The Flat Earth Myth The real myth is the idea that anyone ever believed in a flat earth

In the course of promoting my new book, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, I have made the point that major historians of science today no longer hold the simplistic position that "religion" has been nothing but an obstacle to "science." This contention doubtless comes as a surprise to some people, since most of us have gone through life hearing and being taught that very idea.

The standard view was given its classical expression by Andrew Dickson White (1832—1918) in his two-volume History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Yet it is safe to say that scarcely any serious historian of science today views White’s work as anything but quaintly risible. (That doesn’t stop hostile e-mail correspondents even now from dutifully quoting him to me, as if the past century’s revolution in our understanding of the history of science had never occurred.) And while the claim of Pierre Duhem and Stanley Jaki that certain Christian theological ideas were indispensable to the rise of Western science (see, for instance, Jaki’s discussion of inertial motion — and, indeed, his entire thesis — in Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe) has not become the dominant view, the opposite position — the one drilled into the heads of 99.9 percent of American students at all levels, from elementary school onward — has for all intents and purposes been abandoned.

This just can’t be true, say my critics. After all, didn’t the Church teach that the world was flat?

Actually, no. Essentially no one during the Middle Ages believed the world was flat. Of the many myths about the Middle Ages this one is perhaps the most widespread, and yet at the same time the most roundly and authoritatively debunked.

In fact, the evidence is so overwhelming that refuting this myth is like refuting the idea that the moon is made of cheese.

The two figures routinely cited by the myth peddlers are Lactantius (c. 245—325) and the early sixth-century Greek traveler and geographer Cosmas Indicopleustes. Lactantius was actually a Christian heretic who argued that God positively willed evil and who held a Manichaean worldview that posited Christ and Satan as equal but opposed creations of the one God. He believed that the pagan philosophers had no good arguments in favor of the earth as a sphere, and that since the Bible took no position one way or the other the issue was unimportant. At least some of his contrarianism in positing a flat earth can be attributed to his misplaced enthusiasm as an ex-pagan to contradict everything the pagans said. But he was in no way representative of the early Christian thinkers and his ideas appear to have had no influence.

Cosmas constructed an elaborate if peculiar model of the physical universe that portrayed the earth as flat. And even he did not intend his model to be taken as a literal description of how the cosmos was actually ordered. He thought of the physical universe in terms of an analogue to its spiritual meaning, rather in the way that Dante, much more elegantly, would later attempt in literature.

Cosmas’ contemporary John Philoponus (490—570) sharply criticized his work. Whatever Cosmas’ intentions, his great emphasis on physical detail certainly lent the impression that he aimed to construct an actual model of the cosmos. John Philoponus adopted the view of St. Augustine before him (and the view that would be expressed by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas after him) that Christians should refrain from making statements about the physical world that were at odds with reason, since they would only bring their faith into contempt and disrepute.

Some scholars actually used to argue that the views of Cosmas Indicopleustes were responsible for the alleged edge-of-the-earth fears of fifteenth-century navigators, even though Cosmas was completely unknown in the fifteenth century. There were no Latin manuscripts of Cosmas in the Middle Ages at all. The first translation of his work into Latin was not undertaken until 1706. It is quite safe to say that Cosmas had absolutely no influence on anyone.

The fact is that the earth’s sphericity was attested to by the overwhelming consensus of European Christian thinkers; the idea of a flat earth, to the extent it was raised at all, was positively ridiculed.

Most encyclopedias and reference works have mercifully deleted references to the flat earth from their discussions of Columbus, though they occasionally pop up even now, long after there could be any excuse for continuing to believe it. Textbooks, on the other hand, have been notoriously slow to correct the error, with the result that elementary, middle, and high school students are still being told (to quote one fifth-grade text) that at the time of Columbus "[m]any Europeans still believed that the world was flat. Columbus, they thought, would fall off the earth." A prominent college text explains that the earth’s sphericity, known to the ancient Greeks, was lost in the Middle Ages.

Even the occasional scholar of distinction can still be heard propagating the myth. John Huchra of the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute for Astrophysics is on record as saying that during the age of discovery "[s]ome thought the world might be flat and you could fall off the edge, but the explorers went out and found what was truly there." Even the highly respected historian Daniel Boorstin repeated the myth in his 1983 book The Discoverers, arguing that from 300 A.D. through at least 1300, "Christian faith and dogma suppressed the useful image of the world that had been so slowly, so painfully, and so scrupulously drawn by ancient geographers."

