December 08, 2020


December 8 (1308) is believed to be the day John Duns Scotus died. Things only got worse for him from there.

n. a dull, ignorant person
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

Two great tragedies befell the brilliant scholar and subtle philosopher John Duns Scotus. The first is that he had the misfortune to drop into a coma in fourteenth-century Germany—prompting the now-defunct but then-obligatory burial alive. The second is that a few of his dim-witted followers ruined his legacy by shunning the enlightenment of the Renaissance in his name, prompting eternal dunce caps for all.

No one knows for certain when or where theologian John Duns Scotus was born, though it was believed to have been near the end of the thirteenth century and, based on his middle name, either in Duns (Scotland), Dunse (Berwickshire), or Dunston (Northumberland). What is known is that he proved to be an intellectual wonder first at Oxford and then the University of Paris, where he lectured in 1302. He was an ordained Franciscan priest and is perhaps the greatest historical defender of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

Scotus is believed to have died while in his mid-forties in 1308. Why he fell into a coma is a mystery, but it was surely the subsequent burial while still alive that ultimately killed him. His writings and teachings lived beyond, however, and his Scotist followers helped sustain his philosophies surrounding the “thisness” of things and the existence of God. He was belovedly remembered as the “Subtle Doctor” for the quiet power and nuanced logic of his arguments, and he was a cornerstone of the religious canon for nearly 200 years.

Unfortunately for Scotus, a shift took place in the sixteenth century. The arguments that had charmed even his rivals in the past were suddenly viewed as sophist, illogical, and theologically obstructionist during the Renaissance. The Scotists (by then called Dunsmen) were increasingly attacked for their unwillingness to accept new scholarship. They railed hopelessly against intellectual progress and subsequently, as early as the 1570s, became known collectively as dunses. The final transformation to dunces implied a complete inability to learn, and by 1577 the Oxford English Dictionary identified a dunce as “a dull-witted, stupid person; a dullard, blockhead”—a far cry from the intellectual powerhouse of its namesake.

The “dunce cap,” meanwhile, experienced its own transformation. With definitive origins unknown, one of its earliest appearances was on the heads of heretical prisoners before the Spanish Inquisition. Over the next few hundred years, a tradition emerged of putting struggling students at a separate “dunce’s table,” followed by pointed hats (often with a capital D inscribed) to denote dimwittedness in classrooms. They were not called “dunce caps” until 1840 in Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, but by that time were already the bane of skylarkers and slow learners alike in classrooms the world over.

All of this surely would have broken Scotus’s heart, whose intellect was unparalleled in its time. Though he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1993, becoming “St. Dunce” was surely cold comfort for the beleaguered Franciscan wunderkind of the high Middle Ages.