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The Flat Earth Myth


Columbus set sail into the New World in 1492, and he did not fall of the edge.

The Dark Ages was a time generally considered to be ruled by religion, where science took the back seat. In our scientific and technological heyday it is easy for us to think this. The Earth used to be flat. But according the American historian of science, Stephen Jay Gould the ‘Medieval consensus for a flat earth – is entirely mythological’.

So why does this myth still endure? It arrived in our minds, and in our school books in the late nineteenth century, as a means of ensuring our continued feelings of superiority in how far we have come in so short (relatively) a time since the supposed ‘Dark Ages’. We have to make the ‘Dark Ages’ seem more buried under the shadow of religion. It makes us feel better.

Gould continues in his The Late Birth of a Flat Earth by saying it is a ‘prejudicial view of Western history as an era of darkness’.

But among scholars of the time of this ‘darkness’ the flat earth theory was never believed.

It was mentioned by two individuals, in the nineteenth, after the ‘Dark Ages’, with hardly any (comparatively) influence amongst scholarly circles in the works which spoke of the ‘war’ between religion and science.

John W. Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science in 1874, and Andrew Dickson White’s The Warfare of Science with Theology boosted the flat earth myth in nineteenth century minds.

Aristotle, the Venerable Bede, Copernicus believed in a spherical earth. In his On The Heavens Aristotle believed in the necessity of the spherical shape of the earth, and used his own eyes which ‘showed [him] the moon was spherical…clearly the rest will be spherical also.’

It was the Greeks who were the pioneers of mathematical reasoning when it came to cosmology, long before the ‘Dark Ages’ kicked in, with Aristotle envisaging a three-dimensional sphere. In the early sixteenth century, Copernicus went even further adapting Aristotle’s vision of the heavens, by stating that the Earth moved round the Sun, but still affirming the circular motion and shape of the planets.

Even as early as the third century BC, people were trying to determine the circumference of the Earth. It was Eratosthenes who was the first person to calculate the circumference, and also the tilt of the Earth’s axis, both remarkably accurately.

Instruments to measure the heavens also proved against the Medieval myth of a flat earth; celestial globes were used as early as the eleventh century and astrolabes as early as 927 AD.

What’s more, visual aids to simply show the Earth’s sphericity were used. The Mappa Mundi, the Medieval European world maps were used from the seventh century onwards . The different types of maps, from zonal, T-O, to more complex maps, all show a disc-shaped earth, making the belief in the ‘flat earth’ unwarranted.

None or at least very, very few educated people in the Dark Ages believed in a flat earth. The myth survives today due to historiography. Historians in the nineteenth century wanted to celebrate, and deliberately extend science’s triumph over religion

One comment on “The Flat Earth Myth

  1. This helps debunk the old myth and shows how easily powerful ideas, even false ones, can be established when the say so of a few people like Draper and Dickson fits how society wants to feel about itself.

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