Memorial Resolution: Gavin I. Langmuir



Gavin I. Langmuir, since 1994 emeritus professor of history at Stanford University, died on 10 July 2005 at the age of eighty-one. He was well known for his wide-ranging work on the legal and institutional history of France in the High Middle Ages and especially for his path-breaking studies on Jewish-Christian relations in medieval France and England. He was also a teacher of renown; several of his students have themselves made a considerable mark as professional historians and have in public memorials acknowledged their deep appreciation for the kindness their magister showed them in graduate school and throughout their careers.

Langmuir was born in Toronto on 2 April 1924. He served in the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada during World War II and was so badly wounded in France during the closing months of the war that his fellows took him for dead. However, he was subsequently rescued and taken to England to recuperate when their mistake was realized. The severity of the wounds led to a medical discharge and his abandonment of what until then was his desire to pursue a career in the military. This was critical, of course, to his movement towards a career in the academy, but Langmuir's first academic love was diplomacy and modern diplomatic history. He attended the University of Toronto, taking his bachelor's degree in 1948, and from there went on to Harvard, but it was while attending Harvard that his interests began to shift to the Middle Ages. His dissertation, given the focus of Anglo-American research at the time he completed it (1955), dealt with aspects of English constitutional history. But in the course of his career he increasingly explored English institutional development in a comparative context—and France provided him with the fundamental comparison, as it did for so many of the giants of earlier academic generations and his own. After three years as an Instructor at Harvard (1955-1958), Langmuir moved to Stanford where he spent his entire career. He was elected a Fellow of the Medieval Academy in 2002.

The trenchant and provocative essay was Langmuir's genre of choice. And especially after he began to tackle the difficult and upsetting problem of medieval anti-Judaism, his words became a clarion call to other researchers. He fundamentally transformed the field, forcing scholars to rethink the legal status of Jews in medieval Christian societies and to reassess the policies and administrative practices that principalities imposed on their Jewish populations in the Middle Ages. His original interest in diplomacy manifested itself in close study of the so-called non-retention treaties that princes negotiated with one another, making promises that they would not retain as their own property Jews fleeing from one jurisdiction to another. Langmuir also became more and more concerned about what he would later deem the irrational aspects of Christian attitudes and behavior with regard to Jews. This led him to investigate ritual murder accusations and other manifestations of Christian hatred of the Jews in medieval Europe. It also made him wonder why he had to be a kind of archeologist of knowledge about these issues. So silent were some fields on Jewish-Christian relations at the time (constitutional history is a case in point) or so misguided in Langmuir's view that it made him wonder about how deeply implicated historians themselves were in the production and reproduction of forms of antisemitism (he preferred this spelling to the more conventional anti-Semitism).

Many of Langmuir's essays with his insights on these subjects were collected in a remarkably cogent and coherent volume published by the University of California Press in 1990, Toward a Definition of Antisemitism, which won the National Jewish Book Award. Republished in this way, the essays were bound to have a considerable impact, independent of whether Langmuir published anything else. John Van Engen's words of praise, which adorn the dust jacket of the book, rightly point out that the author's essays revealed "an accomplished historian who has confronted honestly all the difficult methodological questions most of us silently avoid." No serious scholar, since the publication of the essays in book form, has failed to do homage to the gifted and deeply humane insights of Langmuir's work.

The same year, however, saw the appearance also from the University of California Press of History, Religion, and Antisemitism. The moral earnestness was the same as in some of the historiographically oriented essays in the collected volume, but History, Religion, and Antisemitism attempted something more. Langmuir in this book probed at the very depths of antisemitism in the Christian tradition. He employed the insights and methods of the anthropologist, social psychologist, and sociologist of religion and melded them with the best that history as a discipline has to offer in order to try to figure out why irrational hatred of Jews persisted (and still persists) among so many Christians. Here ranged from the twelfth century to the twentieth.

History, Religion, and Antisemistism was not customary Langmuir. There was the usual wit, to be sure, but there was a more discursive quality to it that reviewers noted, almost as if he had to adopt a style that adequately reflected the profoundly disheartening nature of the attitudes he was explicating. Perhaps the best word to describe it is that used to categorize medieval theologians' almost obsessive efforts to extract every morsel or nouriture from the reading of the sacred text, ruminatio. The book is a long ruminatio on the origins and persistence of antisemitism. Langmuir meant it to disturb his readers and awake them from their complacency, but he also wanted it to challenge them to come up with alternative explanations if they could not accept his. There is sometimes urgency in the prose, and there is always a little sadness that a culture as interesting and vital as the Middle Ages began to produce in an otherwise great and innovative period, the twelfth century, so odious and dangerous a phenomenon. As his former student, Professor Geoffrey Kozial of the University of California-Berkeley remarked, Gavin Langmuir "was not anti-religious, but he was against ways of using religion that led to acts of religious prejudice." That this phenomenon refused to die was perhaps what disturbed Gavin Langmuir, this champion of reason, most of all. His wise counsels and provocative challenges will long be missed.

The importance of his publications on medieval anti-Semitism led to invitations to address conferences in England, France, and Israel. He was one of the founders of the interdisciplinary program in Medieval Studies. In addition to his departmental responsibilities he served on the University Library Committee, on the Committee on Undergraduate Admissions, on the Committee on Graduate Studies, among other university service. He also served on the Executive Committee and as president of the Stanford Chapter of the AAUP.

He is survived by his former wife, Erica of London, and by their daughter Valerie, by two stepdaughters, Debra and Jennifer Warnner, two granddaughters, and by his present wife, Nelee Langmuir.

Respectfully submitted,

George Hardin Brown, Chair

Philippe Buc

Paul Seaver