Assistant Professor of History Dr. Surekha Davies
DANBURY, CONN. — Western Connecticut State University historian Dr. Surekha Davies has garnered two prestigious book awards recognizing her book, “Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters,” published in 2016 by Cambridge University Press.
Davies, assistant professor of History at WCSU, has been named recipient of the 2017 Roland H. Bainton Prize in History/Theology, awarded by the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference. She also recently earned the 2016 Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best first book by an author in the field of intellectual history, awarded by the Journal of the History of Ideas at the University of Pennsylvania Press.
Bainton Prizes are awarded annually to honor the best books about the period from 1450 to 1660 in the fields of history/theology, art and music history, literature and reference works. The winning work in each category demonstrates superior quality and originality of research, methodological skill and innovation, development of fresh and stimulating interpretations or insights, and high literary quality. The Forkosch Prize recognizes exemplary debut works that display sound scholarship, original conceptualization, and significant chronological and interdisciplinary scope.
Davies’ prize-winning book explored European maps, prints and travel accounts portraying the indigenous peoples of the Americas in the first two centuries of Western engagement with the New World after Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1492. A review by Dr. Katharina Piechocki, associate professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, described the book as “a true gem in the history of ideas which opens up new avenues to think about the intricate relationship among ethnography, cartography, the history of science, and medicine in a time when the world first became globalized.”
The judging committee for the 2016 Forkosch Prize observed that Davies’ “masterly, vivid exploration of early modern illustrated maps opens up a new way to understand how Europeans saw the lands and seas they had begun to explore. Davies reveals the rich stock of sources mapmakers drew upon, from Hippocrates to Tacitus, and the equally varied array of ideas they conveyed.”
The judging committee noted that Davies’ work reveals how mapmakers across Western Europe combined references from scripture, classical texts and popular beliefs with both accurate and fictional perspectives from contemporary travel literature and ethnography to “make powerful, sometimes surprising arguments for human diversity and ultimately help build European notions of cultural hierarchy. Davies’ eloquent command of archival materials lends weight to her claims for the distinctiveness of maps as key players in early modern thinking about the nature of humanity, monstrousness, civilization and barbarism. ‘Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human’ is a book about the representation of marvels; it is also a marvelous read.”
Critical acclaim from Davies’ peers has cited the book’s important contribution to understanding how cartography in the early era of colonialism in the Americas reflected a wider debate over the nature of human identity and civilization. In his review of the book, Dr. Larry Silver, James and Nan Wagner Farquhar Professor of Art History at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote, “Davies skillfully uses Amerindian figures on maps to interrogate the major shift in European knowledge about distant human wonders as filtered through the viewpoint of both firsthand travel accounts of varying reliability and late-medieval presuppositions. In the process, she offers a profound examination of what truly constitutes humanity, as defined through its monstrous extremes, such as cannibalism or gigantism, during the dynamic era of nascent colonies and empires.”
Davies, a cultural historian whose research specializations include the history of science and technology, anthropology and human mentalities from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Cambridge and a Ph.D. in Combined Historical Studies from the Warburg Institute at the University of London. Her research has been supported by the John Carter Brown Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Library of Congress, the Newberry Library, the American Philosophical Society, the American Historical Association and the Leverhulme Trust. She previously served as a curator at the British Library and is founding editor of the book series “Maps, Spaces, Cultures,” published by Brill.
Davies earned top honors among all faculty members in the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system as the recipient of the 2016 system-wide Board of Regents Research Award. She currently holds a Mellon Long-Term Fellowship for 2017-18 at the Folger Library and recently received Visiting Scholar positions at the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute for college faculty at Indiana University and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany.
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