Note: What follows here is the Introduction to the Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus. The section on Scotus's works is considerably out of date, given the rapid progress of the critical editions since the time the Companion was published, as well as Giorgio Pini's discovery of the long-lost Expositio on Aristotle's Metaphysics. I include the Introduction on my website anyway for the sake of completeness, and because the section on Scotus's life might still be useful.

Introduction: The Life and Works of John Duns the Scot

We know very little with certainty about the details of Scotus's life and the chronology of his writings, and the evidence and arguments used to establish what we do know are sometimes forbiddingly complex. I make no attempt here to lay out all the speculations or even to adjudicate all the controversies. What follows is therefore a partial and inevitably controversial account of Scotus's life and works. It would, I believe, command wide acceptance among students of Scotus; I indicate some points of dispute in the text and offer extensive references for those who wish to explore these matters in more detail. (1)

I. Scotus's Life

As a guide through the complexities of the narrative that follows, I offer first a chronology in tabular form. 'AY' stands for 'academic year, a period extending from early October to late June.

The first definite date we have for Scotus's life is that of his ordination 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 seems likely that Scotus began his studies with the Franciscans at Oxford at a very young age. The history written by John Mair (or John Major) in 1521 says that "When [Scotus] was no more than a boy, but had been already grounded in grammar, he was taken by two Scottish Minorite [i.e., Franciscan] friars to Oxford, for at that time there existed no university in Scotland. By the favour of those friars he lived in the convent of the Minorites at Oxford." (2) A. G. Little (3) reports that it was typical for boys to begin their studies at Oxford when they were as young as ten or twelve years old. And Scotus himself, in a remark that many have quite naturally taken as a reflection on his own early training, notes that "these days boys are taught and trained forthwith in matters pertaining to the clergy or the divine office, so nowadays a boy of thirteen years is more adequately instructed in such matters than a twenty-five-year-old peasant might have been in the primitive church." (4)

Direct evidence about Scotus's theological education at Oxford is hard to come by. One commonly accepted chronology assumes that he followed the typical course of training for university students. (5) That course would require that after completing his preliminary studies in the faculty of arts Scotus would spend six academic years studying theology. In his seventh and eighth years he would have learned to serve as opponent, and in his ninth year as respondent, in disputations. In his tenth year he would have prepared his lectures on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, to be delivered in the following year. In his twelfth year he would have been required to lecture on the Bible, and in his final year to dispute under various masters. Now we know that Scotus participated in a disputation under Philip Bridlington during Bridlington's year of regency, which was the academic year 1300-01. (6) This fact would suggest that Scotus's final year of training at Oxford was 1300-01. If so, we could conclude that Scotus began his theological study in 1288, served as opponent in 1294-96 and as respondent in 1296-97, prepared his lectures on the Sentences in 1297-98, delivered them in 1298-99, and lectured on the Bible in 1299-1300. After his studies were completed in 1301, a further year would be required before Scotus was qualified to read the Sentences at Paris; Brampton therefore concludes that "He must have taught in an unknown convent in England as a lector." (7)

Unfortunately, the assumption on which this chronology rests -- that Scotus would have followed the typical university course leading to the mastership in theology -- is very likely false. The university regulations establishing that course applied to secular masters, not to members of the mendicant orders, who were granted a number of dispensations from the sequence prescribed for secular degree candidates. (8) Indeed, the Franciscan educational system allowed enough flexibility at various levels of study that it is impossible to reconstruct a year-by-year chronology of Scotus=s studies, or even to determine exactly when they began.

We do, however, have some good evidence relating to the final stages of his academic career at Oxford. We know, for example, that Scotus was in Oxford in July 1300, when the English provincial, Hugh of Hertilpole, asked Bishop Dalderby to license one "Johannes Douns," along with 21 others, to hear confessions at the Franciscan church at Oxford. (9) As Wolter notes, (10) it seems highly improbable that Hugh would have presented Scotus for faculties to hear confessions in the Oxford church if he had assigned Scotus to go to Paris for the fall term, which would have started only about ten weeks later. So it is reasonable to conclude that Scotus remained in Oxford through 1300-01.

