Tag: Flat earth

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.  ↩

A Call for Historical Accuracy

If we inveigh against people who distort science and ignore facts to prove their point and we label them dogmatic knuckleheads, we should at least guard against committing the same missteps in our criticisms of them.

Phil Plait recently drew attention to and rightly criticized a pseudo-documentary promoting geocentrism.[1] The same day, Lawrence Krauss—a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, and one of the experts who appears in the movie—proposes plausible ways he ended up, apparently, a spokesman for geocentricism. Yesterday, Graham Slaughter, staff reporter for The Toronto Star, reported on the pseudo-documentary and the various experts and former Star Trek actor who appear in the film: “Why do prominent scientists and a Star Trek star appear in unscientific ‘documentary’?

I have no doubt that this latest piece of quasi-scientific[2] claptrap is rubbish, but getting the history wrong—or, to put it more bluntly, ignoring facts and evidence[3]—mars both Krauss’s and Slaughter’s critiques (to be clear: Plait does not get the history wrong in his post).

In lamenting the persistence of old and false ideas, Krauss propagates an old and false idea.
In lamenting the persistence of old and false ideas, Krauss propagates an old and false idea.

Krauss repeats the flat earth myth. Lamenting his celebrity status, Krauss says

I get bombarded regularly by all sorts of claims, and have become painfully aware that ideas as old as the notion that the Earth is flat never seem to die out completely.

Krauss dredges up once again that past when the benighted humans roamed an earth they believed was flat. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that such a past ever existed.

The evidence offers up just three people, three, who claimed the earth was flat (or at least not a sphere): Lactantius—an early Christian author and advisor to Emperor Constantine I, Severian—a fourth-century Bishop of Gabala, and Cosmas Indicopleustes—a sixth-century Byzantine monk.[4] And there is no evidence that their opinions were widely accepted. Instead, the overwhelming vast majority of evidence reveals that people—Christians and pagans alike—believed the earth was a sphere. Most of this evidence provides reasonable philosophical and sometimes empirical arguments for the sphericity of the earth—more than two millennia ago Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth, which circumference scholars continued to cite for the next 1700 years.[5]

The evidence does not support the inference that people believed the earth was flat. To be sure, we cannot infer what the uneducated “person on the street” might have believed—that person might have believed the earth was a potato chip—but we can say the evidence supports the conclusion that people argued for a globe-shaped earth. If the evidence reflects contemporary beliefs, then the overwhelming vast majority of people throughout history have believed the earth was a sphere.

Yet this flat earth myth persists. While I might forgive President Obama when he invokes it, it’s harder to forgive purportedly fact-based science journalism for propagating the flat earth story. I find it more regrettable when Krauss repeats it. He rightly lambasts people who propound a geocentric model of the cosmos for ignoring evidence and facts. I would like to see him apply the same standard to his own claims about the past the believed in a flat earth. In both cases evidence and facts demonstrate that these claims—the geocentric model of the cosmos and the flat earth past—are wrong.[6]

Krauss didn’t need to invoke history to make his point. But since he did, he should strive to get his facts right. I suppose that’s what bothers me most. Krauss is an expert in cosmology and theoretical physics. His domain of expertise does not extend to history. Just as people invoking cosmology or theoretical physics should consult an expert about about their statements, so too should Krauss consult an expert—in this case, a historian of science—when he invokes history.

Slaughter hits all the high points of the Copernican Revolution myth in his attack on a pseudo-documentary.
Slaughter hits all the high points of the Copernican Revolution myth in his attack on a pseudo-documentary.

Graham Slaughter too should consult some historians of science. Slaughter opens his article by saying:

In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus turned the scientific world on its head when he presented a controversial theory: the sun, not the earth, is the centre of our solar system.
The church was scandalized. How could God’s greatest creation be under the orbital control of a giant, burning star? Many Protestant scholars blasted Copernicus, saying his writings flew in the face of the Bible.

Here we have all the set pieces of the Copernican revolution myth: we see the hero, the revolution, and the villain.

As historians of science have long noted and widely discussed (and Thony C. has colorfully pointed out in various posts), the “scientific world” of the 16th century largely ignored or was ignorant of Copernicus’s “controversial theory.”[7] Moreover, the church was not scandalized. Late in the game, the Catholic Church placed Copernicus’s book on the Index, but that was in the 17th century after Galileo and Paolo Foscarini antagonized the Church by challenging its authority (again, see Thony’s post). And the Protestants were some of the earliest supporters of Copernicus’s theory.[8]

Slaughter didn’t need to appeal to Copernicus in his criticism of the pseudo-documentary. But since he did, he should get the history right. Alas, the history is once again wrong, and wrong in all the same ways that the pseudo-documentary is wrong: both ignore evidence and disregard facts.

I am not defending the producers of this latest quasi-scientific, geocentric dross or the film itself. I am, instead, calling for greater attention to facts and evidence in our criticisms of such dreck, especially if we are going to assume the moral, factual, and evidential high ground. We can do better.


  1. Plait provides the title, so click through if you want to know. I, like Lawrence Krauss, would rather not provide additional coverage for the film.  ↩

  2. It might not even rise to the level of “quasi-scientific.”  ↩

  3. Or distorting them or not doing the work to check them.  ↩

  4. Polemical writings accuse two other authors of denying the sphericity of the earth, but this is indirect and problematic evidence that cannot be taken at face value.  ↩

  5. Sometimes scribal errors corrupted the value reported for this circumference, as was the case in the sources Columbus was using. He argued for a much smaller number than was commonly accepted. He and his detractors argued over the how big around the earth was, not whether the earth was round.  ↩

  6. Accessible, and short, scholarly articles are readily available, e.g., Lesley Cormack’s “That the Medieval Christians Taught That the Earth Was Flat” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Chicago, 2009), as are popular books on the subject, e.g., Christine Garwood, Flat Earth. The History of an Infamous Idea (New York, 2008) or Jeffrey Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth (New York, 1991). A quick Google search will turn up both the wikipedia page and my various rantings about it.  ↩

  7. Historians of science typically claim there were 10 Copernicans in the 16th century. Owen Gingerich has argued that more 16th-century scholars than previously thought might have encountered Copernicus’s De revolutionibus through the teachings of a small group of university masters, but this is indirect and inconclusive evidence. See Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read.  ↩

  8. Robert Westman pointed this nearly 40 years ago in “The Melanchthon Circle, Rheticus, and the Wittemberg Interpretation of the Copernican Theory,” Isis 66(1975): 165–93. For a considerably more thorough analysis of the so-called Copernican revolution, see Westman’s The Copernican Question (Berkeley, 2011)  ↩

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.  ↩

Fighting the Flat Earth Myth

YouTube that briefly looks at and explains five historical misconceptions: horned Viking helmets, Lady Godiva, the tiny Napoleon, the infamous vomitorium, and Columbus and the flat earth. See 5 Historical Misconceptions, which was linked to at Smithsonian.com. The Columbus bit is the last section and begins around 2:50 into the video. The video is a bit quirky but amusing and accessible. According to the stats, the video C.P.G. Grey posted a week ago has already attracted more than 454,000 views and 10,000 likes. It seems Grey has developed an effective means of reaching a broad audience.

Columbus (not) convincing the masses that the earth is round.

On C.G.P. Grey’s YouTube channel there are a few other videos that treat science and history of science topics, along with some explanations of political processes, coffee, and santa. While I would like to think there is some connection between my ranting about Columbus and the flat earth myth, that’s probably attributing to me too much credit. I am content to see that somebody else has joined the struggle.