Studies in the History of Science
The Myth of the Flat Earth
Jeffrey Burton Russell
A paper by Jeffrey Burton Russell for the American Scientific Affiliation Annual Meeting August 4, 1997 at Westmont College summarizing his book Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (1997) pb.
How does investigating the myth of the flat earth help teachers of the history of science?
First, as a historian, I have to admit that it tells us something about the precariousness of history. History is precarious for three reasons: the good reason that it is extraordinarily difficult to determine "what really happened" in any series of events; the bad reason that historical scholarship is often sloppy; and the appalling reason that far too much historical scholarship consists of contorting the evidence to fit ideological models. The worst examples of such contortions are the Nazi and Communist histories of the early- and mid-twentieth century.
Contortions that are common today, if not widely recognized, are produced by the incessant attacks on Christianity and religion in general by secular writers during the past century and a half, attacks that are largely responsible for the academic and journalistic sneers at Christianity today.
A curious example of this mistreatment of the past for the purpose of slandering Christians is a widespread historical error, an error that the Historical Society of Britain some years back listed as number one in its short compendium of the ten most common historical illusions. It is the notion that people used to believe that the earth was flat--especially medieval Christians.
It must first be reiterated that with extraordinary few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat. A round earth appears at least as early as the sixth century BC with Pythagoras, who was followed by Aristotle, Euclid, and Aristarchus, among others in observing that the earth was a sphere. Although there were a few dissenters--Leukippos and Demokritos for example--by the time of Eratosthenes (3 c. BC), followed by Crates(2 c. BC), Strabo (3 c. BC), and Ptolemy (first c. AD), the sphericity of the earth was accepted by all educated Greeks and Romans.
Nor did this situation change with the advent of Christianity. A fewˇat least two and at most five--early Christian fathers denied the spherically of earth by mistakenly taking passages such as Ps. 104:2-3 as geographical rather than metaphorical statements. On the other side tens of thousands of Christian theologians, poets, artists, and scientists took the spherical view throughout the early, medieval, and modern church. The point is that no educated person believed otherwise.
Historians of science have been proving this point for at least 70 years (most recently Edward Grant, David Lindberg, Daniel Woodward, and Robert S. Westman), without making notable headway against the error. Schoolchildren in the US, Europe, and Japan are for the most part being taught the same old nonsense. How and why did this nonsense emerge?
In my research, I looked to see how old the idea was that medieval Christians believed the earth was flat. I obviously did not find it among medieval Christians. Nor among anti-Catholic Protestant reformers. Nor in Copernicus or Galileo or their followers, who had to demonstrate the superiority of a heliocentric system, but not of a spherical earth. I was sure I would find it among the eighteenth-century philosophers, among all their vitriolic sneers at Christianity, but not a word.
I am still amazed at where it first appears. No one before the 1830s believed that medieval people thought that the earth was flat. The idea was established, almost contemporaneously, by a Frenchman and an American, between whom I have not been able to establish a connection, though they were both in Paris at the same time. One was Antoine-Jean Letronne (1787-1848), an academic of strong antireligious prejudices who had studied both geography and patristics and who cleverly drew upon both to misrepresent the church fathers and their medieval successors as believing in a flat earth, in his On the Cosmographical Ideas of the Church Fathers (1834).
The American was no other than our beloved storyteller Washington Irving (1783-1859), who loved to write historical fiction under the guise of history. His misrepresentations of the history of early New York City and of the life of Washington were topped by his history of Christopher Columbus (1828). It was he who invented the indelible picture of the young Columbus, a "simple mariner," appearing before a dark crowd of benighted inquisitors and hooded theologians at a council of Salamanca, all of whom believed, according to Irving, that the earth was flat like a plate. Well, yes, there was a meeting at Salamanca in 1491, but Irving's version of it, to quote a distinguished modern historian of Columbus, was "pure moonshine. Washington Irving, scenting his opportunity for a picturesque and moving scene," created a fictitious account of this "nonexistent university council" and "let his imagination go completely...the whole story is misleading and mischievous nonsense."
But now, why did the false accounts of Letronne and Irving become melded and then, as early as the 1860s, begin to be served up in schools and in schoolbooks as the solemn truth? The answer is that the falsehood about the spherical earth became a colorful and unforgettable part of a larger falsehood: the falsehood of the eternal war between science (good) and religion (bad) throughout Western history.
This vast web of falsehood was invented and propagated by the influential historian John Draper (1811-1882) and many prestigious followers, such as Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), the president of Cornell University, who made sure that the false account was perpetrated in texts, encyclopedias, and even allegedly serious scholarship, down to the present day. A lively current version of the lie can be found in Daniel Boorstin's The Discoverers, found in any bookshop or library.
The reason for promoting both the specific lie about the sphericity of the earth and the general lie that religion and science are in natural and eternal conflict in Western society, is to defend Darwinism. The answer is really only slightly more complicated than that bald statement. The flat-earth lie was ammunition against the creationists. The argument was simple and powerful, if not elegant: "Look how stupid these Christians are. They are always getting in the way of science and progress. These people who deny evolution today are exactly the same sort of people as those idiots who for at least a thousand years denied that the earth was round. How stupid can you get?"
But that is not the truth.
Jeffrey Burton Russell is Professor of History, Emeritus, at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Besides UCSB, he has taught History and Religious Studies at Berkeley, Riverside, Harvard, New Mexico, and Notre Dame. He has published seventeen books and many articles, most of them in his special field, history of theology. He is most noted for his five-volume history of the concept of the Devil, published by Cornell University Press between 1977 and 1988. He would prefer to be most noted for two more recent books, Inventing the Flat Earth (1991, 1997), which shows how nineteenth-century anti-Christians invented and spread the falsehood that educated people in the Middle Ages believed that the earth was flat, and A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence, Princeton University Press (1997), a study of the history and meaning of heaven in Christian thought from the beginnings to the time of Dante.