We flatter ourselves here in Baltimore for having the large national book stores; but in none (I have yet to check one of them) have I seen a nice big pile of Natalie Zemon Davis's wonderful new book The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000).
This book is not about an arcane or remote subject, especially in this season. For so many friends, it would nice to slip The Gift ... into another gift package, a surprise that could only yield pleasure. The book is physically beautiful; its illustrations interesting and virtually unknown except to specialists; the prose engaging and filled with lively examples.
And the theme could not be larger or more important. Davis elucidates a social relation of the highest importance, independent of the auto-consumptive ways of rural society, and the "market" ways of urban society. The resonances to the present are important. This book nourishes my conservatism (true conservatism) vis à vis the ideology of the market as it pervades our society today. This book is about ethics, history, gender, individualism and habit, or customs of giving and receiving.
Seneca the elder imagined a social order partly grounded on giving and gratitude for gifts received, but he insisted that, for the benefit to be truly a gift, it had to be freely and intentionally given — a grace — without a thought about the gift that might be received in return. The religious cultures of the sixteenth century had almost a monopoly on this form of gift-giving; churches were founded on theories of grace, and others reformed themselves to restore the gift to its distinct place out of the "market" of indulgences.
In the seventeenth century, Polanyi sought to offer some sort of understanding about exchange that was neither Marxist nor capitalist; his brilliant work should not be forgotten. N.Z.D. takes a step further in discovering a social phenomenon in which we all participate but which certainly has not been much scrutinized by philosophers or economists in historically and immediately understandable ways. Bravo, Natalie Davis, for a gift to all of us in this era of globalization, for a gift of understanding at one historical, presentist and deeply humane.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
P.S. I had hoped some journal editor might ask me to review this book, but it hasn't happened. Sir Keith Thomas's review in The New York Review of Books will attract attention, which is all to the good. But the computer programs that link the big trade publishers to the big bookstore chains probably do not include the address of the U. of Wisconsin Press, except for private orders, alas. P.P.S. As I put down my pen, I recall Sharon Kettering's pioneering article on the subject: "Gift Giving and Patronage in Early Modern France," French History 2 (1988)P 131-151. Someone might wonder if I had forgotten it. No, I haven't. And more important, N.A. Davis did not forget it either !