Myth of the Flat Earth

Myth of the Flat Earth
The famous "Flat Earth" Flammarion engraving originates with Flammarion's 1888 L'atmosphère: météorologie populaire (p. 163)
Illustration of the spherical Earth in a 14th century copy of L'Image du monde (ca. 1246).

The myth of the Flat Earth is the modern misconception that the prevailing cosmological view during the Middle Ages saw the Earth as flat, instead of spherical.[1]

This idea seems to have been widespread during the first half of the 20th century, so that the Members of the Historical Association in 1945 stated that:

"The idea that educated men at the time of Columbus believed that the earth was flat, and that this belief was one of the obstacles to be overcome by Columbus before he could get his project sanctioned, remains one of the hardiest errors in teaching." [2]

During the early Middle Ages, virtually all scholars maintained the spherical viewpoint first expressed by the Ancient Greeks. By the 14th century, belief in a flat earth among the educated was essentially dead.

However, among Medieval artists, depictions of a flat earth remained common.[citation needed] The exterior of the famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch is a Renaissance example in which a disc-shaped earth is shown floating inside a transparent sphere.[3]

According to Stephen Jay Gould, "there never was a period of 'flat earth darkness' among scholars (regardless of how the public at large may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the earth's roundness as an established fact of cosmology."[4]

Historians of science David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers point out that "there was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth's] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference".[5]

Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell says the flat earth error flourished most between 1870 and 1920, and had to do with the ideological setting created by struggles over evolution.[6] Russell claims "with extraordinary [sic] few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat," and credits histories by John William Draper, Andrew Dickson White, and Washington Irving for popularizing the flat-earth myth.[7]



In Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, Jeffrey Russell describes the Flat Earth theory as a fable used to impugn pre-modern civilization, especially that of the Middle Ages in Europe.[8]

James Hannam wrote:

The myth that people in the Middle Ages thought the earth is flat appears to date from the 17th century as part of the campaign by Protestants against Catholic teaching. But it gained currency in the 19th century, thanks to inaccurate histories such as John William Draper's History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White's History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Atheists and agnostics championed the conflict thesis for their own purpose ...[9]

Early modern period

French dramatist Cyrano de Bergerac in chapter 5 of his The Other World The Societies and Governments of the Moon (published 2 years posthumously in 1657) quotes St. Augustine as saying "that in his day and age the earth was as flat as a stove lid and that it floated on water like half of a sliced orange."[10] Robert Burton, in his The Anatomy of Melancholy[11] wrote:

Virgil, sometimes bishop of Saltburg (as Aventinus anno 745 relates) by Bonifacius bishop of Mentz was therefore called in question, because he held antipodes (which they made a doubt whether Christ died for) and so by that means took away the seat of hell, or so contracted it, that it could bear no proportion to heaven, and contradicted that opinion of Austin [St. Augustine], Basil, Lactantius that held the earth round as a trencher (whom Acosta and common experience more largely confute) but not as a ball.

Thus, there is evidence that accusations of flatearthism, though somewhat whimsical (Burton ends his digression with a legitimate quotation of St. Augustine: "Better doubt of things concealed, than to contend about uncertainties, where Abraham's bosom is, and hell fire"[11]) were used to discredit opposing authorities several centuries before the 19th.

Another early mention in literature is Ludvig Holberg's comedy Erasmus Montanus (1723). Erasmus Montanus meets considerable opposition when he claims the Earth is round, since all the peasants hold it to be flat. He is not allowed to marry his fiancée until he cries "The earth is flat as a pancake".

In Thomas Jefferson's book Notes on the State of Virginia (1784), framed as answers to a series of questions (queries), Jefferson uses the "Query" regarding religion to attack the idea of state-sponsored official religions. In the chapter, Jefferson relates a series of official erroneous beliefs about nature forced upon people by authority. One of these is the episode of Galileo's struggles with authority, which Jefferson erroneously frames in terms of the shape of the globe:[12]

Government is just as infallible too when it fixes systems in physics. Galileo was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, [type of flat tableware] and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error. This error however at length prevailed, the earth became a globe, and Descartes declared it was whirled round its axis by a vorteo [vortex]

19th century

Flat Earth map drawn by Orlando Ferguson in 1893. The map contains several references to biblical passages as well as various jabs at the "Globe Theory".

