The tropological universe: Alexander Neckam's encyclopedias and the natures of things at the turn of the thirteenth century

Tomas Zahora, Fordham University


This dissertation analyzes the encyclopedic works of Alexander Neckam, the De naturis rerum, and the Laus sapientie divine , by placing them in the context of his other writings and of contemporary developments in education and intellectual life around the turn of the thirteenth century. The focus and methods of the dissertation are those of intellectual history; but by setting out to understand the interpretative and cognitive frameworks in which Neckam and his scholarly contemporaries were trained, my work seeks to address broader issues like resistance to paradigmatic change, and the complexity of transforming intellectual habits between a spiritual (tropological, in Neckam's case) and a strictly rational mode. The dissertation has two main goals. The first is to provide an updated apparatus for the study of Alexander Neckam and of medieval encyclopedias in general by resolving questions about the structure of Neckam's encyclopedic works, and by presenting an outline of his techniques as a scholar and encyclopedist. The second goal is to understand the inner working, strengths, and weaknesses of Neckam's primary method, tropology: the interpretation of things with respect of virtues and vices. This latter focus revolves around the paradox presented by Neckam's simultaneous understanding of an encyclopedia as both a compendium of the multitude of created things, and as a barrier protecting the reader from a too-close attachment to that multitude. Neckam's moralizing treatment of creation and of human knowledge about it leads to broader implications with respect to education, orthodoxy and heresy, and coming to terms with change. As I conclude, Neckam's mastery of the tropological method appears to have prevented him from correctly evaluating the importance of twelfth-century natural philosophers, and from satisfactorily responding to the challenges of the Cathar heresy and the impact of new Aristotelian texts. Since Neckam was by no means alone in this position, understanding his situation helps us to better understand one aspect of the dramatic changes that occurred at the turn of the thirteenth century. By extension, it allows us to examine the moral assumptions of our own time, and the inevitable blind spots created by the too-comfortable hermeneutic of moral and spiritual self-righteousness.

Subject Area

Literature|Middle Ages|Biographies|Religious history|Middle Ages

Recommended Citation

Zahora, Tomas, "The tropological universe: Alexander Neckam's encyclopedias and the natures of things at the turn of the thirteenth century" (2008). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3301442.