Alexander Neckam - Encyclopedia

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ALEXANDER NECKAM (1157-1217), English schoolman and man of science, was born at St Albans in September 1157, on the same night as King Richard I. Neckam's mother nursed the prince with her own son, who thus became Richard's fosterbrother. He was educated at St Albans Abbey school, and began to teach as schoolmaster of Dunstable, dependent on St Albans Abbey. Later he resided several years in Paris, where by 1180 he had become a distinguished lecturer of the university. By 1186 he was back in England, where he again held the place of schoolmaster at Dunstable. He is said to have visited Italy with the bishop of Worcester, but this statement has. been doubted; the assertion that he was ever prior of St Nicolas, Exeter, seems a mistake: on the other hand, he was certainlymuch at court during some part of his life. Having become an Augustinian canon, he was appointed abbot of Cirencester in 1213. He died at Kempsey in Worcestershire in 1217, and was buried at Worcester. Besides theology he was interested in the study of grammar and natural history, but his name is chiefly associated with nautical science. For in his De naturis rerum and De utensilibus (the former of which, at any rate, had become well known at the end of the 12th century, and was probably written about 1180) Neckam has preserved to us the earliest European notices of the magnet as a guide to seamen - outside China, indeed, these seem to be the earliest notices of this mystery of nature that have survived in any country or civilization. It was probably in Paris, the chief intellectual centre of his time, 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 needle would revolve until its point looked north, and thus guide sailors in murky weather or on starless nights. It is noteworthy that Neckam has no air of imparting a startling novelty: he merely records what had apparently become the regular practice of at least many seamen of the Catholic world.

See Thomas Wright's edition of Neckam's De naturis reruns and De laudibus divinae sapientiae in the Rolls Series (1863), and of the De utensilibus in his Volume of Vocabularies. Neckam also wrote Corrogationes Promethei, a scriptural commentary prefaced by a treatise on grammatical criticism; a translation of Aesop into Latin elegiacs (six fables from this version, as given in a Paris MS., are printed in Robert's Fables inedites); commentaries, still unprinted, on portions of Aristotle, Martianus Capella and Ovid's Metamorphoses, and other works. Of all these the De nat. rer., a sort of manual of the scientific knowledge of the 12th century, is much the most important: the magnet passage herein is in book ii. chap. xcviii. (De vi attractiva), p. 583 of Wright's edition. The corresponding section in the De utensil, is on p. 114 of the Vol. of Vocabs. Roger Bacon's reference to Neckam as a grammatical writer (in multis vera et utilia scripsit: sed. .. inter auctores non potest. .. numerari) may be found in Brewer's (Rolls Series) edition of Bacon's Opera inedita, p. 457. See also Thomas Wright, Biographia Britannica literaria, Anglo-Norman Period, pp. 449-459 (1846: some points in this are modified in the 1863 edition of De nat. rer.); C. Raymond Beazley, Dawn of Modern Geography, iii. 508-509.

(C. R. B.)

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