Alexander Neckam


Alexander Neckam (sometimes spelled Neckham) was born in 1157 in St Albans in England. He is also known Alexander Nequam and Alexander of St Albans. He received his education at the abbey school in St Albans and later in Paris, where he lived from around 1175 to 1182. He was a lecturer at the University of Paris by 1180. Around 1186 he returned to England to become master at a school in Dunstable. The name "Nequam", the Latin word for "bad", was supposedly as the result of his application to be master of the St Albans school, to which he received the jesting reply Si bonus es venias, si nequam, nequaquam (If you are good, come, if you are bad, by no means). He moved to Oxford to teach around 1190, where he joined the Augustinian order. By around 1200 he was at St Mary's Abbey in Cirencester, England becoming abbot there in 1215. It is at St Mary's where he wrote most of his texts, including the De naturis rerum. He died in 1217.


Alexander was a prolific writer. His major works include:

  • Corrogationes Promethei (Teachings of Prometheus)
  • Laus divinae sapientae (In praise of divine wisdom)
  • De naturis rerum et super Ecclesiasten (On the nature of things)
  • De utensilibus (On useful things)
  • Expositio super cantica canticorum (Exposition on the Song of Songs)
  • Novus Avianus (New Avianus)
  • Novus Esopus (New Aesop)
  • Solatium fidelis anime (Solace of the faithful soul)
  • Speculum speculationum (Mirror of speculation)
  • Suppletio defectuum (Supplement to Laus divinae sapientae)
  • Tractatus super mulierem fortem (Treatise on strong women)
  • Tractatus super parabolas Salomonis (Treatise on the proverbs of Solomon)

His encyclopedia, De naturis rerum, is of most interest here, but he also wrote on the subject of animals in Laus divinae sapientae and Suppletio defectuum.

De naturis rerum

De naturis rerum, more completely titled De naturis rerum et super Ecclesiasten (On the Natures of Things and on Ecclesiastes), was written in the early thirteenth century. The first part of the text is an encyclopedia in two books. An additional three books, not directly connected to the first two, make up the second part; the texts in that part are an extended commentary on the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. It is possible the two parts were originally intended as two separate works.

In his edition of the text, Thomas Wright says "The book in itself was intended to be a manual of the scientific knowledge of the time, and as such would be merely regarded as an interesting monument of the history of science in western Europe, and especially in England, during the latter half of the twelfth century; but it derives a still greater value for us from the love of its author for illustrating his theme by the introduction of contemporary anecdotes and stories relating to the objects treated of, as well the mention of popular facts and articles of belief which had come under his observation or knowledge, many of which offer singular illustrations of the condition and manners of the age. His system of nature is a very simple one, and is that which was commonly accepted in his time. The whole universe reduced itself primarily to the four elements, and as each class of created objects was believed to partake specially of one of the elements more than of the others, it was classified as properly belonging to that element which was the one supposed to predominate in it. Thus, birds belonged to air, fishes to water, animals, vegetables, and minerals to earth."

Unlike other twelfth and thirteen century encyclopedias, such as those by Albertus Magnus and Bartholomaeus Anglicus, Neckam used his accounts of natural things as subjects for moralization, and virtually every chapter has its moral or allegorical meaning explained.

Also unlike other medieval encyclopedias, De naturis rerum is not divided into sections for each general topic, but only into continuous chapters. While the chapters are usually grouped by subject, this structure is not rigidly followed, so some chapters appear in unexpected places. The general topics of groups of chapters of Book 1 and 2 are shown here; the number following the topic name gives the Book (1 or 2) and range of chapters in that group (e.g. Book 1, chapters 10 to 20 is listed as 1.10-20). Chapter numbers reset to 1 at the start of Book 2. Note that these topic names do not appear anywhere in the text of De naturis rerum.

  • On creation [1.1-3]
  • On astronomy [1.4-16]
  • On the elements (fire, air, vacuum) [1.16-19]
  • On sound [1.20; 1.22]
  • On birds [1.23-80]
  • On water (seas, lakes, rivers, springs) [2.1-21]
  • On fish and aquatic animals [2.21-47]
  • On minerals (stones, gems) [2.50-55; 2.85-98]
  • On plants (herbs, trees) [2.56-84; 2.166-167]
  • On animals [1.21; 2.99-151; 2.157-165]
  • On humans [2.152; 2.155-156]
  • On vision [2.153-154]
  • On human workers and professions [2.168-179]
  • On human character [2.180-192]


Neckam quotes extensively from several authors, but he does not always name his sources. His named sources include Ovid, Cassiodorus, Gaius Julius Solinus, Isidore of Seville, `Aristotle, Lucan and Pliny the Elder. He quotes poems from the Metamorphoses of Ovid, and animal descriptions from the Etymologies by Isidore, from the De mirabilibus mundi by Solinus, and from from various works by Cassiodorus. Some of his stories are taken from Greek and Roman mythology.