The 19th century was a period in which the perception of an antagonism between religion and science was especially strong. The disputes surrounding the Darwinian revolution contributed to the birth of the conflict thesis,[13] a view of history according to which any interaction between religion and science almost inevitably would lead to open hostility, with religion usually taking the part of the aggressor against new scientific ideas.[14]

Irving's biography of Columbus

In 1828, Washington Irving's highly romanticised biography, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus,[15] was published and mistaken by many for a scholarly work.[16] In Book III, Chapter II of this biography, Irving gave a largely fictional account of the meetings of a commission established by the Spanish sovereigns to examine Columbus's proposals. One of his more fanciful embellishments was a highly unlikely tale that the more ignorant and bigoted members on the commission had raised scriptural objections to Columbus's assertions that the Earth was spherical.[17]

But in reality, the issue in the 1490s was not the shape of the Earth, but its size, and the position of the east coast of Asia, as Irving in fact points out. Historical estimates from Ptolemy onwards placed the coast of Asia about 180° east of the Canary Islands.[18] Columbus adopted an earlier (and rejected) distance of 225°, added 28° (based on Marco Polo's travels), and then placed Japan another 30° further east. Starting from Cape St. Vincent in Portugal, Columbus made Eurasia stretch 283° to the east, leaving the Atlantic as only 77° wide. Since he planned to leave from the Canaries (9° further west), his trip to Japan would only have to cover 68° of longitude.[19]

Furthermore, Columbus mistakenly used a much shorter length for a degree (he substituted the shorter 1480 m Italian "mile" for the longer 2177 m Arabic "mile"), making his degree (and the circumference of the Earth) about 75% of what it really was.[20] The combined effect of these mistakes was that Columbus estimated the distance to Japan to be only about 5,000 km (or only to the eastern edge of the Caribbean) while the true figure is about 20,000 km. The Spanish scholars may not have known the exact distance to the east coast of Asia, but they certainly knew that it was significantly further than Columbus' projection; and this was the basis of the criticism in Spain and Portugal, whether academic or amongst mariners, of the proposed voyage.

The disputed point, therefore, was not the shape of the Earth, nor the idea that going west would eventually lead to Japan and China, but the ability of European ships to sail that far across open seas. The small ships of the day (Columbus' three ships varied between 20.5 and 23.5 m – or 67 to 77 feet – in length and carried about 90 men) simply could not carry enough food and water to reach Japan. In fact, the ships barely reached the eastern Caribbean islands. Already the crews were mutinous, not because of some fear of "sailing off the edge", but because they were running out of food and water with no chance of any new supplies within sailing distance. They were on the edge of starvation.[21] What saved Columbus, of course, was the unknown existence of the Americas precisely at the point he thought he would reach Japan. His ability to resupply with food and water from the Caribbean islands allowed him to return safely to Europe. Otherwise his crews would have died, and the ships foundered. The academics were right: it was not possible for a 1492 ship to sail west across open oceans directly to Japan; mariners would die long before their proposed arrival.

Letronne, Whewell and Flammarion

In 1834, a few years after the publication of Irving's book, Jean Antoine Letronne, a French academic of strong antireligious ideas, misrepresented the church fathers and their medieval successors as believing in a flat earth, in his On the Cosmographical Ideas of the Church Fathers.[22] Then, in 1837, the English philosopher of science William Whewell first identified, in his History of the Inductive Sciences, two minimally significant characters named Lactantius (245-325, also mocked by Copernicus' in De revolutionibus of 1543, as someone who speaks quite childishly about the Earth's shape, when he mocks those who declared that the Earth has the form of a globe) and Cosmas Indicopleustes, who wrote his "Christian Topography" in 547-549. Whewell pointed to them as evidence of a medieval belief in a Flat Earth, and other historians quickly followed him, although they could identify few other examples.[23]

The widely circulated engraving of a man poking his head through the firmament surrounding the Earth to view the Empyrean, executed in the style of the 16th century was published in Camille Flammarion's L'Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888, p. 163).[24] The engraving illustrates the statement in the text that a medieval missionary claimed that "he reached the horizon where the Earth and the heavens met". In its original form, the engraving included a decorative border that places it in the 19th century; in later publications, some claiming that the engraving did, in fact, date to the 16th century, the border was removed. Flammarion, according to anecdotal evidence, had commissioned the Flammarion engraving himself.

