Washington Irving’s Columbus and the Flat Earth

For generations now American school children have learned that Christopher Columbus proved the earth was round. They have learned that the Church tried to prevent Columbus from sailing west to Asia, fearing that he and his seamen would sail off the edge of the earth or plunge into a chasm. They know that Columbus persevered and eventually overcame religious opposition. And they know that Columbus was right. At its core, the Columbus story pits humble rationality against dogmatic obscurantism in a sort of secular inversion of the David and Goliath story. Judging from the students in my intro classes, the Columbus story is thriving in American schools.

The only problem, as any historian or historian of science will tell you: it’s a myth.

Like any beloved myth, the Columbus story mixes truths and truthiness, something that seems so natural and so obviously true but isn’t. Columbus did face opposition. He did persevere. He did sail west. He did find land (not Asia as he had predicted and continued to believe but the New World). But these truths have nothing to do with the shape of the earth—Columbus and all his detractors knew that the earth was round. The truthiness in the myth lies, on the one hand, in the image of a dogmatic medieval Spanish Church that clung to a retrograde idea about the shape of the earth and refused to listen to reason and evidence. On the other hand, truthiness also inheres in the image of Columbus as a proto-modern, quasi-secular thinker guided only by reason and evidence. The truthiness is the reason 19th-century authors fabricated the myth and 21st-century educators continue to repeat it.

The seeds of the Columbus myth seem to grow from Washington Irving’s biography of Columbus, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828) (online here). Alexander Everett, Minister Plenipotentiary to Spain, had invited Irving to Madrid in the hopes that Irving would translate a recently published collection of documents on Columbus. When Irving got there and had a chance to read the collection, he decided

that a history, faithfully digested from these various materials, was a desideratum in literature, and would be a more acceptable work to my country, than the translation [he] had contemplated.

So he set out to write a history of Columbus. Irving enjoyed unfettered access to libraries, which he mined for his biography. He culled from manuscripts and published books a wealth of information. Despite the material at his disposal, the sources were at times silent or missing or not all that interesting. So Irving embellished. He wrote what should have happened, what surely did happen even if the evidence had since disappeared. He did what historians had been doing since Herodotus: he made it up. He seamlessly wove fact and fiction together into a “clear and continued narrative.”

Irving detailed Columbus’s thoughts about the size of the earth. Columbus examined earlier maps that depicted the known world that stretched from Canary Islands in the west to its eastern limits in China. The Portuguese had more recently explored further west to the Azores. According to Columbus’s calculations, only a third of the earth’s circumference remained unexplored. Moreover, based on his reading of Arabic astronomers, Columbus thought the length of a degree at the equator was shorter than the commonly accepted length. The third of earth’s circumference was, Columbus concluded, much smaller than that accepted by contemporary cosmographers. As Irving pointed out in various places, Columbus was aberrant in his beliefs, which beliefs were, in fact, wrong:

It is singular how much the success of this great undertaking depended upon two happy errors, the imaginary extent of Asia to the east, and the supposed smallness of the earth ….[1]

But a recitation of historical truths was boring, especially when Irving knew the confrontation between Columbus and the Council at Salamanca must have been dramatic. So Irving embellished a little when he described Columbus before the council. He enhanced the historical truths with truthiness—events that seemed so right, so natural, that must have happened even if there’s no record of them.

The Council at Salamanca was composed of professors of astronomy, geography, mathematics, as well as church dignitaries and learned friars, and convened to examine Columbus’s “new theory.” Most of the council members were biased against Columbus, “an obscure foreigner, without fortune, or connexions, or any academic honors.” In what must have been the acme of truthiness for Irving, he described the council benighted by “monastic bigotry” and assailing Columbus with Biblical citations. They rejected mathematical demonstrations that conflicted with scriptures or Church Fathers. At issue was not, however, the shape of the earth, but the possibility of antipodes:

Thus the possibility of antipodes in the southern hemisphere … became a stumbling block with some of the sages of Salamanca.

Members of the council invoked Lactantius, who connected the existence of antipodes to the shape of the earth. Irving quoted what has become the standard passage:

“The idea of the roundness of the earth,” he adds, “was the cause of inventing this fable of the antipodes with their heels in the air….”

A quick reading of Irving might confirm that the issue here was the shape of the earth, but in the next sentence he returned to the antipodes:

But more grave objections were advanced on the authority of St. Augustine. He pronounced the doctrine of antipodes incompatible with the historical foundations of our faith; since, to assert that there were inhabited lands on the opposite side of the globe, would be to maintain that there were nations not descended from Adam, it being impossible for them to have passed the intervening ocean.

The council’s grave objections focused on the existence of other humans, not on the shape of the earth.