Andrew Dickson White, the fallen guru of the warfare-between-religion-and-science crowd, lent what prestige he had to the ludicrous falling-off-the-edge theory, which had no basis in fact whatsoever:

Many a bold navigator [wrote White], who was quite ready to brave pirates and tempests, trembled at the thought of tumbling with his ship into one of the openings into hell which a widespread belief placed in the Atlantic at some unknown distance from Europe. This terror among sailors was one of the main obstacles in the great voyage of Columbus.

David Lindberg, who is among the most accomplished modern historians of science, corrects the record:

In the usual story, theoretical dogma regarding a flat earth had to be overcome by empirical evidence for its sphericity. The truth is that the sphericity of the earth was a central feature of theoretical dogma as it came down to the Middle Ages — so central that no amount of contrary theoretical or empirical argumentation could conceivably have dislodged it.

European monarchs’ initial hesitation to support Columbus’s proposed expedition had nothing to do with the idea that the world was flat and Columbus might fall off the edge. It was precisely the accuracy of their knowledge of the earth that made them skeptical: they correctly concluded that Columbus had drastically underestimated the size of the earth, and that therefore he and his men would starve to death before they made it to the Indies. (Thankfully for them, of course, the Americas, which no one knew about, fortuitously appeared in between.)

The natural follow-up question to all this involves how the myth got started in the first place. It is only natural to look for its origins in the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, since a contempt for the medieval world could be found in both (though particularly in the latter). Yet the myth cannot be traced to either of these periods. Historian W.E.H. Lecky, a well-known nineteenth-century critic of the Catholic Church, was able as late as 1867 to discuss the views of Cosmas Indicopleustes without extrapolating from them to the idea that the Church fathers were flat earthers. The main criticism of men like Lecky and Charles Kingsley was that medieval scholasticism had been too much in thrall to the ideas of Aristotle. They couldn’t very well accuse churchmen of being flat earthers, therefore, since Aristotle’s position was that the earth was round.

The origins and story of the myth can be found in a useful little book (exclusive of notes and index, it is only 77 pages long) by Jeffrey Burton Russell called Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (New York: Praeger, 1991).

Russell identifies several versions of the myth. The most absurd, since it shows no acquaintance with ancient Greek knowledge at all, contends that no one believed the earth was spherical until the age of discovery proved it. Another version admits that the Greeks knew of the earth’s shape but alleges that this knowledge was lost, or perhaps deliberately suppressed during — you guessed it — the ignorant Middle Ages. Still another version has it that practically everyone, throughout all of history, believed that the earth was flat, with the exception of a few brilliant minds here and there like Aristotle and Ptolemy.

By Boorstin’s time, says Russell, the myth "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." When Andrew Dickson White repeated the myth in the late nineteenth century, he based his position (as we can see in his notes) not on the original sources, of which he was largely ignorant, but on secondary sources that peddled the myth themselves.

Russell identifies two nineteenth-century villains as the primary sources of the myth: the American writer Washington Irving and (more significant) the French historian and polemicist Antoine-Jean Letronne (1787—1848). Irving’s semi-historical, semi-fictional writing often blurred the distinction between fact and fiction, a distinction that was likewise unclear to his readers. Determined to portray Columbus as a romantic hero, Irving included in his History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828) a fictional account of a council that allegedly lectured Columbus with the theories of Lactantius. The heroic Columbus, of course, resolutely resisted this attempt to persuade him of all this medieval foolishness.

As for Letronne, he received much of his academic training from men who propagated the standard Enlightenment canard about the ignorance of the Middle Ages. Although he conceded that a few theologians knew the earth was a sphere, Letronne put forth the idea that the vast bulk were foolish believers in a flat earth. The idea of the flat earth, he said, was the dominant one in Europe until the time of Columbus.

Uncritical acceptance of the myth was too tempting for many scholars, since it fit in so well with the caricature of Christianity they were already inclined to draw. "If Christians had for centuries insisted that the earth was flat against clear and available evidence," explains Russell, "they must be not only enemies of scientific truth, but contemptible and pitiful enemies."

The crime of the alleged believers in a flat earth was that they adopted a position on a matter of fact that was entirely contrary to the available evidence. Could not the same criticism be aimed at those who have argued, against all the textual evidence to the contrary, that Christians believed in a flat earth?