There are at least 15 manuscripts containing De naturis rerum, though some include only excerpts or fragments. None are illustrated. The full five books of the text are found in some manuscripts, with just the first two books appearing in others. There are slight variations in chapter numbering in different manuscripts, with chapters combined or split. For consistency the chapter order and numbering found in the Thomas Wright edition is used here.

Thomas Wright gave the letter designations A, B, C, D to the four manuscripts he used for his 1863 edition. For reference here, other manuscripts are given a letter starting at E.

  1. Magdalen College Library, 139
  2. St John's College (Oxford) Library, MS. 51
  3. British Library, Royal MS 12 G XI
  4. British Library, Royal MS 12 F XIV
  5. Trinity College Library (Cambridge), O.4.1
  6. Trinity College Library (Cambridge), R.16.3
  7. Trinity College Library (Cambridge), R.16.4


The De naturis rerum describes 143 animals in three sections (birds; fish and marine animals; land animals, serpents and insects). Most chapters have a brief description of the animal, followed by one or more moralizations. Several animals have extra chapters (titled "Item de ...", "also of the ...") that provide more information. Some of the chapters tell stories about the interaction between two or more animals (see the Text tab for examples).

The animal lists below are derived from the Wright edition of 1868. Not all manuscripts follow this chapter order exactly, sometimes adding a chapter, omitting a chapter, splitting one chapter in two, or combining one or more chapters into one. Such chapters are marked (if known) with a § symbol followed by a letter designating the variant manuscript. See Manuscripts above for the letter designations; see the manuscript descriptions for more details on the variations.

