glikl bas Judah Leib, a Jewish merchant woman; Marie Guyart, known as Marie de l'Incarnation, mystic and co-founder of the first Ursuline school for girls in North America; and Maria Sibylla Merian, an artist-naturalist and author...Davis was aided in her efforts to bring these women to life through an abundant variety of source material...[She] adds to these sources, as she did in The Return of Martin Guerre, by plumbing the archives--but also by bringing her own extensive historical knowledge and imagination to this work. The result is a richly textured treatment of the lives and times of each of these women...All three women are fascinating, and Davis offers a creative and compelling look at her subjects...[A] rich and original book...Clearly, these women had an impact in their worlds, and their stories are well worth reading today. Morag Fraser - Sydney Morning Herald
Through intimate studies of three seventeenth-century women, [Natalie Zemon Davis] reconstructs histories that both fill out the conceptual frameworks of early modern women's history, and challenge them...One of the great values of Davis's work is the precision with which it tracks its subjects through the multiple domains of their lives: from convent to new frontier, from home to marketplace, from the field to the drawing board...Their lives, as reconstructed through Davis's meticulous and compelling narrative, also shed light on a whole range of social, spiritual and cultural worlds for women, marginalized from much historical narrative...It ends by unsettling the most obvious frameworks for early modern women's history--the household, the workshop, the church--and by demanding historical space for the explorations, the reflections, and the ordinary physical experiences of its subjects. Robin Blake - Independent on Sunday
With her characteristically deft skills as a storyteller, Ms. Davis brings her subjects alive in vivid stories that will surely be much discussed by historians. Sylvia Barack Fishman - Forward
A deeply committed but also pleasantly discursive history of women living on the fringes of Europe's early modern culture. Marina Warner - Independent on Sunday
Natalie Davis tells a good story, as those who have read her classic, The Return of Martin Guerre, will know...Here she tells three good stories. Laura Gowing - History Workshop Journal
[This] stylishly sketched seventeenth- and eighteenth-century biographical triptych is yet another exploration of how the modest in early modern Europe strove to fashion identities for themselves, but it is also more. Arthur Quinn
A treasure. Davis has written a scholarly...and multilayered history...Her three subjects come alive. New York Times Book Review
Davis's work has always reached beyond fashionable trends to communicate with a wider audience. Where feminist historians have often inveighed against writing women's history in order to supply us with heroines, Davis gives us three rounded portraits of strong early modern women with whom we are certainly encouraged to identify, and whose dilemmas are not unlike our own. Where early modern historians insist on the ubiquity of patriarchy, Davis presents us with hard-working, bread-winning women, never submerged in motherhood and never obliterated as wives...All that Davis writes springs from careful, critical consideration of the mass of theoretical writing that has recently appeared on women's writing and historical anthropology: none of it clutters her text...For Davis, the historian is a teller of stories. Her book can be read as a way of writing history which does not collar the reader with direct argument or interpretation, but which seeks instead to provoke the imagination. Davis begins with a fictitious dialogue between herself and the three women whose lives she has chronicled, an imaginative risk few scholars would care to take. This is the sort of book that lingers in the mind. In time, one realizes that what Natalie Zemon Davis has accomplished is a new way of thinking about the relations between the Old World and the New, between women and men, mothers and children; and a vast opening up of the territory of the historian. Ruth Johnstone Wales - Christian Science Monitor
A marvelous book. Lyndal Roper - Times Literary Supplement
In an extraordinary work of scholarship, Natalie Zemon Davis...has brought together within the pages of one book three 17th-century European women who lived lives of daring and accomplishment on 'the margins.' Davis sets out to demonstrate that, in their work far from the centres of power, Glikl bas Judah Leib, Marie de l'Incarnation, and Sibylla Merian were not only breaking new ground for women, but that in doing so they were in some ways morally superior to the men of their day. Lorna Sage - Los Angeles Times Book Review
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...Davis has chosen three personalities of singular gifts and appetite for self-transformation, and the strength of character to achieve it. Katherine Govier - Toronto Star
Davis has a rare talent: she is both an accomplished historian and a capable writer. While she remains true to her discipline as a historian, she retells Glickl's entertaining didactic stories and recounts the adventures of Marie and Maria in vivid and appealing language. William Lamont - History Today
Davis's finely wrought book works as a triptych; each life is closely observed, but thrown into relief by its relation to the others. Leslie Cohen - Jerusalem Post Literary Supplement
A splendid reconstruction of the particular worlds of three 17th-century women...[Zemon Davis] makes these lives shimmer...She also puts together a formidable history with the kind of scholarly apparatus that would gratify the Harvard academy but should not daunt any reader. Ben Rogers - Guardian
This erudite and audacious book, like its subjects, occupies margins. Not only is it about women, a subject that a quarter century after Davis and Jill Conway created their justly renowned undergraduate course at the University of Toronto is still at the margins of most university instruction, it also appeals simultaneously to popular and academic audiences; it explores a little used genre of 'comparative biography', it crosses disciplinary boundaries; and perhaps most controversially, it challenges traditional categories of historical proof. Christine Adams - Journal of Social History
Within a relatively short book--the text itself is only 216 pages--Natalie Davis brings together nearly every trend in recent historical scholarship, including some that are usually viewed as mutually exclusive, but does in a way that never seems trendy. Canadian Journal of History
Ms. Davis accomplishes a kind of intellectual midwifery, expanding our understanding of European and American, women's and Jewish history. Her research findings are artfully woven into the fabric of three narratives, enhancing their ability to successfully transport the reader into a confrontation with the mind-sets of earlier times. She also gives today's readers heroic role models; these are women who rose above constricting circumstances. Detailed evidence of intelligence, resilience and determination make these stories radiant and inspiring, despite the grim events which often saddened and frustrated the women who lived them...A thoughtful, compelling narrative, distinguished by rich details and a passionately empathetic historical imagination. Sixteenth Century Journal
As she did with Martin Guerre, Natalie Zemon Davis here retrieves three women's lives from historical obscurity to give us a window onto the early modern world. Glikl bas Judah Leib, Marie de l'Incarnation, and Maria Sibylla Merian were living "on the margins" in seventeenth-century Europe, North America, and South America. They left behind memoirs and writings that make for a spellbinding and informative tale of life in early modern Europe.
About the Author
Natalie Zemon Davis is Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, Emerita, Princeton University.
Table of Contents
Arguing with God
Glikl bas Judah Leib
Marie de l'Incarnation
Marie Sibylla Merian