Another Flat Earther

I marvel at the power of that old chestnut about people in the middle ages believing the earth was flat. Even a person who rejects the myth that Columbus proved the earth was a sphere nevertheless trots out the poor, benighted medieval Europeans as believers in a flat earth. Consider, for example, Valerie Strauss’s post for the Washington Post: “Busting a myth about Columbus and a flat Earth.” Despite the promising title, she traffics in one of the typical versions of the flat earth myth.

Strauss celebrates scholars in antiquity who knew the earth was a spherical. Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, these people got it right. Medieval Europeans, however, were apparently not so bright. On the basis of no evidence, she claims:

During the early Middle Ages,[1] it is true that many Europeans succumbed to rumor and started believing that they lived on a flat Earth.

In her story, medieval Europeans were back on the right track by the 1200s CE, when texts like Sacrobosco’s De sphaera “discussed the Earth’s shape.”

Strauss has no excuse for making this claim. She is simply and demonstrably wrong. And she should know it.

Strauss cites Jeffrey Burton Russell’s book, Inventing the Flat Earth, implying that she has read it. If she has, she can’t also believe that people in the early middle ages thought the earth was flat. If she has read even the first 30 or so pages of Russell’s book, she will recognize her version of this myth as one of the most common. Russell spends some time surveying this form of the flat earth myth:

Another version of the Error is that the ancient Greeks may have known that the world was round, but the knowledge was lost (or suppressed) in medieval darkness.… Many inconsistent varieties of this version exist: The knowledge was lost in the first century A.D., or the second, or the fifth, or the sixth, or the seventh; and on the other end it was lost until the fifteenth century, or the twelfth, or the eighth. The mildest variety, therefore, posits only a few years of darkness from the flattening of the Greek earth to the rounding of the modern one.[2]

Yet Strauss seems as committed as ever to a Dark Ages model of history, complete with its flat earth fantasy.[3]

Orlando Ferguson’s amazing map of a flat earth, from 1893.

Two further thoughts:

First, I am particularly worried because Strauss’s myth-busting post appeared on her regular column, “The Answer Sheet,” which she characterizes as a “A school survival guide for parents (and everyone else).” How many parents and everyone else’s have read and been misinformed by Strauss’s “survival guide?” At least one other person has read, believed, and repeated Strauss’s claim about medieval Europeans thinking the earth was flat.

On April 15 the anonymous blog, “Today in History,” posted “Columbus’s Flat Earth.”[4] Borrowing closely from Strauss, the author asserts:

Since Columbus owned a copy of an ancient Greek book [i.e., Ptolemy’s Geography] that outlined the reasons why the earth must be round, he did not believe that the earth was flat. So did anyone ever believe that the earth was flat? Actually, yes. During the Middle Ages in Europe, many people began to believe the rumors that the earth was actually flat.

Actually, no. During the Middle Ages in Europe, almost nobody began to believe or likely even heard any rumors that the earth was actually flat. The person who runs “Today in History” claims to be “someone who love history” and is “passionate about learning” and hopes to “provide more insight into event in the past.” Alas, duped by Strauss’s “survival guide” the person who runs “Today in History” is passing on misinformation and falsehoods.

Second, I also worry that Strauss believes expertise in mathematics is somehow a) applicable to other, non-scientific domains of knowledge and b) superior to historical expertise. Why else would she gratuitously cite a mathematician for evidence that “Columbus did not worry that he would fall off the Earth’s edge.”

On the one hand, Strauss’s post reflects willful ignorance and dogmatic rejection of evidence. On the other hand, Strauss’s post reflects historians’ failure to dispel this myth. Despite all our ranting and raving, we historians have failed to communicate with audiences, e.g., scientists, journalists and authors, politicians, educators, etc. I have fared no better in various efforts to combat this myth (some of which you can find by searching this blog for flat earth).

I am going to give it another go next week, at Taste of Science Philadelphia, where I am speaking along with climate scientists at “Climate change: How we got here, and looking to the future.” Maybe lubricated with some beer and good food I’ll have better luck.

  1. I can only guess that Strauss means by “early Middle Ages” some portion of the millennium between Ptolemy and Sacrobosco.  ↩

  2. J.B. Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth (1991), 28–29.  ↩

  3. Perhaps the other book Strauss cites, R. Osserman, Poetry of the Universe makes this asinine claim. I haven’t had a chance to look at it. If it does, and if she preferred to accept the comments of a mathematician over those of a historian, i.e., to accept the opinion of a non-expert over the knowledge of an expert, we have other problems.  ↩

  4. The “Columbus’s Flat Earth” post linked to my “Washington Irving’s Columbus and the Flat Earth,” which led me to Strauss’s post and, in turn, prompted this current post. ↩

Flat Earth Globe!

