Duns Scotus: his Life and Times (John Edwards)

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Proceedings of the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow 1905

[Read before the Historical and Philological Section, 15th March, 1905.]

Section headings by Logic Museum



>The light shed upon the present, by the earnest and unbiased study of the past is no ignis fatuus, no will-o'-the-wisp, leading into the bogs and bunkers of false judgment and error. It is a truism that the scrutiny of no past period is barren of lessons of real value for the present, and that however unpromising at a first glance the ground may appear, the searcher after truth, who perseveres in digging, is rewarded by gems in unexpected places, and by finds of precious metal amid rocks of flint and quartz. In addition to this, it is recognised that the philosopher and poet are modified and conditioned by the complex forces of society, political, social and religious, which go to the making of the times in which they live. As Sir Leslie Stephen has remarked : ‘We know Dante, and understand his position the more thoroughly, as we know better the history of the political and ecclesiastical struggles in which he took part, and the philosophical doctrines which he accepted and interpreted ; and conversely, we understand the period the better when we see how its beliefs and passions affected a man of abnormal genius and marked idiosyncrasy of character.’ It is hardly necessary to remind you that the philosopher, no less than the poet, is a complex product largely influenced by the action of the forces of early training and habit, and the ideas current in the society and time in which his lot is cast, as well as by the inner workings of his own intellect upon the problems of being and knowing, of mind and of matter. He puts the thoughts, the beliefs, the scepticisms of the age into more distinct shape, he impresses them with the stamp of his own personality, and attempts with more or less success to justify them or to modify them. He states the problems that are exercising the thinking minds of the period, and sometimes even those that have little thought behind them, and he gives his contribution towards their solution. Hence to study his environment adds to our knowledge of the man, his excellences and limitations. The times of the Schoolmen are, on their philosophic side, to >many, synonymous with endless prolixity and deadly dulness. Yet they are times which, when examined more closely, are found to have been themselves characterised by much stirring of the human intellect, and fraught with the promise of future advance in genuine knowledge and culture, however much they may seem, when looked at from the vantage-ground of the present time, to have been filled with the dull and never-ending murmurs of tiresome disputings and logical hair-splittings,

‘Where entity and quiddity / The ghosts of defunct bodies fly.’[1]

Although the founder of the Franciscan Order — a simple layman — despised books and book-learning, and looked upon intellectual culture as a snare which was preventing the Religious Orders already established from evangelising the world around them, yet within fifty years of its institution his Order had become a pioneer in science, and his followers had founded a school of philosophy. So true is it that in mental and spiritual as in material things — ‘Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret.’

Few of us live, or are likely to live in times so stirring, or to take a large part in deeds so strenuous, as to give a new word from our patronymic to the English language, as Captain Boycott did, but it has fallen to the lot of Joannes Duns Scotus the philosopher, not only to found a School of Philosophy, but to give two new words from his own name, ‘Dunce’ and ‘Scotist,’ to the language. [2]

No man has been more praised, or has kindled more enthusiasm among his followers. As a sample, take the following words of a learned writer of the seventeenth century — ‘Tam stupendo fuit ingenii acumine, ut paucos pares habuisse ulla aetate censeatur,’ and again, ‘Dux et signifer invictissimus.[3]’ A modern French author has characterised his philosophical system thus ‘if not the deepest, at least the most original which medieval times have left us.’[4] On the other hand no writer perhaps has been more condemned or treated with greater con>tumely : ‘Wee have set Dunce in Bocardo and have utterly banished him Oxford for ever with all his blynd glosses, and is now made a common servant to every man, fast nayled up upon posts in all common howses of easement, id quod oculis meis vidi. And the second time wee came to New College, after wee had declared your injunctions, wee fownd all the great Quadrant Court full of the leaves of Dunce, the wind blowing them into very corner; and there wee fownd one Master Greenefeld a gentleman of Buckinghamshire gathering up part of the said book leaves (as he said) therewith to make Sewells or Blaunshers to keepe the Deere within the wood, and thereby to have the better crye with his hounds.[5]’ Rabelais speaks of the ‘Barbouillamenta Scoti,’[6] and a modern writer of ‘son jargon, son langage tenebreux.’[7]

‘ What is the end of Fame ? 'tis but to fill A certain portion of uncertain paper.’[8]

Had our Philosopher been content to fill during his lifetime fewer quires, it is possible that the leaves might have been left undisturbed to gather cobwebs on upper shelves of College libraries.

From what has now been said it is evident that we have to deal with an interesting personality. Is it possible to get in any way near to him now ? Have we any means of knowing what manner of man he was ? I fear these questions must be answered pretty much in the negative, and yet we may glean a few facts, and possibly draw a few inferences, and thus the attempt may not be -altogether fruitless.

In opening the twelve goodly folios in which Father Luke Wadding has collected a large part of the works — genuine and doubtful — of Joannes Duns Scotus, the first feeling that strikes one is envy of the industry that produced so much, and admiration of the faith in man's mental digestion that made it possible to believe that readers would be found to peruse them. The faith has been justified, for readers have been found, in varying numbers, in the four centuries which have passed since portions >of Duns Scot's works were first given to the public, and in 1890 at Paris, there was published a new edition in twenty-six volumes- quarto, which I see from a bookseller's catalogue fetches a good price in the market.

