The Flat Earth Myth
That Medieval Europe believed the Earth to be flat is one of those myths created in the 17th century by some Protestants to attack the Catholic Church for their own purposes, a series of untruths which historians have recognized as a concerted effort and now collectively call “The Black Legend”.
The idea behind the invention of this “Myth of the Flat Earth” was that the Medieval Church was so backward in Her beliefs as to uphold a clearly absurd theory.
I remember reading many years ago a kind of comic strip in Italian (probably translated from English) which repeated the notion that Christopher Columbus was advised against attempting his voyage west across the Atlantic by his contemporaries who thought that he would sail off the edge of the Earth, given its reputed flatness. At the time I found this extraordinary, I’d never heard of any such thing.
Wikipedia informs me that, apparently, Robert McKimson’s cartoon Hare We Go (1951), featuring Bugs Bunny, begins with a scene in which Christopher Columbus discusses the shape of the Earth with the King of Spain who claims that it is flat.
When, later, I heard the very famous Frank Sinatra’s song They All Laughed, whose lyrics say:
They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round,
I even started doubting whether what they taught me, i.e. that no-one was trying to dissuade Columbus on the basis of the belief in a flat earth, was true.
That is the power of lies, when you hear them often enough.
Even recently, on a serious news and political website I read an article which was actually good in every other respect, supporting this false story. So, it looks like it’s still alive.
In Europe, scholars have known the Earth is spherical since between 500 and 600 B.C., the century of the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, whose school was based in Crotone, in the Southern Italian region of Calabria, then part of Magna Graecia, inhabited by settlers from classical Greece.
Some historians attribute to the great mathematician Pythagoras this discovery, others to another pre-Socratic, Parmenides. What is established is that the ancient Greeks knew that the Earth was a sphere, as Aristotle (384-322 BC), the greatest philosopher in history, wrote that the Earth’s sphericity can be seen during a lunar eclipse, from the circular shadow cast on the Moon: and, since it is the interposition of the Earth that makes the eclipse, the form of this outline will be caused by the form of the Earth’s surface, which is therefore spherical.
In the third century BC, Hellenistic (late Greek) astronomy further confirmed empirically the spherical shape of the Earth, and this paradigm was gradually adopted in Europe throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The 1519-1522 circumnavigation expedition of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and Spanish navigator Juan Sebastián Elcano provided more evidence in its support.
So, why and who created and spread the fantasy of European belief in flat Earth?
Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell dates the flat-Earth myth to the 1870-1920 period and gives the names of the people responsible for its propagation. It was the strange co-operation of 3 authors at different times: chiefly Washington Irving, John William Draper, and Andrew Dickson White. They were trying to give support to their theory that there was a long-lasting and essential conflict between science and religion.
Washington Irving, who in 1828 published A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, recounted an imaginary debate between Columbus and the flat-earthers. Followed in 1874 the amateur historian J.W. Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, in which people of the Middle Ages are depicted as flat-earthers and therefore opponents of science, and in 1896 A.D. White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.
The writer James Hannam, who took a Physics degree at Oxford and read a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge, author of the book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, explains that, far from there being a conflict between science and Christianity, the latter is what has given impulse to the former. This is by now a well-known fact, sustained by plenty of historical and philosophical scholarship.
Going back to Christopher Columbus, his search for support for his voyages found an obstacle not in a flat Earth belief but in very well-founded fears about the uncertainties of such long-distance travel by sea, particularly in those days and without knowing how far the East Indies, which were the destination he was trying to reach via a new route, were located.
In reality, Columbus had indeed underestimated that distance and the Earth’s circumference. Luckily what was to be called America after Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci, an unknown continent, was there.