Further evidence is found in a statement Scotus makes in the prologue to his Ordinatio. Having argued that the long endurance of the Church testifies to its divine authority, he considers the objection that Islam has also endured for many centuries:

If an objection is raised concerning the permanence of the sect of Mohammed, I reply: that sect began more than six hundred years after the law of Christ, and, God willing, it will shortly be brought to an end, since it has been greatly weakened in the year of Christ 1300, and many of its believers are dead and still more have fled, and a prophecy current among them states that their sect is to be brought to an end. (11)

What Scotus has in mind here is the defeat of the Sultan of Egypt by Turks allied with the Christians of Armenia and Georgia on 23 December 1299. News of that defeat probably reached Oxford in June of 1300, but the excitement it generated proved to be short-lived. Now this passage occurs in the second part of the Prologue to the Ordinatio, the revised version of his Oxford lectures, but it has no predecessor in the Lectura, which gives the actual text of the lectures he had delivered some time earlier. The obvious conclusion to draw is that Scotus was just beginning to revise his Oxford lectures in the summer or early fall of 1300, and that the lectures themselves had been given some time earlier. (12)

Scotus began lecturing on the Sentences at the University of Paris in October 1302. In the spring of 1303 he probably participated in the disputation between the Franciscan Regent Master, Gonsalvus of Spain, and the Dominican Meister Eckhart. Around that time the campaign of King Philip IV ("the Fair") of France to call a general council to depose Pope Boniface VIII moved into high gear. Beginning in March Philip secured the support, first of the French nobility, then of nearly all the higher clergy, and finally of the University of Paris and the chapter of Notre Dame. As Little continues the story, "On 24 June a great anti-papal demonstration was organized in the gardens of the Louvre; the mendicant friars attended in procession, and the meeting was addressed by Bertold of St. Denys, bishop of Orleans and ex-chancellor of the university, and by two Friars Preachers and two Friars Minor." (13) The next day royal commissioners visited the Franciscan convent and asked each friar individually whether he consented to the king's proposals. Eighty-four Franciscans, nearly all French, were listed as agreeing to the king's appeal; eighty-seven, mostly foreigners, dissented. Among the dissenters were Scotus and Gonsalvus. The king ordered the dissident friars to leave France within three days.

We are not absolutely certain where Scotus went during his exile from France. Some have suggested Cambridge, since it appears that Scotus lectured at Cambridge at some point. (14) But most scholars find it more probable to suppose that he returned to Oxford, and the Vatican editors believe that the so-called Lectura completa, a set of lectures given at Oxford on Book 3 of the Sentences, dates from Scotus's exile. (15) In any event, the exile was not long. Boniface VIII died on October 11, and the new pope, Benedict XI, made peace with Philip. In April 1304 Philip permitted Scotus and the rest of the friars to return to Paris. Scotus probably resumed his lectures with Book 4 of the Sentences.

Some time early in the academic year 1304-05 Scotus acted as respondent in the formal disputation that was part of the inception of Gilles de Ligny. ('Inception' is the name for the academic exercises by which a bachelor theologian received the doctorate and was promoted to master.) Shortly thereafter, on 18 November, the Franciscan Minister-General, Gonsalvus of Spain, sent a letter to the Minister-Provincial of France asking that Scotus be put next in line for such promotion: "I assign to you John the Scot, of whose praiseworthy life, outstanding knowledge, and most subtle intelligence I have been made fully aware, partly through long experience and partly through his reputation, which has spread everywhere." (16) Scotus incepted as master early in 1305. It was around this time that Scotus disputed with the Dominican William Peter Godinus on the principle of individuation. (17) In either Advent 1306 or Lent 1307 he conducted a quodlibetal disputation.

