The Dunce’s Cap, once a source of ridicule and dread in classrooms across the nation, has been relaunched as a stylish item of haute couture in honour of the man after whom it was named, Berwickshire-born John Duns Scotus.
The new cap was commissioned as part of a celebratory festival running from 17 September to 8 November in Scotus’ birthplace, Duns in the Scottish Borders, marking the medieval philosopher and theologian’s 750th anniversary. It has been designed by Borders milliner Yvette Jelfs.
Duns Scotus (1266-1308), a Franciscan friar known as the Subtle Doctor, is famous for the ingenuity of his arguments for the existence of God, the necessity of free will, the primacy of the individual and the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary. Beatified by John Paul II, he is now a contender for canonisation.
The original Dunce’s Cap evolved following the 16th century Reformation, when Scotus’ reputation suffered a backlash against what was seen as airy-fairy sophistry. Scotus’ followers or Dunsmen were dubbed Dunces or blockheads.
Jelfs says she was surprised when approached by one of the festival organisers, local writer John McEwen, to make a contemporary take on the old-fashioned, conical Dunce’s Cap. “I did think John was probably a bit of a loony,” she said. “But, funnily enough, at the time I’d been studying clothes from Leonardo da Vinci’s era and so had been looking at historical styles of hat.”
Her new design incorporates some of the concepts of its archetype. “I made the crown high to imitate the high conical shape of the original cap,” she said. One feature the modern cap doesn’t always have is the large, capital D that branded as a Dunce any child unfortunate enough to wear it. But, as Jelfs said: “I wanted to make a hat that people would wear and that was affordable.”
More than 15 events are planned for the Duns festival, including a study day conference, an exhibition of the philosopher’s life, a screening of the 2011 film The Blessed Duns Scotus, Defender Of The Immaculate Conception, a specially written play You, Dunce, three concerts, two talks, various public walks, a textile workshop and a Latin Mass.
Guests are expected to include leading church figures such as the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Academics will be attending from countries including the US, Belgium and Germany as well as many from the UK and Ireland.
Even the local primary school, spurred on by a philosophy-graduate headteacher, is getting in on the act by designing its own mini Dunce’s Caps, adorned with “symbols of their own learning”.