ALEXANDER NECKHAM (Neckam, Necham)—a philosopher, theologian, man of letters, and poet, b. September 1157 in St. Albans, Hartfordshire, d. 1217 in Kempsei, Worcestershire.
He was a leading thinker in England. He was successful in accommodating the current achievements of the “new sciences” that were accessible in the twelfth century. His best known works, especially De naturis rerum, demonstrate an excellent acquaintance with the problems of natural history. Alexander Neckham was convinced that the study of the laws of the natural world is helpful in protecting the ends of theology. He tried not only to derive moral laws from the observation of nature, but also tried to apply the doctrine of the new logic, especially that of Aristotle’s Topics, to theological methodology.
The works of Alexander Neckham are: De nominibus utensilium (in: A. Scheler, Trois traités de lexicographie latine du XIIe et du XIIIe siècle, Jahrbuch für Romantische und Englische Literatur 7 (1866), 58–74, 155–173); Corrogationes Promethei (in: P. Meyer, Notice sur les Corrogationes Promethei d’ Alexandre Neckham, Notices et extraits de Manuscrits de la Bibliotheque Nationale 35 (1896), 641–641); De naturis rerum (Lo 1863, 281–354); De laudibus divinae sapientiae (Lo 1863, 357–503); Suppletio defectuum (in: H. Walther, Zu den kleineren Gedichten des Alexander Neckham, Mittelalterisches Jahrbuch 2 (1965), 111–121); Speculum speculationum (Ox 1988).
In his works, Alexander Neckham displayed his enthusiasm for the achievements of science that were characteristic of the twelfth century “renaissance” in the Latin language schools of western Europe. Alexander learned in such schools, then he studied in Paris, where he lectured from 1175 to 1182. During that period he worked in the fields of the liberal arts, theology, law, and medicine. He was a highly regarded lecturer because of his concise presentation of philosophical and theological knowledge, which he presented both in prose and in a poetic form. He was a student of the school in Petit-Pont, and his works commented upon the doctrines of the best known master of the school—Adam of Petit-Pont. From Paris he returned to England to teach in schools in Dunstable and St. Albans. After 1190 he was in the school in Oxford, which at that time was being transformed into a university.
There are many references in Alexander Neckham’s writings to scholasticism, e.g., the practice of the disputatio and the theological questions discussed at the time. The appropriation of new techniques was fully connected with the cultivation of old techniques. Alexander became an important lecturer and preacher at Oxford and wrote a commentary on the Athanasian Creed. Around the year 1200 he entered the Augustinian Cloister of regular canons in Cirencester, where in 1213 he was elected abbot. His most important works were written in that cloister.
Alexander of Neckam was well known among historians of philosophy and philosophers of nature. Part of his repuation was the result of lavish praises of him in scientific works, e.g., in Alfred Shareshill’s De motu cordis. Alexander can be seen as a philosopher of nature in his works De naturis rerum and De laudibus divinae sapientiae. The first work takes the form of a prologue to a commentary on Ecclesiastes. Whatever Alexander’s motivation was, the work quickly became something of a model as a moralistic encyclopedia of the philosophy of nature. It is loosely organized around the four primordial elements of ancient physics—fire, air, water, and earth—and at the same time it stands at the highest level of erudition. In two works containing around 272 chapters, the author discusses many of the problems of the philosopher of nature such as he knew them. He begins with astronomy, then discusses the hydrodynamics of water sources and the properties of precious stones, and finishes with the behavior of wild and domestic animals. Although much of the material was drawn from ancient sources such as Pliny, Alexander Neckham enriched this with his own information and anecdotes. The whole work concludes with an attack upon human vices, and in this way he moves on to a lecture on Ecclesiastes.
Alexander returned to these questions in De laudibus divinae sapientiae, which is also arranged around the four elements, but in a more systematic fashion. Here the reader finds catalogues of stars and the major rivers of Europe, descriptions of precious stones, plants, trees, and problems in the liberal arts. He returned to the history of nature in Suppletio defectuum, which was an appendix to De laudibus, in which he presents a new classification of animals and their abilities.
Alexander become more and more occupied with ordering the natural sciences to theology. He tried to present the laws governing this relation in his last great work, Speculum speculationum. It begins with a refutation of the Cathari heresy and is organized with Peter Lombard’s Sentences as its model. Alexander extends Lombard’s articles with new analyses and arguments. He wants to present a little known work of Anselm of Canterbury to the reader. Obviously part of what he says was drawn from excerpts of an anthology of Sacred Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, or mediaeval theologians of the Latin tradition. He also knew and drew upon Platonic and neo-Platonic texts, along with the commentaries of Boethius and Bernard Silvestris who were popular among philosophical writers. Besides this, we also know of manuscripts of his commentaries of Aristotle’s De caelo, the writings of Algazel, Isaac Israeli, commentaries on Sacred Scripture, collections of sermons, a work on grammar, and his translation of Aesop’s fables.
What is most important in Alexander Neckham’s work is his application of the “new logic”, that he adapted and reconciled the “new logic” to theology and to the newly translated works of Aristotle. Thus he became on of the first theologians to receive the last discovered texts of Aristotle. Such an early access to these works indicates that Alexander probably brought these works to England from the continent. It is striking how he directly cites Avicenna’s On the soul, one of works of the new Arab wave, as soon as it was discovered in the Latin and northern schools. He was the first European scribe to write of the mariner’s compass.
T. Wright, Biographia Britannica literaria, Lo 1846, 449–461; Alfred of Shareshill [Sareshell], De motu cordis, in: C. Baeumker, “Beiträge” 23, 1–2, Mn 1923; L. Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, Lo 1929, II 188–204; J. C. Russell, Alexander Neckham in England, English Historical Review (1932), 260–268; F. Stegmüller, LThK I 308–309; H. U. Tigner, Daily Living in the Twelfth Century; Based on the Observations of Alexander Neckham in London and Paris, Westport (Ct.) 1980.