  1. De avibus, Aquila [birds in general, eagle] (§G)
  2. De accipitre suspenso [the hanged hawk]
  3. De accipitre [hawk]
  4. De falcone [falcon]
  5. De commendabili fraude falconis aquilam seducentis in ultionem mortis sui comparis [the revenge of the falcon on the eagle]
  6. De girofalcone [falcon]
  7. De accipitre et niso [hawk]
  8. De falconibus leporariis [falcon and hare]
  9. De gripibus [griffin]
  10. De niso et mustela [hawk and weasel]
  11. Quomodo mutari possunt aves generosa [how can noble birds be changed?]
  12. De phoenice [phoenix] (§F)
  13. Item de phoenice [also of the phoenix] (§E)
  14. De psittaco [parrot]
  15. Item de psittaco [also of the parrot] (§E, §F)
  16. Item de psittaco [also of the parrot]
  17. De pavone [peacock]
  18. Item de pavone [also of the peacock] (§F)
  19. De vulture [vulture]
  20. De phasiano [pheasant]
  21. De perdice [partridge]
  22. De perdice [partridge]
  23. Item de perdicibus [also of the partridge]
  24. De grue [crane]
  25. Item de grues [also of the crane]
  26. De ave quae vulgo dicitur bernekke [the bird commonly called the barnacle goose]
  27. De cygno [swan]
  28. De struthione [ostrich]
  29. De philomena [nightingale]
  30. De hirundine [swallow]
  31. De ficedula [figpecker]
  32. De butauro [bittern]
  33. De ibice [ibis]
  34. De columba [dove]
  35. De strofilo [trochilus>]
  36. De aurifrisio []osprey
  37. De turture [turtledove]
  38. De passere [sparrow]
  39. De corvo [raven]
  40. De cornice [crow]
  41. De ardea [heron]
  42. De ciconia [stork]
  43. Item de ciconia [also of the stork]
  44. Item de ciconia [also of the stork]
  45. De anate [duck]
  46. De alauda [lark]
  47. De pica [magpie]
  48. De coturnicibus [quail]
  49. De ansere [goose]
  50. De cuculo [cuckoo]
  51. De pellicano [pelican]
  52. Iterum de pellicano [also of the pelican]
  53. De gallo gallinaceo [cock]
  54. De ave que ex herba marina nascitur [the bird that is born from sea grass (heron)]
  55. De ave quae dux est multitudinis allecium [the bird which is the leader of pheasants]
  56. De regulo [basilisk]
  57. De avibus rapacibus [birds of prey]
  58. Quare aves non faciant urinam [why birds do not urinate]
  1. De piscibus in genere [fish in general]
  2. De seminibus piscium [seed of fish]
  3. De pisce habente unum oculum in fronte habentem formam clypei [fish having one eye in the form of a shield]
  4. De monstruosis piscibus [monstrous fish]
  5. De turdis ["Turdis (thrush) is a name for a bird and a fish"]
  6. De delphinibus [dolphin]
  7. Item de delphinibus [also of the dolphin]
  8. Item de delphinibus [also of the dolphin] (§E)
  9. De hippotamo [hippopotamus]
  10. De mullo [mullet]
  11. De lucio, et perca, et brenna [pike, perch and brenna]
  12. Item de eodem [also of the same fish (pike, perch and brenna)] (§E, §F)
  13. De echinis [sea-urchin] (§F)
  14. De umbra [astaraz] (§F)
  15. De ostreo et cancro [pearl-oyster and crab]
  16. De conchis [conchis]
  17. De sicca ["sicca (? fish) is dry and consists of a single bone"]
  18. De capitone et truta [capito and trout]
  19. De pectine [scallop]
  20. De murena [moray eel]
  21. De salmone [salmon]
  22. De pisciculo cursum navis impediente [a small fish obstructing the course of a ship, echeneis]
  23. De pisce qui narcos dicitur [torpedo]
  24. De pisce qui nitidis delectatur corporibus [(unnamed) fish that likes white-skinned bodies]
  25. De thymallo [thymallus]
  1. De animalibus [animals in general] (§F)
  2. De crocodrillo [crocodile]
  3. Item de crocodrillo [also of the crocodile]
  4. De glandosa [unknown serpent]
  5. De rhinoceronte [unicorn or monocerus]
  6. Item de rhinoceronte [also of the unicorn or monocerus]
  7. De vipera [viper]
  8. De nepa [viper]
  9. De dentibus anguis in modum seminum terrae commissis [dragon's teeth turned into soldiers]
  10. De tiria [tyrus]
  11. De vulgari serpente [common snake]
  12. De venenosis animalibus in genere [venomous animals in general]
  13. De anguibus [snake] (§F)
  14. De hypnale [asp]
  15. De aranea [spider]
  16. De aspide [asp]
  17. De serpente qui dicitur haemorrhois [serpent called haemorrhois, asp]
  18. De serpente qui dicitur dipsas [dipsa]
  19. De serpente qui dicitur prester [serpent called prester, asp]
  20. De amphisibana [amphisbaena]
  21. De serpente qui dicitur seps [serpent called seps]
  22. De basilisco [basilisk]
  23. De bufone [buffone]
  24. De talpa [mole]
  25. De mustela [weasel] (§E)
  26. De scurulo [squirrel]
  27. De vulpe [fox]
  28. De corvo et vulpe [raven and fox]
  29. De taxo et vulpe [badger and fox]
  30. De simia [ape]
  31. Item de simia [also of the ape]
  32. De urso [bear]
  33. Item de ursis [also of the bear]
  34. De lupo [wolf]
  35. De panthera [panther]
  36. De lepore [hare] (§E)
  37. De cervo [stag]
  38. Item de cervis [also of the stag]
  39. De Acteone [Actaeon turned into a stag]
  40. De lynce [lynx]
  41. De apro [boar]
  42. De castore [beaver]
  43. De camelo [camel]
  44. Item de camelo [also of the camel]
  45. De elephante [elephant]
  46. Item de elephante [also of the elephant]
  47. De elephante et dracone [elephant and dragon]
  48. De draconibus [dragon]
  49. De dracone [dragon]
  50. De leone [lion]
  51. Item de leonibus [also of the lion]
  52. De onagris [onager]
  53. De hyaena [hyena]
  54. De cane [dog]
  55. De jumentis, et armentis, et pecoribus [beasts of burden, herds of cattle]
  56. De mulo [mule]
  57. De asino [ass]
  58. De bove, et ove, et capra [ox, sheep and goat]
  59. Quare quaedam animalia ruminent [Why do some animals chew the cud?]
  60. De apibus [bee]
  61. De bombice [silkworm]