Most people know what a dunce cap is (also called a fool’s cap): a tall, conical paper cap, usually associated with humiliation of a “learning challenged” school child, the “dunce” of the class—at least on that day. (He probably wasn’t really dumb, just inattentive or hadn’t done his homework.)
First, why was he called the “dunce”? The word has a long history, going back to John Dun Scotus, a 13th century theologian and philosopher. He was influential in his time, and had followers, called Dunsmen or just Duns. His doctrines fell into disrepute in the 16th century among the new Humanists, who referred to his followers as Dunse, later Dunce, someone who refused or was incapable of learning.
But why the pointed cap as a dunce cap? Someone here has a good story, but only gives his mother as a source. Yes, wizards are often depicted wearing pointed hats, but it seems unlikely that an intelligent religious philosopher would give credence to a theory that wearing such a hat would increase learning.
It seems more likely that the dunce cap was a sign of public humiliation, like the cap with donkey’s ears that reputedly was used for the same purpose in schools on the Continent. But why the pointed cap? Was it just to humiliate its wearer, or was there some folk-belief making fun of the idea that a pointed hat could increase learning?
Both are possibilities and are perhaps interrelated. In some areas in medieval times, Jews wore pointed hats, often so depicted in paintings. It would have been humiliating for a Christian to have to wear something similar, whereby it should be said that Jews at that time were generally more literate than the general populace. In Spain, during the Inquisition, the “capriote”, a pointed cap very similarly to a dunce cap, was worn by condemned persons and by flagellants, in both cases a symbol of forced or voluntary humility and penitence.
Another theoretical form of conical hat was a funnel, not seriously meant, but represented in a painting, The Cure of Folly, by Hieronymus Bosch and suggested in a German book of proverbs from 1541. Bosch was apparently suggesting that the wearer was a fool. The proverb and a subsequent book refer to using a funnel as an easy way to pour knowledge into someone’s brain. Bosch, a painter from the Netherlands, predates the book of proverbs, indicating that the idea was common in Northern Europe even earlier.
Maybe this explains the form of a dunce cap: a symbol of foolishness, humility, penitence—all appropriate for the wearer. Maybe not: just an easily constructed cap to humiliate a poor scholar.
Does this have anything to do with foolscap paper? No; the longer, “legal size” paper (now DIN format 210 x 330 cm) also dates from the 16th century, but is so-called because it once had a watermark of a fool’s cap.
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