The century which may be conveniently dated from the accession of St. Louis (Louis IX.) of France in 1226 was a period of great activity in the department of philosophic literature over Western Europe. As M. Gaston Paris remarks ‘The University of Paris, founded between 1150-1170, became the intellectual centre of Europe.’[9] Translations of Aristotle from the Arabic into Latin had made their appearance in Spain, and had along: with the works of the Arab Philosophers, Avicenna and Averroes, exercised a very stimulating influence on Western thought. Heretical opinions alarmed the Church, and the religious and scholastic spirit threatened to come into serious antagonism.[10]

It is not with our subject to go into any discussion of the gradual adjustment brought about largely through the cautious- Dominican doctor, Thomas Aquinas.


Our subject is historical, not philosophical, except in so far as- history may be said to trench upon philosophy. It leads to look for a little at the career, so far as it can be known, of one of the followers of Saint Francis, and founders of a Mediaeval School of thought. At first sight it may seem rash to attempt to say anything regarding a writer, of whose life the ascertained facts are sa scanty, but if a few of the legendary fictions can be dissipated, and some of the more probable propositions restated, something is gained.

The year of his birth is uncertain. All that can be affirmed is- that he was born in the latter half of the thirteenth century. Regarding the place, there has been much controversy, and he is- claimed as a Scotsman, Irishman, and Englishman. It is agreed among all his biographers that he lectured at Oxford about the year 1300. Bartholomew of Pisa says: "He first of all at Oxford in England lectured on the Sentences ; thereafter at the University of Paris.[11] " His call from England to Paris as a Bachelor of Divinity to receive the Chancellor's licence to " incept " — after which formal ceremony he was entitled and ex>pected as a Doctor of Divinity to lecture — is dated in December, 1304,1 and we will speak of it later.

Can any cogent reasons for claiming our philosopher as a native of Scotland be put forward? The fact that after the middle of the sixteenth century Scotland had become a Protestant country caused subsequent Scottish writers to look with less favour than they would otherwise have done on one who was considered a buttress of the Roman Catholic faith. Hence in this matter Ireland had its own way to a large extent, and his Irish Editors, according to their national habit of laying claim to all the good things of this life, have made him a compatriot of their own. For example, Father Luke Wadding, an Irish Franciscan Friar, who, in 1639, published at Lyons the principal edition of his Works, in a life of the Author claims him as an Irishman bom at Downpatrick in the North of Ireland. In this he follows an earlier writer, Maurice O'Fihely, Archbishop of Tuam, a Franciscan, who, in 1497, edited a "Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, '[12] which he supposed to be the work of Duns Scot. In the preface he claims him as a compatriot[13]. But he is wrong as to the Author who in a note at the end of the book calls himself a pupil of Duns, whom he describes as Natione Scotus, This unknown follower is thus a fourteenth century witness to our philosopher's Scottish origin. [14]

It has also been said that he was torn at Dunstane in Northumberland, and tradition points out the ruins of the peel tower where he first saw the light.[15] A recent learned writer whose work on " the Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages," is a perfect mine of information, has said : — ‘Both the two great Scholastic innovations of the fourteenth century — the revival of realism in a totally new form by Duns Scotus and the Nominalistic reaction headed by Ockham — had their origin probably in Oxford, certainly in English minds,’ and he continues, ‘Nearly all the later Schoolmen of any importance were Englishmen or Germans educated in the traditions of the English nation at Paris.[16] " Another English Historical Writer, the late Professor Brewer, to whom students are all much indebted for his exceed>ingly luminous Introduction to the first Volume of the Rolls Series on the Franciscans (Monumenta Franciscana^ vol. I., p. Ixxxi.), says — " Italy produced its Aquinas, a great organiser like the Roman himself, its Bonaventure, in whom St. Francis reappears in a shape more learned, if not more spiritual, Germany its laborious Albertus Magnus, Spain its Raymond Lully, the representative of Spanish adventure and Spanish genius. But no nation can show three Schoolmen like the English" [Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, and Occam], ‘each unrivalled in his way, and each working with equal ability in opposite directions.’ Professor Little in his most valuable volume ‘The Greyfriars in Oxford’ is more cautious. He says (p. 219 n.), ‘there is no evidence as to the place of his birth (the note which Leland triumphantly quotes — Merton Coll. MS. 59 — was written in 1455, and contains the baseless statement that he was fellow of Merton College) ; and the only evidence of his nationality is the name ‘Scotus’ and a note in the Catalogue of the Library at Assisi written 1381, ‘Opus super quatuor libros sententiarum magistri fratris Johannis Scoti de Ordine Minorum qui et doctor subtilis nuncupatur de provincia Hiberniae.’[17] This note is the one serious obstacle to the Scottish case. It is of the latter half of the fourteenth century, and therefore early, but it may be observed that against its authority there are several considerations of a valid character to be urged.

