Natalie Zemon Davis
Natalie Zemon Davis; drawing by David Levine


The idea that human beings are held together by the exchange of gifts is forever associated with the name of Marcel Mauss (1872-1950), nephew of Émile Durkheim and author of Essai sur le don, forme archaïque de l’échange (1925).1 In that brief but pregnant sketch, Mauss showed how the people of the South Seas, the Pacific Northwest, and other “archaic” societies transferred many goods and services to each other by gift, rather than by commercial contracts. Those gifts purported to be free and voluntary, but were in fact obligatory. A strict code of reciprocity imposed a threefold obligation: to give, to receive, and to repay.

Mauss believed that, in the absence of the state, this practice of gift exchange was a way of binding people together and creating human solidarity; though he also showed how in the potlatch, the competitive destruction of goods among the Indians of Northwest America, the practice could take on a more aggressive form. For Mauss the act of giving was inherently ambivalent, at once generous and self-interested.

Mauss was not the first to reflect upon this ambivalence. Nearly four hundred years earlier, Thomas Hobbes had asserted in Leviathan (1651) that “no man giveth, but with inten-tion of good to himself.” In his remarkable essay “Gifts” (1844), Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that charity wounded those who received it, while Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883) warned that the unreciprocated gift left the recipient feeling inferior and revengeful. Gifts might appear to be generous, but they were often a way of asserting superiority and creating dependency.

Mauss believed that, with the expansion of the market, the sphere of gift exchange had contracted. Roman law drew a distinction between persons and things, a distinction that dispelled the primitive notion that a gift contained the spiritual essence of the giver and could not go unreciprocated without danger. The gift was redefined as a unilateral act, different from a loan or a contract in that it required no reciprocity.2 The growth of the state created an alternative form of solidarity, making unnecessary the bonds created by the exchange of gifts. There were survivals of the rite, of course: alms-giving; tips and gratuities; the exchange of invitations and courtesies; and potlatch-like acts of conspicuous consumption. Within the family and among friends, presents and hospitality retained their importance. But although large-scale philanthropy helped to make capitalism more acceptable, modern society was no longer held together by the exchange of gifts.

Mauss seems to have regretted this. He was a socialist who was hostile to the market and to usury. He believed in the duty of giving and the social responsibilities of the rich. His portrayal of primitive society as governed by reciprocity rather than profit was an explicit critique of Western civilization, which, in his view, had turned people into inhumane calculating machines. The essence of the gift had been that it united self-interest and moral obligation, whereas the crime of the market was to create an unprecedented opposition between the two.3

These propositions have stimulated a huge volume of writing by anthropologists on gifts and exchange.4 Some have enthusiastically developed a distinction between gifts, which are freely exchanged, and commodities, whose movement is governed by market contracts. Others have observed, more skeptically, that if a gift involves reciprocity, then it is essentially no different from any other kind of exchange, even if the return is delayed in time and different in kind. If all transactions are attempts to maximize profit, whether material or symbolic, then the distinction between economic and noneconomic exchange loses much of its value.

The debates among the anthropologists have not passed unnoticed by historians, particularly those concerned with reciprocity in the classical and early medieval world. But, with a few notable exceptions,5 the role of gift exchange in more modern societies has been largely neglected. It is therefore particularly welcome that a historian of Natalie Zemon Davis’s exceptional talents should have turned her attention to this revealing topic. Her new book continues the dialogue with anthropology which has been such a feature of late-twentieth-century historiography. It is intended as “an ethnog-raphy of gifts” in sixteenth-century France, a study of “their status, meanings and uses.” “Who presented what to whom?” she asks. “When and why, and what did it mean?”

The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France has been a long time in gestation, originating in lectures given in the early 1980s. It is based on an intimate acquaintance with the printed literature of sixteenth-century France, together with a great deal of work in archives, particularly on wills, and a general alertness to the currents of late-twentieth-century intellectual life. The result is not the vast monograph which the subject might be thought to have required, but an elegant and relatively short essay, suggestive rather than definitive, yet bristling with intellectual excitement.


Davis begins by firmly distinguishing the gift from other forms of exchange. As she sees it, there are essentially three kinds of transaction, or what she calls “relational modes.” These are sale, coercion, and gift. Goods and services may be bought and sold in the market; they may be extracted by compulsion, theft, or violence; and they may be given away freely, without any return being explicitly required. The three modes overlap, but they are distinct and each has its own rules and etiquette. At any particular time, one of them may predominate, but the others will never be wholly absent. Davis thus rejects Mauss’s evolutionary belief that gift exchange gradually gives way to the market. In her view, the gift mode may shrink, but it never ceases to be socially important.

