Alexander Neckam

From New World Encyclopedia

Alexander Neckam (sometimes spelled "Nequam") (September 8, 1157 – 1217, Hertfordshire, England), was an English theologian, philosopher, teacher, scientist, and geographer who helped to introduce the new scientific principles and Aristotelian logic of the twelfth century to scholars in England. Raised as a foster brother to King Richard I of England, he went to the University of Paris and became a distinguished lecturer there. He returned to England in 1186, where he held the position of schoolmaster and eventually became Augustinian abbot of Cirencester, Gloucestershire.

Neckam wrote religious works on a variety of subjects, most of which are still in manuscript form. His most significant work, De naturis rerum (On the Natures of Things), a compendium of twelfth-century scientific knowledge, demonstrated an extensive knowledge of natural history, the heavens, the stars, the atmosphere, the earth, water, and living organisms. Neckam insisted that the study of the natural world should serve the purposes of theology, and consistently drew moral lessons from nature. He also attempted to apply principles of the new Aristotelian logic, which was just beginning to take hold in the Latin West, to theological studies. Two of Neckam’s works, De utensilibus (On Instruments), and De naturis rerum, are important to nautical science because they contain the earliest European references to the use of the magnet as a guide to seamen.


Alexander Neckam was born September 8, 1157, at St. Albans, Hertfordshire, England, on the same night as King Richard I of England. Neckam's mother nursed the prince with her own son, who thus became Richard's foster-brother. He was educated at the St. Albans Abbey school (now St. Albans School) and began to teach as schoolmaster of Dunstable, dependent on St. Albans Abbey. He pursued his higher education in Paris, where he lived for several years at Petit Pons (c. 1175-1182). By 1180 he had become a distinguished lecturer on the arts at the University of Paris; his comprehensive knowledge of philosophy and theology and his Latin style attracted many students to his lectures.

By 1186 he was back in England, where he again held the place of schoolmaster, firstly at Dunstable, dependent on Saint Albans Abbey in Bedfordshire, and then as Master of Saint. Albans School until about 1195. He is said to have visited Italy with the Bishop of Worcester, but this is questionable; as is the assertion that he was ever prior of Saint Nicolas's Priory, Exeter. He spent considerable time at the royal court during some part of his life. Having become an Augustinian canon, he was appointed abbot of the abbey at Cirencester in 1213. In his capacity as abbot, he secured a royal charter (1215) for a fair at Cirencester, which helped to make that town a great medieval market for wool. Neckam attended the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. He died at Kempsey in Worcestershire in 1217, and was buried at Worcester.

Thought and Works


An important aspect of European intellectual life during the Middle Ages was the university system, and the University of Paris was the greatest of all the universities. Before Oxford came into prominence during the thirteenth century, large numbers of students, scholars and professors came to schools in France, and French learning dominated the intellectual world. Men like Adam Smallbridge and Alexander Neckam came from England to join this milieu.


Most of Neckam’s numerous works on a variety of subjects are still in manuscript form. He wrote Corrogationes Promethei, a scriptural commentary prefaced by a treatise on grammatical criticism; commentaries on the Song of Songs, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Psalms; a translation of the Fables of Aesop into Latin elegiac verse (six fables from this version, as given in a Paris manuscript, are printed in Robert's Fables inedites); commentaries, still unprinted, on portions of Aristotle, Martianus Capella and Ovid's Metamorphoses,, and other sermons and theological treatises. Only two of his works have been printed: "De naturis rerum" and the poem "De laudibus divinae sapientiae," (See Thomas Wright's edition of Neckam's De naturis rerum and De laudibus divinae sapientiae in the Rolls Series (1863), and of the De utensilibus in his Volume of Vocabularies.) Of all these, De naturis rerum, a compendium of the scientific knowledge of the twelfth century, is the most important.

De naturis rerum (On the Natures of Things) was probably written about 1180 and had become well known at the end of the twelfth century. In it, Neckam demonstrated an extensive knowledge of natural history, the heavens, the stars, the atmosphere, the earth, water, and living organisms; and introduced new scientific principles to scholars in England. Neckam urged that the study of the natural world should serve the purposes of theology, and drew moral lessons from nature. He also attempted to apply principles of the new Aristotelian logic, which was just beginning to take hold in the Latin West, to theological method. De naturis rerum was especially influenced by Aristotle’s Topics.

Concerning sight:

"It is generally conceded that the more remote a thing, the smaller it appears. However, vapor can and commonly does prevent this general occurrence, for the body of the sun appears larger toward dawn on account of the remains of the nocturnal vapors than when it shines at midday. Moreover, a fish or anything placed in water seems larger in the water than out of it. Thus a dog swimming in water holding a piece of meat in its mouth is deceived by seeing a shadow and lets go of the meat that it was holding in its mouth, hoping to secure a larger piece for itself, but in vain. Let the waters represent tribulations; martyrs placed in tribulations were greater than in time of peace. The sun stands for power, which seems greater the more remote it is. Something worthy of admiration is found also in geometrical investigations: there is something that appears larger the more remote it is; for the closer the angle of tangency, the smaller it appears to be…."

