To honor the re-inauguration of its Distinguished Lecture series, the History Department invited University of Toronto Professor of History Natalie Zemon Davis to discuss Arabic and Islamic theatre as it existed during the end of the Middle Ages. Students were also given the opportunity to meet with Davis for lunch and discuss their personal research projects with her.
This lecture series began as a relatively small one, offering students the opportunity to meet scholars engaged in historiographical debates that were discussed within their history courses.
“Davis is one of the foremost historians of our times,” said Associate Professor of History Jennifer Tucker. “Her scholarship and intellectual creativity have expanded the scope of historical inquiry, elicited new types of questions, and prodded the limits of research methodology.”
Davis was born in Michigan, where she became interested in history and eventually enrolled at Smith College to study revolutions, intellectual movements, and literatures of Europe. In 1959, Davis earned her doctorate at University of Michigan, writing on Protestantism and the printers of 16th-century Lyon, France.
“[At school I discovered] the extent of human aspiration in the past, the hope to make things better,” Davis said.
Over the years, Davis has taught at Brown University, University of Toronto, University of California, Berkeley, and Princeton University. She has also received honorary degrees from many institutions in the United States and Europe. Davis also served as President of the American Historical Association. In 2010, Davis was awarded the Holberg International Memorial Prize.
According to the Holberg Prize Academic Committee, Davis was presented this honor due to her creativity and intellectuality.
“Her writing is richly textured, multi-faceted and meticulously documented,” reads the Holberg Prize Academic Committee citation. “She shows how particular events can be narrated and analyzed so as to reveal deeper historical tendencies and underlying patterns of thought and action. Her work brings gender to the fore, while insisting that the relationship between men and women is always embedded in the cultural discourses and social organizations specific to their time.”
Over the years, Davis has explored topics originating from Lyon, France to Western Europe to North Africa and the New World.
“I work on something, and it often leads me to something else, requires me to go in a new direction,” Davis said.
Davis’ work has primarily focused on the history of gender relations, class culture, religion, art, and literature.
Professor of History Magda Teter stressed the importance of studying history and its role in society and culture.
“History may be about events long gone, people long dead, but history is present in [the] public sphere everyday,” Teter said. “Indeed, no week goes by without history being invoked or historical analogies made.”
Tucker added that Davis has also been vocal about the need for historians to ensure that their work has a broad scope.
“[Davis] writes in an accessible style and addresses contemporary issues, giving her ideas a wide audience beyond the domain of professional historians,” Tucker said.
In Davis’ 1987 presidential address to the American Historical Association, she advanced this notion.
“My image of history would have at least two bodies in it,” Davis said at the presidential address. “At least two persons talking, arguing, always listening to the other as they gestured at their books.”
Continuing to focus on different aspects of history, Davis concentrated this particular lecture on the popular theater of the Arabic and Islamic world. She told the story of Hasan al-Wazzan (commonly known as “Leo Africanus”), a Moroccan traveler and diplomat who was captured by Christian pirates. She emphasized the story of his time spent in Italy prior to returning back to North America.
Following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Davis intended to write a long chapter on Leo Africanus. However, this eventually developed into “Trickster Travel: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim between Worlds,” her recently published book that discusses the study of his life and work, which was also the topic of her presentation at the University.
During her talk, Davis reflected on cultural changes and traditions.
“This [presentation] was an example of showing a historian at work,” Teter said. “Davis presented work in progress. You could see her still working through some problems with sources, languages, and questions that guided her research.”
Other faculty members expressed their opinions regarding this presentation.
“She was my thesis advisor,” said Professor of History Laurie Nussdorfer. “This is the person that made me the historian that I am. It is especially exciting to be able to share my teacher with my students. It is just not something that happens very often.”
Dean of the Arts and Humanities and Director of Curricular Initiatives Andrew Curran added that this story represents a pivotal event in history.
“Leo Africanus’s [“Descrittione dell’Africa”] was one of the most important single events within the history of the representation of Africa, and particularly the representation of so-called ‘Black Africa,’” Curran wrote in an email to The Argus. “What I have always found so interesting about Leo Africanus is that the so-called ‘European framework’ for much of the way that the continent would subsequently be viewed was produced by an African.”
Teter added that she was fascinated by Davis’ explanation of the ways in which Mediterranean culture has changed.
“[The lecture was] really fascinating,” Teter said. “It is great merging different genres of documents and sources from poetry to baptismal records to courts records. She masterfully showed and wove it into a wonderful story.”