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Gavin I. Langmuir, worldwide authority on history of anti-Semitism, dead at 81

Gavin I. Langmuir

Gavin I. Langmuir

BY LISA TREI

Gavin I. Langmuir, a worldwide authority on the history of anti-Semitism and a distinguished medievalist, died July 10 at his home on campus of complications from emphysema. He was 81.

Langmuir joined the university's history faculty in 1958 and taught a generation of students, including many who became academics themselves. Several of his doctoral advisees described him as a perceptive and masterly teacher with an unusual ability to discover and foster his students' intellectual interests and affinities. He retired in 1993.

Langmuir published many academic articles but was best known for two books, Toward a Definition of Antisemitism and History, Religion and Antisemitism, both published in 1990.

Gary Dickson, an honorary fellow at the University of Edinburgh who was a Stanford undergraduate in the early 1960s, described his mentor as a pioneering scholar in the field of medieval anti-Semitism. Although some academics were researching the subject in Europe, Dickson said, Langmuir was virtually an isolated figure in the United States. A half-century later, he noted, the field is of broad interest to general medievalists, as well as to students of prejudice, multiculturalism and the Holocaust.

Langmuir was born into a prominent Canadian family in Toronto on April 2, 1924. According to James Given, another former student and a history professor at the University of California-Irvine, Langmuir first planned to become a military officer. During World War II, Langmuir served as a lieutenant in the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada and, in the winter of 1944-45, he was deployed in Europe along the Siegfried Line fighting the Nazis. In February 1945, he was badly wounded and left for dead on the battlefield but was rescued by a fellow soldier and evacuated to England, where he recovered and received a medical discharge, said his daughter, Valerie Langmuir. "He was proud of his military service but was a pacifist at heart," she said.

Unable to pursue a military career due to his wartime disability, Langmuir became interested in diplomacy and decided to attend college. In 1948, he earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto and went on to study modern diplomatic history at Harvard. Langmuir became increasingly interested in medieval studies, however, and in 1955 completed his doctoral dissertation on English constitutional history. After teaching at Harvard for a few years, he joined Stanford's faculty. According to Given, Langmuir's lifelong interest in the Jews of medieval England was sparked by a book he reviewed. He went on to write many articles that documented the nature of criminal charges against Jews and how those accusations evolved during the 12th and 13th centuries.

In Toward a Definition of Antisemitism, Langmuir outlined a conceptual framework that differentiated between medieval anti-Judaism, in which the Jew was hated by Christians because he was a Jew (an adherent to a rival religion with competing truth-claims), and medieval anti-Semitism, in which the Jew became an unreal, demonic, invented creature, the product of Christian mythmakers (a child-killer, a poisoner of wells and, consequently, responsible for the Black Death), Dickson said. Langmuir's second book offered a general theoretical overview of medieval anti-Semitism.

Langmuir's research received critical praise from many scholars. The New York Times Book Review noted, "The learning, passion and unflinching integrity Mr. Langmuir has devoted to unraveling the history of anti-Semitism show why he is a teacher of legendary reputation, as well as a scholar of high distinction." In 1991, History, Religion and Antisemitism was awarded the National Jewish Book Award in the scholarship category. Langmuir's academic peers also honored him by electing him a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America and of the Royal Historical Society in the United Kingdom.

Former student Geoffrey Koziol, an associate professor of medieval history at the University of California-Berkeley, said Langmuir was interested in the development of a global explanation that would conform to both historical accuracy and the standards of models of sociology and social psychology to understand the reasons for anti-Semitism and religious prejudice in general. "What interested him is how religious prejudice is intellectually falsifiable," he said. "He was not anti-religious, but he was against ways of using religion that led to acts of religious prejudice. He was never content with half answers or sloppy ideas. He was always pushing for deeper understanding and interdisciplinary understanding. He was a real intellect with a real conscience."

Langmuir is survived by his second wife, Nelee Langmuir of Palo Alto, a senior lecturer in French who has taught on campus since 1972; his daughter, Valerie Langmuir of Millbrae; two stepdaughters, Debra Wanner of New York City and Jennifer Wanner of San Francisco; and two granddaughters. Langmuir's first marriage ended in divorce.

A gathering for friends and family was held July 17 at the Faculty Club. Donations in Langmuir's memory may be made to Doctors Without Borders at http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org or Project Open Hand at http://www.openhand.org.