The noun dunce denotes a person who is slow at learning, a stupid person.
This word was originally, in the early 16th century, an epithet for a follower of John Duns Scotus (circa 1265-1308), Scottish theologian and scholar, called Doctor Subtilis, the Subtle Doctor. The New English Dictionary (Oxford, 1897), as the Oxford English Dictionary was known, explained that John Duns Scotus’s
works on theology, philosophy and logic were textbooks in the Universities, in which, as at Oxford, his followers, called Scotists, were a predominating Scholastic sect, until the 16th century, when the system was attacked with ridicule, first by the humanists, and then by the reformers, as a farrago of needless entities and useless distinctions. The Dunsmen or Dunses, on their side, railed against the ‘new learning’, and the name Duns, or Dunce, already synonymous with cavilling sophist or hair-splitter, soon passed into the sense of dull obstinate person impervious to the new learning, and of blockhead incapable of learning or scholarship.
Scholasticism was the system of theology and philosophy taught in medieval European universities, based on Aristotelian logic and the writings of the early Christian Fathers, and emphasising tradition and dogma.
Humanism was a Renaissance cultural movement which turned away from medieval scholasticism and revived interest in ancient Greek and Roman thought. The fundamental feature of Renaissance Humanism is summed up in the concept of ad fontes, a Latin expression meaning to the sources. It epitomises the renewed study of Greek and Latin classics in Renaissance Humanism.
Similarly, the Protestant Reformation called for renewed attention to the Bible as the primary source of Christian faith.
The idea in both cases was that sound knowledge depends on the earliest and most fundamental sources, whether classical or biblical.
In Behemoth: The History of the Causes of the Civil Wars of England, and of the Counsels and Artifices by which they were carried on, from the Year 1640, to the Year 1660, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) explained the ideological background to John Duns Scotus’s teaching:
For Universities, that is to say, Schools for the Sciences in general, and especially for Divinity, it is manifest, that the Institution of them was recommended by the Pope’s Letter to the Emperor Charles the Great, and recommended farther by a Council held in his Time, I think, at Chalon sur Saone; and not long after was erected an University at Paris; and the College called University-College at Oxford […].
What other Design was [the Pope] like to have, but […] the Advancement of his own Authority in the Countries where the Universities were erected? There they learned to dispute for him, and with unintelligible Distinctions to blind Men’s Eyes, whilst they incroached upon the Right of Kings; and it was an evident Argument of that Design, that they fell in hand with the Work so quickly. For the ﬁrst Rector of the University of Paris, as I have read somewhere, was Peter Lombard, who ﬁrst brought in them the Learning called School-Divinity; and was seconded by John Scot of Duns, who lived in, or near the same Time, whom any ingenious Reader, not knowing what was the Design, would judge to have been two the most egregious Blockheads in the World, so obscure and senseless are their Writings. And from these the Schoolmen that succeeded, learnt the Trick of imposing what they list upon their Readers, and declining the Force of true Reason by verbal Forks, I mean Distinctions that signify nothing, but serve only to astonish the Multitude of ignorant Men.
The earliest known use of dunce in its current sense is the definition of the word, in The annales of Scotland, by Francis Thynne (circa 1545-1608), published in The Second volume of Chronicles: Conteining the description, conquest, inhabitation, and troblesome estate of Ireland; first collected by Raphaell Holinshed; and now newlie recognised, augmented, and continued from the death of king Henrie the eight vntill this present time of sir Iohn Perot knight, lord deputie: as appeareth by the supplie begining in pag. 109, &c. By Iohn Hooker alias Vowell gent. Wherevnto is annexed the description and historie of Scotland, first published by the said R. H. and now newlie reuised, inlarged, and continued to this present yeare; as appeareth in pag. 405: &c. By F. T. (London, 1587):
Iohn Duns by some called Iohannes Scotus, and tearmed the subtill doctor, was so surnamed Duns Iohn Duns. of the towne of Duns, eight miles from England, who (when he was yet but a boie) was by two frier minors brought into England to Oxford, there to be instructed: for at that time nor long after was there not anie vniuersitie in Scotland. By means of which two friers he was placed in a house of their profession, in which this Duns at length tooke the habit and order of the Franciscans, proouing of a most singular wit, whereby he became a sharpe and subtill disputer, who departing from Oxford, went to Paris, being called thither by the frier minors, where when he had for some space remained, and read vnto them of scholasticall matters, he traueld to Cullen, and there vntimelie died in his youthfull yeares. He liued in the time of Iohn Balioll king of Scots, which began his reigne in the yeare of Christ 1283. of which Duns all they which follow his opinions are (as saith Lesleus lib. 7. pag. 250) called Scotistae or Scotists as all they of an other faction are surnamed Thomistae or the Thomists, after Thomas Aquinas. But now in our age it is growne to be a common prouerbe in derision, to call such a person as is senselesse or without learning a Duns, which is as much as a foole: although trulie the same cannot stand with anie reason, this man Duns being so famous for his learning as he was.
The English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) coined the noun Dunciad as the title of his mock-heroic narrative poem, first published in 1728, ridiculing the literary dunces of his time.
The word dunce’s cap, or dunce cap, denotes a paper cone, sometimes marked with a capital D, formerly put on the head of a dunce at school as a mark of disgrace; the earliest instance that I have found is from a sarcastic letter about Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), one of the Founding Fathers of the Constitution of the USA, published in the New-York Evening Post (New York, N.Y.) on Saturday 11th August 1810; among the hints “for the erection of a monument to perpetuate to the latest ages the illustrious services our country has received from this meritorious citizen” was:
the genius of America in respectful but dignified attitude, endeavoring to rouse him from his lethargy, but is prevented by the whooping of something resembling a night-owl, whose hoarse notes awake him, and, not being able to extricate himself from the perplexities into which his slumbers had drawn him, he claps on his dunce cap and flies off to Monticello*.
(* Monticello, in Virginia: the primary plantation of Thomas Jefferson)