She begins with a discussion of sixteenth-century views on what Montaigne called “the science of benefit and gratitude.” The morality of the day taught that it was more blessed to give than to receive. Christian doctrine held that everything in life was a gift from God, for which human gratitude could never be adequate, while classical authorities, from Aristotle to the Roman moralist Seneca, portrayed human society as held together by the reciprocal exchange of benefits. The obligation engendered by gratitude was at least as important a social bond as contract or coercion.

Davis identifies four contemporary ideals of giving, each with its own particular flavor, but all embodying the essential spirit of the gift: Christian charity; aristocratic liberality; the exchange of favors between friends; and mutual help between neighbors. In each case, the donors were expected to give freely without thought of return; yet the recipients were supposed to reciprocate appropriately. As Seneca noted in his much-cited work On Benefits, “a good turn passing orderly from hand to hand doth nevertheless return to the giver.” (This doctrine was reflected in the contemporary story of how Sir Walter Raleigh once dealt his son “a damned blow over the face” at the dinner table; his son, hesitating to hit his father back, struck the gentleman who sat next to him, saying, “Box about: ’twill come to my father anon.”)

After setting out these principles of reciprocity, Davis gives a concise account of French gift-giving in the sixteenth century. All the main calendar festivals were accompanied by an exchange of presents: New Year gifts (les étrennes), Easter offerings, harvest suppers, food left out for the dead on All Souls night, and other seasonal offerings which involved the giving of alms to the poor and carnivalesque begging by gangs of young people. A person’s life cycle was normally marked out by what Natalie Davis calls “an intricate choreography of gifts.” Births, baptisms, initiation rituals, betrothals, marriages, and funerals all involved the exchange of presents, tokens, meals, and alcohol. At every social level, the exchange of food and drink was the conventional means of cementing relationships, whether in neighborly gifts of fruit and vegetables, or the tavern sociability of workmates, or the banquets and open-house hospitality of the great seigneurs. Within the family, parents made transfers to children during their lifetime and bequeathed them property after their death.

Davis shows that the early modern state, far from making gift exchange redundant, rested on an intricate system of patronage and clientage which involved the unceasing exchange of favors. Clergy and scholars dedicated their books to their noble patrons. Seigneurs extended hospitality and protection to the peasantry, receiving loyalty in return along with small gifts of produce. The rural nobility endlessly exchanged presents of game with each other. Social relations were sustained by the language of gift, service, and gratitude.

In the learned professions it was widely believed that it was wrong to take payment. Knowledge was a gift of God, which ought not to be sold. Clerics, academics, and physicians relied on “voluntary” presents as much as on fees. So did barbers, surgeons, and midwives. (Even today a visiting lecturer at an American university will be paid an “honorarium,” not a fee.)

At the apex of this pyramid of giving and receiving was the Crown. The king’s most important gifts were grants of office, a source of profit to the recipient, as well as of power. Officeholders were bombarded with gifts by clients and suitors, both on their initial appointment and as an accompaniment to individual transactions. When the king made his royal entry into a town, he received presents from the municipality. In return, he confirmed the city’s privileges, released prisoners, and touched sufferers from scrofula. Ambassadors presented the monarch’s gifts to foreign rulers, while trying to avoid receiving them in return because of the obligations they would entail. At every social level, the discharge of a service was typically accompanied by the payment of a tip or douceur.


Nowhere was the ambiguity of these gifts more evident than in the administration of royal justice. Like other officers, judges regularly received gifts in the course of daily business. But when did a friendly gesture turn into corruption? Revealingly, there was no sixteenth-century French word for “bribe”; there were merely dons and présents inappropriately bestowed. Corruption was legislated against, but the endless flow of gifts was an integral part of the courtesies of public life.

In sixteenth-century France, in short, the giving of gifts was an essential social lubricant. Gifts eased relations between equals and softened the hierarchy of superior and inferior. With their aid, people sought loyalty, honor, practical help, personal affection, and divine approval. Gift exchange was a way of achieving protection, alliance, and advancement. It marked status, reduced tension, and created solidarity.

