Myths about Science and Religion: That Medieval Christians Taught that the Earth was Flat
Here is the classic story. People living in the “Dark Ages” were so ignorant (or so deceived by Catholic priests) that they believed the earth was flat. For thousands of years they lingered in ignorant obscurity, and were it not for the heroic bravery of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) and other explorers, they might well have continued in this ignorance for even longer. Thus it was the innovation and courage of investors and explorers, motivated by economic goals and modern curiosity, that finally allowed us to break free from the shackles forged by the medieval Catholic church.
In the nineteenth century, scholars interested in promoting a new scientific and rational view of the world claimed that ancient Greeks and Romans had understood that the world was round, but that this knowledge was suppressed by medieval churchmen.
Unfortunately most of this classic story is fiction. Very few people throughout the Middle Ages believed that the world was flat. Thinkers on both sides of the question were Catholics, and for them, the shape of the earth did not equate with progressive or traditionalist views. As Russell writes, “All educated people throughout Europe know the earth’s spherical shape and its approximate circumference.” Further, Columbus could not have proved that the world was round, because this fact was already known. Nor was he a rebellious modern—he was a good Catholic and undertook his voyage believing he was doing God’s work.
In this entry I will be combing notes from Lesley B. Cormack’s article entitled, “That Medieval Christians Taught that the Earth was Flat,” found in Numbers’ Galileo goes to Jail and other Myths about Science and Religion (2009), and Jeffrey Burton Russell’s short but illuminating book, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (Praeger, 1991).
Russell calls this very popular and common myth the “Flat Earth Error.” According to Russell, the very statement that “Columbus proved the world was round,”presents logical difficulties. “Since Columbus did not ever sail around the world, it was not until Magellan’s men came back from circumnavigating the globe in 1522 tat the sphericity of the planet could be absolutely proved empirically.” In addition to logical problems, there are also problems of conflation. The idea of geocentricity is often linked in the modern mind with the idea of flatness, but the two are separate. With few exceptions, educated people before Copernicus (1473-1543) in face believed that the planets revolved around the earth rather than around the sun. However, the idea that the earth is spherical is sharply distinct from the idea that the earth is at the center of the cosmos.
In Cormack’s short essay, she maintains that scholars of antiquity developed a very clear spherical model of the earth and the heavens, and that early-medieval writers continued that model. Every major Greek geographical thinker, including Aristotle (384-322 BC), Eratosthenes (fl. third century BC), and Ptolemy (fl. second century BC), based on his geographical and astronomical work on the theory that the earth was a sphere.
Among the early-medieval writers who held a spherical-earth theory, Augustine (354-430), Jerome (d. 420), and Ambrose (d. 420) all agreed that the earth was a sphere. There is some debate about Isidore of Seville (d. 636), a prolific encyclopedist and natural philosopher, but this based on his statement that “everyone experiences the size and heat of the sun in the same manner.” But this statement likely implies that the sun’s shape did not alter as it progressed around the earth. Indeed, much of Isidore’s physics and astronomy can only be understood to depend on a spherical earth.
From the seventh century to the fourteenth, every important medieval thinker concerned about the natural world stated more or less explicitly that the world was a round globe. Among them were Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), Roger Bacon (d. 1294), Albertus Magnus (d. 1280), Michael Scot (d. 1234), Jean de Sacrobosco (d. 1256), and Pierre d’Ailly (d. 1410), whose work Columbus himself carefully consulted. Russell added to this list Jean Buridan (d. 1358), Nicole Oresme (d. 1382), and Giles of Rome (d. 1316), all discussed the rotation of the earthly sphere.
Both Cormack and Russell also point out that even popular vernacular writers in the Middle Ages supported the idea of a round earth. Jean de Mandeville’s Travels (c. 1370) was quite explicit in stating that the world was round and navigable. Dante (d. 1321) in the Divine Comedy described the world as a sphere several times. In Chaucer’s (d. 1400) The Canterbury Tales, he spoke of “This wyde world, which that men seye is round.”
