Gift in 16th Century France

Natalie Zemon Davis, Author
Natalie Zemon Davis, Author University of Wisconsin Press $50 (232p) ISBN 978-0-299-16880-3
Paperback - 185 pages - 978-0-299-16884-1
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From the moment of birth, when peasant women in Normandy would arrive with cider, honey and nutmeg for the new mother, gift-giving represented a pervasive form of bonding in the 16th century. God's generosity was to be reflected in the generosity of humankind, and gratitude in gift systems helped to hold society together, it was said, as stones were cemented in a good building. In analyzing these ""complicated and multivalent"" practices, Davis (professor emerita of history at Princeton) brings to the forefront the anthropological perspective implicit in a good deal of recent European cultural history, including her own Return of Martin Guerre. Certain passages will bring a wry smile of familiarity: bad gifts, we are told, might ""explode into unbridled and violent rivalry,"" while the ""gnaw of obligation ate into the psychological economy of people in many echelons."" But in many respects, this was a culture profoundly unlike our own; in it villagers might be expected to arrive at the lawyer's office with gifts of rabbits, eggs and chickens (""It would have been unthinkable for them to arrive empty-handed""). The constant message here is that this was a society whose sense of community has been almost entirely lost in the contemporary world. But as Davis suggests, there are important lessons here for our individualistic and consumerist society. Her book, though laden with the language of the academy, is a valuable addition to the current historical discourse on the importance of courtesy and civility. B&w illus. (Sept.)
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