Month: March 2013

Cosmas, the Tabernacle, and the Flat Earth

The Flat Earth Myth remains a compelling story despite continued efforts by historians to debunk it (I’ve discussed it before). Typically, it combines two fables: first, people in the middle ages believed that the earth was flat; second, Columbus proved that the earth was round. Washington Irving’s popular biography of Columbus, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828) made the Columbus part of the story fashionable, while Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) cemented in our collective consciousness the part about medieval people.

Occasionally we do find a person in the middle ages who argued for a flat earth. One such example is Cosmas Indicopluestes, a sixth-century Byzantine traveller-turned-monk. In his The Christian Topography he attacked pagan ideas about the sphericity of the earth and the universe. In book II, “The Christian theories regarding the form and position of the whole world, the proofs of which are taken from Divine Scripture” (and again later in book IV), he raised what he thought were various philosophical and empirical difficulties for a spherical earth resting at the center of the spherical universe, e.g.,

  • What would keep the earth steady and fixed at the center?
  • Why, if the fixed stars are all equa-distant from the earth, as they must be if the earth is at the center of the vault of the fixed stars, do the stars appear different sizes, and vary in brightness color?
  • Why do some stars seem brighter and therefore closer than some planets (he uses the example of Mars)?
  • Why do the planets progress through the zodiac at some times and move backwards at other times?
  • How can epicycles be real if the heavens are made up a perfect fifth element eternally in circular motion?

His empirical and philosophical objections are not particularly persuasive. But what makes Cosmas’s argument especially suspect to modern eyes is his unabashed reliance on scripture. He did not disguise the fact that his goal was to use scripture to refute the fictions and fables of Greeks, by which he means pagan Greek philosophers. Cosmas did not help his cause or the reputation of Byzantine scholars in general, at least in our eyes, when he argued that the earth was shaped like a parallelogram, surrounded on all four sides by oceans.

Cosmas’s model of the earth, taken from the 19th-c. edition printed by the Hakluyt Society.
Cosmas’s model of the earth, taken from the 19th-c. edition printed by the Hakluyt Society.

Cosmas placed this parallelogram inside a tabernacle, which reflected the shape of the cosmos. According to Cosmas’ reading, Moses was divinely inspired to construct the tabernacle because it mirrored the shape of the cosmos.

Cosmas’s tabernacle-shaped cosmos, taken from the 19-c. edition printed by the Hakluyt Society.
Cosmas’s tabernacle-shaped cosmos, taken from the 19-c. edition printed by the Hakluyt Society.

Cosmas became the poster child for the deluded premodern world filled with people who believed the earth was flat. Andrew Dickson White surveyed Cosmas’ ideas and ridiculed him for being deluded.

In the sixth century this development culminated in what was nothing less than a complete and detailed system of the universe, claiming to be based upon Scripture, its author being the Egyptian monk Cosmas Indicopleustes. Egypt was a great treasure-house of theologic thought to various religions of antiquity, and Cosmas appears to have urged upon the early Church this Egyptian idea of the construction of the world, just as another Egyptian ecclesiastic, Athanasius, urged upon the Church the Egyptian idea of a triune deity ruling the world. According to Cosmas, the earth is a parallelogram, flat, and surrounded by four seas. It is four hundred days’ journey long and two hundred broad. At the outer edges of these four seas arise massive walls closing in the whole structure and supporting the firmament or vault of the heavens, whose edges are cemented to the walls. These walls inclose the earth and all the heavenly bodies.…
Nothing can be more touching in its simplicity than Cosmas’s summing up of his great argument, He declares, “We say therefore with Isaiah that the heaven embracing the universe is a vault, with Job that it is joined to the earth, and with Moses that the length of the earth is greater than its breadth.” The treatise closes with rapturous assertions that not only Moses and the prophets, but also angels and apostles, agree to the truth of his doctrine, and that at the last day God will condemn all who do not accept it.

