The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

X. English Scholars of Paris and Franciscans of Oxford

§ 19. Duns Scotus

John Duns Scotus was a Franciscan in Oxford in 1300. There is no satisfactory evidence as to the place of his birth; a note in a catalogue at Assisi (1381) simply describes him as de provincia Hiberniae. At Oxford he lectured on the Sentences. Late in 1304, he was called to incept as D.D. in Paris, where he probably taught until 1307. Among the scholars from Oxford who attended his lectures was John Canon (fl. 1329), a commentator on Peter Lombard, and on Aristotle’s Physics. Duns Scotus died in 1308, at Cologne, where his tomb in the Franciscan church bears the inscription—Scotia me genuit, Anglia me suscepit, Gallia me docuit, Colonia me tenet.

The works ascribed to his pen fill twelve folio volumes in the edition printed at Lyons in 1639. At Oxford, Paris and Cologne he constantly opposed the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, thus founding the philosophical and theological school of the Scotists. But he was stronger in the criticism of the opinions of others than in the construction of a system of his own. While the aim of Aquinas is to bring faith into harmony with reason, Duns Scotus has less confidence in the power of reason; he accordingly enlarges the number of doctrines already recognised as capable of being apprehended by faith alone. In philosophy, his devotion to Aristotle is less exclusive than that of Aquinas, and he adopts many Platonic and Neo-Platonic conceptions. “All created things [he holds] have, besides their form, some species of matter. Not matter, but form, is the individualising principle; the generic and specific characters are modified by the individual peculiarity,” by the haecceitas, or “thisness,”of the thing. “The universal essence is distinct … from the individual peculiarity,” but does not exist apart from it. With the great Dominicans Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, the Franciscan Duns Scotus “agrees in assuming a threefold existence of the universal: it is before all things, as form in the divine mind; in things, as their essence (quidditas); and after things, as the concept formed by mental abstraction.” He claims for the individual a real existence, and he accordingly condemns nominalism.

But, even in the ranks of the realists, the extravagant realism of Duns Scotus was followed by a reaction, led by Wyclif, who (for England at least) is at once “the last of the schoolmen” and “the first of the reformers.” Later reformers, such as Tyndale (1530), were joined by the humanists in opposing the subtleties of Scotus. The influence of scholasticism in England ended with 1535, when the idol of the schools was dragged from his pedestal at Oxford and Cambridge, and when one of Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners wrote to his master from Oxford:

  • We have set Dunce in Bocardo, and have utterly banished him Oxford for ever, with all his blynd glosses.… (At New College) wee fownde all the great Quadrant Court full of the leaves of Dunce, the wind blowing them into every corner.