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flat-earthColumbus Day is a good opportunity to dispense with a popular myth. Thomas Woods has a nice overview about the myth here.

A more in-depth look can be found in the book, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians.

Update: Fred Sanders’s comment below is worth posting here:

A little exposure to actual medieval thought, through primary text rather than commentary, blows the flat earth myth away. On page 1 of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (that is, in the first article of the first question of the first part), he casually mentions the round earth on the way to proving something doctrinal: “the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e., abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself.” Thomas died in 1274. Dante’s whole Divine Comedy only works with a round earth; Dante died in 1320.

Sophomores in the Torrey Honors Institute here at Biola read that stuff, and two lines of original text melt away years of commentary and propaganda.


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12 thoughts on “Myth-Busters: Essentially No One in the Middle Ages Believed the Earth Was Flat”

  1. Fred Sanders says:

    Justin,
    A little exposure to actual medieval thought, through primary text rather than commentary, blows the flat earth myth away. On page 1 of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (that is, in the first article of the first question of the first part), he casually mentions the round earth on the way to proving something doctrinal: “the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself.” Thomas died in 1274. Dante’s whole Divine Comedy only works with a round earth; Dante died 1320.

    Sophomores in the Torrey Honors Institute here at Biola read that stuff, and two lines of original text melt away years of commentary and propaganda.

  2. Aaron says:

    One interesting related issue is how scientifically naive peoples on earth have by default viewed the sky as a solid inverted bowl touching the earth on the horizon:

    “[S]cientifically naive peoples employed their concept of a solid sky in their mythology, but that they nevertheless thought of the solid sky as an integral part of their physical universe. And it is precisely because ancient peoples were scientifically naive that they did not distinguish between the appearance of the sky and their scientific concept of the sky. They had no reason to doubt what their eyes told them was true, namely, that the stars above them were fixed in a solid dome and that the sky literally touched the earth at the horizon. So, they equated appearance with reality and concluded that the sky must be a solid physical part of the universe just as much as the earth itself…

    “[N]aive peoples around the world from the Pacific Islands to North America, from Siberia to Africa, have perceived the sky as a solid inverted bowl touching the earth at the horizon. Nor is this common conception of a firmament merely myth, metaphor, or phenomenal language. It is an integral part of their scientific view of the universe. It is within the context of geography, astronomy, and natural science that they really believe that if they would travel far enough they could ‘touch the sky with one’s fingers,’ that migrating birds live ‘on the other side of the celestial vault,’ that an arrow or lance could ‘fasten in the sky,’ that the sky can have ‘a hole in it,’ that at the horizon ‘the dome of the sky is too close to earth to permit navigation,’ that where the sky touches the earth you can ‘lean a pestle against it’ or ‘climb up it,’ that the sky is ‘smooth and hard. . . of solid rock, . . . as thick as a house,’ that the sky can ‘fall down’ and someday ‘will fall down crushing the earth.’

    “Equally important, this perception of the firmament is not selective. It is almost completely universal. True, there are occasional variations on the solid dome conception, such as several worlds piled up on top of each other, each with its own firmament; but I know of no evidence that any scientifically naive people anywhere on earth believed that the firmament was just empty space or atmosphere. The only exception to this is the Chinese and that not until AD 200. Apart from a scientific education, it is just too natural for people to think of the sky as something solid. So true is this that it is generally regarded by scholars as ‘the usual primitive conception.’ One scholar goes so far as to call it ‘a general human belief.'” (P.H. Seely, Link)

  3. Ted says:

    A few years ago I was reading a missional Leaders Network book entitled “Tangible Kingdom.” While the book had some good stuff in it one entire chapter was based on how prior to Columbus everyone thought the world was flat. I emailed them to let them know, just in case they found themselves teaching in a setting in which they would use this material.

    I was surprised though that this old myth could still make it into print and Christian authors would write a whole chapter based on the premise without doing the research (which would have consisted of five minutes on Wikipedia) to see this is false.

