Regarding Lorna Sage's review of Natalie Zemon Davis' "Women on the Margins" (Jan. 7): I assume Sage is not a historian. She seems unfamiliar with Davis' work and with the field in general, even suggesting that Davis "exiles scholarly references to copious endnotes," although endnotes replaced footnotes in history texts more than two decades ago.

Davis is more than the author of "The Return of Martin Guerre." She is one of today's foremost historians, and her numerous articles and books--"Society and Culture in Early Modern France" (1975), "The Return of Martin Guerre" (1983), "Fiction in the Archives" (1987)--as well as lectures, symposiums and collaborative projects have been path-breakers in social, cultural and women's history. In "Women on the Margins," she explores new terrain and once again gives us new visions of the past and present. Sage is wrong when she suggests it is but another effort to dust off long-neglected women. And it certainly is not "devoted to hiding its three subjects, burying them and losing them in the intricacies of their stories"--whatever that means.

Davis' specialty has been the common people, their cultures and their mental universes. Here, she examines three ordinary women who had unordinary aspirations. All three were on society's "margins" because they were not aristocrats, because they were women and single mothers, husbandless because of death or divorce. They were considered marginal for other reasons as well: the German Glikl bas Judah Leib of Hamburg because she was Jewish, intent on ensuring her children's security in a hostile Christian world; the French Marie Guyart de L'Incarnation because she was seized with a missionary zeal that did not befit her station in life or her role as mother; the German Protestant Maria Sibylla Merian because she sought independence and a respected place in the male-dominated scientific and artistic circles of Europe. De L'Incarnation and Merian even went to their world's margins--the frontiers of Quebec and Suriname. These are case studies of how people navigated in the margins and even exploited them.

Davis reconstructs their particular worlds through details so concrete that we feel she is taking us by the hand back into their neighborhoods, introducing us to people she knows, guiding us through the thicket of their social and economic relations, immersing us in their emotional and mental universes. She does the same with the native peoples whom De L'Incarnation and Merian encountered. We learn volumes about the overlapping subcultures that made up 17th century Europe, Quebec and Suriname.

Davis has given us a work of art. It is a pity Sage could not see it.


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