Yet gifts could also evoke ingratitude and a sense of intolerable obligation. Parents employed their will-making power in heavyhanded attempts to control the marriages and religious choices of their children. Women were coerced into obedience by fathers and husbands who held the purse strings. The law encouraged these petty tyrannies by permitting donors to revoke their donations should the recipient prove ungrateful. King Lear had many contemporary analogues. In a piquant chapter entitled “Gifts Gone Wrong,” Natalie Davis suggests that the gift mode generated dissimulation and falsehood. The relations between client and patron, courtier and monarch, were tarnished by the constant need to solicit favors and simulate gratitude. Montaigne, in his essay “On Vanity” (1588), bitterly evoked the misery of living on the favor of others; far better to pay one’s own way. The impersonality of free contract and the candor of honest speech seemed infinitely preferable to the maze of obligation and deceit created by the workings of gift exchange.


Natalie Davis presents an absorbing picture, but is there anything about it that was distinctive either to France or to the sixteenth century? The publication twenty years ago of Muriel St. Clare Byrne’s great edition of The Lisle Letters revealed that the upper classes of early Tudor England were just as heavily engaged as their French counterparts in the repeated exchange of “tokens” and “remembrances”: whether gastronomic delicacies, like boars’ heads, sturgeons, quails, lampreys, pies, lemons, and quinces; or pet animals, like parrots, monkeys, linnets, hawks, spaniels, and greyhounds; or ladies’ knickknacks, like purses, needle cases, gloves, bracelets, rings, and toothpicks. Even children were lent out to other households on temporary exchange. Gift exchange was universal in the early modern period and, in its essentials, Davis’s account of gift exchange in France could be closely paralleled in any other European country.

The rise of monarchical absolutism, however, gives the French story a particular twist. As the Crown enhanced its authority, the gift relationship between the monarch and his subjects was quietly superseded. The reciprocity implicit in the old royal entries into French towns, when the king dispensed favors in return for gifts and hospitality, gave way to the notion that the king was entitled to his subjects’ unquestioning homage. The last royal entries took place in the reign of Louis XIV, by which time they took the form of virtually unilateral tributes to a glorious ruler by his humble people. The idea that taxes were free grants to the king by his subjects assembled in the Estates-General was superseded by the doctrine that they were justifiable impositions, levied from above.

These political changes apart, Natalie Davis concedes that the rhythms of gift-giving and quarrels over gifts described in her book “would look the same well before and well after the sixteenth century.” Yet in one respect, her period was truly distinctive and that was in its radical reappraisal of the gift relationship between human beings and their maker. In her most original chapter, “Gifts and the Gods,” Davis suggests that the theological disputes which accompanied the European Reformation were essentially arguments about gifts; in particular, about whether human beings could reciprocate God’s gifts to them, and whether God could be put under an obligation.

Davis identifies four models of mutual obligation between God and humankind. The Catholic version was one of complete reciprocity, in which spiritual transactions were represented as an exchange of gifts: between the living and the dead; between the clergy and the laity; between the rich and the poor; and between God and man. The living prayed for the souls of the dead in Purgatory, who reciprocated by ghostly interventions and the intercessions of the saints. The clergy offered prayers and masses for the laity, who responded by giving church equipment and monetary offerings which varied in size, so as to make it clear that they were gifts, not payments. The rich gave alms to the poor, who were expected to pray for their benefactors. God’s gifts to mankind were reciprocated by masses, which were represented as sacrificial returns for favors received.

The second model was that of complete fusion between human and divine. In place of the intermittent rhythm of gift and obligation, mystics like Saint Teresa sought total union with God, just as Montaigne described his friendship with Étienne de la Boétie as a seamless union of souls. When all was shared, there were no gifts. Robert Olivétan, the translator of the first French Protestant Bible (1535), did not regard the vernacular scriptures as a gift to be rewarded by some patron. There could be no property in the word of God: it enriched the recipient without impoverishing the donor.

Equally radical was the third model of the relationship between God and man, that of the Calvinists. John Calvin rejected virtually all the old Catholic notions of reciprocity. For him, God’s gift of Christ to man was a free donation, made out of gratuitous goodness. The kingdom of heaven was not a payment to be earned, but an inheritance bestowed on those whom God adopted as his children. Calvin flatly denied that God could be put under any obligation and utterly rejected the possibility that human beings could make an adequate return for God’s grace. In his eyes, the Catholic sacrifice in the form of the mass was an impertinent attempt to offer payment for Christ’s redemption of mankind. He rejected the doctrine of Purgatory, thereby putting an end to reciprocity between the living and the dead, and also between rich and poor; for all the poor had to offer were prayers for their benefactors, and those were now deemed to be useless.

Calvin thought it wrong for the rich to expect reciprocation for their benevolence. They had a unilateral obligation to give to the limits of their abilities; and it was wicked to try “to subjugate a person to whom you have done a benefit by making him obliged to you.” In Davis’s words, “Calvin’s theology refused to conceive of human solidarity in terms of any measured reciprocity.” In place of interested relationships between individuals, he envisaged a more general obligation to the community as a whole.