According to tradition, Scotus's time in Paris came to a sudden and unexpected end when the Minister-General transferred him to the Franciscan studium at Cologne. Whether this story of a hasty removal is true or not, it is certainly the case that Scotus's successor at Paris is known to have been master at least as early as 25 October 1307, and Scotus is listed as "lector of Cologne" in a document dated 20 February 1308, (18) so it is likely that Scotus began teaching in Cologne in October 1307 and continued through the rest of the academic year. In default of hard evidence, various speculations, ranging from the fantastic to the mundane, have been proposed to explain why Scotus was transferred out of the far more prestigious University of Paris at the height of his career. One of the more ingenious explanations was that of Callebaut, (19) who argued that Scotus was in danger because of his opposition to the French king's vigorous measures to suppress the Knights Templar, measures enthusiastically supported by John of Pouilly, who had accused Scotus of heresy for his defense of the Immaculate Conception and expressed the wish to attack Scotus "not by arguments but in some other way" (non argumentis sed aliter). So, according to Callebaut, Gonsalvus sent Scotus to Cologne to be out of the way of danger. A more matter-of-fact explanation was suggested by Longpré, who noted that it was common for the Franciscans to send their star theologians from one house to another. (20) But whatever his reason for being in Cologne, he was not to be there long. He died at Cologne in 1308; the date is traditionally given as November 8. He was buried in the Franciscan church in Cologne, where today his remains rest in an ornate sarcophagus bearing the Latin epitaph that has been associated with his burial-place for centuries:

Scotia me genuit,
Anglia me suscepit,
Gallia me docuit,
Colonia me tenet.
Scotland bore me,
England received me,
France taught me,
Cologne holds me.

II. Scotus's Works

What follows is a discussion of Scotus's works in a rough chronological order (since no precise order can be given). For each work I indicate the best available edition, if any. (Note that the Wadding edition of 1639 is not a critical edition and must therefore be used with care; the Bonaventure and Vatican editions are critical editions.) More detailed discussions of the nature, authenticity, authority, and chronology of Scotus's works can be found in the critical prefaces to volumes 1 and 3 of the Bonaventure editon and volumes 1, 4, 6, 7, 17, and 19 of the Vatican edition.

These works are collectively known as the parva logicalia, or "little logical works." They have traditionally been dated to early in Scotus=s career, possibly as early as 1295, although the evidence currently available does not permit any definitive dating. There is substantial evidence that these are genuine works of Scotus. (21) The manuscript tradition for each of these works contains ascriptions to Scotus. Antonius Andreas, an early and generally faithful follower of Scotus, includes summaries of Scotus's questions on the Isagoge and Praedicamenta in his own works. And Adam Wodeham, who is noted for his accurate citations of Scotus, twice cites the questions on the Perihermenias in his Lectura secunda.

The Lectura contains Scotus's notes for the lectures he gave on Books 1 and 2 of the Sentences as a bachelor theologian at Oxford. It is therefore his earliest theological work, and since the later revision of these lectures, the Ordinatio, was never completed, it is the only Oxford commentary we have on certain parts of the Sentences. For example, Scotus never dictated a revised version of Book 2, dd. 15-25, and the Vatican edition of the Ordinatio will not contain questions on those distinctions.

We also have a set of lecture notes on Book 3, the Lectura completa, which exists in only three manuscripts and has not yet been edited. These lectures were also given at Oxford, but later, possibly during Scotus's exile from Paris in 1303-04. We have no Lectura at all on Book 4. Some have argued that Scotus never lectured on Book 4 at Oxford, but Wolter suggests that "the total absence of any Oxford lectures on Bks. III and IV before Scotus went to Paris may be a consequence of the destructive raids on the university libraries of England in 1535 and 1550 inspired by Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Queen Elizabeth." (22)

While some scholars deny the authenticity of the question-commentary on Aristotle=s De anima, the attributions to Scotus in the manuscript tradition and its explicit citation by Adam Wodeham provide strong evidence in favor of its authenticity. Further discussion of the authenticity and dating of the work should be sought in the forthcoming critical edition.