The one medieval writer explicitly to deny the sphericity of the earth was Cosmas Indicopleustes (fl. sixth century). But according to Russell, Cosmas had absolutely no influence on medieval thought. Indeed, “the first translation of Cosmas into Latin, his very first introduction into western Europe, was not until 1706.”
Russell also has an important discussion of the nature of maps and map-making in the Middle Ages. “Medieval maps,” he writes, “did not attempt to conform to criteria set for a modern atlas.” We have a little over 1,000 maps of the earth from the eighth through the fifteenth century that have survived. These “mappaemundi” come in several varieties. They are almost all flat—as are the maps in a modern atlas—and usually represent “oikoumene“, or the known world. That is, most were intended to represent only a portion of a spherical world. The purpose of a mappaemundi, moreover, was to convey moral truth or sacred or political history, not a snapshot of the size and shape of the earth. The mappaemundi were not meant to be practical, and the only reason they survive is because they were revered and thus preserved. Practical maps from the Middle Ages do exist, and are of two major types: one is the crude but effective sketch that shows, for example, what towns one encounters on a journey between York and London and in what order; the other is the navigational “portolan chart,” both accurate and detailed, which used longitude and latitude as coordinates.
A pictorial demonstration of the round earth in the early middle ages is in the portraits of kings holding the symbols of their power. One standard item of regalia, Russell tells us, is the royal “orb,” which the king holds in his hand. Indeed, it is a golden ball representing the earth, surmounted by a cross indicating Christ’s sovereignty over the earth.
With very few exceptions, all major scholars and many vernacular writers interested in the physical shape of the earth, from the fall of Rome to the time of Columbus, articulated the theory that the earth was round. Fifteenth-century astronomers, geographers, philosophers, and theologians, far from disputing sphercitiy, wrote sophisticated treatises based on Aristotle and the “geography” of Ptolemy of Alexandria.
Given this background, it would be silly to argue that Columbus proved the world was round. However, popular accounts continue to circulate the erroneous story that Columbus fought the prejudiced and ignorant scholars and clerics at Salamance, the home of Spain’s leading university, before convincing Queen Isabella to let him try to prove his position. No such thing ever happened. As Russell writes, “The courage of the rationalist confronted by the crushing weight of tradition and its cruel institutions of repression is appealing, exciting—and baseless.”
There were real objections to Columbus’ voyage, however. Around 1484 Columbus first proposed the voyage to King John of Portugal, but the king rejected it for economic and political reasons. When Columbus turned to the Spanish monarch Ferdinand and Isabella, he found them preoccupied with the unification of Spain. With these political hesitations also came intellectual ones. Ferdinand and Isabella referred Columbus to a royal commission headed by Hernando de Talavera, who was Archbishop of Granada. Of the objections posed to Columbus at the commission, none involved questioning sphericity. Rather, his opponents, citing the traditional measurements of the globe according to Ptolemy, argued that the circumference of the earth was too great and the distance too far to allow a successful western passage. The commission adjourned without coming to an agreement.
Between 1486 and 1490, Columbus carefully prepared calculations to once again defend his plans. In 1490 another commissioned reconvened and again rejected Columbus’ plans. And their doubts were understandable, for Columbus had cooked his own arguments. Columbus had redefined terms and conflated accounts of measurements from different geographers. He calculated, for example, the distance between the Canaries and Japan at about 4,450 km. The modern figure is 22,000 km. In other word, “he estimated the voyage at about 20 percent its actual length.” After long poltical maneurving and many disappointments, Columbus at last in April 1492 obtained Queen Isabella’s support. According to Russell, “Columbus’ opponents, misinformed as they were, had more science and reason on their side than he did on his. He had political ability, stubborn determination, and courage.”