“As part of Groupon’s commitment to science,” the online coupon site offered on April 1 a special on 2-D, flat earth globes.

Groupon’s 2-D, flat earth globe, showing the wall of ice we’ve been tricked into thinking is polar ice caps.

The description neatly poked fun at the recent NBA fad to claim the earth is flat—gotta like referring to Shaquille O’Neal as “The Big Aristotle”—as well as conspiracy theories about NASA hiding evidence that the polar ice caps are really ice walls around the rim. I guess we’ll find out when they melt.

The Groupon page advertising the 2-D, flat earth globe, complete with description that mocks NBA players and conspiracy theorists.

Sadly, it is no longer available. But if you really want one, contact me. I along with more than 680 other people downloaded the PDF. I’m willing to share.

Patient #1

On May 20, 1817, five days after the Friends’ Asylum opened, a woman in her late 40s, who had been suffering from melancholy for 11 years was admitted to the asylum as Patient #1.[1] Neither the superintendent nor the attending physician noted who brought her. The superintendent noted, briefly:

[Patient #1] was brought this Afternoon as a Patient by the Certificate accompanying it appears that She is about 48 Years of Age and has been 11 Years Insane—She appears to be of the Melancholy cast.

The attending physician offered more detail:

[Patient #1] admitted into the Asylum “for the relief of persons deprived of the use of their reason.” 5th Mo. 20th 1817. She is a native of Wilmington Del. aged 49 years. Her disease is of eleven years continuance. She has been in the Pennsylvania Hospital some years (number not known) and was discharged from there incurable. The last three years she was confined in the Poor House near Wilmington. No cause has been assigned for her derangement. She never has shown any disposition to injure herself or any other person except her Father. Doct. Monroe says in his certificate that no medical means have been used for her recovery.

The years leading up to Patient #1’s arrival were difficult. She had been confined to Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. When she had been discharged, she returned to a poor house near Wilmington, her hometown. Whoever—probably her father— brought her to the asylum must have been intent on finding her better care, for they were willing to travel nearly 40 miles and pay $3.50 per week for her to stay at the asylum. Yet they didn’t offer the physician much information about her condition or its cause.

The physician’s Medical Register records symptoms and treatments for patients in the asylum. This is the first page of Patient #1’s treatment.

Three days after she was admitted, the physician prescribed medicine “Sulp. soda,” probably the cathartic sulphate of soda, which produced the expected results. Although she engaged the physician in rational conversation when she had to, he found her reluctance to converse or exercise as evidence that she continued to suffer from her melancholy. Two days later, he reported that “She appear[ed] more cheerful … [and] express[ed] great desire to go home to her father, and much fear that some person will kill her.” Two weeks later the physician prescribed another cathartic medicine, this time “Sulp magnes.,” probably sulphate of magnesia (or Epsom salt), along with a warm bath. The superintendent noted in his daybook that the warm bath and “salts” quickly became a common treatment. Patient #1 continued to express a desire to go home to her father. Only threats of restraint quieted her. Some days she engaged in productive labor, other days she hoped to die. All the while the superintendent and the physician administered different treatments, medicines, and threats of constraint to bring her behavior within the bounds of acceptable.

Patient #1 spent the next 39 months in the asylum, oscillating between these poles of cheerful and productive, at one end, and profoundly melancholic, at the other. Finally, on August 1, 1820 she was discharged “much improved.” The superintendent remarked:

This morning [Patient #1] left us. Her father mentioned his gratitude for our kindness and his high opinion of the value of the Institution. [She] parted with us on friendly terms and engaged to come back without difficulty if her father and Brother required it.

Through the superintendent’s records and the physician’s register we can piece together bits of her life during the three years she was in the asylum. Her experience in the asylum, the types of medicines and other medical treatments as well as the division of responsibilities for administering those treatments between the superintendent who had no medical training and the physician, the role of the superintendent’s wife, the importance of employment, her reported behavior, etc., give us a glimpse of what it meant to be deemed insane in early 19th-century America.

  1. The documents differ, the Daybook says “about 48;” the Medical Register indicates she was 49. Unfortunately, the admissions letters have been lost, so we can’t know more about her  ↩