The editors of the critical edition say that "this work of the Subtle Doctor has come down to us in a disorderly state," (23) with questions ordered differently in different manuscripts, single manuscripts in multiple hands, questions transcribed more than once in a single manuscript, and the ordering of paragraphs within questions varying from one manuscript to another. Nevertheless, they say, "the meaning of the text which has come down to us is rarely compromised." (24)

The Questions on the Metaphysics have traditionally been dated early, a tradition that the Vatican editors follow, (25) but the editors of the critical edition argue that no single dating is possible for the entire work: "we suggest that these questions were composed and revised over an extended period of time and that certain questions stem from a period late in Scotus's career." (26) Indeed, detailed textual analysis by Dumont, Noone, and the editors themselves strongly suggests that Books 7 through 9 date in their present form to late in Scotus's career; Wolter notes that Book 7 must date between Book 2 of the Ordinatio and Book 2 of the Reportatio. (27) On the other hand, Richard Cross argues that Book 5 of the Questions on the Metaphysics must predate the Lectura, and therefore that the first five books should all be dated to before 1300. (28)

Scotus also wrote an Expositio on Aristotle's Metaphysics, which is now lost. The Expositio super libros Metaphysicorum Aristotelis printed as Scotus's in the Wadding edition is the work of Antonius Andreas.

An ordinatio is a text that the instructor himself has set in order in preparation for publication (that is, copying by the official university scribes and distribution to the booksellers). Scotus's Ordinatio is his revision of the lectures he gave as a bachelor at Oxford, based on the Lectura. We can clearly discern at least two layers of revision. The initial revision was begun in the summer of 1300 and left incomplete when Scotus departed for Paris in 1302; it probably did not get much past Book 2. Further revisions were made in Paris; we know that Scotus was still dictating questions for Book 4 as late as 1304, as well as updating the parts he had already revised while still at Oxford. These updates were usually in the form of marginal additions or interpolated texts that reflected what Scotus taught in Paris. Our picture of the nature and extent of the second layer of revisions is, however, still murky, in part because the Vatican edition of the Ordinatio has reached only to Book 2, d. 3, and no critical edition of the Paris Reportatio is available at all (see below). Much further study is needed in order to understand just how much the Ordinatio represents the views Scotus held at Oxford and how much he revised it to reflect developments in his views in Paris. At present, however, the most plausible view would seem to be that of Wolter, who wrote that it is a

serious and inexcusable mistake for scholars writing on Scotus today to regard his Ordinatio as a seamless garment rather than a work begun in Oxford and left unfinished when he left Paris for Cologne. It is particularly unwise to consider the basic text of the eleven volumes of the Vatican edition so far printed as necessarily representative of his final views simply because parts were updated with a view to what he taught later in Paris. (29)

And Wolter argues persuasively that Ordinatio 1 "is simply a more mature expression of his early views, and needs to be supplemented by the later positions he held which can be found in the reports of his lectures at Cambridge and Paris." (30)

The Collationes represent disputations in which Scotus participated at Oxford and Paris. Dumont notes that "The Collationes are perhaps the least studied of Scotus's theological works, yet the fact that Scotus himself refers to them several times in the course of revising his Ordinatio indicates their importance." (31) He argues that the Oxford Collationes were disputed either during Scotus's exile from Paris in 1303-04 or at some time between 1305 and his death in 1308. (32) The Paris Collationes were presumably disputed at various times between 1302 and 1307.