White’s criticism benefits from the clarity of hindsight and the condescension that such clarity conveys. Cosmas’ theory was an easy target. But there is no evidence that he was the vanguard of a widespread movement. Instead, he seems to have recognized that his theory was peculiar. His goal in writing his The Christian Topography was to refute the more commonly held belief that the world and the heavens were spherical. Cosmas’ ideas do not appear to have gained much traction. We don’t see any real interest in them until the end of the 17th or the beginning of the 18th century, and then again in the 19th. David Lindberg dismisses Cosmas:

Cosmas was not particularly influential in Byzantium, but he is important for us because he has been commonly used to buttress the claim that all (or most) medieval people believed they lived on a flat earth. This claim…is totally false. Cosmas is, in fact, the only medieval European known to have defended a flat earth cosmology, whereas it is safe to assume that all educated Western Europeans (and almost one hundred percent of educated Byzantines), as well as sailors and travelers, believed in the earth’s sphericity.[1]

Unfortunately, the Flat Earth Myth and Columbus’s role in it remain alluring and incredibly common. No amount of historical scholarship by itself will dislodge them from our popular consciousness. We must first understand why we hold onto these myths, why they make us feel so comfortable, what work they do for us. Only then we will have a better idea of how to replace them.

  1. David Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago, ), 161.  ↩

Illustrating Galileo, ca. 1955

In 1952 F. Sherwood Taylor delivered the Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution on “How Science has Grown.” These became the basis for his book, An Illustrated History of Science. One reviewer praised Taylor for having “simply and concisely presented the panorama of science from the ancient Sumeria of some 7,000 years ago up to Einstein and modern nuclear physics.” Taylor drew on his considerable expertise—a chemist by training, he was the founding editor of Ambix, was curator at The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, and ended his career as Director of the Science Museum in London.

The illustrations in Taylor’s book are at times taken from the historical record—photos of instruments or illustrations from early printed books—and at times the product of his and his illustrator’s imagination. He defended their work, saying:

Scientists and historians alike look askance at modern pictures of past events, feeling that the author and artist cannot fail to incorporate details for which no authority can be found. But if the reader accepts these pictures, not as authoritative sources, but as a synthesis of what has been transmitted by documents and what the author and artist know about the ways of life in days gone by, he will find in them the means of forming a visual idea of the men and events that brought science to its present position of pre-eminence. Yet in order that the student may not be tantalized, I have provided an appendix indicating some of the sources which we have used in devising these windows on the past.

Of the many iconic moments and issues Taylor selected to illustrate, he devoted four to Galileo. Interpreting a diagram from Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences, we see Galileo trying to measure the force of a vacuum:


Another scene shows Galileo watching a lamp swinging from the ceiling of the cathedral in Pisa:


And Galileo reclines on a dock in Venice while he observes the skies through his telescope:


At other times we see Harvey preparing to dissect a body, or Aristotle examining an octopus, or Hook preparing a flea for inspection, or members of the Royal Society lounging in an opulent chamber, one of the petting a cat. The illustrations throughout the book offer fascinating glimpses into not the distant past, but into a 1950s that imagined the distant past.

Dr. Miles and Alka-Seltzer

The Dr. Miles Medical Company in Elkhart, Indiana, made a fortune selling the Dr. Miles’ Nervine, a patent medicine that calmed the nerves. Like most patent medicine companies, Dr. Miles marketed its medicines through pamphlets and almanacs. And like most patent medicines, Dr. Miles’ Nervine seemed to cure any ailment and to improve your general well being. Every pamphlet was filled with testimonial from reputable and satisfied patient-customers (we should probably hear echoes of this technique in today’s DTC pharmaceutical campaigns). Dr. Miles occupies an interesting place in the history of patent medicines. Unlike other companies that died out with the patent medicine craze, Dr. Miles stumbled onto a compound that we still use today: Alka-Selzer.

In the early 1930s Dr. Miles published a pamphlet celebrating its new discovery: Modern Science Discovers a Common Sense Way to Relieve Everyday Aches and Pains.

Dr. Miles emphasizes the “Modern Science” in marketing their Alka-Seltzer.
Dr. Miles emphasizes the “Modern Science” in marketing their Alka-Seltzer.

A postcard glued into this pamphlet suggests that it dates from June 1932, not long after a chemist at the company had developed the product. Gone are the references to astrology so common in patent medicine marketing—about this same time Dr. Miles had published a similar pamphlet that was built around astrology: Character Readings According to the Solar Zodiac (see this post). Dr. Miles’s latest pamphlet focuses instead on the science, the scientists, and the scientific apparatus: flasks and jars, microscope, distillation apparatus, clean-cut, staid men in white lab coats.

