Prof Annabel Brett

Professor of Political Thought and History
Fellow of Gonville and Caius College
Professor Annabel Brett

I am a specialist in late medieval and early modern history of political thought. After obtaining my BA in Classics in Cambridge in 1988, in the final year of which I specialised in ancient philosophy and history of political thought, I moved to History to study history of political thought for a PhD with Quentin Skinner. I was elected a Research Fellow at Gonville and Caius College in 1992, and my first appointment to a lectureship was in the Department of Philosophy at the University of York. After a very fruitful year there, I returned to Cambridge in 1996 to take up a lectureship in the history of political thought and a college lectureship at Gonville and Caius College. I have continued to teach and research in History in Cambridge ever since.

My background in Classics shaped the nature and trajectory of my initial research, as I developed the interest in the medieval Latin reception of Aristotelian philosophy that had been sparked as an undergraduate. For my PhD I chose to study the revival of Thomist Aristotelian in sixteenth-century Spanish scholasticism, largely a neglected field in Anglophone historiography at that time. Pioneering new lines of enquiry had, however, been opened by Quentin Skinner, Richard Tuck and Anthony Pagden, all in Cambridge at the time, and I developed my ideas in that stimulating environment for a PhD that was ultimately published as Liberty, right and nature with Cambridge University Press in 1997.

Since then I have continued to work on the interface between nature, law and the political, the construction of which is the primary endeavour of the early modern natural law tradition. In Liberty, right and nature I had already expanded my optic beyond the scholastics to include Hobbes, and I now work across the natural law tradition in a way exemplified in Changes of state, published by Princeton in 2011. Scholarship on the Spanish scholastics has now expanded enormously, in part due to the recent 'historical turn' in international law which has revived interest in the classic 'founders of international law' from Francisco de Vitoria forward, and my current research projects and teaching have this international dimension as a major focus.

History of political thought, primarily early modern but also ancient and late medieval; history of international law; conceptions of nature, natural law, natural rights, and human rights; human nature, animal nature, and the environment; conceptions of the city and the state; translation, intellectual history and theory.

Most aspects of history of European political thought (late medieval and early modern), especially natural law and the law of nations, history of natural rights and human rights, early modern Spanish political thought including America, history of Aristotelian philosophy and early modern intellectual cultures more generally.

I teach for the second-year paper 'History of political thought to ca. 1700' and for the third year paper 'States between states: The history of international political thought', as well as BA dissertations in most areas of late medieval and early modern political thought. I also teach history and theory for the current 'Historical argument and practice' paper.

I am Co-Director of the Cambridge Centre for Political Thought and I co-convene the seminar 'Legal Histories beyond the State' with Megan Donaldson and Surabhi Ranganathan at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law in Cambridge. I sit on the editorial boards of The Historical Journal, History of European Ideas, Journal of the History of International Law and other journals and book series. I am an International Core Scholar for Centre for Privacy Studies in Copenhagen and involved in other international research collaborations and academic review processes.


Tags & Themes


Gonville and Caius College
Cambridge CB2 1TA


Key Publications

Moral possibility. Rights, resistance and the limits of law in seventeenth-century political thought (under contract, Oxford University Press)

‘Between history, politics and law: History of political thought and history of international law’, in A. Brett, M. Donaldson and M. Koskenniemi eds., History, politics, law. Thinking through the international (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press, 2021)

‘The subject of sovereignty. Law, politics and moral reasoning in Hugo Grotius’, Modern Intellectual History, published online (2019) at

‘The space of politics and the space of war in Hugo Grotius’s De iure belli ac pacis’, Global Intellectual History 1 (2016), 33-60

Changes of state. Nature and the limits of the city in early modern natural law (Princeton University Press, 2011)

‘Scholastic political thought and the modern concept of the state’, in A.S. Brett and J. Tully eds., Rethinking the foundations of modern political thought (Cambridge University Press 2006)

Marsilius of Padua: The Defender of the Peace. Edited and translated by Annabel S. Brett (Cambridge University Press 2005)

‘What is intellectual history now?’, in D. Cannadine ed., What is history now? (Palgrave 2002)

Liberty, right and nature: Individual rights in later scholastic thought (Cambridge University Press 1997)

Other publications

‘Roman law and Roman ideology in Alberico Gentili’, Huntingdon Library Quarterly 83/3 (2020) (special edition, ‘Ancient Rome in English political culture, c. 1570-1670)

‘The post-Machiavellian poetry of “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland”’, in M. Dzelzainis and E. Holberton eds., The Oxford handbook of Andrew Marvell (Oxford University Press 2019)

‘Is there any environmental thinking in early modern European political thought?’, in K. Forrester and S. Smith eds., Nature, action and the future. Political thought and the environment (Cambridge University Press 2018)

‘Rights of and over animals in the ius naturae et gentium’, AJIL Unbound 111 (2017), 257-261, repr. in A. Peters ed., Global animal law (Leiden: Brill 2020)

‘Protection as a political concept in English political thought, 1603-1651’, in B. Attwood, L. Benton and A. Clulow eds., Protection and empire. A global history (Cambridge University Press 2017)

‘Human rights and the Thomist tradition’, in M. Halme-Tuomisaari and P. Slotte eds., Revisiting the origins of human rights (Cambridge University Press 2015)

‘Political thought’, in H. Scott ed., The Oxford handbook of early modern Europe (Oxford University Press 2015), Vol. II

‘Later scholastic philosophy of law’, in F.D. Miller and C.-A. Biondi eds., A history of the philosophy of law from the ancient Greeks to the scholastics (Springer 2015)

‘Liberty and absolutism: The Roman heritage and the international order in Alberico Gentili’, in P. Ragoni ed., Alberico Gentili. Giustizia, Guerra, Impero (Milan: Giuffrè 2014)

‘Luis de Molina on law and power’, in A. Aichele and M. Kaufmann eds., A companion to Luis de Molina (Brill, 2014)

‘Human freedom and Jesuit moral theology’, in M. van Gelderen and Q. Skinner eds., Freedom and the construction of Europe (Cambridge University Press 2013)

‘“The Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common-Wealth”: Thomas Hobbes and late renaissance commentary on Aristotle’s Politics’, Hobbes Studies 23 (2010)

‘Issues in translating the Defensor pacis’, in C.J. Nederman and G. Moreno-Riaño eds., The world of Marsilius of Padua (Brepols 2006)

‘Politics, right(s) and human freedom in Marsilius of Padua’, in P. Korkmann and V. Makinen eds., Transformations in rights discourse (Springer 2005)

‘The development of citizens’ rights’, in Q.R.D. Skinner and B. Stråth eds., European
states and citizens: A millennium of debate (Cambridge University Press 2003)

‘Natural right and civil community: The civil philosophy of Hugo Grotius’, Historical Journal 45, 1 (2002)

‘The good man and the good citizen. Miguel de Palacios and an Aristotelian question in the Spanish second scholastic’, in F. Grünert and K. Seelmann eds., Die Ordnung der Praxis. Neue Studien zur Spanischen Spätscholastik (Niemeyer Verlag 2001)

‘Authority, reason and the self-definition of theologians in the Spanish “second
scholastic”’, in G.H. Tucker ed., Forms of the medieval in the renaissance. A
multidisciplinary exploration of a cultural continuum (Rookwood 2000)

‘Individual and community in the “second scholastic”: subjective rights in Domingo de Soto and Francisco Suárez’, in S. Kusukawa and C. Blackwell eds., Conversations with Aristotle (Ashgate 1999)