A reportatio is a student report of a lecture. We have a number of reportationes of Scotus's lectures at Paris, and the relationship among the various versions is unclear. There are also questions about the order in which he commented on the Sentences. One plausible view is that he commented sequentially on all four books in the academic year 1302-03, being interrupted near the end by his exile from Paris, and resuming with Book 4 upon his return in the spring of 1304. There are future-tense references in Book 4 to topics he will treat in Book 3, presumably in the academic year 1304-05, when he may have given another complete course of lectures on the Sentences. The one clear fact is that Scotus himself personally examined a reportatio of his lectures on Book 1, which is therefore known as the Reportatio examinata. Since this work represents Scotus's most mature commentary on the matters treated in Sentences 1, it is of paramount importance in understanding his thought and its development. Unfortunately, it has not yet been edited. What the Wadding edition prints as Reportatio 1 is actually Book 1 of the Additiones magnae.

The Vatican editors (33) identify the following versions of the Reportatio:

The Additiones magnae on Books 1 and 2 of the Sentences were compiled by William of Alnwick, Scotus's companion and secretary, from Scotus's lectures at both Oxford and Paris, but principally from the latter. (In fact, some manuscripts call the Additiones "Lectura Parisiensis.") They were most likely produced between 1312 and 1325. (35) The Vactican editors take a dim view of Alnwick's faithfulness to the mind of Scotus, at least as regards the Additiones on Book 2, d. 25, (36) but their opinion is not generally shared, and surely Dumont is correct in saying that the evidence available to us "gives every indication that the Additiones are faithful to Scotus." (37) Three manuscripts of Additiones 2 contain an explicit attributing the Additiones to Scotus and identifying Alnwick not as their author but as their compiler:

Here conclude the Additions to the second book of Master John Duns, extracted by Master William of Alnwick of the Order of Friars Minor from the Paris and Oxford lectures of the aforesaid Master John. (38)

In their earliest appearances, the Additiones were identified as an appendix to Scotus's Ordinatio, but they gradually came to be inserted into the Ordinatio itself to supply material where Scotus had left the Ordinatio incomplete -- a process that attests to the belief of Scotus's contemporaries and immediate successors in the authenticity of the Additiones. Furthermore, the Additiones are cited in the early fourteenth century as an authentic work of Scotus, in particular by Adam Wodeham. So although the precise occasion or purpose of Alnwick's compilation is not clear, there is overwhelming evidence that the Additiones represent the teaching of Scotus himself.

It was part of the duty of a regent master to conduct quodlibetal disputations, so called because "they could be about any topic whatever (de quolibet) and could be initiated by any member of the audience (a quolibet).@ (39) Scotus's Quodlibetal Questions were disputed in either Advent 1306 or Lent 1307. He then revised the questions, completing the revision up through the last question, q. 21.

This short treatise in natural theology, once taken to be an early work, is now generally believed to be one of Scotus's later works, and perhaps his very latest. About half of it is taken verbatim from Book 1 of the Ordinatio. Wolter observes that

A careful analysis of the [manuscripts] leads one to conclude that Scotus had considerable secretarial help in composing the final draft. He seems to have contented himself with sketching the main outlines of the treatise and entrusted his personal amanuensis or other scribes with the task of filling in the substance of the work from those sections of the Ordinatio he had indicated. This would explain why certain words were deleted that should have been copied, or conversely why words or phrases were added that could hardly have been intended when the amanuensis on occasion obviously strayed beyond the section Scotus wanted copied. It would also account for the unusual turn of phrase, or other stylistic differences between this and Scotus=s other writings. (40)

The resulting text is accordingly sometimes obscure, and De primo principio is therefore best read in conjunction with the parallel treatments in the Ordinatio and the Reportatio examinata.

