Janet Coleman

Emeritus Professor of Ancient and Medieval Political Thought

The most important memories I have are of the terrific students; undergraduates and postgraduates - many not only from Britain but from around the world. It’s a privilege to have known them and directed their work.

Janet Coleman

Janet Coleman is an Emeritus Professor of Ancient and Medieval Political Thought in the Department of Government at LSE. She is the co-founder and co-executive Editor of the journal, History of Political Thought and is one of the convenors of the History of Political Thought Ideas staff/postgraduate seminar at the Institute of Historical Research. She is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

From 2000 to 2003 she was a Leverhulme Major Research Fellow researching ‘Pre-modern understandings of property: personal ownership and self-understanding’ reflecting her interests in Ancient Greek, Roman, Medieval and Renaissance intellectual and social history. 

Her book, Medieval Readers and Writers 1350-1400, was considered one of 100 publications noted as outstanding for the 20th century by the American Council of Learned Societies. She has been involved in several BBC Radio 4 programmes on the history of political thought with Brian Redhead and has published several books resulting from these programmes.

Can you tell us about your background and how you started working for LSE?

I studied for my PhD at Yale University before pursuing a post-doctoral fellowship with M. le Professeur Paul Vignaux at L’ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris. During the 1970s, I taught in the History faculty of Cambridge University, had a Research Fellowship at the Warburg Institute, and taught in the Politics department at Exeter University. It was here Iain Hampsher-Monk and I founded and edited (and continue to edit) the international journal History of Political Thought.

I started teaching at LSE in Michaelmas term 1987 and continued to do so until 2010. I was informed of the position by John Morrell, a distinguished medievalist who had been teaching in the LSE Government department. He was retiring early and classicist, Fred Rosen, was moving to the Bentham project, University of London. So the post I took up was to replace two distinguished men - not, of course, on two salaries!

My own publications had, for many years, been focused on what had happened to the Greek and Roman philosophical, cultural and political legacies in what Christian Europe had become, especially during the middle ages until the early Renaissance. I loved (and still love) this stuff, and anyone who, even now, travels round Britain and the European continent, sees this legacy, architecturally at least, everywhere - despite the horrors and destructions, not least of two world wars.

My more informed contact with this material came in the postgraduate programme at Yale, in Medieval Studies, an inter-departmental programme then directed by the brilliant Italian economic historian, Professor Roberto Lopez. Yale was an extraordinary place to study since so many members of staff were in effect, Europeans with deep, sophisticated, continental research training.

We read and studied not only economic history and politics, but literature, poetry, attitudes to history and the ways people, especially in monastic communities, wrote about what they took to be their past traditions and their present. Eventually, I published a large study on memory as understood in ‘my’ period: Ancient and Medieval Memories, studies in the reconstruction of the past (1992), with Cambridge University Press.

What memories stand out from your time at LSE?

The most important memories I have are of the terrific students; undergraduates and postgraduates - many not only from Britain but from around the world. It’s a privilege to have known them and directed their work.

When I lectured for the big School lecture, Government 100: A History of Political Thought, I used to look at the audience and say it was the real United Nations.

I published two volumes (Blackwell, Oxford, 2000/paper 2004): A History of Political Thought, vol.1: from ancient Greece to early Christianity; vol.2: from the middle ages to the Renaissance, which reflected my LSE lectures and indeed, what I owed to so many excellent students.

In 2009 you became a Global Distinguished Professor at New York University, what did this involve?  

The Global Distinguished Professorship at NYU came out of the blue. I had been on a brief sabbatical at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy and I received an e-mail from an NYU professor saying I had been nominated for the post, of which there were twenty, in all fields and departments.

At first, I thought this invitation was a ruse from a former LSE (American) student! It wasn’t. I spent three years at NYU talking to various groups - in Classics and History and also at Columbia University - about my research and theirs. I only spent eight weeks there each year, out of LSE term time. New York was, as expected, intellectually and in other ways, tremendously exciting.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?

The classical Greek, Roman, medieval and early Renaissance periods, a long trajectory, were never, for me, simply about ‘political’ thought, but about the literature produced and the theology of all kinds engaged by ‘the big boys’ at the time.

What has been the most challenging aspect?

From my earliest experiences in universities, researching for degrees and publishing, there were very few women hired by faculties - at Yale, Cambridge, even Paris, to these institutions’ shame.

But things began to move after May 1968: during the 1970s women in Cambridge began to be accepted to previously all-male colleges, and what a difference this made.

In 1994 at LSE I was apparently the first woman to achieve a Professorship in the Government department, the scene was set for other women to come in, be hired, and eventually get their chairs for stupendous work in all fields.

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Department of Government