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Natalie Zemon Davis

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The Wallace K. Ferguson Prize

2007

Natalie Zemon Davis.  Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds, New York, Hill and Wang, 2006.
In Trickster Travels, Natalie Zemon Davis has produced an absorbing account of the life of an obscure Muslim diplomat, captive, and scholar. His names were 2009-06-13he was given at birth in Granada in the late 1480s; Giovanni Leone, the Christian name honouring the pope who baptized him in captivity in 1520; Yuhanna al-Asad, the Arabic version of his Italian name by which he was known to friends in Rome until his escape in 1527; and Leo Africanus, the author of the widely read The Description of Africa. Al-Wazzan deftly negotiated his identity as circumstances required it to change, and it is in this deft negotiation that Davis finds the heart of her subject. As the documentary record about al-Wazzan is almost blank, Davis draws on her extraordinary grasp of the historical literature on the early-sixteenth-century Mediterranean world, as well as on her keen ability to interpret the variety of conflicting cultural imperatives under which al-Wazzan lived, to reconstruct his life. In this book as in her earlier work, Davis listens carefully for “the silences and occasional contradictions and mysteries” in al-Wazzan’s writings. These silences, she tells us, are where we must listen to access the moral and psychological complexities of living between worlds. The book is a tour de force of historical reconstruction. It is also a profound reflection on the challenge of finding dignity and justice in the uneasy multicultural world that al-Wazzan’s age has bequeathed to the present.

Honourable Mention:
Shannon McSheffreyMarriage, Sex, and Civic Culture in Late Medieval London, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
The work of Shannon McSheffrey focuses on the city of London in the second half of the 15th century. Beyond this time and place, Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture offers all readers a skilful lesson in researching and writing history. The author shows how fluid were the private and public spheres in the late Middle Ages. Far from being a simple private ceremony between a man and a woman, marriage culminated a long process that involved families, neighbours, public officials, and the Church. The author states eloquently and with style that what we now consider as part of private life was a public affair. In doing so, she shows that historians such as George Duby and Philippe Ariès in their History of the Private Life have often fallen into the anachronism trap when applying contemporary concepts to the medieval period. Further, compared to recent work establishing that London’s civic culture was becoming more secular, McSheffrey underlines the central role played by England’s religious culture at the end of the Middle Ages. The thesis presented by the author is based on a close reading of a variety of primary sources, especially ecclesiastical records, whose usefulness is presented at the end of the book in the appendix. The endnotes are abundant and allow McSheffrey to examine closely some important historiographical issues. This important contribution should attract the attention of students and scholars alike.