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Teampull na Trionaid (Trinity Church)  on North Uist, Where Duns Scotus is Said to have Studied
Teampull na Trionaid (Trinity Church) on North Uist,
Where Duns Scotus is Said to have Studied

John Duns Scotus lived from 1265/6 to 8 November 1308. He was a was a theologian, philosopher, and logician, and some say that it was while he was at Oxford that the systematic examination of what differentiates theology from philosophy and science began in earnest. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Duns, Probable Birthplace of Duns Scotus
Duns, Probable Birthplace of Scotus

John Duns Scotus is a composite name. The "Scotus" is a nickname identifying his as a Scot during his travels in England and the Continent. "Duns" was his family name, and also probably the name of the town, Duns in Berwickshire, in which he was born and brought up.

Scotus began his formal studies at Oxford in October 1288 and continued to study there until June 1301. Part way through this period, on 17 March 1291, he was ordained to the priesthood in the Franciscan Order at Saint Andrew's Priory in Northampton, England. Estimates of his date of birth usually work backwards from this, given that the minimum age for ordination was 25.

There is no indication that having left Scotland for England prior to commencing his studies at Oxford, Scotus ever returned to his native land. However there is a story that he did briefly study at Teampull na Trionaid (Trinity Church) on North Uist in the Western Isles. If so, common sense suggests this would probably have been prior to his going to Oxford.

By 1300 Scotus was lecturing at Oxford, which he continued to do until he moved to teach at the University of Paris in late 1302. In June 1303 he was expelled from France (with 80 other friars) for taking Pope Boniface VIII's side in a dispute with King Philip the Fair of France. He returned in April 1304, and later that year he was appointed to the Franciscan Chair in Theology at Paris.

For reasons that are unclear, in October 1307 Scotus transferred to the Franciscan University at Cologne. He died there a little over a year later, having written his own epitaph: "Scotia brought me forth. England sustained me. France taught me. Cologne holds me."

Scotus was a highly influential man for his time: a successful intellectual in an age in which the sword ruled supreme. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II on March 20, 1993, and seems destined for the path of sainthood. Scotus is also remembered in two other ways, one flatteringly, the other less so. On the positive side, he is often remembered as Doctor Subtilis in recognition of the subtlety of his thought and his arguments. Less flatteringly, and a sign that even the strongest of intellects may be judged harshly in light of the prejudices of some who follow them, later efforts to deride some of his theological views resulted in the name "Duns" coming to signify stupidity. This is the origin of our word "dunce".

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