08/13/2013 05:00 EDT | Updated 10/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Obama awards U of T historian with humanities medal

A University of Toronto professor has been honoured by the White House for her "insights into the study of history," accepting an award from U.S. President Barack Obama.

Natalie Zemon Davis, with U of T's Department of History, was among a dozen recipients of this year's National Humanities Medal — a prize awarded to individuals or groups whose work illuminates the United States' engagement with the humanities.

She was presented with the medal in the East Room of the White House.

"The President spoke of the humanities and hope and his words rang in my ears as he put the medal around my neck, for I have tried my best to be not only a truth-teller about the past, but also to be a historian of hope," the renowned social historian said.

Davis's intensive archival research has focused on people on the fringes of society such as workers, peasants, women and other outsiders, particularly between the 16th and 18th centuries.

The award puts Davis in the same company as previous National Humanities Medal winners such as Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Roth, Nobel Peace Prize winner Toni Morrison, novelist John Updike and filmmaker Stephen Spielberg.

She has also been named Companion of the Order of Canada and in 2010 she was awarded Norway's prestigious Holberg International Memorial Prize, worth about $700,000, for her narrative approach to telling historic tales.

Davis, who was born in Detroit, was one of the first female professors of the humanities at U of T. She joined the university as a junior professor in the 1960s, then took teaching posts at Berkeley and Princeton before returning to U of T in the 1990s.