Well-known historian visits UNH, presents research
Published: Friday, October 19, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 15:02
Widely known as one of the greatest living historians and pioneers in women’s history, Natalie Zemon Davis charmed and engaged a crowded theater of students and adults in her presentation of the 2012 Dunfey lecture, “Dealing With Strangeness: Language and Information Flow in an Early Modern Slave Society.”
Davis led a spirited discussion last night about the communication between slaves and masters in 18th century Suriname as an excerpt from one of her current research projects. As both a scholar and a teacher, she has devoted much of her efforts into learning about those who live on the margins of society.
The idea for her current topic of exploration developed while conducting research for a book originally about three European women on the margins, she said. Her research led her to study the area of Suriname, where she decided to instead give a voice to the indigenous women and slave informants.
“I’m going to try to write things from another vantage point,” Davis said, resolving to tell the story from the perspective of the African people and their masters.
According to UNH professor of history Jeffry Diefendorf, Davis’s work is a “braided history” because she has created “meaningful shapes from faint and loose strands that are too often overlooked by historians.”
Davis, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, once described her research as “looking for what’s hidden in the cracks of the intellectual landscape.”
Davis was elected as the second woman president of the American Historical Association and, most recently, appointed as a Companion to the Order of Canada. Through these ventures, her passion has stretched her career far beyond the role of a traditional educator.
Throughout her still-thriving career, Davis has written a number of books and has produced 175 articles in scholarly journals.
She has “really pioneered how we write the history of people who didn’t leave behind written records,” said Eliga Gould, chairman of the History Department and professor of history at UNH.
Among many other awards and acknowledgements, Davis was awarded the Holberg International Memorial Prize for her creativity, interdisciplinary nature of her research, and ability to inspire young historians.
According to Gould, Davis’s visit did just that.
“I think it’s wonderful for students to hear someone of this caliber and someone who is this active,” he said.
The famed historian synchronized her lecture with a set of key terms in the Creole language created by the Suriname slaves. She journeyed through a timeline of interactions between slaves and their managers.
According to Davis, the Creole language books and dictionaries are all filling a wide cultural gap for historians because slave collaborators can influence the content of what they pass on to future generations.
By analyzing the language interactions, research is “giving voice to human understanding (and therefore) can contribute to the cause of human solidarity,” Davis said.