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The Dunce's Cap: Blessed John Duns Scotus' Hat Repurposed

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An 1828 engraving showing one good boy and another bearing a dunce's hat and asses ears to denote his naughtiness. From The Affectionate Parent’s Gift.(1828).

An 1828 engraving showing one good boy and another bearing a dunce's hat and asses ears to denote his naughtiness. From The Affectionate Parent’s Gift.(1828).

Blessed John Duns Scotus' Thinking Cap

The dunce's hat or dunce's cap was used until well into the 20th century to signify that someone, very often a child, was either deemed to be an idiot or disobedient. However, the original purpose of wearing a pointed hat was to enhance learning according to the principles of metaphysics.

The Scottish-born 13th/14th-century Franciscan friar, theologian, scholar and philosopher John Duns Scotus (Joannes Duns Scotus in Latin), also known as Doctor Subtilis (The Subtle Doctor), was most probably inspired by wizards and their perceived great wisdom when he espoused his theory that conical headwear was vital for personal advancement in learning.

Why? Because the knowledge spilled from the hat’s point down into the brain. His supporters readily wore the same style of headwear, and they were plentiful; he had a following as great as Saint Thomas Aquinas.

John Duns Scotus by Justus van Gent.

John Duns Scotus by Justus van Gent.

He was born in Duns in Lothian circa 1266. His early life remains a mystery, but we do know that he became a friar in the Order of Friars Minor, a religious order founded by Saint Francis of Assisi. The saint was an inspiration to John Duns Scotus throughout his life.

On 17th March 1291, John was ordained as a priest in Oxford, England, which then lay in the Franciscan Province under English rule. To acquire his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he spent the following 13 years at the University of Oxford.

In documentation dated 1300, he was referred to as a "bachelor respondent" which meant that his bachelor’s training had been completed. He was permitted to hear confessions from 1301, the same year that he became a master of theology.

The plaque at Oxford University, England remembering John Duns Scotus.

The plaque at Oxford University, England remembering John Duns Scotus.

John Duns Scotus' Theories

John Duns Scotus’ writings illustrated his commitment to life as a Franciscan, and he established himself as one of the great thinkers of the age. His theories were viewed as enlightened by many but criticised as heretical by the minority.

His work Lectura Oxoniensis delivered his view that beliefs were not a matter of chance but a science of God in which love was the key to communing with God himself. The text from the Lectura was revised and retitled Opus Oxoniense for publication.

He offered answers to age-old questions about Mary, Jesus’ mother’s experience of an immaculate conception, and why she was accorded this privilege over other humans. His thoughts were later adopted by the church, although they met with some resistance.

John also believed that Jesus’ incarnation was not dependent on the human tendency to sin and that it was the superior love and will of God that determined Jesus’ arrival on Earth.

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King Philip IV of France Exiles John Dun Scotus

In 1304 John Duns Scotus left England. He was selected to represent the English Franciscans at the prestigious University of Paris. France as the Chair of Theology.

He embraced his new role only to become embroiled in an argument between Pope Boniface VIII and the French king Philip IV about payments the Pope wanted from France to fund the Catholic church. Pope Boniface excommunicated Philip IV, and in swift retaliation, King Philip deposed the Pope with the support of most of the university’s staff and leading French clerics.

John Dun Scotus was one of the few University of Paris staff members who remained loyal to Pope Boniface VIII, which incurred the king’s considerable wrath. He was exiled from France within a few days. Pope Boniface died in suspicious circumstances shortly after this episode. The French king allowed the University of Paris to resume lectures, but Dun Scotus was not reinstated.

Pope Boniface VIII. His dispute with King Philip IV of France led to John Duns Scotus being expelled from France.

Pope Boniface VIII. His dispute with King Philip IV of France led to John Duns Scotus being expelled from France.

"Dunce" Moves From Churches Into Schools

His period of exile was spent in Cambridge, where he returned to his lectures and philosophical questions. In 1307 he was installed as the Master of the University of Cologne. (Today in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany).

His departure from England may have been a measure to protect himself from harm. His challenges to popularly held beliefs had led to threats of arrest for heresy. It was safer for him in Europe. Unfortunately, John Dun Scotus died of apparently natural causes in Cologne on 8th November 1308, and he was buried in the Franciscan church close to Cologne Cathedral.

During the 1500s, extensive religious reforms occurred. The stance that John Dun Scotus had taken centuries earlier in defence of Pope Boniface VIII against Philip IV's "Divine Right of Kings" was utilised to decry his followers.

"Dunsmen" were said to be pedants who were slow or disinclined to learn and accept the correct theology and doctrines. This word was later contracted to duns and evolved into dunce.

The Georgians and Victorians in England and the Americans adopted the pointed hat loved by Duns Scotus as a device to discipline unruly children in classrooms. Thankfully opinions about the fairness of this public display of censure altered, and by the 1950s, widespread use of the dunce's cap had ceased.

Today any positive connotations for the "duns" cap have been lost and replaced by its later negative associations.

In 1993 John Duns Scotus was beatified by Pope John Paul II.

Pope Saint John Paul II (Giovanni Paulo) beautified John Duns Scotus in 1993.

Pope Saint John Paul II (Giovanni Paulo) beautified John Duns Scotus in 1993.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle

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