Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth Myth

A while back I made a passing comment on my blog along criticizing an advertisement which claimed that prior to Columbus the earth taught the world was flat. In response I received the following email from a high-school student in the US,

I’ve been studying Christopher Columbus in my history class and my history books say that prior to Columbus everyone did think the world was flat……..I don’t know if it was a mistake in the history book or your mistake…..but anyway….I guess I have some things to learn! God bless ~ Katie

We have all heard the story behind this. Prior to Columbus, the Church and its theological scholars taught that the world was flat. For this reason they opposed Columbus’ proposed voyage in 1492 as they believed he would sail off the edge of the earth (or that he would prove them wrong and they would lose standing in society). Despite this Columbus sailed anyway and his rejection of the Church’s position was vindicated, he scored a victory for science and reason.

My correspondent is correct. They do teach this in high school text books. I was taught it at both primary and high-school. In fact, not too long ago Pretence Hall published claims to this effect in their middle school textbook Prentice Hall Earth Science.

At a philosophy conference at Otago University shortly after I graduated, I recall one speaker using the example of “medieval flat-earthers” in his paper as an example of an irrational belief. Almost everyone in attendance nodded their heads in agreement; no one contested the historical assumptions implicit in the example. More recently Victoria University ran a slick television campaign stating that in the 14th century most people believed the world was flat. The ad showed a picture of a boat sailing across the sea only to fall over the side of the earth and concluded “It makes you think.”

You might have gathered from obvious clues like the title and from the way I have set this article up that I dispute the veracity of much of these historical claims. If I state this publicly there are very few settings where this admission does not at least earn me an incredulous stare (as if I were, in fact, asserting that the earth was flat). Invariably some comment follows, “come on Matt, everyone knows this story is true, didn’t you learn this at school? Haven’t you read any history textbooks?”

It is true that I did learn this story at school and that I have read it in more than one history textbook but because I took the time to research the history of theology when I was at university I know that this story is fiction. It is a slanderous fabrication invented by opponents of Christianity in the 19th century and has been thoroughly debunked by contemporary historians of science.

The definitive study is undoubtedly that of Jeffrey Burton Russell in Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians. Russell summarised his findings, in a paper presented to the 1997 American Scientific Affiliation Conference, as follows,

[W]ith extraordinary few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat. A round earth appears at least as early as the sixth century BC with Pythagoras, who was followed by Aristotle, Euclid, and Aristarchus, among others in observing that the earth was a sphere. Although there were a few dissenters—Leukippos and Demokritos for example–by the time of Eratosthenes (3 c. BC), followed by Crates(2 c. BC), Strabo (3 c. BC), and Ptolemy (first c. AD), the sphericity of the earth was accepted by all educated Greeks and Romans.

Nor did this situation change with the advent of Christianity. A few—at least two and at most five—early Christian fathers denied the spherically of earth by mistakenly taking passages such as Ps. 104:2-3 as geographical rather than metaphorical statements. On the other side tens of thousands of Christian theologians, poets, artists, and scientists took the spherical view throughout the early, medieval, and modern church. The point is that no educated person believed otherwise.

Russell traced the story about Columbus and medieval flat-earthers back to the 19th century; it originated in a fictional novel by Washington Irving The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus I (1829). Later it was picked up by two influential books, John Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s book A History of The Warfare Between Science and Theology in Christendom. These books famously used the Columbus story plus many others to defend the thesis that the Church, for centuries, suppressed science and worked to prevent its flourishing; this is known as the conflict thesis.

These books and the conflict thesis they spawned, are highly influential in popular science and media coverage of theological and scientific issues today despite most historians rejecting them as propaganda. In The Encyclopedia of the History of Science and Religion, Collin Russell notes,

Draper takes such liberty with history, perpetuating legends as fact that he is rightly avoided today in serious historical study. The same is nearly as true of White, though his prominent apparatus of prolific footnotes may create a misleading impression of meticulous scholarship.

Steven Shapin wrotes in the same vein in The Scientific Revolution,

In the late Victorian period it was common to write about the “warfare between science and religion” and to presume that the two bodies of culture must always have been in conflict. However, it is a very long time since these attitudes have been held by historians of science.

Numerous other specialists in the field of the history of science and religion concur that the existence of medieval flat-earthers is a myth. Numbers and Lindberg noted in a journal article, “there was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth’s] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference.” In his study of medieval cosmology, God and Reason in the Middle Ages, distinguished historian Edward Grant noted that,

All medieval students who attended a university knew this. In fact any educated person in the Middle Ages knew the earth was spherical, or of a round shape. Medieval commentators on Aristotle’s “On the Heavens” or in the commentaries on a popular thirteenth century work titled “Treatise on the Sphere” by John of Sacrobosco, usually included a question in which they enquired “whether the whole earth is spherical”. Scholastics answered this question unanimously: The earth is spherical or round. No university trained author ever thought it was flat.

Draper’s and White’s books remain widely cited despite being debunked as historically inaccurate. In fact, the kinds of textbooks Katie mentioned have been subject to scathing criticism precisely for making the aforementioned claims. Lawrence S. Lerner, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at California State University who is a member of the panel that wrote the 1990 framework for science education in California’s public schools criticised Pretence Halls history text denouncing it as “ignorant fakery.” In an article entitled “Fake ‘History’ That Is Flatly Wrong,” Lerner described the flat-earth claims as a “popular piece of pseudo historical folklore” he added that it “remains popular today among people who have had little education. These evidently include the people who produce ‘science’ books for Prentice Hall.”

The historical facts are difficult to dispute. During the, so called, “dark ages” Boethius (480-525) cited a well known and accepted ancient Greek cosmological model that affirmed the sphericity of the earth in the Consolidation of Philosophy. Isidore of Serville (560-636) affirmed a round earth in the Etymologies. Bede (672-735) in The Reckoning of Time taught the earth was round; as did Rabanus Marcus in the ninth century.

The late middle-ages are no different. Hemannus Contractus (1013-155) measured the circumference of the world. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) taught the world was round as did John of Sacrbosco (1200-1256) and Peire d’Ailly (1350-1420). Dante’s Divine Comedy portrays the earth as a sphere. In the Summa Theologicae Thomas Aquinas wrote,

The physicist proves the earth to be round by one means, the astronomer by another: for the latter proves this by means of mathematics, e.g. by the shapes of eclipses, or something of the sort; while the former proves it by means of physics, e.g. by the movement of heavy bodies towards the center, and so forth.

Even medieval textbooks taught the world was round. Both the Elucidarium of Honorius Augustodunensis, a twelfth century manual for educating clergy, and On the Sphere of the World, the standard cosmological textbook of medieval universities in the 13th century, taught that the world was round.

As I have delved into religious history further I have found that this had not been the first or only instance where I was fed false propaganda about Christianity. I could document several other false versions of history; the flat-earth story will suffice for now. As New Zealand blogger Contra Celsum wrote, “the flat earthers are those who think they existed.”

I write a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled Contra Mundum. This blog post was published in the December 09 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.

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