Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Flat Earth

Courtesy of OrkneyLad

“Try this experiment. Ask an ordinary person what Christopher
Columbus wanted to prove when he set out to reach the Orient by way of 
the Occident and what it was that the learned men of Salamanca 
stubbornly denied, trying to prevent his voyage. The reply, in most 
cases, will be that Columbus believed the earth was round, whereas the 
Salamanca sages believed it was flat and hence thought that, after 
sailing a short distance, the three caravels would plunge into the 
cosmic abyss. 
So what was the big argument all about 
in the time of Columbus? The sages of Salamanca had, in fact, made 
calculations more precise than his, and they held that the earth, while 
assuredly round, was far more vast than the Genoese navigator believed, 
and therefore it was mad for him to attempt to circumnavigate it in 
order to reach the Orient by way of the Occident. Columbus, on the 
contrary, burning with a sacred fire, good navigator but bad astronomer, 
thought the earth smaller than it was. Naturally neither he nor the 
learned men of Salamanca suspected that between Europe and Asia there 
lay another continent. And so you see how complicated life is, and how 
fragile are the boundaries between truth and error, right and wrong. 
Though they were right, the sages of Salamanca were wrong; and Columbus,
while he was wrong, pursued faithfully his error and proved to be right
—thanks to serendipity.”

The Greeks had tried hard to find out how large the 
Earth is and managed to calculate many different figures depending on 
the methods and accuracy of their work. The most famous effort was that 
of Eratosthenes, Librarian of Alexandria, who wrote a treatise On the 
Measurement of the Earth, in which he gave a figure for the Earth’s 
circumference of 250,000 stadia. Depending on how long a stadia actually
was this is the equivalent of about 23,000 miles, pretty close to the 
true figure of 24,900 miles.

At the time Eratosthenes’s result did not demand 
universal assent and was widely seen as too big. A more popular figure 
is that given by Strabo and Ptolemy, two distinguished Greek geographers
of around the first century AD who both suggested 180,000 stadia. We 
are not sure where they got their figures from but they were repeated by
the Latin writer Seneca who transmitted them to the medieval West. By 
the time that it became a live issue for Columbus, Eratosthenes’ figure 
was back in vogue and the experts were wisely urging the Italian not to 
set sail. In particular a committee set up in Salamanca examined the 
plans and rejected them on the grounds that Columbus had underestimated 
the distance he would have to travel. Their concern is easy to 
understand – imagine how much trouble Columbus would have been in if the
Americas had not been there. He could not possibly have survived the 
trip all the way to the east coast of Asia and was very lucky that some 
land intervened before he and his crew had to pay for his mistake. In 
the end, however, Queen Isabella of Spain was won over and donated the 
resources required.

It is not difficult to see how the story of Columbus
was adapted so that he became the figure of progress rather than a 
lucky man who profited from his error. According to Jeffrey Burton 
Russell here,
the invention of the flat Earth myth can be laid at the feet of 
Washington Irving, (the author of Rip Van Winkle) who included it in his
historical novel on Columbus -its theme was the victory of a lone 
believer in a spherical Earth over a united front of Bible-quoting, 
superstitious ignoramuses, convinced the Earth was flat- and the wider 
idea that everyone in the Middle Ages was deluded has been widely 
accepted ever since.

Then later authors repeated this error:

“Nineteenth-century secular thought, irritated by the 
Church’s refusal to accept the heliocentric hypothesis, attributed to 
all Christian thought (patristic and scholastic) the idea that the earth
was flat.The nineteenth-century positivist and anticlerical made a meal 
of this cliché, which, as Jeffrey Burton Russell has demonstrated, was 
strengthened during the battle the supporters of Darwinian theory joined
against every form of fundamentalism. It was a matter of demonstrating 
that, as the churches had erred about the sphericity of the earth, so 
they could err also about the origin of species.”

The myth that Christians in the Middle Ages thought the world was flat was given a massive boost by Andrew Dickson White’s weighty tome The Warfare of Science with Theology.
This book has become something of a running joke among historians of 
science and it is dutifully mentioned as a prime example of 
misinformation in the preface of most modern works on science and 
religion. The Flat Earth is discussed in chapter 2 and one can almost 
sense White’s confusion that hardly any of the sources support his 
hypothesis that Christians widely believed in it. He finds himself 
grudgingly admitting that Clement, Origen, Ambrose, Augustine, Isodore, 
Albertus Magnus and Aquinas all accepted the Earth was a globe – in 
other words none of the great doctors of the church had considered the 
matter in doubt. Although an analysis of what White actually says 
suggests he was aware that the Flat Earth was largely a myth, he 
certainly gives an impression of ignorant Christians suppressing 
rational knowledge of its real shape.

What can be stated categorically was that a Flat 
Earth was at no time ever an element of Christian doctrine and that no 
one was ever persecuted or pressurised into believing it. This is 
interesting because the Bible itself implies the Earth is flat (for 
example at Daniel 4:11) and in [Isaiah 40:22] that it is spherical. 
Clearly, belief in the complete scientific accuracy of the scriptures 
against known facts was not upheld by the early or medieval church who 
were happy to accept figurative interpretations.

Anti-clerical ‘history of science’ writers have promulgated the myth so that even today, in his book The Discoverers,
Daniel Boorstin manages to produce a totally misleading account 
(although he eventually gets Columbus right). His bias shows badly when 
he castigates Christians for thinking the world was flat when they did 
not and then praises the erudition of Chinese geographers who actually 
did believe it. The myth is so prevalent that the blurb on the back 
cover of the UK version of Umberto Eco’s Serendipities, the editor repeats the myth even though within the book itself, Eco devotes a good deal of attention to debunking it!

The doyen of historians of Medieval Science, Edward Grant, covers the issue in his 2001 book, God and Reason in the Middle Ages
where he finds all educated people in the Middle Ages were well aware 
the Earth was a sphere. Perhaps today we can at last dispense with this 
patronising belief about the Christian Middle Ages.