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The Scandalous "Flat Earth" Myth

My 5-year old son was looking at his newly acquired book on "Tremendous Treks". Featured stories were the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites, Hannibal’s journey over the Alps, the Silk Road to and from China, and many others. One particular journey caught my eye: that of Magellan sailing around the world in 1519 AD. The opening paragraph makes it clear that flat earth beliefs were widespread prior to the years when pioneer sailors explored the Earth: "Most sailors used to think the world was flat, and that if they sailed too far they would fall off the edge". In this way, the book contributes to sustaining a myth that the medieval world believed in a flat Earth and that brave pioneers were necessary to prove that the Earth is a sphere and that it is possible to sail around it.

Book cover image: Inventing the Flat Earth

The reality is that nearly all medieval scholars, contemporary and past, have concluded that the Medievals believed the world to be round. So how did we get into the situation where a widely held belief, that the Medievals thought the World was flat, is so devoid of factual support? The answer to this question is provided in a readable and authoritative historical study: "Inventing the Flat Earth" by Jeffrey Burton Russell (1991).

Russell is Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His specialist knowledge is in the intellectual history of the medieval world. He describes what he calls the "Flat Earth Error": a modern belief about earlier generations that tells us more about ourselves than about people in the past. The "Flat Earth Error" deserves to be called scandalous, for its advocates have effectively maintained a myth to satisfy their own biases and belief systems at the expense of past generations that do not deserve the disparagement.

Historians of science cannot fail to recognise the important influence of Greek philosophers on those who came after. Aristotelianism in particular was extraordinarily powerful as a philosophical system and Aristotle clearly taught the Earth’s sphericity. Nearly all the Greeks who had a view on the shape of the Earth agreed that it was a sphere. Eratosthenes’ measurement of the Earth’s circumference (250,000 stades) was very close to the modern figure. Ptolemy came up with a smaller value (180,000 stades). These calculated dimensions were known to the medieval world. It was considered very important for medieval students to learn geography, where it was part of their studies in astronomy and geometry. Medieval leaders (Bede, Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas, Jean Buridan, Nicole Oresme, Giles of Rome and others) all affirmed the Earth’s sphericity. It is also relevant to note that the kings of the Early Middle Ages held a royal orb. The golden ball represented the spherical Earth and the cross that was part of the orb symbolised Christ’s sovereignty. The message conveyed was that the king held the orb as one entrusted by God with governance.

The early church leaders saw no need to distance themselves from the Greeks’ understanding of the Earth’s sphericity. The only identifiable flat-earthers are Lactantius (c.265-345), Cosmas Indicopleustes (c.540), Severian of Gabala (c.380), possibly Theodore of Mopsuestia (c.350-430) and possibly Diodore of Tarsus (d.394). Of these, Lactantius and Cosmas are the prime characters appearing in the Flat Earth literature. Russell discusses both of these characters in a sympathetic way, pointing out that neither was influential in their own time nor in the Medieval period. How then did those responsible for the Flat Error create such a serious misrepresentation of the influence of these men?

According to Russsell, the first seed was sown in innocence by Copernicus in "De revolutionibus" (1543). "In the Preface, Copernicus used Lactantius to illustrate how the ignorance of opponents of the round Earth was comparable to that of those insisting on geocentricity in his own time" (p.64). Note that Copernicus did not suggest that Lactantius was in any way typical, nor did he point to any contemporaries with similar views, nor was anyone mentioned who could have been involved in discussions regarding pioneer ocean voyages. Nevertheless, some later writers picked up the name of Lactantius and made much of his bigotry and opposition to the "truth".

The "ground" on which the "Flat Error" grew was prepared by Compte (1798-1857). Auguste Compte developed the philosophy of positivism, with its concept of progress, step by step, from superstition to science. This led to the idea that "religion" (in particular Catholic and Protestant Christianity) was but a step beyond superstition but definitely a step back from real science. Religion had to be swept away if mankind was to progress to truth. This approach led to the metaphor of "warfare" to describe the relationship between science and religion. Such a conflict was first articulated by William Whewell, Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University in 1837. Important developments of the warfare metaphor were by John Draper in "The history of the conflict between religion and science" (1873) and by Andrew Dickson White in his "History of the warfare of science with theology in Christendom" (1896).

All three of these men pointed at Lactantius and Cosmas as influential leaders of the Flat Earth belief. Their historical errors are analysed and discussed helpfully by Russell. It has to be said that the "warfare thesis" was a largely successful exercise and several generations of people have soaked up the idea that Christianity is inherently anti-scientific and that it has frequently acted to oppose science.

