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Where was Duns Scotus Born?

By August 13, 2008Commentary, News, Saints

Ave Maria!

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Blessed John Duns Scotus, hold-ing a scroll with a paraphrase of his doctrine about how the Immaculate Conception ties in with the absolute primacy of Christ: ?Christ preserved the Blessed Virgin from every stain of sin; otherwise He would not have been Perfect Redeemer.?From an article by Charles Balic, OFM, written in 1966 to commemorate the seventh centenary of the birth of blessed John Duns Scotus

A disputed question…

Under the above heading, The Berwickshire News of Tuesday 12 April, 1966, printed a letter to the editor in which it was stated that we are still uncertain about the exact birthplace of the great British philosopher and theologian, John Duns Scotus…

It is not necessary to point out that in the field of history one cannot always expect to have obvious evidence leading to a kind of mathematical certainty. Often we must be content with arguments which afford moral certitude or give such a degree of probability as to exclude any other hypothesis. Now it seems to me quite certain that the documents and the historical arguments which we possess lead us with certainty to the conclusion that the town of Duns in Scotland was the birthplace of the Subtle Doctor, John Duns Scotus.

An Irishman, or an Englishman perhaps?

Two monographs on Duns Scotus appeared at the end of the second decade of this century, one by P?re Alexandre Bertoni, O.F.M., and the other by Padre Egidio Maria Giusto, O.F.M., and both mentioned the attempts to make our Doctor either an Irishman or an Englishman. The former wrote: ?Ceux qui veulent faire du Subtil Docteur un anglais, ont contre eux le terrible argument du nom Scotus, qui les repousse et les met hors de combat?; and the other writer supports him: ?Giacch? risulta da un lato che i coevi fanno del nostro Giovanni Duns Scoto uno Scozzese, e che dall’altro lato il suo nome Scotus significa per i contemporanei come per noi Scozzese, ogni critico imparziale dovr? perentoriamente risolvere la controversia in favore della Scozia.?

John, son of Scotland!

Ever since the fourteenth century the voice of the manuscripts says clearly that Duns Scotus belongs to Scotland. It suffices to glance at the description of the codices in the first volume of the Vatican edition of the works of Scotus. Thus, for example, in the Padua codex we read at the beginning: ?Summa about the first book of the Sentences, by Master John Dinus (!) of Scotland,? and afterwards: ?Summa of questions on the second book .of the Sentences, edited by the Reverend Master John of Scoland.? In the Cesena codex, in the lament for the death of Scotus, we read: ?Mourn, 0 Scotland, for thy uncommon glory has perished,? and the same poem is found in a more extensive form in the very ancient codex B.I. of Canterbury Cathedral Library, where Scotus is called plainly ?John, son of Scotland.? The immediate followers of Scotus also affirm in their writings that the Subtle Doctor is ?a Scot by nationality.?

An objection answered…

Whatever the names may have meant in earlier centuries, we find that at the time of our Doctor the names Scotland and Ireland were quite distinct in meaning. This appears from various documents, among which is the famous scroll of the year 1303 in which we read the names of the Franciscans who refused to sign the petition of King Philip the Fair against Pope Boniface VIII.

In this document, side by side with our Doctor, who is named ?Friar John, Scot,? we find ?Friar Richard, Irish,? ?Friar Odo, Irish,? and ?Friar Thomas, English.?

?The seas flow more rapidly the nearer they are to the ocean, like the northern seas, especially the sea between Norway and Scotland, and between Ireland and Spain.?

Duns Scotus himself clearly distinguishes Scotland from Ireland when he writes: ?The seas flow more rapidly the nearer they are to the ocean, like the northern seas, especially the sea between Norway and Scotland, and between Ireland and Spain.? Since the term Scotia minor, at the time of Duns Scotus, no longer distinguished Scotland from Ireland (Scotia maior), but Scotia simply meant what we call Scotland today, and since the earliest documents agree that John was born ?in Scotia,? it follows that we must seek his birthplace in that country, and not elsewhere.

If Scottish, where in Scotland?

Writing in 1921, and arguing from the fact that ?if the Subtle Doctor had been born in Ireland and not in Scotland, he could in no wise have been called Scotus,? Father Giusto suggested that the birthplace was ?the little town of Duns, not far from Berwick?, which had been destroyed in 1545. This opinion prevailed until, in 1929 and 1931, the Franciscan Fathers Longpr? and Callebaut drew attention to the writings of Marianus Brockie preserved at St. Mary’s College, Blairs, and thus orientated opinion in favour of the birth of Scotus in the estate of Littledean, at Maxton, in the county of Roxburghshire. Town Square in Duns, ScotlandBut even before Reverend Henry Docherty
published his study entitled The Brockie Forgeries, Brockie’s evidence was not altogether convincing. Only once before his time had it been asserted that John was ?from Littledean,? whereas it was stated constantly from the first half of the fourteenth century that he was a native of Duns. Among the more important sources the first place belongs to codex 137 of the Municipal Library of Assisi, a manuscript which preserves the mediaeval critical edition of the Ordinatio of Duns Scotus, compiled about 1325 and based on the text corrected by Scotus in his own hand. Here we find the first book on the Sentences ?of Friar John of Duns, a Scot, of the Order of Friars Minor.?