First, the name Scotus had ceased to be applied to a native of Ireland before the time of Alexander III, and the whole kingdom having been consolidated under him, the Lothians came to be included in the term ‘Scotia’ which had previously only extended as far south as the Firth of Forth.[18] Thus Berwickshire was part of Scotland before our philosopher's time. This can be easily proved from contemporary writers, and probably one clear instance will suffice. It is taken from the records of the Order to which Duns Scot belonged. Thomas of Eccleston in his account ‘of the first coming of the Friars Minors into England,’ has occasion to refer to Brother John de Ketene (about the year 1239), and he says of him that he had been minister of Scotland (Scocie) and was made minister of Ireland (Hibernie), All competent authorities are agreed that Eccleston wrote his treatise >De adventu Minorum in the time of Henry III., and this is established by references to contemporary events in the work itself.[19]

Then, coming down to the beginning of the sixteenth century we find in John Major's History of Greater Britain a very definite statement regarding our philosopher's birth and career. Major begins the 16th chapter of book IV. with a notice of Richard Middleton, and as I think it will be found that Major's evidence is important, we may be permitted to quote his account in full. ‘About this time lived Richard Middleton, whom the Gauls name de Media Villa. He published four by no means despicable books upon the Sentences with Questions of great research. I do not recollect whether he studied at Oxford or Cambridge, but he was an English Briton. About the same period, but subsequent to him, wrote John Duns ‘the Subtle Doctor,’ a Scot of Britain belonging to the village of Duns eight thousand paces distant from England and from me (my birth place) seven or eight leagues. Two Scottish Franciscans took him as a boy already grounded in grammar to Oxford, because at that time there was no University in Scotland. And through the favour of those two Brethren he was introduced into the Franciscan Convent at Oxford, and thus made his profession as a follower of the Blessed Francis. He was a man of profound intellect and a keen controversialist, accordingly he was not undeservedly styled by the appellation of ‘Subtle.’ He so advanced at Oxford, that on the Metaphysics and the four books of the Sentences he has left us written records worthy of the study of posterity, which written work is commonly known as the Opus Anglicanum or Oxoniense. Thereafter being called by the Minorites to Paris, he published another course of lectures on the Sentences less diffuse and more fruitful than the former, which latter work we have lately caused to be printed with metal types. Last of all, he repaired to Cologne and there died at a comparatively early age.’ [20]On reading this short sketch one is struck with the air of truthfulness about it. We notice that in speaking of Middleton, Major does not venture to make rash statements, but is careful when he is not sure of the facts to say so. There is no legendary >element such as the later Irish writers indulge in. We must also bear in mind that John Major had very good opportunities of learning the truth about Duns Scotus. Although he lived, it is true, two centuries later, yet his birth place, near North Berwick, was not very far from Duns, so that he would in his youth hear the talk of the country-side regarding the philosopher. Then Major, to complete his education, studied at Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris, taking his degree as Doctor of Theology in this last University in 1505, and lecturing much in the same way as Duns had done, though with less renown than his more famous predecessor. I submit therefore, and I am glad to say that Professor Little now agrees, that Major's evidence is more valuable than that of the anonymous scribe who compiled the catalogue in 1381.

The case for England is a somewhat slender one, and turns entirely upon the authority to be given to a note or colophon appended to a MS. belonging to Merton College, Oxford, written in 1455 according to Dr Rashdall : "Explicit lectura doctoris subtilis . . . scilicet doctoris lohannis Duns nati in quadam villicula parochie de Emyldon vocata Dunstan, in comitatu Northumbrie, pertinentis domui scolarium de Mertonhalle in Oxonia et quondam socii dicte domus.’[21] Dr Rashdall mentions that the late Bishop Mandell Creighton had pointed out to him ‘that this very probably represents only the conjecture of some scholar from Embleton (a Merton living) who was familiar with the Castle of Dunstanburgh and the hamlet of Dunstan in that parish, where is an old manor house with a “peil tower,” which local tradition makes his birthplace.’[22] Dr Creighton's very acute conjecture will, at all events among a Scottish audience, be received as disposing of this uncorroborated entry, which makes, as has been pointed out, a serious blunder in the statement that he was a Fellow of Merton in the face of the College statutes which prevented Monks or Friars from holding this position.[23] Walter of Merton, the founder, compiled his " rules for a College of secular clerks," and " to his house he would admit no ‘religious’ person " as Miss Bateson >reminds us.[24] Thus a short statement which contains one palpable error is open to grave suspicion. I have purposely, in this discussion, avoided bringing the learned Dempster forward as a witness, because one is reluctantly compelled to arrive at the conclusion that his support is not calculated to strengthen the Scottish position. It is right to say, however, that he shows great acumen in his attack on the English and Irish claimants, and his life of Duns in his Ecclesiastical History is an interesting sketch, and if one could depend on a statement made in it, would probably settle the question of Duns's birth He states that Antonius Andreas, a contemporary friar and follower of the Subtle Doctor, who died twelve years after him, in the colophon to a work of his own, thus refers to his master: ‘that most subtle and excellent doctor, whose fame and memory are in benediction, and who has filled the whole world and caused it to resound with his sacred and profound science, namely, Joannes Duns, who was by birth a Scot, by religion a Friar Minor.’ This would be conclusive, but unfortunately it is not fully borne out by the facts as hitherto disclosed. Among the MSS. of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, as Mr Little tells us,[25] there is a MS. belonging to the end of the sixteenth century written by William Vavasor, a Francisan Friar of Oxford and Doctor of Divinity. This MS. at folio 46 contains Antonii Andreae tractatus de tribus principiis naturalibus but so far as examined it contains no statement regarding Duns Scot such as Dempster makes. Of course, some hitherto unrecognised MS. of Antonius Andreas may yet be found which will corroborate Dempster's assertion.