A staid, clean-cut scientist inspects a glass of Alka-Seltzer.
A staid, clean-cut scientist inspects a glass of Alka-Seltzer.

In 1932 Alka-Seltzer took its place alongside Dr. Miles’ many other patent medicines: Nervine, Nervine Tablets, Anti-Pain pills, a tonic, an “Alterative Compound,” a Cactus Compound, Little Pills, Laxative Tablets, and Aspir-Mint.

In 1932 Alka-Seltzer was just one of many patent medicines sold by Dr. Miles.
In 1932 Alka-Seltzer was just one of many patent medicines sold by Dr. Miles.

Today Alka-Seltzer as well as the former Dr. Miles company are owned by Bayer Schering Pharma, perhaps best known for its aspirin (Bayer also gave us Heroin, which it originally marketed as a cough medicine).

Assassin’s Creed and Historical Fidelity

What liberties should video games take with the historical record and who gets to decide? Or, as some of the people interviewed in “Are Video Games like Assassin’s Creed Rewriting History?” suggest, is there no meaningful historical record beyond the interpretations that we put forward?

A commonplace—“History is no longer a set of disputable, footnoted facts that lead slowly but inexorably to an authoritative version. It’s a set of facts surrounded by an even larger set of opinions and interpretations”—undergirds the next step, stated by Ubisoft’s Alex Hutchinson:

I think anyone who argues that history is objective or static is very confused…. I don’t think that there’s a single event that hasn’t gone through multiple interpretations or iterations in terms of what people believe even happened, let alone what was important about it, or what led up to it or what followed it

Rather than seeing this as license to do with the past as you will, I would like to see this as reinforcing the moral and ethical dimension of history. Earlier in article the authors points out

the proliferation of all media, especially the digital kind, has made it easier to propagate lies for political purposes: Think of the invented scandal of Barak Obama’s birth certificate or the “inside job” claims around 9/11 and the Newtown, Conn., shootings. Hence our collective nervousness about what’s supposed to be true, and who gets to say so.

That’s absolutely right. History is always political. That politics is perhaps less a question of lies and truths than a question of choices and goals. Why were particular events chosen as relevant? Which events were deemed insignificant, and why? What pieces of the historical record were considered evidence? Why were certain events, aspects, details, words, etc. placed in a series of other relevant events, perhaps implying a cause-and-effect relationship?

And what is the relationship between the form of representation—e.g., scholarly book or article, historical fiction, movie, novel, TV show, RPG or MMORPG game—and the standards to which that form should be held? For more on these questions, see Elly Truit’s Medieval Robots and her many posts on medievalisms.

(Thanks to my colleague Brett Mulligan for pointing out this article.)

The MORU as Precursor to the MOOC

MOOCs are all the rage right now—academics generally upset or unimpressed and disruptors generally optimistic.

What intrigues me is how familiar the kook-aid (sorry, typo) Kool-aid tastes. The latest technology becomes the mechanism to democratize learning, to bring the best college and university lectures to the underprivileged, and to expand learning to hundreds of thousands of students. The 20th century is littered with such failed schemes. Educational utopia seems as distant at every other post-lapsarian paradise.

Browsing the Popular Science archive, I stumbled across this example: “Professor-Inventor Predicts ‘Radio Universities’.”


Professor Pupin from Colombia University foresaw a “Radio Extension University” poised to disrupt the educational landscape. Once the loudspeaker was perfected, Pupin predicted that “a great university like Colombia, equipped with a powerful broadcasting station for distributing to a knowledge-hungry people some of the vast store of authoritative knowledge accumulated by its great professors and teachers” will broadcast lectures to scores of halls and public meeting places equipped with radio receivers and powerful loudspeakers. The “internationally famous professor, in his classroom, is delivering a lecture on some fascinating new chapter of, say, natural science” that is broadcast to perhaps 100,000 people who have “paid 10¢ for the privilege, first of hearing the lecture by radio, then of submitting answers in a written examination covering the rudiments of the subject.”

Not only does Professor Pupin think this model will provide a university education to those otherwise denied such opportunities, he suspects that soon houses where some “ingenious youth has installed a homemade radio outfit with a loudspeaker” listens to a lecture and then takes a written exam “mailed to him from the university.”

If Professor Pupin’s MORU had succeeded, we wouldn’t now be hearing so much about MOOCs.