- John Duns Scotus (1265-1308)
John Duns Scotus a famous Scot? Well, clearly Pope John Paul II thought so when he beatified him in 1993. And he has given his name to a word in the English language - dunce - despite being regarded as one of the greatest of medieval thinkers.
John was born around 1265, probably in the Berwickshire village of Duns (where there is a statue to him). A suggestion that he came from Maxton in Roxburghshire arose from an 18th century forgery. He joined the Franciscan order in Dumfries in 1281 and at that stage added the town of his birth to his name - a frequent occurrence at a time when surnames were starting to be adopted. He was ordained as a priest ten years later in Northampton, in England. He later studied at Oxford and Paris and then took up a teaching post back at Oxford.
John Duns is known to have been teaching in Paris around 1301 but because he spoke out on behalf of the Pope in a dispute between the Pontiff and the King Philip the Fair of France, he was expelled. He came back later to Paris and was made Doctor of Theology there in 1305. He moved on to Cologne in 1307 and taught there for a year before his death (possibly from a stroke) in 1308, at the age of 43. He was buried in a Franciscan church in Cologne.
The Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274) exerted a considerable influence on the Catholic church in the 13th century. But John Duns Scotus rejected his teachings, arguing that the individual will predominated over the intellect and that faith was an individual act of will. John Duns differentiated between belief and statements which could be proved by factors other than religion. The result was to create two rival theological camps. The intellectual ability of John Duns and his understanding of the teachings of Aquinas allowed him to be critical of the rival theology. Duns earned the title "Doctor Subtilis" (the Subtle Doctor) because of his ability to construct a complex argument and proof.
His written teachings became widespread across Europe (though a number which were attributed to him may not have been penned by him at all) and his ideas continued to exert an influence on religious thinking for some centuries. But in the 16th century, his followers were given the name "Dunses" in part because his dry subtleties were too esoteric for lesser men when they were pursued with dullness and obstinacy. His teachings fell out of favour - and the "Dunses" came to denote a dull, stupid person - a dunce.
Pope John XXIII recommended the works of John Duns Scotus and in 1993 Pope John Paul II beatified him.
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