"Similarly, the further the acquaintance of a powerful man is from being achieved, the more worthy of praise is he considered to be. [However,] having become the friend of the powerful man, so much less desirable will his friendship appear to you…."

"Likewise, a straight rod appears bent in water, which is customarily attributed to reflection of the rays from the surface of the water. [Now,] waters represent tribulations and the straight rod good works. Thus the works of the just, who are vexed by tribulations, are often regarded as bent, although they are [actually] straight. Furthermore, the man who is in a dark place sees a man standing in the light, but not vice versa; in the same way, unimportant people, whose fortune is dark, perceive the deeds of important people, but not vice versa." [1]

Neckam’s only surviving non-biblical work is a mythographic commentary on the first two books of Martianus Capella's De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. [2]

Nautical science

Besides being a theologian, Neckam is associated with the history of nautical science. His textbook De utensilibus (“On Instruments”) is the earliest known European writing to mention the magnetic compass, and De naturis rerum contains the earliest European references to the use of the magnet as a guide to seamen. These seem to be the earliest records outside of China (the Chinese encyclopaedist Shen Kua gave the first clear account of suspended magnetic compasses one hundred years earlier, in his 1088 book Meng ch'i pi t'an, Brush Talks from Dream Brook). It was probably in Paris that Neckam heard how a ship, among its other stores, must have a needle placed above a magnet (the De utensilibus assumes a needle mounted on a pivot), which would revolve until its point looked north, and guide sailors in murky weather or on starless nights. Neckam does not treat this as a novelty, but as records what had apparently become the standard practice of many seamen of the Catholic world.

"If then one wishes a ship well provided with all things, then one must have also a needle mounted on a dart. The needle will be oscillated and turn until the point of the needle directs itself to the East* [North], thus making known to sailors the route which they should hold while the Little Bear is concealed from them by the vicissitudes of the atmosphere; for it never disappears under the horizon because of the smallness of the circle it describes. [3]


  1. (On the Nature of Things (c. 1190), by Alexander Neckam, David C. Lindberg and Greta J. Lindberg, trans.; cited in Edward Grant, ed. Source Book in Medieval Science, (Cambridge, 1974): 380-383.
  2. It survives in two manuscripts from the fourteenth century, Oxford: Bodleian Library, Digby 221 and Cambridge, Trinity College, R. 14. 9): 884. Neckam’s sources for this work included Remigius of Auxerre, John the Scot, Helpericus and the Third Vatican Mythographer.
  3. Alexander Neckam, De Utensilibus as translated in Benjamin Park, The Intellectual Rise in Electricity: A History, 1895).

Roger Bacon's reference to Neckam as a grammatical writer (in multis vera et utitia scripsit: sed … inter auctores non potest numerari) may be found in Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, "Rolls" Series ed. of Bacon's Opera inedita, 457.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Beazley, C. Raymond. Dawn of Modern Geography, iii.: 508-509.
  • Holmes, Urban Tigner. 1952. Daily living in the twelfth century, based on the observations of Alexander Neckam in London and Paris. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Hunt, Richard William. 1937. Alexander Neckam. Thesis (doctoral) University of Oxford, 1937.
  • Hunt, Richard William, and Margaret T. Gibson. 1984. The schools and the cloister: the life and writings of Alexander Nequam (1157-1217). Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0198223986 ISBN 9780198223986 ISBN 9780198223986 ISBN 0198223986
  • Neckam, Alexander, and Christopher James McDonough. 2006. Commentum super Martianum. Millennio medievale, 64. Tavarnuzze (Firenze): SISMEL edizioni del Galluzzo. ISBN 8884501857 ISBN 9788884501851 ISBN 9788884501851 ISBN 8884501857
  • Neckam, Alexander, and Gregory Leo Berry. 1978. A partial edition of Alexander Neckam's Laus Sapientie divine. [S.l: s.n.].
  • Gaselee, S. 1936. Natural science in England at the end of the twelfth century. London: The Institution.
  • Wedge, George Francis, and Alexander. 1967. Alexander Neckam's De naturis rerum: a study, together with representative passages in translation. [S.l.]: [s.n.].
  • Wright, Thomas, 1846. Biographia Britannica literaria, Anglo-Norman Period, 449-459. (some points in this are modified in the 1863 edition of De naturis rerum)
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

All links retrieved July 18, 2023.

General Philosophy Sources


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