John Duns Scotus of Duns, Scotland, was one of the most celebrated philosophers of the medieval era. He was a brilliant thinker who taught in Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris. He also had the enviable luck to be famous in his day, the late 1200s and early 1300s. “The Subtle Doctor”, as he was known, wrote works that would become university textbooks for years. All of this philosophy was not without it’s quirks; one of his accepted teachings was that tall conical hats helped to funnel information to the wearer’s head.
Incidentally, seven hundred years later, his name is synonymous with idiocy.
This wasn’t caused by the hat thing. The prestige shifted to shame in the 1500s, with the rise of reformers and humanists. Duns’ works were considered to be needlessly complex, and the revolutionary winds of change meant that everything associated with him was suddenly out- including the hats. The hats took on a meaning of shame as an effect of the fallen star of his teachings, just as his name did- by 1577 the name had become synonymous with stupidity and stubbornness (though this may have been more directed at the man’s followers than the scholar himself).
It’s unclear when exactly people started making bad students wear the dunce cap as a sign of shame; a dunce table for failing students appears in the 1624 play, “The Sun’s Darling”, but the word “dunce cap” doesn’t appear in English until Dickens’ novel, “The Old Curiosity Shop”, in 1840.
(The source of all of the above is the excellent educational materials of the Museum Division’s Schoolhouse, in the little town of Fort Walton Beach.)