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.

Friday, January 25, 2008

January 25 in Medieval History: A Medieval Feast Day

January 25 was designated St. Paul's Day by the Catholic Church in the early Medieval period. The day was noted in calendars and observed starting in the 8th and 9th centuries, and noted as "a holiday of obligations" in most churches. Later medieval records also mention it, including the council of Oxford in 1222, during the time of Henry III.

January 25 was also associated with the same weather custom as our Groundhog's Day. Instead of predicting on February 2 when spring will come, they forecast the whole year based on this day a week earlier. They didn't use a groundhog, but it was said that if January 25 was a fair weather day, the year would be prosperous. However, if the day was snowy or rainy, look ahead to an unfruitful year. Clouds on that day foretold great losses of cattle, and winds predicted war.

From Chambers' Book of Days comes this English translated poem for St. Paul's Day:

If St. Paul's day be fair and clear,
lt does betide a happy year;
But if it chance to snow or rain,
Then will be dear all kind of grain;
If clouds or mists do dark the skie,
Great store of birds and beasts shall die;
And if the winds do flie aloft,
Then war shall vexe the kingdome oft.'

Some other interesting things that happened on January 25:
1327 -- King Edward II of England was deposed on this day. His son, Edward III, was still a boy but took charge about three years later, ousting his mother and executing her lover, Roger Mortimer, who had been responsible for Edward II's subsequent murder.

1503 -- A royal marriage took place in England, as Princess Margaret, daughter of Henry VII, married King James IV of Scotland. She was only thirteen at the time, and the groom was not actually there, it being a marriage by proxy only. (The wedding was observed in Edinburgh on August 8, 1503.) Margaret, older sister of Henry VIII, became the grandmother of Mary, Queen of Scots, and great-grandmother of King James I of England.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Disappearance of Arthur of Brittany

Another medieval mysterious death involves not an actual monarch, but a would-be king who had a strong claim to the throne: Arthur, Duke of Brittany (1187 - 1203).

Richard I succeeded his father Henry II, as the eldest living son, in 1189. During the next ten years Richard married Berengaria of Navarre, but spent little time with her as he was more interested in fighting a Crusade in the Holy Land. At Richard's death in 1199, the two possible claimants to the throne were his younger brother John, and his nephew, Arthur son of the late Geoffrey Plantagenet. According to the primogeniture established later in the Plantagenet dynasty, Arthur had the stronger claim, as he was the son of an elder brother, Geoffrey coming after Richard but before John. But at this time such rules of succession had not been established, and though during his reign Richard designated Arthur as his heir, the young prince was never brought to England. Arthur was born just three months after his father's death, and his distrusting mother, Constance, preferred France and the French king to the English. Consequently, she not only refused to bring Arthur to England, but then took the boy to be raised at the court of Philip Augustus of France.

At Richard's death, Arthur was only 12 years old, had never been to England and spoke only French. Before dying, Richard designated his youngest brother John as heir, and the leading barons, including William the Marshal, decided to support John's claim over Arthur's, as the lesser of two evils. John at least was a grown man, and spoke the language of the people. Yet over the next three years war raged between the two sides, with Arthur's followers and the King of France (ever ready to divide the Angevin kings, seeking any opportunity to bring Normandy and other lands back to the crown of France) supporting Arthur's claim. Many skirmishes followed, and Arthur briefly held his grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, captive at her castle before she was rescued by John's reinforcements.

John captured Arthur, and held him prisoner for a while, under the care of Hubert de Burgh. John requested that Arthur be blinded and castrated so as to be no threat to his power, but de Burgh took pity on the boy and kept him safe, while attempting to hide the boy and tell John that the procedures had been done but that in the process Arthur had died. Soon the story got out that Arthur had been killed, and the people were outraged at John, so de Burgh soon confessed the truth to John, and Arthur was again shown to be healthy and alive. However, Arthur was still too dangerous for John's power, and in February or March 1203 John had Arthur moved from de Burgh's care, and sent to the new tower in Rouen where he was closely guarded by Robert de Vieuxpoint. At the end of March 1203 Arthur suddenly vanished. No one knows for sure how he died, but a later source (Annals of Margam, early 13th century) tell that in early April John slew Arthur, tied a heavy stone to the body and cast in the Seine. The body later was found by fishermen who dragged it ashore; the body was identified and secretly buried for fear of the local tyrant.

