DARMESTETER, JAMES (1849–1894), French author and antiquarian, was born of Jewish parents on the 28th of March 1849 at Château Salins, in Alsace. The family name had originated in their earlier home of Darmstadt. He was educated in Paris, where, under the guidance of Michel Bréal and Abel Bergaigne, he imbibed a love for Oriental studies, to which for a time he entirely devoted himself. He was a man of vast intellectual range. In 1875 he published a thesis on the mythology of the Zend Avesta, and in 1877 became teacher of Zend at the École des Hautes Études. He followed up his researches with his Études iraniennes (1883), and ten years later published a complete translation of the Zend Avesta, with historical and philological commentary (3 vols., 1892–1893), in the Annales du musée Guimet. He also edited the Zend Avesta for Max Müller’s Sacred Books of the East. Darmesteter regarded the extant texts as far more recent than was commonly believed, placing the earliest in the 1st century B.C., and the bulk in the 3rd century A.D. In 1885 he was appointed professor in the Collège de France, and was sent to India in 1886 on a mission to collect the popular songs of the Afghans, a translation of which, with a valuable essay on the Afghan language and literature, he published on his return. His impressions of English dominion in India were conveyed in Lettres sur l’Inde (1888). England interested him deeply; and his attachment to the gifted English writer, A. Mary F. Robinson, whom he shortly afterwards married (and who in 1901 became the wife of Professor E. Duclaux, director of the Pasteur Institute at Paris), led him to translate her poems into French in 1888. Two years after his death a collection of excellent essays on English subjects was published in English. He also wrote Le Mahdi depuis les origines de l’Islam jusqu’à nos jours (1885); Les Origines de la poésie persane (1888); Prophètes d’Israël (1892), and other books on topics connected with the east, and from 1883 onwards drew up the annual reports of the Société Asiatique. He had just become connected with the Revue de Paris, when his delicate constitution succumbed to a slight attack of illness on the 19th of October 1894.
His elder brother, Arsène Darmesteter (1846–1888), was a distinguished philologist and man of letters. He studied under Gaston Paris at the École des Hautes Études, and became professor of Old French language and literature at the Sorbonne. His Life of Words appeared in English in 1888. He also collaborated with Adolphe Hatzfeld in a Dictionnaire général de la langue française (2 vols., 1895–1900). Among his most important work was the elucidation of Old French by means of the many glosses in the medieval writings of Rashi and other French Jews. His scattered papers on romance and Jewish philology were collected by James Darmesteter as Arsène Darmesteter, reliques scientifiques (2 vols., 1890). His valuable Cours de grammaire historique de la langue française was edited after his death by E. Muret and L. Sudre (1891–1895; English edition, 1902).
There is an éloge of James Darmesteter in the Journal asiatique (1894, vol. iv. pp. 519-534), and a notice by Henri Cordier, with a list of his writings, in The Royal Asiatic Society’s Journal (January 1895); see also Gaston Paris, “James Darmesteter,” in Penseurs et poètes (1896, pp. 1-61).