A rather interesting question from a philological point of view is raised by one of the Irish Editors of Duns Scot's Works, Hugo Cavallus (Hugh MacCaghwell). In his Commentary on the fourth Book of the Sentences, Scot, in order to point out lying vagabonds, uses the word ‘trutani,’[26] and we are told that this word is of Irish origin. Dr Pluzanski observes that this word is the Gaelic trtidanach or truaghan ‘poor’ and that both France and England had already, before Duns Scot's time, adopted the word truant . The word occurs, as can be seen from Ducange, as early >as 1227.[27] It therefore proves nothing. The Irish Editors are, it seems, somewhat at a loss for arguments to support their thesis of Scot's Irish birth when they are compelled to employ the following: In his lectures on the twelve books of Aristotle's Metaphysic Duns Scot (book 7, text 7) uses the following words. ‘ Into the definition of ‘white’ the idea of man does not of necessity enter, but it is otherwise in the definition of St. Francis or St Patrick." " Behold the cry of the heart ! see the names which come unbidden to the lips of the Irish Greyfriar ^ ! " Thus comments father Wadding. But one may be permitted to observe that, even putting aside the fact that these lectures bear to be notes taken by Antonius Andreas an Aragonese Franciscan, there is nothing strange in a Scotsman in the year 1300 citing as a good saint, St Patrick.

We may now dismiss the question of Duns Scot's birthplace with the remark that it seems historically safe to reckon him one of the distinguished names on the roll of Scottish Metaphysicians, no unworthy forerunner of Reid and Stewart, of Brown and Hamilton, of Ferrier and Caird. In fact we may feel sure that M. Renan is right when he says, " those authorities who assert that Duns Scot was born in Scotland are by far the most numerous and the most weighty.[28]


When did Duns Scotus enter the Franciscan Order ? Major declares that it was in his early youth, and there is every probability in favour of this view. But only one thing is certain, namely, that it was at Oxford that he completed his studies and began to teach.[29] One of the fabulous stories, which is not retailed by John Major, be it observed, is that his lectures were so popular that soon thirty thousand students flocked around his chair to drink in his words of wisdom. His lectures were not altogether of the class known now-a-days as " popular lectures," but the mental digestion of the middle ages was stronger than ours. I need only mention that ordinary lectures usually began at six o'clock in the morning, and that to the mediaeval student breakfast was a luxury generally omitted, in order to show the strenuousness of his life on the side of study.[30] We are apt to think of the university student in the middle ages as a clerk beginning every day with early mass, but >in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries only on Sundays and Holy-days did he as a rule attend mass. The student was a clerk in the sense that he was unmarried, had adopted the clerical dress and had submitted to the tonsure, but he was not necessarily even in minor orders.[31]

When Duns Scotus was at Oxford he had not yet taken the Doctor's or Master's degree, and therefore his lectures would be what were called ‘extraordinary,*' and these were usually delivered in the afternoon.

In 1300, our philosopher appears as " Johannes Douns" among a number of Greyfriars presented to the Bishop of Lincoln in order to receive licence to hear confessions. According to the Rules of the Order he must have been at this date at least thirty years of age.[32] Bishop Dalderby refused him licence. The reason of this refusal is probably the rather strained relations between the Bishops of Lincoln and the University. At the beginning of the thirteenth century the University of Oxford was ecclesiastically entirely subject to the control of the Bishop. During the next one hundred and fifty years it was gradually emancipating its Chancellor and itself from this dependence. The process, as can be easily understood, was not without friction, and during Bishop Lexington, Bishop Sutton, and Bishop Dalderby's occupancy of the See the disputes between the parties were chronic. The Friars played an important part in achieving this emancipation, and from their influential position as a comparatively new and active religious and intellectual force in the country, were bound to win in the ultimate result. At this time Friar Walter de Wynterburn was Confessor to the King of England, and they had a good friend in Archbishop Peckham, one of themselves, and therefore their strong supporter. He had lectured both at Oxford and Paris, was a Doctor of Theology of the latter University, and therefore knew and sympathised with the claims of the University of Oxford to manage its own affairs. John Peckham's treatise on optics (known as Perspectiva Communis) was one of the mathematical text-books used in the University of Paris.’[33]

One may refer in passing to a difficulty which had a tendency >to recur between the Universities and the Mendicant Orders. The Universities required every student before applying himself to the higher sciences (of which Theology of course was one) to pass through the Arts course — the well-known Trivium, Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric, and the Quadrivium, Arithmetic, Astronomy, Geometry, and Music. The Friars on the other hand, according to the Rules of their Orders, gave this secular instruction to their own young members within the convents, and by their own teachers, and presented them ready to pursue their theological studies at the University. In order to enable them to do so, the University granted ‘graces’ or dispensations to those Regulars who were thus presented. Mr Little has printed a number of the " supplications and graces " granted to the Franciscans in the 15 th century and first quarter of the 16th century.[34] The case of Walter Goodfield, Warden at Oxford, may be referred to as showing the number of years spent in study before obtaining the Degree of Doctor of Divinity. In his "supplication" of 1506 he states that he has studied logic, philosophy, and theology for twelve years. In his second supplication, eighteen months later, he declares that he has spent fourteen years in study. In December, 1507, he is admitted Bachelor of Theology. It is not till July 1st, 15 10, that he is admitted to the Degree of D.D. after upwards of sixteen years spent in study.

