Word Origins John Duns Scotus the Dunce Part 1

About the history and biography of John Duns Scotus man whose name came to mean an idiot or stupid person.


JOHN DUNS SCOTUS (1265?-1308?)

Dunce (duns) n. A stupid person; numbskull.

King Edward I had only recently returned from the Crusades when Friar Elias Duns took his young nephew John under his tutelage at the Scottish Franciscan friary at Dumfries. John proved uncommonly bright, entered the order at 15, and was later sent to Oxford and from there to Paris to obtain his master's degree in theology. Inside university walls, Latin was the universal language, and scholars from anywhere in Europe could converse together with perfect ease. Known as Duns Scotus ("Duns the Scot" in Latin) by his colleagues, John studied under the renowned Gonsalvo of Balboa and lectured at Paris, Oxford, and Cologne. However, he was denied his degree until three years before his death owing to his stand on the age-old issue of whether the State did or did not have the right to tax the Church.

King Philip the Fair said it did; Pope Boniface VIII disagreed. In the struggle that ensued, the nobility, the higher clergy, the University of Paris, the chapter of Notre Dame, and the mendicant friars all went over to the side of the king. The Franciscans, however, held out, and when on June 25, 1303, royal commissioners visited the chapter and examined each friar separately, the majority, including Duns Scotus, still sided with the pope. They were immediately banished from France. The pope responded by denying the University of Paris the right to grant the degree of master of theology. The dispute was resolved the following year, when the king rescinded his decree of exile, Benedict XI succeeded to the papacy, and the University of Paris was permitted to award the Scottish friar his degree.

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