Conservative Colloquium

An Intellectual Forum for All Things Conservative

The Flat Earth Myth: Medieval Scholars Knew the Earth Was Round

Posted by Tony Listi on January 22, 2008

“[F]ew medieval scholars ever doubted the earth’s sphericity…. How could a better story for the army of science ever be concocted?”
-Stephen Jay Gould
“Dinosaur in a Haystack”
Renowned anthropologist, who I don’t even agree with on everything

“The almost universal supposition that educated medieval people believed the earth to be flat puzzled me and struck me as dissonant when I was in elementary school, but I assumed that teachers knew best and shelved my doubts. By the time my children were in elementary school, they were learning the same mistake, and by that time I knew it was a falsehood. Most undergraduates I have taught at the University of California have received the same misinformation–from schoolbooks, storybooks, cinema, and television. The Flat Error is firmly fixed in our minds….
In the first fifteen centuries of the Christian era [only] five writers seem to have denied the globe, and a few others were ambiguous or uninterested in the question. But nearly unanimous scholarly opinion pronounced the earth spherical, and by the fifteenth century all doubt had disappeared.”
-Jeffrey Burton Russell
Professor Emeritus
“Inventing the Flat Earth”

“[P]hysically considered the earth is a globe; all the authors of the Middle Ages are agreed on this… The implications of a spherical earth were fully grasped.”
-C.S. Lewis
Philosopher, Theologian, Writer, and Professor
“The Discarded Image”

The most famous of Christian writers and intellectuals believed the earth was round: St. Augustine, the Venerable Bede, St. Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, and Dante. The few nonentities who thought it was flat were not very influential.

“[N]one of the great eighteenth-century anticlerical rationalists–not Condillac, Condorcet, Diderot, Gibbon, Hume, or our own Ben Franklin–accused the scholastics of believing in a flat earth.”
-Gould again

Where did this myth arise then???
Washington Irving’s largely fictitious “History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus”

6 Responses to “The Flat Earth Myth: Medieval Scholars Knew the Earth Was Round”

  1. Brandon said

    This “myth” doesn’t exist. What is taught in schools is that the Church and most of the medieval world thought the earth was the center of the universe. I have never been taught outside of my university level astronomy class that anyone ever thought the earth was flat, and by the time Ptolomy produced his epicycles, they had already deduced the true shape of the earth.

    The “error” of the 15th century was the continuation of the Ptolomaic model of the universe–which included a spherical earth as they believed all heavenly bodies had to be spherical, of which the earth was one such body.

  2. foospro86 said

    C’mon, even I can remember being told that Columbus’ scoffers said he would sail right off the edge of the world. I was told Columbus proved the earth was round. I learned this myth when I was in grade school.

    Moreover, check out The Discoverers (1983) a bestselling book by Daniel Boorstin, a former librarian of Congress. He writes, “A Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia…afflicted the continent from AD 300 to at least 1300. During those centuries Christian faith and dogma suppressed the useful image of the world that had been so slowly, so painfully, and so scrupulously drawn by ancient geographers.” He called this period the “Great Interruption.”
    A great piece of fiction and a smear on Christianity from supposedly one of our countries most learned people.

    Take a look at this middle school textbook:

    This myth not only exists; it persists. Ask around.

  3. foospro86 said

    More information to check out that cites other prominent propagators of the myth:

  4. Kendalf said

    The flat earth myth keeps popping up, mainly in comments comparing people who deny evolution or global warming to “those people who used to believe that the Earth was flat.” I go in detail on how the flat earth myth was propagated by Washington Irving and Andrew Dickson White and also give examples of how medieval (and earlier) scholars wrote about a spherical earth in my blog entry:

  5. Kendalf said

    … sorry, the link didn’t show:

  6. […] […]

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