To return to Bishop John Dalderby, whose refusal to licence Johannes Duns, (whom we identify with Duns Scotus) to hear confessions, brings him into our narrative, he figures in one of the Conies Moralises of Friar Nicholas Bozon,[35] as follows : ‘The worthy man John Dalderby, Bishop of Lincoln, pointed out to the Abbot of Eynsham who was dining with him at his palace at Banbury, a certain gentleman who happened to be present, and he told him that this gentleman was Executor of an Ecclesiastic who had just died in the Bishopric, and that he had come for the Bishop's advice in the following circumstances : ‘The deceased’ said he, ‘was Procurator to the Knights Templars at the Court of Arches in London,[36] and had from them >free board and lodging [bouche a court] for himself, and a servant, and a horse, as well as robes and an annual pension. In addition he had been presented to a very good living, and thus as long as he was able to drag himself to the Court of Arches, he spent nothing, but lived upon the Templars. And when he was unable any longer to do so, he retired to his parish and dwelt there miserably, entertaining none of the neighbours and never eating a good dinner. At last, feeling his end approaching, he made his testament which disposed of three hundred pounds, and he handed over the money in trust to his Executors. But at the end of his will he added these words : — “Ad hec autem omnia remanent octo sub cathedra.” This proved a puzzle to the Executors which the dying man declined to explain. On his death, feeling sure that the words were not without meaning, they quietly searched the whole house up and down, and discovered a chair in a little dark chamber which his predecessors had used as a wine-cellar, and had never kept locked. Under this seat, stowed carefully out of sight, they found a coffer with £8,ooo sterling in it. Accordingly this gentleman who is the principal Executor,’ continued the Bishop, ‘has come here to obtain our advice as to the disposal of the treasure.’ The Bishop exclaimed as he came to this point in the story ‘Eight thousand pounds ! eight thousand pounds. Sir Abbott, had he in his treasury, and he never gave a good dinner in his life !’ When the Abbott heard of this folly he laughed heartily, and calling the Executor advised him to make himself and his Co-trustees comfortable with the spoil. But the Bishop commanded him to give a suitable sum in alms for the good of the dead man's soul, under peril of his own soul's salvation.’

This story is introduced merely as giving a contemporary glimpse of the Bishop and his views on the subject of accumulating wealth for others to enjoy. He held the See from the year 1300 till 1320. The Bishops of Lincoln had a residence at Banbury in Oxfordshire from the eleventh century, if not earlier.[37] At Oxford our Philosopher composed what are without doubt his principal works — his first Commentary on the Master of the Sentences known as Scriptum Oxoniense and the Questiones dispuiatae de rerum principio. These are to be found in volumes I V., v., VI., VII., VIIL, IX., and X. of Wadding's edition. The >Scriptum Oxoniense — Questions on the four books of the Master of the Sentences (Peter Lombard) — was left unfinished by Duns- Scot, and in Wadding's Edition the latter part of the fourth book is transferred from the Opus Parisiense.


His call to Paris in the end of the year 1304 has been already referred to. The letter of Gonsalvo, Minister General of the Franciscan Order to the Warden of the Convent at Paris is the sole contemporary historical document regarding Duns Scot which has come down to us. In that letter the Minister-General is loud in the praise which he bestows on the dear father in Christ-Joannes Scotus, regarding whose praiseworthy life, excellent learning, most subtle intellect, and other distinguished qualifications, he is fully informed, partly through universal report, and partly through long experience. He accordingly instructs the Warden of Paris to present Scot after Father Aegidius to the Chancellor for the purpose of receiving licence to incept as- Doctor of Divinity at Paris. [38]

Some difficulties have been raised regarding this letter. We have not got the original, only Wadding's copy, and that probably not a very correct one. For example, it has been asked how can the Minister-General speak of his ‘long experience’ of the virtues of a young man of only a little above thirty, and who, moreover, had lectured in a somewhat remote part of the Christian world, or at least remote from Ascoliin-the-Marches from which, the letter is dated ? I do not think there is much in this objection. England was in closer touch with Italy in the middle ages- than we sometimes imagine. The Church, with its centre in. Rome, brought ecclesiastics of all grades, secular and clerical, into continual intercourse with Italy, and moreover there was considerable commercial business between the two countries. Much of this business was done by the monks.‘ It appears that in 1284 many monasteries in Great Britain had agreed to sell their wool to the Florentines.’[39] It was quite natural that with all this ecclesiastical and commercial intercourse between the two countries, the fame of the distinguished Franciscan philosopher should have at once reached the ears of the Head of his own Order. In fact, it would have been strange if the opposite had been the case.