There is also a very significant mythology associated with Christopher Columbus. It has been argued that he was the pioneer who defied warnings about falling off the edge of the Earth – and thereby discovered America in 1492 AD. How did this version of events come to be invented? Russell identifies an American, Washington Irving, as being very influential in getting the public to accept the idea of opposition to Columbus’ voyage coming from Flat Earthers. Irving wrote "History of the life and voyages of Christopher Columbus" (1828) which purported to be history, but was actually romantic fiction loosely based on history. In academic circles, the French scholar Antoine-Jean Letronne is identified as winning over several historians following an article he published in 1834.

Knowing that historians put the record straight 50 years ago, why has the Flat Error been so persistent in the educated world? Russell is not content with yet again putting the record straight, he is anxious to learn some lessons! The first three lessons are quite well known from other contexts and need not be developed here. They are:

  1. Too few scholars work with primary sources and the errors of other writers are repeated and propagated.
  2. Scholars are often led by their biases more than by the evidence.
  3. Sociological and cultural factors need to be recognised in scholarly work, and scholars must beware of making value-judgments based on today’s norms.

Russell’s fourth point is that some scholars have carried personal convictions about cultural superiority into their work. This has led them to undervalue the past and to erroneously attribute certain values and beliefs to those cultures. In the case of the Flat Earth Error, there has been a conviction that the medieval period was a dark age, that scholarship was at a low ebb, and that superstition prevailed. The problem has been that there is a large gulf between historical scholarship and these cultural convictions.

Fifthly, cultural myths have a life of their own and can reinforce each other. The Flat Error has been entangled with other erroneous ideas such as the Dark Ages, the opposition of Christianity to science, and so on. This web of falsehood conceals a deeper agenda. Russell suggests that advocates of the Flat Error may be struggling with fears far worse than the fear of falling off the edge of the Earth. They need to believe in "progress" in order to give meaning to life. They need to believe that our generation is superior to those that have gone before – and that the further back in time we go, the greater the ignorance. Facing up to the implications arising from the Flat Error comes as an enormous cultural shock to these people.

Although Russell does not develop this thought, it occurs to me that there are many analogies here with evolutionary naturalism. The theory has to be true and its advocates find it difficult, if not impossible, to accept that they are not reading the data of biology correctly. Darwinian mechanisms may explain the "fine tuning" of adaptation, but they are woefully inadequate for explaining the origins of the phyla, classes, orders and families. Associated "scientific" myths abound: Haeckel’s biogenic law, the significance of industrial melanism in the peppered moth, the "Beak of the Finch" story, the adaptive landscape metaphor, the "simplicity" of single cells, and so on. In all these cases, erroneous or misleading ideas have been perpetuated to support the theory long after the inadequacies have been pointed out.

Opponents of biblical revelation still find it convenient to use the "Flat Earth" allegation as a cheap way of putting Christians on the defensive and asserting their own superiority. This review article is written to say that we have no need to be apologetic about this past "error". Even though those times were not without doctrinal confusion, priestly delusions and cultural superstitions, belief in the Bible as God’s revealed truth did not lead people to adopt a superstitious fable about a flat Earth. God’s word is true, and where the light of truth shines, only those with a stake in perpetuating cultural myths have reason to fear.

David J. Tyler (June 2001)


Kent, P. 1999. Tremendous Treks. Macdonald Young Books, Hove.
Russell, J.B. 1991, Inventing the Flat Earth, Praeger Publishers, Westpark, CT.

Additional recommended reading.

Gingerich, O. 1992. Astronomy in the age of Columbus. Scientific American, 267(5), (November), 66-71. (An expansion of some of Russell’s historical material, with comments on the subsequent Copernican Revolution.)

Gould, S.J. 1996. The late birth of a flat Earth. In: Dinosaur in a haystack, Jonathan Cape, London, 3-40. (Reprinted from "The persistently flat Earth", Natural History, 103, March 1994, 12-19. Draws extensively from Russell and discusses the way a desire to see "progress" has led to the rewriting of history and to the advocacy of a warfare between science and religion).

Tyler, D.J. 1996. The impact of the Copernican Revolution on biblical interpretation, Origins, July (No. 21), 2-8. (Discusses the "language of appearance" used in the Bible and the way hermeneutical issues were clarified by the Copernican revolution. The principles developed in this article are directly applicable to any claim that the Bible "teaches a Flat Earth".)

Tyler, D.J.

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