Near the end of De primo principio Scotus notes that he has been discussing metaphysical conclusions about God, reached through natural reason, and he announces his intention to provide a companion volume treating matters of faith. Some have identified this companion volume with the so-called tractatus de creditis, Theorems 14 to 16 of the Theoremata. This identification is, however, difficult to maintain in the face of apparent doctrinal discrepancies between De primo principio and the tractatus de creditis. Largely because of such discrepancies, the authenticity of the Theoremata is highly disputed. In my view, the balance of the evidence demands that we reject the attribution of this work to Scotus, but the matter is by no means settled. (41)


1. The account that follows relies on Wolter 1993, 1995, 1996; S. Dumont 1996, 2001; Noone 1995; and the introductions to the critical editions of Scotus's works (see the chart of editions, below). I am grateful to Timothy B. Noone for his helpful remarks on an earlier draft of this essay.

2. Major 1892, 206; quoted in Wolter 1993, 6.

3. Little 1892, 191.

4. Ord. 4, d. 25, q. 2, n. 2

5. The classic statement of this chronology is in Brampton 1964. It has been defended by Allan B. Wolter, most notably in Wolter 1995, and widely accepted by other writers.

6. Brampton 1964, 17-18.

7. Brampton 1964, 17.

8. Roest 2000, 100. Roest's study offers an excellent overview of the development of the Franciscan educational system.

9. Hugh met in person with Bishop Dalderby at Dorchester-on-Thames on 26 July 1300. The Bishop thought the request for 22 licenses was wildly excessive for a single church and selected only 8 of the friars. Scotus was not among them.

10. Wolter 1995, 187-188.

11. Ord. prol., pars 2, q. un., n. 112

12. The Vatican editors, however, date the lectures to 1300-01. See Vatican 19:33*, and cf. Brampton 1964, 8-9, and Wolter 1996, 45-47.

13. Little 1932, 575.

14. Scotus refers to his Cambridge lecture at Ord. 1, d. 4, n. 1. See Reportatio 1C, below. It is also possible that Scotus lectured at Cambridge some time before going to Paris in 1302.

15. Vatican 19:33*.

16. Little 1892, 220. Note that the adjective 'subtle had come to be associated with Scotus even during his lifetime, although I know of no appearance of the epithet "Subtle Doctor" until a few years after his death.

17. See Noone 1995, 394-395. An edition of this disputation is printed in Stroick 1974, 581-608.

18. Little 1932, 582; Wolter 1993, 12.

19. Callebaut 1928.

20. Wolter 1993, 13.

21. For a more detailed examination of this evidence and a discussion of the dating of the logical works, see Bonaventure 1:xxvi-xxxi. The other logical works that appear as Scotus's in the Wadding edition are inauthentic.

22. Wolter 1993, 34.

23. Bonaventure 3:xxxiii.

24. Bonaventure 3:xxxvii.

25. Vatican 19:41*-42*.

26. Bonaventure 3:xlii.

27. S. Dumont 1995; Noone 1995; Wolter 1996, 52.

28. Cross 1998, 245-246.

29. Wolter 1996, 39-40.

30. Wolter 1996, 50.

31. S. Dumont 1996, 69.

32. Both dates pose certain problems. For a thorough discussion of the evidence, see S. Dumont 1996.

33. Vatican 1:144*-149*, 7:4*-5*.

34. Reportatio 1E is thought by many to be an amalgam of Henry Harclay's lectures and Scotus's own work. But see Balic 1939, 2:4-9.

35. For the arguments that establish these dates, see Wolter 1996, 44.

36. Vatican 19:39*-40*, note 3.

37. S. Dumont 2001, 767; see also Bali 1927, 101-103, and Wolter 1996, 44-45

38. Expliciunt Additiones secundi libri magistri Iohannis Duns extractae per magistrum Gillermum de Alnwick de ordine fratrum minorum de Lectura Parisiensi et Oxoniensi pracedicti magistri Iohannis. The wording given here is that of Oxford, Balliol College, MS 208, f. 40v. Vat. lat. 876, f. 310v, and Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Lat. Fol. MS 928, f. 35vb, have similar explicits.

39. Kenny and Pinborg 1982, 22.

40. Wolter 1966, x-xi.

41. For a different view, see Ross and Bates, ch. 6 in this volume, sec. II.