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Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives

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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 no 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.


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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 no 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.

30 review for Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives

  1. 5 out of 5

    Siria

    Women on the Margins examines the lives of three seventeenth-century European women: Glikl bas Judah Leib, a Jewish wife and trader; Marie de l'Incarnation, a Catholic who left behind her community and her child in France in order to help found a convent in Canada; and Maria Sibylla Merian, a Protestant artist-naturalist who travelled to Suriname to study and paint insect life. Davis pursues the kind of microhistories here which will be familiar to those who have read her The Return of Martin Gu Women on the Margins examines the lives of three seventeenth-century European women: Glikl bas Judah Leib, a Jewish wife and trader; Marie de l'Incarnation, a Catholic who left behind her community and her child in France in order to help found a convent in Canada; and Maria Sibylla Merian, a Protestant artist-naturalist who travelled to Suriname to study and paint insect life. Davis pursues the kind of microhistories here which will be familiar to those who have read her The Return of Martin Guerre. I found all three lives fascinating, but thought that the case for examining them in tandem could have been made more strongly. The final analytical chapter is very brief, I found Davis' definition of "living on the margins" to be overly broad, and the introduction—in which Davis conducts an imaginary conversation with all three women in a place called 'Thoughtland'—I found to be more embarrassingly twee than thought provoking. More sustained comparative analysis would have strengthened this book immensely; while I found each chapter interesting on its own, Women on the Margins is less than the sum of its parts.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Philip

    An excellent examination of three contemporary European women using their own written word to express themselves. Further, the author selects from three religious backgrounds to provide a more vivid mural of events. The subjects of the book each have agency in their lives during a period when men are nearly the entire focus for historians.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Nicholas

    Natalie Zemon Davis wishes to present three lives in the seventeenth century. This book particularly focuses on historiography along with biographical supplements concerning women during this period. Unfortunately the quotations made by Marie De L'Incarnation make her look like a lunatic since she is a mystic. Overall, the New History presented by Davis is unconvincing that sexism completely ruled everyone before the twentieth century.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Rose LaCroix

    While of interest to historians as a solid secondary source on the lives of three 17th century women, this book is not for the casual reader and I found myself struggling at times to get through Davis' lengthy digressions and rather indirect style. It will remain on my bookshelf as an excellent source for academic papers, but as something to read curled up in bed it was only slightly more engaging than an encyclopedia and at times much harder to follow.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca Radnor

    minihistories of ...

  6. 4 out of 5

    Sabrina

    This is a partial review, because I did a partial read. I wanted to read more about Marie de l'Incarnation from a secondary source grounded in history, so I focused only on the second section of the book, as well as it's references. Natalie Zemon Davis does an excellent job of explaining the life and motivations of Marie Guyart, based solidly on primary sources. She gives broader context to French life, Ursuline life, religious life in Nouvelle France, and the lives of the Indigenous people who This is a partial review, because I did a partial read. I wanted to read more about Marie de l'Incarnation from a secondary source grounded in history, so I focused only on the second section of the book, as well as it's references. Natalie Zemon Davis does an excellent job of explaining the life and motivations of Marie Guyart, based solidly on primary sources. She gives broader context to French life, Ursuline life, religious life in Nouvelle France, and the lives of the Indigenous people who were deeply affected by the presence of religious missionaries and European traders, as well as Marie's own thoughts and perspectives, as shared in her letters and other writings. The book didn't insist I come away with a particular perspective, and I left deeply uncomfortable with the legacy of French Canadians in Canada (which is my background). Maybe not what everyone is looking for in a history book, but it was the right takeaway for me.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Nathan