The fourth model of human solidarity, in Davis’s view, was that expressed in Rabelais’s Tiers Livre (1546) by the trickster Panurge. Borrowing and lending should be joyously accepted because they kept the world together in harmony; mutual indebtedness was the cement of human society. This was essentially a restatement of the Catholic view; and Rabelais allowed it to be strenuously refuted by the wise prince Pantagruel, who, in Reformist mode, invokes Saint Paul’s injunction to owe nothing to anyone, save mutual affection. For Davis, this opposition between Catholic reciprocity and Protestant gratuitousness neatly encapsulates the theological debates of the sixteenth century.

Natalie Davis has mined a productive seam. By applying anthropological theories of the gift to the understanding of history, she has illuminated the texture of social and personal relationships in sixteenth-century France; and she has also suggested a new way of looking at the Reformation. Yet her treatment is so tantalizingly brief that some key problems remain unresolved. In particular, one misses any sense of scale or quantity in her work. She shows abundantly that gift exchange persisted in sixteenth-century France. She does not, however, tell us whether more or fewer goods and services changed hands by gift than through the market or by coercion. Of course, exact statistics are impossible. But it would have been helpful if some attempt had been made to give rough proportions to the process, rather in the way that the British social anthropologist John Davis has estimated that, in the late twentieth century, something like 7 to 8 percent of UKconsumer expenditure goes to presents6 ; or, more daringly, in the way that the historian Craig Muldrew recently calculated that, in late-seventeenth-century England, there were 427,866,000 market transactions annually, and probably nearly as many a century earlier.7 Yet Natalie Davis, having outlined her three relational modes of gift, sale, and coercion, leaves us wholly unclear about which of these, if any, was predominant at this period. She is so bewitched by the descriptive mode of cultural anthropology that she neglects the quantitative requirements of the economic historian.

Of course, Davis’s three relational modes overlapped so much in prac-tice that they cannot always be distinguished, let alone easily quantified. As she points out, the boundary between payments and presents was very fluid:most professionals subsisted on a mixture of the two. Just as supposedly free donations were seldom free of self-interest, so economic transactions were often accompanied by gifts. Indeed they often had an important element of gift built into them, something Davis tends to overlook. She comments on the range of petty indebtedness in sixteenth-century France and mentions in passing the existence of “friendly,” i.e., interest-free, loans. But she does not consider the possibility that interest-free credit, based on trust and reciprocity, may have been the largest form of gift ex-change there was. Craig Muldrew has recently exposed the huge scale of petty borrowings in early modern England; at every social level, people were bound together by a web of mutual indebtedness. The internal market in France was less developed, but the situation cannot have been all that different.

Natalie Davis earns our gratitude for drawing attention to the centrality of the gift mode in sixteenth-century France and for exploring many of the nuances of behavior and relationship which it involved. But she offers disappointingly little in the way of a conclusion. Like so many other essays in ethnography, The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France presents a static snapshot rather than a moving picture. We are left to surmise how and why the gift mode subsequently contracted in some spheres and expanded in others.

Yet Davis’s brief allusions to the Marshall Plan, political “corruption” in the form of payoffs, and the grants made by academic foundations remind us that gift exchange has remained a prominent feature of the twentieth century. Indeed it has recently been powerfully argued that, in some respects, reciprocity has even extended its sway as a consequence of economic growth.8 Gift exchange is fundamental within the household and between the generations. It permeates the marketplace, where personal “bonding” between buyer and seller is held to be a crucial element of good salesmanship; and it can be found wherever people work in small groups or face to face.

Not all modern giving is based on reciprocity. Appeals to citizens to give blood, or bequeath their bodily organs, or support human rights in other countries, or subscribe to the relief of some distant disaster depend upon the concept of the absolutely free gift, anonymous and with no possibility of reciprocity. That concept developed in tandem with the emergence of the amorality of the market, with which it contrasts. It was wholly alien to Marcel Mauss’s “archaic” societies, where generosity and self-interest were hopelessly entangled.9

Yet even the utterly gratuitous gift is never wholly without some return, even if it is only the inner glow of satisfaction which it bestows on the donor. The aid given by the West to third world countries is far from disinterested; and so is much of the work of the not-for-profit sector. Those in receipt of charity, whether earthquake victims or inhabitants of a third world country, are seldom left without some feeling of obligation, even if it is only one of resentment. Mauss was right. The completely free lunch continues to elude us.

This Issue

December 21, 2000