Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Flat Earth Myth

A medieval history message board recently pondered the matter of the Flat Earth myth, wondering how much information the ancients and medieval men had, as well as where the myth started. Contrary to today's popular opinion, medieval man, both educated and common, understood that the earth was round and had no cause to think otherwise. The ancient Greeks had determined the shape of the earth, and in 200 B.C. using their understanding of mathematics calculated the circumference of the earth at the equator to be about 24,500 miles. The Greek calculation also understood that one longitude degree was equal to about 70 nautical miles (very close to the actual number of 71 miles). Throughout the ancient world, and medieval times which continued the ancients' classical understanding, the circle and sphere held symbolic spiritual significance in the idea of perfection. Aristotle's cosmology included circles and spheres, and to medieval man it was quite natural that the earth, like those heavenly bodies, was also a sphere.

Scholarly history books also state the truth, as for instance Edward Grant's 'Physical Science in the Middle Ages,' which states:
"Contrary to popular contemporary misconception that prior to the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus the earth was thought to be flat, no flat-earthers of any consequence are known in the Latin West. Aristotle's arguments for a spherical earth were so reasonable and sound that its truth was readily accepted."

Literature from the medieval period also reflects this thinking. Dante, one of the most popular authors of the time, described the accepted cosmology in his works, in which the Earth is a sphere. Yet today many public school textbooks, and thus the adults taught the myth, readily accept that common Europeans believed the earth was flat, and that the shape of the earth was some great controversial thing when Columbus "dared" to sail west. But consider the actual written records from Columbus' day. The logs and other records indicate that the common sailors were greatly concerned about how far away they were from land and the uncertainty of it all, wondering if they would run out of provisions; sea-faring was hazardous enough in those days, and it was always best to stick to known routes close to familiar landmarks. No mention is made of the fear of falling off the earth, and sailors were among the lower, less-educated social class.

For Columbus' voyage, the distance involved was the real issue. The ancient Greek calculation of 70 miles per longitude degree meant that India and Asia were extremely far west. Columbus had tried his own hand at the math, declaring that instead each longitude degree was only 50 miles, but he was laughed at and rejected by the expert sea-farers of the day, the Portugese, who knew their math and distances. Spain's rulers, in an up and coming kingdom but with less experience, were more willing to accept Columbus' calculations, and in good Providence -- because there happened to be another continent in the middle -- the gamble actually paid off in the long run.

Since both science and popular literature of the time affirmed the classical cosmology of the day, who were the "many Europeans" (we always hear about) who believed the Earth was flat? As another blogger points out in "No Wonder There Are Uproars About Textbooks," the "many Europeans" must have been some unreached circumpolar people or pagans in the hills of Ireland or Lithuania. But medieval people lived in a community, interacting with each other and with their educated Lords and knights, and well enough understood their own culture if not their own science.

So where did the flat earth myth originate? It started in the early-to-mid nineteenth century, primarily due to Darwin evolutionists eager to find (or invent) reasons to discredit the Church and traditional Christian authority. After all, if you can get people to believe that, in those previous, oppressive days of the Catholic Church (the Middle Ages) the people were so ignorant and believed the world was flat, then you can also convince them that the Church and its followers are also wrong about other traditional views of the Bible -- in this case, special creation by God instead of evolution. The idea was first introduced in a fictional context, with Washington Irving's 'History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus' (1828). In this account, flat-earth churchmen oppose Columbus, saying he would fall off the edge of the earth if he tried to sail west. After Darwin published his 'On the Origin of Species' in 1859, two of his followers presented this flat-earth myth as actual history, in books that upheld Darwin against those "ignorant Christians": John Draper's 'The History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science' (1874), and Andrew Dickson White's 'A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom' (1896). The trend has continued ever since, and this false history is perpetuated in text books to this day.

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