Iriving described briefly a couple objections raised about the shape of the earth—passages from the Psalms and St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews—but these serve merely as a foil for the objections raised by “[o]thers, more versed in science, [who] admitted the globular form of the earth.” Their objections were grounded the knowledge that the earth was a sphere. They worried that it was impossible to sail across the torrid zone at the equator, that only the northern hemisphere was inhabitable, and that the circumference of the earth was so great as to require three years to sail across the Atlantic.

Whatever liberties Irving took in crafting his biography, he did not lose sight of historical truths. Instead, and perhaps more disturbingly, he enlisted those truths in the service of truthiness. In Irving’s version, Columbus had struggled against “errors and prejudices, the mingled ignorance and erudition, and the pedantic bigotry” of the Spanish Church that refused to listen to reason and evidence. His biography was less about Columbus and more about the timeless struggle between on the one hand rationality, science, individuality, and anti-aristocratic modernity and, on the other hand, a retrograde, oppressive, medieval Church. It was the story’s truthiness that appealed to other 19th-century authors.

Within a decade, William Whewell had published his History of the Inductive Sciences (1837) (online here). In a section on antipodes, he admitted that most people throughout history had known the earth was round. Only a few people who preferred scriptural evidence over physical evidence denied the sphericity of the earth. Lactantius, of course, and now Cosmas Indicopleustes, who says nothing about antipodes but offers an easily mocked tabernacle-shaped world and flat earth. Whewell then returns to the antipodes before concluding the section by casually remarking: “Tostatus notes the opinion of the rotundity of the earth as an unsafe doctrine, only a few years before Columbus visited the other hemisphere.” Again, Columbus and the shape of the earth.

By the latter 19th-century, the supposed truth of the Columbus story had completely replaced the historical truths. In works like John Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) (online here) we read nothing of the reasoned objections raised by the Council at Salamanca or of Columbus’s errors. Instead we learn that his proposal’s

irreligious tendency was pointed out by the Spanish ecclesiastics, and condemned by the Council of Salamanca; its orthodoxy was confuted from the Pentateuch, the Psalms, the Prophecies, the Gospels, the Epistles, and the writings of the Fathers—St. Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Gregory, St. Basil, St Ambrose.

In the end, Columbus prevailed and along with Vasco Da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan finally settled the question of the shape of the earth.

By the time Andrew White wrote his A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) (online here), Columbus’s struggles to overcome a medieval Church that believed in a flat earth had become historical fact. Historical truth had surrendered to truthiness. White transformed Irving’s biased but still recognizable historical account into little more than agitprop:

The warfare of Columbus the world knows well: how the Bishop of Ceuta worsted him in Portugal; how sundry wise men of Spain confronted him with the usual quotations from the Psalms, from St. Paul, and from St. Augustine; how, even after he was triumphant, and after his voyage had greatly strengthened the theory of the earth’s sphericity, with which the theory of the antipodes was so closely connected, the Church by its highest authority solemnly stumbled and persisted in going astray.

Despite decades of historical work and dozens of articles and textbooks and, more recently, blogposts, the Columbus myth is alive and well in the United States. The cosmologist Lawrence Krauss recently invoked it. President Obama equated opponents of clean energy to people who opposed Columbus on the grounds that the earth was flat. The president received much applause when he said (at 0:55 in the video):

If some of these folks [opponents of clean energy] were around when Columbus set sail, they must have been founding members of the flat earth society. They would not have believed that the world was round.

More recently still, Chris Impey, an astronomer at University of Arizona who claims to be interested in and knowledgable about history, fell prey to the Columbus myth in a lecture posted on YouTube, “Ancient Astronomy.” He identifies himself as “a student of history” and a member of a select group, “the educated extreme of the culture.” Yet moments earlier he lamented that

[t]here was a thing called the Dark Ages. There was a period of 700 or 800 years when all of the extraordinary insights of the Greek philosophers were utterly lost. People thought the world was flat. And truly thought the world was flat. There were demons that lurked at the edge of the map.

He underscores this claim in his video series “Teach Astronomy” (which is part of an online textbook). In the section on “The Dark Ages” he says:

In the fourth century with the fall of Rome and the sacking of the great library at Alexandria scientific darkness fell across Europe. Even the language of learning, Latin, splintered as warring tribes took over. The theology of the day was defined by Augustine, and the Christian church was mostly anti-science. The learning of the Romans and the Greeks was denigrated as pagan knowledge. Even the knowledge of the round Earth was lost for many centuries.

Impey’s comments reveal, I think, the power of the Columbus myth. It has become so central to the idea of modernity, that even a self-described student of history who is both smart and very educated—part of the “educated extreme”—is not motivated to do a simple internet search to fact check that part of his lecture and textbook. Whereas Irving had mixed truths and truthiness into a “clear and continued narrative,” subsequent authors have pruned the historical truths from the story, leaving just a myth that has become part of modern folklore.


  1. Irving’s biography also depicts Columbus as something of a zealot, motivated by religious and dogmatic convictions as much as anything. For more on Columbus’s religious motivations, see Columbus’s Voyage was a Religious Journey.  ↩