  4. Tim says:

    What Aquinas and Dante knew is a poor indicator of what average laypersons or poorly-educated parish priests, or even nobility. It is only evidence of what the intellectual classes believed.

  5. Peter Eddy says:

    Being a young earther, it would be nice if the Copernican Revolution hadn’t been necessary. Want to demytholigize that one? ;)

    Thanks for the tip that “the earth is flat” argument against the Church’s historical impact on science is bogus.

  6. threegirldad says:

    In Book I of the Almagest, which predates Summa Theologiae by over 1000 years, Ptolemy states plainly that the earth is a sphere.

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  8. It’s my understanding that medieval thinkers believed the earth was both round and flat, sort of like a present-day CD, or like the map disk in the photo above.

  9. Jason Engwer says:

    Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century A.D., comments that belief in a spherical earth was the common view of his day (The Natural History, 2:2). He explains why anybody should be able to discern the spherical shape of the earth without difficulty.

    People would have been able to have seen the moon or other objects in the heavens from different angles. They could assume that the earth would be round like other objects in the sky. They would have seen shadows on the moon, such as the earth’s rounded shadow during an eclipse. They would have been able to distinguish between a flat disc and a sphere. The earth’s horizon would also have suggested a sphere more than a flat disc or cube, for example.

    Athenagoras, a Christian of the second century, repeatedly refers to the earth as spherical (A Plea For The Christians, 8, 16). About two centuries later, Basil of Caesarea wrote:

    “Those who have written about the nature of the universe have discussed at length the shape of the earth. If it be spherical or cylindrical, if it resemble a disc and is equally rounded in all parts, or if it has the forth of a winnowing basket and is hollow in the middle; all these conjectures have been suggested by cosmographers, each one upsetting that of his predecessor. It will not lead me to give less importance to the creation of the universe, that the servant of God, Moses, is silent as to shapes; he has not said that the earth is a hundred and eighty thousand furlongs in circumference; he has not measured into what extent of air its shadow projects itself whilst the sun revolves around it, nor stated how this shadow, casting itself upon the moon, produces eclipses. He has passed over in silence, as useless, all that is unimportant for us.” (The Hexaemeron, 9:1)

    Christians held a variety of views. Some said the earth was spherical, some said it was some other shape, and some professed agnosticism on the subject.

  10. Cyr says:

    Not only did they not think the eart was flat … they also had a heliocentric view of the universe. The main introductory monastic textbook for the liberal arts for the entire middle ages was “The Marriage of Mercury and Philology” by Martianus Capella (a pagan). Copernicus himself will cite this textbook as a source for his theory. The Benedictine’s relied on this textbook more than any other and thus we know they were at least exposed to the idea, and it seems hard to understand why they would have rejected their foundational educational document’s hypothesis.

  11. Thanks to Jason Engwer for the information from ancient and early medieval authors–very illuminating. From an astronomical and historical standpoint, I will take issue with a couple of points, however. Although viewers from Earth see the moon at different stages, we always see exactly the same hemisphere, so earthbound viewers would more readily suppose a flat, round moon than a spherical one. As for other heavenly bodies (Jupiter, say, with its distinctive red spot), medieval viewers would have seen them only as pinpoints of light before telescopes revolutionized astronomy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

    Several of the ancient Greeks, of course, deduced a round earth based on such earthbound observations as objects on the horizon and the angle of shadows cast by the sun. Until about the time of the so-called Renaissance, however, many Europeans had forgotten those findings.

  12. On the topic of busting the myths of anti-Christian propoganda, I’d highly recommend Philip Sampson’s book 6 Modern Myths About Christianity and Western Civilization. Specifically, he addresses (1) Galileo, (2) Darwin, (3) the Environment, (4) Missionaries, (5) the Human Body and sexuality, and (6) the Witch Trials.

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Justin Taylor, PhD


Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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