As we have seen, there is virtually no historical evidence to support the myth of a medieval flat earth. Christian clerics neither suppressed the truth nor stifled debate on this subject. Columbus didn’t prove the earth was round—he stumbled on a continent that happened to be in his way.
So, contrary to all the evidence, why does “The Flat Error” persist? What are the origins of this myth, and why do educated people continue to believe it? Russell provides an argument that is as illuminating as it is disturbing. The origins of the Error, says Russell, are found in nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers, with middle-class Enlightenment anticlericalism in Europe and “know-nothing” anticatholicism in the United States. The origin of the Error resides in these milieus.
Throughout the nineteenth century, middle-class liberal progressives projected their own ideals upon the heroes of the past. Here Russell discuses the positivism of the nineteenth century morphing into the progressivism of today. Philosophers of “progress” such as Hegel (1770-1831) Comte (1798-1857), John W. Draper (1811-1882), Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), and Charles Raymond Beazley (1868-1955) wrote about the “infinite falsehood constituting the life ans spirit of the Middle Ages.” Comte had laid the philosophical basis for positivism with the argument that the history of humanity shows an unsteady but definite progress from reliance on magic, then religion, then philosophy, then natural science. Positivism went on to extend beyond the natural science to historical positivism, the idea that history advances toward truth about the human past in successive approximations. “Progressivists did not choose to understand other societies in those societies’ terms, but, rather, chose to hold them to the standards of the nineteenth-century scientific method.” The Error must be true, it appears, because it fits modern preconceptions about the Middle Ages.
But perhaps this Error was most solidly embedded in the modern mind not by “scholarly” literature, but by the novel. Russell focuses on Washington Irving (1738-1859), whose romantic tale of Columbus the hero swayed all. He turned the story of Columbus into a work of art, in which he plays the hero of a romantic novel, or epic modern Odysseus or a Faust casting a giant wager against fate, or a mythic American Adam, the First Man of the New World.
But the idea that “Columbus showed that the world was round” is an invention. So, despite all the evidence to the contrary, why does the Error persist? Why, especially after the work of so many respected, widely read, modern historians of science, the Error continues to be as persistent as in the educated mind as it was a century ago? According to Russell, historians, scientists, scholars, and other writers often wittingly or unwittingly repeat and propagate errors of fact or interpretation. No one can be automatically believed or trusted without checking methodology and sources. Further, scholars and scientists often are led by their biases more than by the evidence. The Error had been so firmly established that it was easier to lie back and believe it: easier not to check the sources; easier to fit the consensus; easier to fit the preconceived worldview; easier to avoid the discipline needed in order to dislodge a firmly held error. “Religion and science had not been at war until the Draper-White thesis made them so.”
The assumption of the superiority of “our” views to that of older cultures is another stubborn blinder. The hope that we are making progress toward a goal leads us to undervalue the past in order to convince ourselves of the superiority of the present. The explanation of this pattern for Russell is that the Error is part of a much larger modern faith in progress. “Our determination to believe the Flat Error,” he writes, “arises out of our contempt for the past and our need to believe in the superiority of the present.”
Finally, fallacies or “myths” of this nature take on a life of their own, creating a dialectic with each other and eventually making a “cycle of myths” reinforcing one another. Thus the modern “secular” worldview is based more upon what we think happened than what really happened. A shared body of myths, especially ones told in such dramatic and sensationalist terms, can overwhelm reason and evidence.
Russell concludes with a poignant—if not sombre—realization, that “the search for truth is long and laborious and easily set aside. And since the present is transformed day by day, minute by minute, second by second, into the past, while the future is unknown and unknowable, we are left on the dark sea without stars, without compass or astrolabe, more unsure of our position and our goal than of Columbus’ sailors. The terror of meaninglessness, of falling off the edge of knowledge, is greater than the imagined fear of falling off the edge of the earth. And so we prefer to believe a familiar error than to search, unceasingly, the darkness.”