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Attendant to a Higher Judge: Competing Paradigms of Legal Practice in the Thought of Alexander Neckam (1157–1217)


  • Tomas Zahora

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    • Dr Tomas Zahora is a researcher at the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University, Monash University, Building 30, Wellington Road, Clayton, VIC 3800, Australia.


The end of the twelfth century was a period of nascent professionalisation of legal practitioners. But this transformation was not immediate, and older paradigms of practicing justice coexisted with new. In this article I look at the discourse of justice from the perspective of a practitioner who did not pursue a legal career, in order to examine how the new developments were perceived by contemporaries. The English Augustinian Canon Alexander Neckam (1157–1217) studied canon law along with the arts and theology in Paris, and served as a papal judge delegate. Yet his interests were mainly those of a theologian and educator, and his treatment of law and justice has been evaluated by historians as lacking proper legal understanding. As I argue, Neckam does have a well-developed conception of law and justice. It is anchored in the notion of justice as embodied in the person exercising it, and in a programme of moral education associated with the exegetical method of tropology. Neckam's notion of justice is an expression of a well-oiled educational paradigm as much as a statement of prestige, both of which were challenged by students willing to bypass traditional educational methods and progress more directly to the study of law. His response reveals the difficult situation in which many arts-trained practitioners found themselves. While they had the rhetorical skills to argue that specialised legal training could result in morally flawed judges and unjust decisions, they were often relegated to watching the honours and wealth to which they grew accustomed gradually shift to the very men whose focused expertise they disparaged.