>Duns Scotus seems to have remained in Paris for a comparatively short time, certainly not more than four years.[40] During the period of his residence, he lectured as required by the Statutes of the University on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, and those lectures have come down to us under the name Reportatorum Parisiensium libri quatuor. His subject at Paris was thus the same as that which he took up at Oxford, but as we now have it, the Reportata Parisiensia, is, as John Major puts it, more condensed, more of a summary, than the Oxford Lectures. It forms- the eleventh volume of Wadding's edition.

The Franciscans have naturally cherished the memory and renown of their great Philosopher, and thus several fables have been put forward regarding his career in after years. It is said that he was at Paris the invincible champion against the Dominicans of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin — a doctrine which came to be distinctively a Franciscan tenet. The statement is made that a full-dress official debate between the Doctors of the two orders on the subject had been, arranged, and that as Duns Scot journeyed towards the University for the purpose of taking part in it, he passed a statue of the Virgin. He prostrated himself in prayer for her aid in the forthcoming debate. She bowed towards him graciously and promised him victory, supplying him with hundreds of syllogisms proving the doctrine incontrovertably. As vouching for the truth of the story, the image remained in a bowing position ever after. He went on and carried all before him in the argument, so much so that the University is said to have been officially convinced, the surname of ‘the subtle Doctor’ was awarded to him, and the University determined to admit to its degrees in future no one who declined to swear to uphold the Immaculate Conception.

This story is without foundation in fact. One needs only to look at what our philosopher says himself in order to prove this. After mentioning that there are three possible methods in which freedom from Original sin may been conferred on the Virgin : (i) by innate and complete exemption, (2) immunity conferred on her after an instant spent in sin, and (3) immunity granted after some longer time in sin, he proceeds, "But God only knows which of these methods that have been shown to be possible >was adopted. If it is not repugnant to the authority of the Church nor to Scripture, it seems probable that the most honourable is to be attributed to Mary.’[41] This is a cautious opinion, very different from the tone of a zealous champion. The truth is that the doctrine was in a nebulous state in the thirteenth and first half of the fourteenth century, and there is no trace of a dispute upon the subject in the University of Paris before the year 1384, many years after Duns Scot's death.[42]


In the year 1308 he was summoned by the Minister-General of his Order to leave Paris and proceed to Cologne. Tradition says that on receiving this order he displayed all the Spartan virtue of the early Franciscans. He happened to be on duty outside of the Convent when the Order reached him ; he started off straightway on his road to Cologne without returning to take farewell of the Brethren, or even to collect a few articles of clothing for the journey. Some one remonstrated, when the philosopher replied : ‘Pater- Generalis Coloniam ire iubet, non in Conventum ad salutandos fratres.’ [The Father-General orders me to go to Cologne, not into the Convent to take my leave of the Brethren.]

M. Renan is of opinion that the reason of the mission of Duns Scot to Cologne is to be found in the desire of the Franciscan Order to send one of its ablest men to confute the Begards and other sects which were rampant in that City, and thus stem the tide of heresy which was rising at that time."[43] These religious enthusiasts were largely a product of the same movement which had produced the Mendicant Orders themselves,[44] and as in homoeopathy, similia similibus curantur, so if this view be accepted a Greyfriar appeared the best antidote to Franciscanism run-to- -seed. According to Matthew de Veglia, our philosopher mixed freely with the crowd who came to the Cathedral to hear the Sermons, and there when the Begards interrupted the preacher with loud shouts, he took them aside, and by his convincing arguments reduced them to silence.[45] One may feel disposed to >conclude that the silence was caused more by inability to cope with the eloquence of the Subtle Doctor, than by conviction caused by the cogency of his arguments in the minds of the Begards.

It seems at least open to doubt, if the view that our philosopher was sent to Cologne in 1308, merely to confute the heretics, covers the whole field. When we consider the tragic drama that was being enacted in France at this period by the arrest and torture of the Templars,[46] and the prominent part which the Mendicant Orders took in the suppression,[47] we may at least hazard the conjecture that Duns Scotus was not at all unwilling to get away from the centre of events so uncongenial to philosophic study, and that the Head of the Order was wise enough to see that his removal from the scene of hurly-burly was a proper step to take.

All the biographers are agreed that the philosopher did not live long to exercise his dialectic against the heretics of Cologne. He died on the 8th November, 1308, and was buried in the Greyfriars’ Church in front of the Sacristy. His death appears to have occurred suddenly, and this may have given rise to the later and persistent story that he was buried alive, which has been presented by some writers with gruesome details of horror. Its truth has been vehemently denied by others, especially those belonging to the Order of Greyfriars.


