The Myth of the Flat Earth Myth

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by Neil Godfrey

The idea that the earth was flat was never part of medieval Christian doctrine.

Men and women of any education around AD1000 were perfectly well aware that the earth was a sphere.

I never knew that till I read God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam. The only thing I know about James Hannam is from the dust jacket blurb that says he is a graduate of both Oxford and Cambridge where he gained a PhD in the history of science, and that he has written a very interesting book.

So where did the idea that medieval folk believed the earth was flat come from?

James Hannan attributes this understanding to Sir Francis Bacon:

The myth that a flat earth was part of Christian doctrine in the Middle Ages appears to have arisen with Sir Francis Bacon (1562-1626), who wrongly claimed that geographers had been put on trial for impiety after asserting the contrary. (Hannam’s citation for this is John Henry, Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision Inspired Francis Bacon to Create Modern Science, 2003. p.85)

Hannan does add that “there were a few authentic flat-earthers in antiquity, but none among the scholars of the Middle Ages proper.”

So why have some historians fallen for the idea of the flat earth idea?

One of the main reasons that some historians have previously fallen for the flat earth idea is because of the existence of mappae mundi (Latin for ‘maps of the world’) like the famous example at Hereford Cathedral.

Hannan illustrates with the map depicted here. Known as the T-O map, the O represents the ocean that encircles the inhabitable landmass, while the T represents the Mediterranean Sea, the River Nile and either the River Volga or Don. This T sea/river pattern split the landmass into the continents of Europe, Africa and Asia. Jerusalem was usually placed near the centre.

It is easy to assume from such a map that those who drew it thought the earth was flat. But in fact the map was only intended to show the area of the earth that is inhabited.

Francis Bacon, From a Painting
Image via Wikipedia
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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “The Myth of the Flat Earth Myth”

  1. My memory, therefore suspect, was that Columbus ‘sailed the ocean blue’ westwards to get to the East Indies and Japan etc because he knew that the earth was a sphere but erred in the distance needed to do so.
    The reason he thought he had arrived in the ‘east’, when actually he had only travelled a short distance westwards to waht later became known as the Americas, was that the maps of the time severely underestimated the circumference of the spherical globe.
    They knew the earth was a sphere but simply thought it was smaller than it actually is.
    In educated circles at the time the earth as a sphere was orthodox knowledge albeit flawed as to the actual dimensions.

  2. The irony is that, as Hannan writes (p. 36), “Gerbert and his contemporaries (ca AD 1000) evidently also knew the approximate size of the earth, as a figure for its circumference of 29,000 miles appears in Latin sources.” (He cites Pliny the Elder and says the precise figure depends on the exact interpretation of a stade.)

    Further, “Columbus’s conjectures received support from Pierre D’Ailly’s Picture of the World (ca. 1410)” and that though D’Ailly wrote that only a small sea lay between Spain and the Far East that should be “navigable in a few days”, he also used Ptolemy’s figure for the circumference of the earth, 21,000 miles. (p. 204)

    Columbus was convinced that Asia was only 2,500 miles from the west coast of Spain. “He must have reached this figure by taking the largest possible figure for the length of Asia and combining it with the smallest for the earth’s circumference.” (p. 204)

    And since he found land “in the Caribbean exactly where he expected to find the East Indies,” we went to his grave convinced his mission had been a success. (p. 205)

    Hannan remarks that the fears of his crew had more to do with the possibility of sailing off forever and dying of thirst, starvation and disease than thinking they would fall off the edge.

  3. Aristarchus and Eratosthenes may shed a lot here. Aristotle (obiously) as well.

    Treatises aren’t theories and one treatise may well have held sway with thinking to the ignorance of theories.

    In this case, the entire theory of the spherical earth just may have not have jelled enough to make the then modern people accept it.

    All one needed was a cranky clergy and back to eden…so to speak!

  4. JW:
    You messing with us Neil? The only information you give above in referencing Hannam that would qualify as evidence is:

    “The myth that a flat earth was part of Christian doctrine in the Middle Ages appears to have arisen with Sir Francis Bacon (1562-1626), who wrongly claimed that geographers had been put on trial for impiety after asserting the contrary.”

    Bacon’s claim by itself is evidence against Hannam’s conclusion and Hannam has not provided any evidence for his conclusion (just speculation). The invoking above of Columbus is amusing as the only important direction he followed was “away”, as in away from the Church. The Inquisition of 1492 ironically brought Europe out of the Darkness of the Church as it forced scientific talent to congregate in Italy and restore scientific progress to Europe.

    Seriously Neil, what EVIDENCE does Hannam cite that the Middle Age Church did not think the earth was flat? Note that I’m not saying they did. Good evidence would be reliable quotes from Church representatives for that period. If we don’t have that than we can not be sure, can we?

    If Hannam’s best related evidence is speculation about a Map than he hasn’t proven —-.


    1. Sometimes I just like to do a quickie byte of an odd bit of data.

      His book is a history of science through the Middle Ages up to Galileo, and while the church does not emerge very pretty, it is not as totally black as has been portrayed by the Renaissance folk and since. The church allowed quite a bit, so long as the clerics (who were the scientists also) played the game. Galileo, Hannam demonstrates pretty thoroughly, was drawing on the thought and findings of the Middle Ages. Hannam also traces the way, why and when the medieval period was portrayed as “dark” — despite the scientific developments. (It brought back memories of my own studies way back of the 12th century renaissance, but Hannam goes way beyond that.) The bizarre thing Hannam shows is the way the Renaissance era actually buried a lot of the good stuff produced in the earlier times that had advanced beyond Aristotle and went backwards to Aristotelian ideas.

      You might be interested in a couple of other commentaries:



      http://jameshannam.com/ — go to the “Reviews” link on this page. (okay, okay, I know it’s the author’s own site.)

      I’ve been thinking of doing more posts from Hannam’s book. But you’ll probably be able to read it in a bookshop before I get around to that. If I find the time I’ll try to cough up more details from Hannam.

      Meanwhile I’d be interested if there are any reviews or publications that trounce Hannam’s depiction of the church as bad but not as all-out devilish as we’ve come to think.

    2. “Seriously Neil, what EVIDENCE does Hannam cite that the Middle Age Church did not think the earth was flat?”

      Are you suggesting that if we can’t prove they didn’t believe it, then we must assume that they did believe it?

      1. I don’t have Hannam’s book with me at the moment but I do see that it is available online (if legally online I don’t know). A paperback version is available at Amazon for $6.

        Garwood (my most recent post on flat earth) in chapter one has a pretty good argument that the modern view of the church being anti-science and entrenched biblical literalists throughout the Middle Ages is the result of an ardent anti-church campaign by rationalists in the wake of the Enlightenment era. I don’t mind the principle of bashing the church but it does seem “we” went a bit too far at times and faulted them for a wee bit too much.

        Maybe I could do some posts one day setting out some of the more interesting evidence that has been lost to view nowadays. But I’m beginning to think my “to post about” list is growing longer than a normal human life-span.

        Meanwhile don’t forget Aristotle. Aristotle was God in the days of the Church’s supremacy and he certainly explained the globularity of the earth.

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