The murder of his nephew was just one of many wicked deeds attributed to King John, and the next 13 years would see more misrule, the barons' revolt and the Magna Carta (1215). Yet would Arthur have made any better king? As a teenager, Arthur was (not surprisingly) exceedingly arrogant and thought too highly of himself; as an adult he might not have been so cruel as John, but as a foreigner he would likely have populated his court with French and alienated the English who would never have accepted him and thus might have revolted against him. The name Arthur was another problem, as anyone with that name would fall short in comparison with that other, great King Arthur of legend. It is interesting to note that while a few princes were named Arthur (including also the firstborn son of Henry VII, older brother of Henry VIII) none by that name ever became king. "King Arthur" still refers only to the one and only legendary leader of Camelot.

For further reading:

Non-fiction: King John (English Monarchs) by W. L. Warren
Historical fiction: The Prince of Darkness, by Jean Plaidy

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Mysterious Death of William II of England

This starts a series about suspicious, or uncertain, deaths of English monarchs. From history one problem with a monarchy, as opposed to modern governments with leaders for defined time periods, is that a monarch could only be truly removed by death. Sometimes a monarch was first overthrown (and murdered soon afterwards), though at other times the ruler died in somewhat suspicious circumstances -- as in the case of William II of England.

William II, or William Rufus, was the second surviving son of William the Conqueror, and ruled England for 13 years, from his father's death in 1087 until 1100. William the Conqueror left England to William Rufus, and the Dukedom of Normandy to the oldest son Robert Curthose, but nothing to youngest son Henry.

William Rufus was not a good ruler, decidedly anti-Church (even robbed monasteries for their wealth) and possibly homosexual; he never married and apparently did not desire such a lifestyle, and thus left no heirs. In 1100, when he was about 44 years old, he died unexpectedly of a supposed hunting accident, an arrow in his chest. He had routinely enjoyed hunting, and such accidents were not uncommon; his older brother Richard had died in an accident in 1081. But some suspected foul play. His close friend, French nobleman Walter Tirel, is the most likely suspect. He had quarreled with the king the night before, had been alone with him that day of the hunt; afterwards Tirel quickly fled to France. The fullest account from the time, by William of Malmesbury, describes Tirel's involvement in an apparent accidental shooting. Younger brother Henry may also have been involved, as he had the most to gain; it is noteworthy that he responded very quickly, taking action as soon as his brother's death was news. He went to Winchester and soon had control of the treasury, declaring himself King the next day. William died on August 2, and Henry was crowned king on August 5.

Tirel was not pursued, and though the death was somewhat suspicious, the people did not sorely miss their king and were content to continue with a new king, Henry I.

For further reading: Yale English Monarchs - William Rufus (The English Monarchs Series) by Frank Barlow
Historical Fiction reference: The Lion of Justice (Norman Trilogy, Book 2), by Jean Plaidy

Friday, January 11, 2008

My Current Medieval History Reading List

I've only recently started reading about the Middle Ages, and find it all fascinating! I first read through Jean Plaidy's "Norman Trilogy" and "Plantagenet Saga" books for a great overview of English Medieval history. Now I'm expanding into more topics of interest. The following are some books I've read and/or am planning to read. These are good introductory books, as well as ones that are well written for a general audience:

By Joseph and Frances Gies:
Life in a Medieval Castle
Life in a Medieval Village
Life in a Medieval City
The Knight in History
Marriage and the Family in the Middle ages
Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages
  • Charlemagne Father of a Continent, by Alessandro Barbero
  • The Penguin Guide to Medieval Europe, by Richard Barber
  • How the Irish saved civilization: the untold story of Ireland's heroic role from the fall of Rome to the rise of medieval Europe (Hinges of History Series, Volume 1), by Thomas Cahill
  • Chivalrous Society, by Georges Duby
  • The Last Apocalypse: Europe At the Year 1000 A.D., by James Reston
  • 1066: The Year of the Conquest, by David Howarth
  • William Marshal, Knight-errant, Baron, and Regent of England, by Sidney Painter
  • Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, by Ronald McNair Scott
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, by Barbara Tuchman
  • Royal Blood: Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes, by Bertram Fields

About the Crusades:
By Jonathan Riley-Smith:
The Oxford History of the Crusades
The First Crusaders, 1095-1131
The Crusades: A Short History
The Atlas of the Crusades
Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade, by James Reston
The Dream and the Tomb: a History of the Crusades, by Robert Payne
The Knights Templar, by Stephen Howarth