Neckam, Alexander (DNB00)

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NECKAM or NECHAM, ALEXANDER (1157–1217), scholar, was born at St. Albans, Hertfordshire, in September 1157, on the same night as Richard I. His mother was chosen to be Richard's foster-mother, and she suckled both the children together. Neckam received his early education at St. Albans, and is sometimes called Alexander de Sancto Albano. While very young he is said to have had charge of the school of Dunstable, dependent on St. Albans Abbey. He went to the university of Paris and became a member of the school of Petit Pons, then lately founded, and famous for its subtlety in disputation. By 1180 he was a distinguished teacher at the university (Du Boulay). He was sometimes in joke called ‘Nequam’ (wicked) by his contemporaries. Returning to England in 1186, he seems to have again had charge of the Dunstable school for a year, and then to have applied for the mastership of the St. Albans school. In answer the Abbot Warin is said to have written punningly to him, ‘Si bonus es, venias; si nequam, nequaquam,’ to which he replied in the same spirit (Gesta Abbatum S. Albani, i. 196; if this story is to be received at all, this version of it is of better authority than that quoted by Tanner from Boston of Bury). He is supposed to have been prior of St. Nicholas, Exeter, but of this there is no proof. Having become an Augustinian canon, he was, in 1213, chosen abbot of Cirencester. It is asserted that he visited Rome with the Bishop of Worcester [see Grey or Gray, Walter de, archbishop of York], but this is unlikely; for in his ‘De Laudibus Divinæ Sapientiæ,’ written towards the end of his life, he speaks of the approach of old age as a bar to such a journey. He was a great deal at court at some period of his life. He died at Kempsey in Worcestershire in 1217, and was buried at Worcester (Annales de Wigornia, sub an.) His nickname, Nequam, was so frequently used that he is called by it in the record of his death and in the epitaph said to have been placed on his tomb (Wright, Biog. Lit. ii. 450).

His range of learning was wide, and he wrote much and on various subjects. Both in prose and verse he wrote better Latin than was then common, and he shows a considerable acquaintance with the ancient Latin poets. Two of his works have been edited by T. Wright in one volume in the Rolls Series of ‘Chronicles and Memorials.’ They are both on natural science. The one entitled ‘De naturis rerum’ is in prose, and exists in four manuscripts, two being in the Royal Library in the British Museum, and the other two at Magdalen and St. John's Colleges, Oxford. It was a popular work, and is frequently quoted, as by Sir Thomas de la More [q. v.] (ap. Chronicles of Edward I and II, Rolls Ser. ii. 309; Geoffrey le Baker, ed. Thompson, p. 22), and by John Brompton (ed. Twysden, col. 814). It presents a highly interesting picture of the notions about natural science then held by men of learning, together with many quaint stories and illustrations. The other work in the same volume of the Rolls Series is his ‘De Laudibus Divinæ Sapientiæ,’ taken from a single manuscript in the Royal Library in the British Museum. It is in elegiac verse, and is a paraphrase of the prose work, with some fresh matter, and with the stories left out. It was evidently written late in the life of the author, who says that he purposes to offer the book to Gloucester Abbey, and in case refusal there, to St. Albans. Neckam is sometimes said to have penned another elegiac poem on the monastic life, entitled ‘De Contemptu Mundi,’ which is found in several manuscripts, and has been printed with St. Anselm's works. It is more probably by Roger Caen. His translation of ‘Æsop's Fables’ into elegiacs has been published (Ward's Cat. Romances, ii. 351), and six fables have been printed from a Paris MS. in Robert's ‘Fables inédites,’ vol. i. Other poems, as one ‘De Conversione Magdalenæ,’ known by name, are perhaps lost. Neckam also wrote treatises on grammar, some of which are extant. Of his learning in this direction Roger Bacon said that, though ‘in many things he wrote what was true and useful, he neither has nor ought to have any title to be reckoned an authority’ (Opera Inedita, p. 457). Grammar seems to have been his favourite pursuit, and when writing on other subjects he sometimes notes some derivation which now appears strange. He also wrote a kind of vocabulary in the form of a reading book, entitled ‘De Utensilibus,’ of which there are manuscripts in the British Museum (MS. Cotton, Titus D. 20), and at Caius College and Peterhouse, Cambridge. Some extracts from this have been printed by Wright. His other works are commentaries on parts of scripture, theological tracts and sermons, and commentaries on Aristotle, Ovid's ‘Metamorphoses,’ and a portion of Martianus Capella.

[Wright's pref. to Neckam's De Naturis Rerum, &c. p. 503 (Rolls Ser.); Wright's Biog. Brit. Lit. ii. 449–59; there is nothing additional in the short notice in Morley's English Writers, iii. 196; Bale's Scriptt. Cat. pt. i. p. 272, ed. 1587; Tanner's Bibl. Brit. (list of works); Hardy's Cat. Mat. iii. 57, 58 (Rolls Ser.); Du Boulay's Hist. Univ. Paris. ii. 427, 725; Hist. Litt. de France, xviii. 521; Peter of Blois' Epist. 137; Gesta Abbatum Mon. S. Albani. i. 196 (Rolls Ser.); Annals of Tewkesbury, an. 1217, of Dunstable, an. 1213, of Worcester, an. 1217, ap. Ann. Monastici, i. 63, ii. 40, iv. 409 (Rolls Ser.)]

W. H.