If he was not buried alive, his ashes have suffered scant repose in the centuries that have followed. No less than five times have his remains been exhumed. First, in 1476 in the Pontificate of Sixtus IV., who was at that time promulgating a Bull in favour of the Immaculate Conception. His bones were then moved to the centre of the Choir. In 1509 the second removal took place when they were placed behind the great altar. The third exhumation took place in 1619 by order of the General of the Greyfriars, and on that occasion the ashes were gathered together, placed in a lead coffin and that in an outer wooden case, both being provided with a glass opening admitting of the relics being seen. In 1642 the Minorites altered the internal arrangements of >their Church and built a new Choir, and the coffin having been llifted it was placed in 1643 in this new Choir under a monument which M. Renan says ‘appears to have been somewhat mean.’ In 1706 occurred the fifth and last disturbance, when the proposed beatification of the philosopher was attempted by his Order. As the effort to make him a Saint failed, his ashes have been since allowed to rest in peace, but his monument was destroyed during the French Revolution.[48]


After our philosopher's death his fame, especially as the leading Doctor of the Franciscan Order, steadily increased, and ‘his authority,’ as M. Pluzanski remarks, ‘eclipsed that of Alexander of Hales and of Saint Bonaventure.’[49] From the Catalogue of Volumes belonging to the Cathedral Chapter of Glasgow made in 1432, we find that our Cathedral Library in the reign of James I. possessed many interesting MSS. Among others — ^^ liem^ a -volume upon the Illrd. and IVth. Books of the Sentences by Johannes Downs, ‘the subtle doctor,' which begins ‘Circa Incarnationem’. A MS. of Duns in Balliol College, Oxford, has this initium.[50] The edition on the table is slightly different in the opening words of Book III. Upon the third shelf we come upon ‘ the second book of Scot, the subtle doctor, containing in the first line of the second folio ‘Creatura est.’ So that our philosopher was evidently being studied in his own country, in Glasgow, even before our University was founded, and before we had a Franciscan Convent in our city.[51] We thus obtain unimpeachable testimony to his high position of authority in the fifteenth century in Scotland. Judging his character from his writings, he was a keen critic, who was only turned from scepticism by the real dread of having his books burned and their author imprisoned. In all mediaeval systems of philosophy the attempt was made, because it was thought possible, to give a complete solution of all the problems of the universe, to reach by reason the principles of things, and answer the deep questions concerning the Divine nature and that of man. It is not our purpose, even if we felt qualified for the task, to enter into an examination of Duns Scot's philosophical system. Suffice it to say that the >view of Bishop Stubbs does not seem far from the true one, when he declares that ‘the whole array of modern philosophy, negative or positive, has not got nearer to the solution of the problem of existence than the Schoolmen of the Middle Ages.’[52]

Work hides the man

Duns Scotus is not a writer whose works disclose the man. A diarist like the immortal Pepys and he stand wide as the poles asunder, and yet he cannot help lifting the veil and showing us the workings of a keen and eager intellect, that was steeped in all the learning of the age, and that took pleasure in marshalling in order all the arguments both for and against every proposition with which he felt himself called upon to deal. His was a mastermind, and as Mr. Hill Burton reminds us, ‘Duns Scotus still holds sway over the intellect of men, even in this active, conceited and adventurous age.’

There are one or two references to contemporary events in the ‘ Scriptum Oxoniense.’ In the Prologue to the Commentary on the First Book of the Sentences occurs a reference to the weakness at that time and the impending downfall of the power of Mohamet. Duns Scot is setting forth the arguments for the permanency of Christianity as contrasted with the evanescent character of heretical sects, and he says: — ‘Should any one object that Mohammedanism is a permanent religion, I reply, it took its rise more than six hundred years after the founding of Christianity, and shortly, with Divine assistance, it shall be brought to an end. It has been much weakened in the year of grace 1300, and many of the followers of the Prophet have been slain, and still more put to flight, and to them applies the prophecy which predicts that that sect shall be soon brought to naught’.[53] This is supposed to refer to the great victory in the East in the previous year of the Knights-Templars in alliance with the Mongol King of Persia — Casan Cham — over the sultans of Damascus and Egypt, which enabled Casan and the Templars to enter the City of Jerusalem in triumph.[54] If this view is accurate, then the passage must have been penned before the final defeat and surrender of the Christians in October, 1302, were known in Western Europe. In this connexion it is interesting to note that, while in Wadding's edition of 1639, the date 1300 is distinctly >given, in the edition of 1477, on the table, the date is 1400- [MCCCC] and that the last G has been erased, when, or by whom, is unknown. I am disposed to believe that the clause with the date may be the work of some zealous editor who could not let slip the opportunity of attempting to prove from actual history the truth of prophecy. In the Commentary on the 4th Book of the Sentences he is said to refer to a Bull of Pope Benedict XI, which proves that the date of this part of the lectures is not earlier than 1303.[55]

There are in his writings, it is needless to say, no references ta Scottish History, to Wallace and the War of Independence. I rather think that our philosopher comes before Huchown as being what Mr J. H. Millar calls ‘the first illustrious specimen of that much-vilified person, the Anglicised Scot,’[56] or to speak more correctly he is, as a philosopher, a citizen of the world to whom nothing human is foreign. Tradition credits him with a ready wit, and the story is told that the Duke of Burgundy, as they sat opposite each other at dinner, asked the philosopher ‘What is the difference between a Scot and a sot ?’*’There is only a table between them,’ was the immediate reply, and the boldness of the answer is thoroughly characteristic, and is equalled only by its pungent wit.[57]