In the Vatican manuscript (cod. lat. 876) of the fourteenth century, after the significant lines: ?Ioannes hic Scotorum, in scholis profecit Anglorum, in Ordine Minorum, fuit doctor Parisiorum,? we meet a valuable witness in the person of John’s own companion or secretary, who writes: ?Additions to the second book of Master John of Duns, the Subtle Doctor, extracted by Master William of Alnwick….? Numerous other codices of the fourteenth century make our Doctor a native of Duns?, to say nothing of the many codices of the fifteenth century which not only assert plainly that our Doctor was ?Scottish by nationality,? but also that he is called John Scotus, ?also known as John of Duns.? ?

John Dunensis? Perhaps not…

Blessed John and other saints of the Franciscan Order, gathered around Our LadyIn the face of these early and unequivocal testimonies there seems no reason to engage in speculation and to propose hypotheses about other possible places where Duns Scotus might have been born, whether in Ireland or in England, on the plea that the Celtic particle dun appears in their place names. Thus Luke Wadding asserts that Scotus was born in Dun, an ancient city in the north of Ireland, and that Duns is only a contracted form of the adjective Dunensis or Dunius. Similarly Father Bertoni affirms that John was born at ?Downs, in the province of Ulster?.? Thomas Dempster is very annoyed with the Irish who assert that ?Duns is a contracted form of Dunensis, but do not produce any codex where that contraction can be found.?

John of Dunstan, a fellow of Merton College, Oxford?

There is no confirmation of the late evidence offered by the codices of the Bodleian and of Balliol College, written by Reynbold of Zierenberg in 1451 and 1460, namely that John Duns was born ?in a little village called Dunstan, in the parish of Emyldon, in the county of Northumberland, (a parish) belonging to Merton College in Oxford, and he was formerly a fellow of the same College.? Furthermore, there is no evidence whatever that Scotus was ever a fellow of Merton.

The 59 varieties of ?Duns?!

The fact remains that in all the earlier documents the Subtle Doctor is said to be ?of Duns,? of ?Dinis,? ?Dons,? ?Dunz,? or ?Duncz.? In one fourteenth century manuscript preserved at Oxford we find the two names ?Dons? and ?Douns? used in the same manuscript; and in the fifteenth century codex 525 of the Biblioth?que de l?Arsenal of Paris we read: ?John of Downs, Scottish by nationality.?

These variations, however, are not contractions of Dunstan or Dun, but simply different ways of writing the same word, Duns, as always happened with the names of persons or places.

Thomas Dempster proved himself a stout defender of the Scottish origin of Duns Scotus: ?There is as much discussion about his birthplace,? he said, ?as about Homer’s?. Wadding enlarged on this: ?The Irish, the English, and the Scots dispute about his fatherland; for the glory of so great a man makes each of these provinces eager to claim him as their own, just as the Greek cities of old fought bitterly about the birthplace of Homer.? After all his efforts to prove Duns Scotus to be an Irishman, the celebrated historian concluded that the matter was far from certain, and he ends with the na?ve plea that Scotus belongs to Ireland because neither the English nor the Scots have exerted themselves or made such sacrifices for his glory: ?If reward is due to merit, and recompense to labour, then Scotus can be awarded to nobody but to the Irish.? …

United in honouring a great saint…

I cherish the hope that the three countries which for centuries contested the claim to be Scotus’ native land will come together on the seventeenth of September [1966] in Duns, around the monument to be erected in his honour, with the inscription:

?Scotia habet cunas, famam Orbis,
funera Rhenus,
Caelum animam,
hic magni spirat
imago viri.?

?Scotland has his cradle,
the World his fame,
the Rhine his burial,
Heaven has his soul,
the figure of this great man
breathes here.?

For Information on The Symposium on the Mariology Duns Scotus in honor of the 700th Centenary of Scotus’ Death.

In England:
Symposium Secretariat
15 Carlton Crescent
Surrey SM3 9TS
England UK
Phone: 020 8641 6418

Ave Maria!


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Join the discussion One Comment

  • Fr. Agnellus M. says:

    Ave Maria!
    Dear airmaria!
    Many thanks for putting this article by the late great Scotist, Fr. Charles Balic’ on the blog.
    The contributions of the “masters” that have gone before us should not be lost sight of…
    Standing, as it were, upon their shoulders, we see much further than we would ever have done by our own efforts, unaided.
    In the Immaculate
    Fr. Agnellus M.

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