20th century

Since the early 20th century, a number of books and articles have been devoted to documenting the flat earth error as one of a number of widespread misconceptions in popular views of the Middle Ages. The misconception has had no currency in historical scholarship since at least 1920, but it persisted in popular culture and also in some school textbooks into the 1960s.

In spite of this, the popularized version of the misconception that people before the Age of Discovery believed that Earth was flat persisted in the popular imagination during the first half of the 20th century, and was repeated in some widely read textbooks.

An American schoolbook by Emma Miller Bolenius published in 1919 has this introduction to the suggested reading for Columbus Day (12 October):

When Columbus lived, people thought that the earth was flat. They believed the Atlantic Ocean to be filled with monsters large enough to devour their ships, and with fearful waterfalls over which their frail vessels would plunge to destruction. Columbus had to fight these foolish beliefs in order to get men to sail with him. He felt sure the earth was round.[25]

Previous editions of Thomas Bailey's The American Pageant stated that "The superstitious sailors [of Columbus' crew] ... grew increasingly mutinous...because they were fearful of sailing over the edge of the world"; however, no such historical account is known.[26]

The 1937 popular song, They All Laughed contains the couplet "They all laughed at Christopher Columbus/When he said the world was round". In Walt Disney's 1963 animation The Sword in the Stone, wizard Merlin (who has traveled into the future) explains to his apprentice that "One day they will discover that the earth is round".

Since the 1990s at least,[clarification needed] the misconception has been very widely recognized as such. Jeffrey Burton Russell published monographs on the topic in 1991 and 1997. Louise Bishop (2008) asserts that virtually every thinker and writer of the thousand-year medieval period affirmed the spherical shape of the earth.[27]

See also


  1. ^ Russell 1991, p. 3. See also Russell 1997.
  2. ^ Members of the Historical Association 1945, pp. 4–5 In this pamphlet the Historical Association listed "Columbus and the Flat Earth Conception" second of twenty in its first-published pamphlet on common errors in history.
  3. ^ Gombrich 1969, pp. 162–170
  4. ^ Gould 1997
  5. ^ Lindberg & Numbers 1986, pp. 338–354
  6. ^
  7. ^ Russell 1997.[page needed] See also Russell's book (Russell 1991).
  8. ^ Russell 1991.[page needed]
  9. ^ James Hannam. "Science Versus Christianity?".
  10. ^ The Other World The Societies and Governments of the Moon, translated by Donald Webb
  11. ^ a b Second Partition, Section 2, Member 3 "Air Rectified. With a Digression of the Air" The Anatomy of Melancholy
  12. ^ [1] Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826 . Notes on the State of Virginia, Query regarding RELIGION. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.
  13. ^ Gould 1996.
  14. ^ David B. Wilson writes about the development of the conflict thesis in "The Historiography of Science and Religion" (Wilson 2002).
  15. ^ Irving 1861
  16. ^ Russell 1991, pp. 51–56.
  17. ^ Irving, p.90.[citation needed]
  18. ^ Ptolemy, Geography, book 1:14.
  19. ^ Morison 1942, vol. 1, p. 65; Nunn & Edwards 1924, pp. 27-30.
  20. ^ Nunn & Edwards 1924, pp. 1-2, 27-30.
  21. ^ Morison 1942, pp. 209, 211.
  22. ^ Russell 1997.[page needed]
  23. ^ Gould 1997, p. 42
  24. ^ History_of_Science_Collections
  25. ^ Bolenius 1919 quoted in Garwood 2007.
  26. ^ Loewen 1996, p. 56.
  27. ^ Bishop 2008, p. 99.


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