    I picked up this book primarily for the third chapter about Maria Sibylla Merian, but found the other two interesting in their own way. Davis presents the three women in a humorous dialog at the start of the text. Her way of giving each a voice, before the start of the very first chapter, is slightly cheeky but a nice way to tease the rest of the book. How the three different lives overlapped and maybe even intersected, in the case of Merian and Glikl bas Judah Leib, is fascinating. I am constan I picked up this book primarily for the third chapter about Maria Sibylla Merian, but found the other two interesting in their own way. Davis presents the three women in a humorous dialog at the start of the text. Her way of giving each a voice, before the start of the very first chapter, is slightly cheeky but a nice way to tease the rest of the book. How the three different lives overlapped and maybe even intersected, in the case of Merian and Glikl bas Judah Leib, is fascinating. I am constantly reminded that we live in a very small world. Davis has riddled her book with notes and commentary that I appreciate. It is wonderful to be able to dig a little more whenever there is an endnote. Reading the chapter on Glikl made me want to know more about the Germanic region of the Baroque era. Similarly, by covering Marie de l'Incarnation's time in Quebec I began to wonder more about the Huron, Iroquois and Mohawk during the time of the Jesuit's evangelistic efforts. Yet the chapter "Metamorphosis" was my main reason for picking up Davis' book. It was cited in Joyce Sidman's The Girl Who Drew Butterflies. I wanted to know more about Merian and how she fits into the larger late 17th century artistic world of Germany and the Netherlands. Below are two quotes that I found useful about Merian: “Almost all of the women artists of the early modern period were, like Maria Sibylla Merian, born into a family of artists. In that setting their talent could be welcomed, and contemporary beliefs about the dampening effects of the female temperament on genius ignored(10). Difference did exist, however, between female artists and their brothers. One of them was not important for Maria Sibylla: the usual exclusion of women from large-scale history painting and from the representation of the nude body. These were not projects of either the Merian or the Marrel atelier. While her mother taught her and her stepsister to embroider, Maria Sibylla was able to learn drawing, watercolor, still-life painting, and copperplate engraving from her stepfather along with his male pupils.” p143 “There is no sign in her 1697 letter to Nuremberg or in her 1699 will of any persistence of Labadist enthusiasm; her preface to the Metamorphosis describes the Friesland years disingenuously as if they had been a mere research trip. Yet her divesting herself of property once again and her taking off with her Wieuwerd-raised daughter across the ocean remind one less of the intellectual curiosity of Amsterdam naturalist than of the experimental mobility of Jean de Labadie and Anna Maria van Schurman(136). Merian would never have produced the Metamorphosis if she had stayed with the elect, but she would never have crossed to Suriname is she had not once dared to be a Labadist.” p.172

  8. 4 out of 5

    Nataliya Borys

    Fascinating stories of women on margins. Different margins.Why these women? NZD:"I wanted to have a Jew, a Catholic, a Protestant.I could see what difference, religion made in women's lifes, what door it opened for you and what door it closed". Women on margins, religions on margins.NZD "I also showed how women in your position made the best of it I asked what advantages you had by being on the margins". Not only women on the margins, but religions too, for Glikh Christians are also on the margi Fascinating stories of women on margins. Different margins.Why these women? NZD:"I wanted to have a Jew, a Catholic, a Protestant.I could see what difference, religion made in women's lifes, what door it opened for you and what door it closed". Women on margins, religions on margins.NZD "I also showed how women in your position made the best of it I asked what advantages you had by being on the margins". Not only women on the margins, but religions too, for Glikh Christians are also on the margins of her Jewish center.It is an interesting new approach of microhistory :) My favorite story is of Marie de L'Incarnation.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Patricia Tienken-boman

    It is always interesting to see how much we have progressed over the years in equality, this book was a litttle difficult to read, I felt it was more like for a class and it had so many references that I skimmed most of it. It is a comparison of these women (one Jewish, one Catholic and a Protestant) and how religion influences them.I was not enamored with this but if you are doing research on women's issues then this is a good read. My favorite woman in this book is the Catholic nun, her story s It is always interesting to see how much we have progressed over the years in equality, this book was a litttle difficult to read, I felt it was more like for a class and it had so many references that I skimmed most of it. It is a comparison of these women (one Jewish, one Catholic and a Protestant) and how religion influences them.I was not enamored with this but if you are doing research on women's issues then this is a good read. My favorite woman in this book is the Catholic nun, her story seems more interesting to me anyway.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    Subjects: Glueckel, of Hameln, 1646-1724. Marie de l'Incarnation, mère, 1599-1672. Merian, Maria Sibylla, 1647-1717. Women -- Biography. Biography -- 17th century. Jewish women -- Germany -- Biography. Women merchants -- Germany -- Biography. Women missionaries -- Québec (Province) -- Biography. Protestant women -- Suriname -- Biography.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Itsbecka

    Interesting book on how three women lived in the 16th century. These were not "common" women - they wrote extensively so this isn't a book of what life was like for common 16th century people. But it was interesting.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Betsy D

    History with lots of footnotes, but well-told, from the women's own journals and memoirs and more. See Siria's review.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    interesting

  14. 5 out of 5

    Richard

    Good read, interesting story painted by Davis, but a bit light on analysis.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Carissa

    I don't remember anything from this book. I read it for a college course. Actually, I probably skimmed it.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Émilie

  17. 5 out of 5

    Shannon Gilligan Wehr

  18. 4 out of 5

    Macee Smith-Leavens

  19. 5 out of 5

    Emily

  20. 5 out of 5

    Anncovicka

  21. 4 out of 5

    Simona Baranová

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ariel

  23. 4 out of 5

    M.A (maianh)

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jackie

  25. 4 out of 5

    Hippocleides

  26. 4 out of 5

    Carrie

  27. 4 out of 5

    Laura

  28. 4 out of 5

    Laura

  29. 5 out of 5

    Suvi Maarit

  30. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

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