John Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308) was one of the most important and influential philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages. His brilliantly complex and nuanced thought, which earned him the nickname “the Subtle Doctor,” left a mark on discussions of such disparate topics as the semantics of religious language, the problem of universals, divine illumination, and the nature of human freedom.
Scotus’ is a nickname: it identifies Scotus as a Scot. His family name was Duns, which was also the name of the Scottish village in which he was born, just a few miles from the English border. We do not know the precise date of his birth, but we do know that Scotus was ordained to the priesthood in the Order of Friars Minor — the Franciscans — at Saint Andrew’s Priory in Northampton, England, on 17 March 1291. The minimum age for ordination was twenty-five, so we can conclude that Scotus was born before 17 March 1266. But how much before? The conjecture, plausible but by no means certain, is that Scotus would have been ordained as early as canonically permitted. Since the Bishop of Lincoln (the diocese that included Oxford, where Scotus was studying, as well as St Andrew’s Priory) had ordained priests in Wycombe on 23 December 1290, we can place Scotus’s birth between 23 December 1265 and 17 March 1266.
It appears that Scotus began his formal studies at Oxford in October 1288 and concluded them in June 1301. In the academic year 1298-99 he commented on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. We know that by the fall of 1302 Scotus was lecturing on the Sentences in Paris. In June 1303 Scotus was expelled from France along with eighty other friars for taking the Pope’s side in a dispute with the king. They were allowed to return in April 1304; it appears that Scotus completed his lectures on the Sentences not long thereafter. On 18 November 1304 Scotus was appointed the Franciscan regent master in theology at Paris. For reasons no one quite understands, Scotus was transferred to the Franciscan studium at Cologne, probably beginning his duties as lector in October 1307. He died there in 1308; the date of his death is traditionally given as 8 November.