The Paradoxical Origin of the Word “Dunce”

Of all the words, exclamations, and clichés that grew out of anti-catholic bigotry, it is the word “dunce” that is the most ridiculous misnomer. It is derived from the name of one of the greatest scholastic thinkers of the Middles Ages, Duns Scotus, a Franciscan theologian, philosopher, and logician. He taught at Oxford University in the late thirteenth century. A contemporary of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the influence of Scotus’ works was far greater in his own century than afterwards. Saint Thomas’ genius did not really come to light in the Church universally until after the Council of Trent (1545-1563). It was during the humanistic period of the pre-Reformation Renaissance that Scotus, and the scholastic method in general, came under attack. Cynical humanists, in their obsession against what they considered the dry logic of the schools, labeled those who were trying to salvage the best out of a scholasticism in decline, “the dunsmen.” After the defection of England from the Church, the Oxford elite, in their contempt for anything that resembled the old Catholic intellectual tradition, fostered disparaging clichés against Catholic thought. If one was not fond of the new ways of independent critical thinking, freed from the burden of the past, one was “dull and obstinate,” “impervious to new learning,” and, a “dunsman.” Dunsman eventually was reduced to “dunce.”