Marginal No More: Lives From the 17th Century

Scholarly history tells of three women who transformed themselves on their own terms


By Natalie Zemon Davis

Harvard University Press

360 pp., $24.95

Like one of the 17th-century women whose stories she tells, Natalie Zemon Davis is fascinated by metamorphoses: dramatic transformations in a life cycle. ''Women on the Margins'' is her portrait of three women and their different but sometimes parallel experiences 300 years ago.

''The most important similarity among the three,'' Davis writes, ''is their manner of work, a women's version of an artisanal-commercial style. All of them had a sure expertise: They could tell a good jewel, a good embroidery design, a good insect specimen, among other judgments....

''Each life stands as an example, with its own virtues, initiatives and faults, and 17th-century European motifs run through them all: melancholy, enhanced sense of self, curiosity, eschatological hope, the pondering of God's presence in and intentions for the universe.''

Two of the women recorded their lives and thoughts in manuscripts and letters; the third left another kind of record in her notable published studies of insects. Davis adds a rich and comprehensive cultural context to all three through her research in other contemporary sources.

Glikl Bas Judah Leib, a Jewish merchant of Hamburg, married at 12, worked with her husband, and took over his business after he died suddenly when eight of their 12 children were still living at home. Wanting to share the hopes, joys, and disappointments of her life - plus sound and pious advice - with her children, she composed a seven-volume autobiography that is also her ''dialogue with God,'' as Davis characterizes it. The Jewish mother's voice resonates.

Marie De L'Incarnation, a French Catholic nun, served half her life in an Ursuline convent in Quebec. Widowed in her teens and with an infant, she yearned to dedicate her life to her religion, but waited to take the veil until her son reached 11, leaving him with relatives.

Her many letters after she went to Canada, and the manuscript she wrote at her adult son's request to explain her spiritual journey, document her life. Especially interesting is her involvement with the ''savage'' women she labored to convert.

Maria Sibylla Merian, an artist-naturalist, studied and painted butterflies, caterpillars, and insects. She grew up in a family of German artists and engravers, learning her art and becoming interested at an early age in creatures that change their form and function. Married to an artist and the mother of two daughters, Merian continued her professional work, publishing a two-volume study when she was in her early 30s. Then her own life took a dramatic turn. She left her husband and joined a radical Protestant community in Holland, where she lived for seven years.

In yet another abrupt change, she and a daughter went to Suriname in South America, where she pursued her insect studies, producing her best work. The black-and-white reproductions of several plates in Davis's book show elegantly designed, sophisticated compositions similar to Audubon prints centuries later.

This triptych of 17th-century women is a treasure. Davis has written a scholarly (120 pages of notes) and multilayered history, but her three subjects come alive. These ''Women on the Margins'' are far from marginal.

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