The dunce cap has been a long standing symbol of stupidity and disgrace, but ironically rose to fame as a signifier of high intelligence. You might be surprised to learn that the original “dunce” was actually a brilliant Catholic saint!
Blessed John Duns Scotus was born the year 1265 in Duns, the county town of Berwickshire, Scotland – hence the name, Duns Scotus. Tradition says a young Scotus was tending to his father’s sheep when Franciscan friars came to beg for their keep in line with their mendicant orders. Upon discovering the young boy didn’t know his prayers, the friars taught him the Lord’s Prayer. Scotus memorized it instantly after only hearing it once: amazed at his intellectual gift, the friars persuaded the father to let him go to the monastery to be educated.
In 1291, he took Holy Orders and was ordained a priest in England. He distinguished himself at Oxford, becoming a scholar of mathematics and theology and later a professor at both Oxford and for a time the University of Paris. He became known as the Subtle Doctor, Doctor Subtilis, for his complex and nuanced approach to matters of doctrine.
Scotus was especially known as a defender of the Immaculate Conception, once defending 200 arguments against it in a row. Word of his intellectual prowess spread far and wide, attracting some 30,000 students to the university who called themselves “dunsmen,” or “dunces” for short. An advocate for the pointed hat worn by wizards, because wizards are smart, the “dunce” cap of John Duns Scotus became a symbol of intelligence worn by his followers.
So how did the dunce cap go from being a display of intellect to showing a lack there of? The rise of humanists in the 16th century found Scotus’ gift of intelligence no longer being highly revered. His followers were derided as hopelessly behind the times, incapable of learning the new Renaissance humanist beliefs of the time. And so, the symbols that once set apart the dunces as intelligent became forever associated with unrelenting and unteachable idiocy.
Today, Blessed John Dun Scotus is thought be one of the greatest thinkers of the Middle Ages, his work Opus Oxoniense defining what later became the dogma the Immaculate Conception. He was beatified in 1993 by Pope Saint John Paul II in recognition for his contributions to theology.