Janet Martin, medieval Latinist and ‘gracious, generous mentor,’ dies at 84

Janet Martin, associate professor of classics, emeritus, and an expert in medieval Latin, died of cardiovascular disease at home in Princeton, New Jersey, on Aug. 30. She was 84.

She joined the Princeton faculty in 1973, where she taught for 37 years, and transferred to emeritus status in 2010.

Janet Martin

“Professor Martin was a trailblazer in many respects,” said Barbara Graziosi, the Ewing Professor of Greek Language and Literature, professor of classics and department chair. “She was the first woman appointed to a tenured faculty position in the Department of Classics. As an early member and active participant in the Women’s Classical Caucus (WCC), she made it easier for others to follow suit not just here, but across the U.S. and internationally.” In 1996, Martin co-organized the conference “Feminism and Classics: Framing the Research Agenda” that was among the gatherings held to celebrate Princeton’s 250th anniversary.

Graziosi said the national WCC appointment strengthened Martin’s impact on the field. “She showed how the study of medieval Latin belongs in a classics department, not least by illuminating the context that made it possible for ancient texts to survive and be received by later readers. With her emphasis on transmission and reception — i.e. how ancient texts made it into the modern world — she proposed an expansive vision of our field, which we proudly embrace today. Medieval Latin continues to be an important aspect of what we offer at Princeton Classics.”

Judith Peller Hallett, a founding member of the Women’s Classical Caucus and professor of classics and distinguished scholar-teacher emerita at the University of Maryland-College Park, said: “From its earliest days onward, the WCC benefited mightily from Janet’s keen and probing mind, meticulous labors, and vision of a more principled and equitable future for women, and the study of gender, in the field of classics.”

William Chester Jordan, the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, director of the Humanities Council’s Program in Medieval Studies and a 1973 graduate alumnus, said Martin was indispensable in helping to establish the undergraduate Program in Medieval Studies.

“Janet Martin was an excellent Latinist, who from early in her career at Princeton shared her expertise with many medievalists on the faculty,” he said, noting that she frequently gave invited lectures in the gateway course for undergraduate certificate students in medieval studies. “She inspired a number of them to pursue graduate study in the field.”

W. Robert Connor, the Andrew Fleming West Professor of Classics, Emeritus, met Martin at the University of Michigan, when she was a graduate student and he was an instructor; they became colleagues when Martin joined Princeton’s faculty.

"She had an admirable mastery of both ancient and medieval Latin,” he said. “I respected her for her high scholarly standards and her willingness to share her impressive knowledge with those who genuinely wished to learn."

Christian Wildberg, professor of classics, emeritus, remembered Martin’s collegiality from the moment he joined the faculty.

"Janet was very friendly and supportive (I especially remember her kindness during my job interview), and that continued over the years,” he said. "Whenever I met her in the hallway, I thought there was something avuncular about her, which I appreciated as a new member of the department."

Martin was born on in 1938 in Bogalusa, Louisiana, one of seven children. Her parents, Bruce Whittington Martin, a paper manufacturing engineer and executive, and Edna Poyas Hall Martin, a homemaker, were both graduates of Louisiana State University. Martin received her bachelor’s in the history and literature of the Middle Ages at Radcliffe College in 1961. At Michigan, she received her master’s in classical studies in 1963 and earned her Ph.D. in medieval Latin from Harvard University in 1968.

After four years as an instructor and assistant professor at Harvard University, including a year as a fellow of the American Academy in Rome, Martin spent the rest of her career at Princeton. The Latin, literature and history of the Middle Ages remained at the center of her teaching and scholarship at the University. Her edition of selected letters of Peter the Venerable was published by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in 1974, and there followed a series of papers on the reception and circulation of classical literature in medieval Europe and a study on the text and music of Hildegard of Bingen.

In the classroom, she brought medieval Latin and literature, the classical tradition, and Latin paleography and textual criticism to students. From undergraduate courses on the tragic heroine and women’s writings to a graduate seminar on feminist literary theory and the classics, her teaching helped to open new vistas in the field.

Her undergraduate courses included “The Age of Nero,” “Introduction to Medieval Latin," “Women's Texts and Women's Experience in Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages” and “The World of the Middle Ages,” among others. Her graduate seminars included “Problems in Latin Literature: Feminist Literary Theory and the Classics,” “Survey of Early Medieval Latin Literature” and “The Classical Tradition in the Middle Ages" (sometimes taught as "Medieval Latin Literature and Women's Experience”), among others.

Daniel Turkeltaub, a 1996 classics major who also earned a certificate in medieval studies, said the “insightful guidance” he gained from Martin as his senior thesis adviser and in the classroom still informs his own work with students as an associate professor and the chair of the classics department at Santa Clara University.

“Professor Martin was a gracious, generous and flexible mentor who would support her students while giving them the space to pursue their own interests,” said Turkeltaub, who took her medieval Latin class senior year. He remembered how she took advantage of the small class size, choosing “fascinating readings for us that were unusual but suited the personal interests of her students.”

When Turkeltaub had trouble deciding on a senior thesis topic, Martin gave him a book she thought would interest him, Ernst Curtius' “European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages.” A paragraph on page 30 gave him the idea that jumpstarted his thesis. “She helped me build the confidence to write a senior thesis on the rather bizarre topic I had selected — “The Gods of Medieval Troy: An Analysis of the Depictions of the Classical Gods in the Texts of Dares and Dictys” — even though it was not something she had explored before. I have tried to emulate her flexibility and graciousness still today when I advise my own students, even when they bring me ideas for their senior capstone projects that are just as unusual and novel to me as the idea I brought to her 28 years ago.”

Angela Bell, a classics major and member of the Class of 1993, now the vice chancellor for research and policy analysis at the University System of Georgia, took courses in Roman satire and medieval Latin with Martin.

“Professor Martin was very passionate about these topics and her enthusiasm for them shone in her teaching,” said Bell. “In particular, she ensured we got and enjoyed the humor in the satire, and the medieval Latin course provided the opportunity to learn about women authors. Her high standards pushed me to work hard and deepen my essay responses on exams. Her feminist reading of Classical texts was influential as I carried out my independent work at Princeton and even as I taught high school Latin for many years.”

Martin's many contributions to the University community include a more than a decade’s service on the executive committee of the Program in Medieval Studies, as well as serving as a founding member of the Women’s Studies Committee and an associated faculty member with the Program in Women’s Studies (now the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies). She was also a longtime member of the American Philological Association and the Classical Association of the Atlantic States.

Martin is survived by her brother James, her sister Nancy, five nephews and two nieces.

Individuals wishing to make contributions in Martin's memory may send them to Trinity Church Princeton or to Princeton University’s Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies (make checks payable to “Princeton University” and note in the memo line “Janet Martin memorial fund” and send with a brief cover letter to Princeton University, Alumni and Donor Records, Helen Hardy, P.O. Box 5357, Princeton, NJ 08543-5357, or donate online — click on the “in honor/memory of" box and write in the "special instructions and comments" field that the gift is in memory of Janet Martin).

View or share comments on a memorial page intended to honor Martin’s life and legacy.