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The Flat Earth Myth

July 18th, 2007 by Matt

A few days ago I got sent the following message 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 Joy~

This was in response to a comment I made online, I had I criticised the popular claim that prior to the time of Columbus, the Church taught the world was flat. In another post on this blog I have criticised Victoria University for making a similar claim as part of it’s advertising campaigns.

For our overseas visitors, last year Victoria University had a slick advertising campaign where it is stated that in the 14th century most people believed the world was flat. It then showed a picture of a boat sailing across the sea only to fall over the side of the earth.

We have all heard the story behind this; prior to Columbus, the Church and it’s 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.

Katie is correct; they do teach this in high school text books. I was taught it repeatedly at primary and high school. In fact not too long ago Pretence Hall published claims to this effect in a middle school textbook Prentice Hall Earth Science. I have heard the story repeated ad nauseam. Normally when I contest it’s veracity I get an incredulous stare (as if I were, in fact, asserting that the earth was flat) “Come on Matt, everyone knows this story is true, didn’t you learn this at school?”

Well, yes I did learn it but I also took the time to research the history of theology when I was at university. What they don’t tell you in high school is that this claim is false. 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, he summarises his findings here. However, the same thing is uttered in many studies on medieval science. For example, Edward Grant in his work notes that “there is no mention of a flat earth in any medieval writings, except for a few references to refute it.”

Even Wikipedia, not known for its ability to rise above popular anti-religious prejudice, concedes,

Today essentially all professional medievalists agree with Russell that the “medieval flat Earth” is a nineteenth-century fabrication, and that the few verifiable “flat Earthers” were the exception.

Interestingly, Wikipedia does not point to a medieval scholar who was one of these “verifiable “flat earthers” and its section on the Middle ages ends with the following conclusion.

A recent study of medieval concepts of the sphericity of the Earth noted that “since the eighth century, no cosmographer worthy of note has called into question the sphericity of the Earth. Of course it was probably not the few noted intellectuals who defined public opinion. It is difficult to tell what the wider population may have thought of the shape of the Earth – if they considered the question at all.

Yes, what the school textbooks teach is wrong. In fact the kinds of textbooks Katie mentions have been subject to scathing criticism in the literature. Lawrence S. Lerner a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at California State and director of The Textbook League University and a member of the panel that wrote the 1990 framework for science education in California’s public schools criticised Pretence Halls text denouncing it as “ignorant fakery.” He goes on state,

The flat-Earth story quickly became a popular piece of pseudo historical folklore, and it remains popular today among people who have had little education. These evidently include the people who produce “science” books for Prentice Hall.” [we kiwis can add that it includes the advertising staff at Victoria university]

The facts are very different. Here are just a few: during the so called dark ages Boethius (480-525) in the Consolidation of Philosophy cited a well known and accepted ancient Greek cosmological model which affirmed the sphericity of the earth. Isidore of Serville, (560-636) published in the Etymologies, affirmed a round earth. Bede (672-735) in his, The Reckoning of Time, taught the earth is round; as did Rabanus Marcus in the ninth century.

The late middle ages are no different. Hemannus Contractus (1013-155), in fact, 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 in 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.

In fact, medieval textbooks taught the world was round. 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 thirteenth century both taught that the world was round.

When I began studying philosophy and theology at University I was literally shocked to discover this. One of the reasons I despise public schools is because they repeated lied to me about things like this. This is not the first or only instance where I was fed false propaganda about Christianity at high school. I could document several other instances; the flat earth story will suffice for now. The point is that state institutions affirm falsehoods about the history of religion and teach propaganda for history.

The fact that a state University, like Victoria, should perpetuate discredited slander as part of its advertising campaign to obtain higher learning about the arts is appalling. One would have thought this institution imparts knowledge, not fraudulent anti-Christian propaganda.

RELATED POSTS:
The “Dark Ages” and Other Propaganda
More on the “Dark Ages” and Other Propaganda
Things They Don’t Teach you in Public Schools…
Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth Myth
Guest Post: Dan Brown’s History of Science

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2 responses so far ↓

  • Hi there,
    I’m the news editor at Vic’s student magazine Salient, and think it’s pretty interesting that our University’s advertising is factually incorrect. Please contact me laura@salient.org.nz if you would be interested in giving me more information for a story.
    Laura

  • I think it is appalling that one of our universities would promote itself as a place to expand your education and increase your knowledge by pushing this factually false line!

    Outrageous!

    PS. I was taught this at school too and believed it hook, line and sinker until I read your references – undeniably an urban myth! Thanks for debunking it – looking forward to reading more.