See also


  1. 1 Butler, Hudibras y I. i. 145.
  2. 2 The word ‘Dunce’ in Dr Murray's New English Dictionary is followed by an interesting paragraph tracing its development.
  3. 3 Dempster, Histor, Eccles, Gentis Scotorum (Banna. Club) I. 227.
  4. 4 Haureau Hist, de la Phil, ScoL ze party t. ii. p. 173.
  5. 1 Wood, Annals y II. p. 62, quoted by Rashdall, Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, II., 533 Note.
  6. 2 PantagruelX, ii. c. vii., quoted by Pluzanski, Essai, p. 4.
  7. 3Haureau, op. cit, 2e part, t. ii., p. 242.
  8. 4 Byron, Don Juan^ c. I, stanza 218. [Byron's Venetian Letters, November 1816?]
  9. 1 Mediaeval French Literature^ p. 97,
  10. 2 Cy.Rashdall, op, cit,, v. I., p. 361.
  11. 3 Wadding, vi., p. 48.
  12. 1 Little, Greyfriars in Oxford^ p. 220.
  13. EB: He does not recognise Antonius as the ‘unknown follower’.
  14. 2 Vide Diet. National Biog. vol. xvi., p. 216.
  15. 3 Rashdall, op, cit. II. 531. [EB: Which is clearly the source for Edwards rejecting the English claim.]
  16. 4 Rashdall, Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages vol. II., p. 529.
  17. 1 Little, The Greyfriars in Oxford^ p. 220 n.
  18. 2 Cf, Skene, Celtic Scotland, vol. I., passim. [EB: But see The country south of the Firths not being strictly Scotland.]
  19. 1 Mon, Franc. y I., Ixxii.
  20. 2 Major, Historia Majoris Britannia (1740) pp, 170, 171.
  21. 1 Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, vol. II., p. 531, n. 2.
  22. 2 Ibid. p. 531, n. 2. A very interesting notice of Embleton Parish is given by Mrs Creighton in the recently published life of her distinguished husband.
  23. 3 Rashdall, loc. cit.
  24. 1 Mediaeval England, p. 368.
  25. 2 Little, Greyfriars in Oxford, p. 130, note 2.
  26. 3 In 4th Sent. D. 15, q. 2, No. 24.
  27. 1 Pluzanski, Essai sur la Philosophie de Duns Scot (Paris 1888), p. 12.
  28. 2 Pluzanski, op. cit. ‘Histoire Litteraire de la France’ T. xxv., p. 406.
  29. 3 Pluzanski, op. cit, p. 14.
  30. 4 Rashdall, op. cit. II, 652.
  31. 1 Vide Rashdall, op, cit, II, 646, and authorities there cited.
  32. 2 Little, Greyfriars in Oxford, p. 220, ^ Mon, Fransc, , I. 537.
  33. 3 It was written in 1280. See. Rashdall, vol. I., p. 442.
  34. 1 Little, Greyfriars in Oxford^ p. 337.
  35. 2 Toulmin-Smith, and Meyer, Contes Moralises de Nichole Bozon^ Frere Minetir^ p .181.
  36. 3 St Mary-le-Bow, (S. Maria de Arcubus).
  37. 1 See Contes Moralisis, p. 296.
  38. 2 Little, Grey friars in Oxford, p. 22(X --- 1 Pluzanski, op, cit., p. 29.
  39. 3 Cunningham, Growth of English Industry and Commerce, p. 198.
  40. 1 Pluzanski, op, cit., p. 20.
  41. 1Duns Scotus, (Edn. 1477, vol. I., fol. 120, d. 121 a.) In Sent. III. Quaest. i., § 9 and 10.
  42. 2 Pluzanski, op, cit. , p. 20.
  43. 3 Histoire Litteraire de la France, vol. xxv., p. 407.
  44. 4 Op, cit, Pluzanski, op, cit., p. 20.
  45. 5 Vita Scoti, § xxx., quoted by Renan, op, cit.
  46. 1The arrest took place in the autumn of 1307.
  47. 2 The Papal Commission for examining the Knights-Templars met in various places in Paris. One of the religious houses in which it assembled frequently was that of the Friars- Minors, in January, February and March. 1310. (Vide, Michelet Proces des Templiers, T. I., 468, 484, 51 1, 529, 535, 548,554; T. II. 3, etc.)
  48. 1 I am indebted for these details regarding the successive exhumations to M. Renan's Article in Hist. Litt. de la France xxv p.423 .
  49. 2 (9/. «'/., p. 25.
  50. 3 Little, Initia^ p. 39. Circa incarnationem quaero primio de possibilitate.
  51. 4 Glasgow Convent was founded between 1473 and 1479.
  52. 1 Hutton, Letters of Bishop Stubbs ^ p 307.
  53. 2 Duns Scotus [1477 Edn.] in 1st Sent. Prolog., q. 2. Sec Plate.
  54. 3 Addison, Knights-Templars ^ p. 444.
  55. 1 Pluzanski, op. cit ., p. 16. I have not been able in Wadding's edition to find this passage, although there occur references to various Popes, such as Alexander II. and Nicholas IV.
  56. 2 Millar, Literary History of Scotland, p. 12.
  57. 3 Chambers, Book of Days, I, p. 182. [EB: This is also attributed to John Scotus Eriugena, and Charles the Great]
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