I learned something new today. The word “dunce” comes from one Johannes Duns Scotus, a 13th century Franciscan friar, philosopher, theologian and professor at Oxford, Cambridge and Paris, who in his own time was considered a brilliant man. He was born probably in Duns, Berwickshire, Scotland, around 1265. (Ireland and England also claim him as their own, but the strongest evidence suggests he was indeed a Scot, hence the “Scotus” cognomen.)
According to Luke Wadding, a 17th century Franciscan historian who cites earlier sources, young John was tending sheep for his father when two Franciscan friars came along begging for their keep, as was the wont of the mendicant orders. When they found that the boy didn’t know his proper prayers, they endeavored to teach him the Lord’s Prayer. He memorized it instantly after just hearing it once. Amazed at his intellectual gifts, the friars persuaded his father to let the boy go with them and be educated at their monastery in Dumfries.
Again according to Wadding’s sources, the novice friar was swept up in King Edward I’s invasion of Scotland in the early 1290s.
Hence it appears, that the Holy Virgin granted to Dunse innocence of life, modesty of manners, complete faith, continence, piety, and wisdom. That Paul might not be elated by great revelations, he suffered the blows of Satan; that the subtle doctor might not be inflated by the gifts of the mother of Christ, he was forced to suffer the tribulation of captivity, by a fierce enemy. Gold is tried by the furnace, and a just man by temptation. Edward I., king of England, called, from the length of his legs, Long Shanks, had cruelly invaded Scotland, leaving no monument of ancient majesty that he did not seize or destroy, leading to death, or to jail, the most noble and learned men of the country. Among them were twelve friars; and that he might experience the dreadful slaughter and bitter captivity of his country, John of Dunse suffered a miserable servitude; thus imitating the apostle in the graces of God, and the chains he endured.
Who knows if it’s true that he was kidnapped to England, but we do know that he took his Holy Orders and was ordained a priest in 1291 in Northampton, England. After that he went to Merton College, Oxford, were he distinguished himself in all branches of study, especially mathematics and theology. By 1301 he was a professor of theology at Oxford. The next year he was lecturing at the University of Paris, although only briefly because he was expelled for taking the side of Pope Boniface VIII against King Philip IV on the pressing matter of the taxation of Church property. He was back and teaching again at the University of Paris in 1304.
Known as Doctor Subtilis (Subtle Doctor) for his nuanced and complex dialectical approach to thorny theological questions, Duns Scotus made a name for himself defending the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (that Christ’s mother was conceived without Original Sin) against the objections of Saint Thomas Aquinas and his Dominican followers. He is said to have rebutted 200 arguments against the Immaculate Conception one after the other while he was teaching in Paris. His school of thought was dubbed “Scotism” as opposed to Acquinas’ “Thomism.”
His reputation spread far and wide, attracting huge numbers of students — one doubtlessly apocryphal story says he had 30,000 students — to the university. His followers were called “Dunsmen” or “Dunces.” Even after his early death of “apoplexy” on November 8, 1308, his arguments continued to hold sway in Paris, so much so that by the end of the 14th century, the University made upholding the Scotist position on the Immaculate Conception a requirement for everyone who taught there.
Duns Scotus’ intellectual gifts continued to be held in high reverence until the rise of the humanists in 16th century. His dense, detailed, indirect reasoning was derided as sophistry and his followers hopelessly behind the times, incapable of understanding the “new learning” of Renaissance humanism. The Dunces, already saddled with a reputation for painful hair-splitting, now became synonymous with unrelenting, unteachable idiocy.
They even got their own accessory, the “dunce cap” donned by many an elementary school dolt in the era before timeouts. John Duns Scotus was an advocate of the conical hat, you see, because wizards were known to wear them and wizards are smart. The point symbolized knowledge and the funnel shape drove all that knowledge downward directly into the head. Once the dunces became associated with dumbness, the pointy hat became their symbol.
So now dunces and their hats are part of our collective cultural consciousness while the original Duns Scotus is widely forgotten. Not entirely, though. The Catholic Church still hearts him. John XXIII recommended him highly to theology students, and Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1993.