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JPC  
Floresville  
November 25, 2008 12:57am
 
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.

Luckily for White there were then, as there are now, a few fringe writers who could be counted upon to support any point of view no matter how wild. Cosmas Indicopleustes was one such man. He was a merchant traveller who retired to become a monk in the Egyptian desert where he wrote a treatise on Christian Topology that included his flat Earth cosmology. It was widely ignored at the time and Christian scholars like John Philoponus derided it as the work of an uneducated fool. So it was and it was soon forgotten. Because it was written in Greek, it was unavailable and unknown in the Latin West where, contrary to White's insinuations, it had no influence at all. First published with a Latin translation only in 1776, the book has since gained far wider recognition that it ever had in its day.

Lactantius was another church father who did seem sure the earth was flat but no one paid much attention to him either. Other early Christians may well have simply been using common language that we still use today. Saying "to the ends of the earth", "the four corners of the world" or "the sun sank into the sea" does not make you a flat Earther and we should treat ancient people with the same generosity. 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 or 4:8 in Catholic Bibles) and most of its writers (certainly those of the Old Testament) probably thought so. 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 a figurative interpretation. You can read a full analysis of the different writers who have mentioned the shape of the earth in the e-book The Flat Earth by 'Ethical Atheist'.

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 new 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.


Mike, the information is out there. Whether choose to believe it or not is another matter.
     
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