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.
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.
Despite President Obama’s recent suggestion, Columbus was anything but an unproblematic spokesman for innovative, modern, secular thought. Columbus was, instead, motivated by conservative prophetic and apocalyptic fears. He considered his voyage across the ocean as part of an effort to convert all the races of the world to Christianity before the end of the world. Columbus’s apocalyptic fears were fueled by his reading of Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago mundi. D’Ailly was bishop of Cambrai and worked to heal the Great Schism. Through d’Ailly’s text Columbus was influenced by Roger Bacon, the pseudo-Methodius, St. Augustine, among others. D’Ailly’s Imago mundi was particularly important for Columbus’s ideas about both the coming apocalypse and the size of the earth. He owned and annotated the 1483 edition of d’Ailly’s work.
Quite a number of Columbus’s annotations concentrated on chapter 8, “On the size of the habitable earth.” In this chapter d’Ailly surveyed the various opinions about how much of the earth was covered in water. Ptolemy, Aristotle, Pliny, and sacred texts disagreed, some claiming that as much as one quarter of the earth was covered in water and others claiming as little as one seventh. Columbus decided that scriptural references were correct and that only one seventh of the earth was covered in water.
The second important bit of information Columbus took from d’Ailly was the size of the earth. In chapter ten, “On the longitude and latitude of the climates,” d’Ailly reported the various ideas about the size of the earth. Citing the Arab astrologer Alfraganus, d’Ailly claimed that one degree at the equator equaled 56 2/3 miles “and thus the whole circumference is two thousand and four hundred miles” (from Pierre d’Ailly, Imago mundi (1483), fol. b1).
Columbus found support for his convictions in d’Ailly’s text. Further, Columbus was convinced that he had both experiential and textual evidence of the earth’s small size. In a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella he wrote:
The world is but small; out of seven divisions of it the dry part occupies six, and the seventh is entirely covered with water. Experience has shown it, and I have written it, with quotations from the Holy Scripture, in other letters, where I have treated of the location of the terrestrial paradise, as approved by the Holy Church; and I say that the world is not so large as vulgar opinion makes it, and that one degree from the equinoctial line measures fifty-six miles and two-thirds. That is a fact that one can touch with one’s own fingers.
(quoted in P.M. Watts, “Prophecy and Discovery: On the Spiritual Origins of Christopher Columbus’s ‘Enterprise to the Indies’,” American Historical Review 90 (1985): 73–102, quotation from 83)
So the question for Columbus wasn’t whether or not the world was round, but how big around was it. His work was convincing the Ferdinand and Isabella as well as their advisors that he was right, that it was only 2400 miles around.
The picture that emerges here is not one of a free-thinking, proto-modern Columbus struggling against the chains of an oppressive and conservative religion. Despite Andrew White’s fictions to the contrary, Columbus was not a warrior of rationality. He did not wage battle against the Church. And he did not “strengthen the theory of the earth’s sphericity” (A. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1876), 19).
Columbus was, contrary to both White and Obama, deeply religious and motivated apocalyptic fears. His voyage westward seems to have been part of his efforts to bring Christianity to the peoples of the world, to save humans before Christ’s Second Coming and Judgement Day. He believed he could make that voyage because his sources had mislead him.
President Obama’s recent suggestion that Columbus proved the earth is round continues to bother me for a number of reasons. In this case, when he appears to be speaking without a script, his words reflect his own lack of historical knowledge. That it wasn’t immediately seized upon as a significant mistake suggests that many people don’t realize it’s a myth. Certainly, few if any of the people who heard him and laughed seemed to recognize it as a mistake. Apparently, basic historical ignorance is common in the U.S. (this isn’t really surprising, but it is unfortunate). Perhaps most upsetting, for me, is what President Obama’s mistake reveals about the marginality and insignificance of the history of science in our culture.
Historians of science have long pointed out that few if any educated people since Aristotle have believed the earth was flat. David Lindberg in his excellent introduction to the history of science states unambiguously:
The sphericity of the earth, thus defended by Aristotle, would never be forgotten or seriously questioned. The widespread myth that medieval people believed in a flat earth is of modern origin.
(David Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 56)
As he points out in his notes and others have pointed out at much greater length, the source of this myth at least in the North American context is the writer Washington Irving, who made it up in the 1820. For longer treatments of this myth, see J. Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth and C. Garwood, Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea.
Yet, if historians of science have been railing against this myth for so long, why do all of my students year in and year out arrive at Haverford College having been taught this myth? And why does President Obama repeat it? One important answer seems to be that historians of science have not been effective at communicating their expertise to a broader audience. We have surrendered this domain of knowledge to writers and people who have a vested interest in using the history of science in their own contests. It is not accidental that the Columbus myth was widely disseminated by John Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science and Andrew D. White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, two books that largely constructed the idea of some inherent conflict between science and religion and did considerable violence to the historical record to demonstrate that conflict.
In the end, President Obama’s mistake reflects as badly on historians of science as it does on the president. Rather than simply bemoan his lack of historical knowledge, we need to push back from our desks, step out of our offices, and retake our domain of expertise in the public sphere. Maybe that means working with high school teachers to design curricula. Maybe that means taking the chance to offer public lectures. Maybe it means spending a couple nights a month teaching a night class for adults. If we don’t begin to think more broadly about our place in society, then we are contributing to our own marginalization.
The common claim that Columbus proved that the earth was round is the zombie myth from hell. It refuses to die. Every year students arrive in my intro class having been taught that people in the Middle Ages believed the earth was flat and that Columbus proved them wrong. This past semester, every student believed this to be true (see my post on the “Biography of a Map”).
Recently President Obama claimed that if opponents of alternative energy had lived during Columbus’s time they would not have believed that the earth was round and that they would have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society. There are two problems with this claim. First, Columbus and his contemporaries did not believe the earth was flat. Second, the Flat Earth Society was not founded until the late 19th century (if you can believe the website). See his comments at 1:05–1:10 on this video. It is appalling that President Obama would repeat this “Columbus proved the earth was round” myth.
Interestingly, only a few places have called President Obama on his error. TPM points out his mistakes in “Obama Mangles U.S., World History in Energy Speech. Strangely, they cite Stephen Jay Gould’s book Dinosaur In a Haystack (1995) rather than readily accessible articles that confront this myth. By citing Gould’s book, they fail to understand how this Columbus myth was the creation of 19th-century Protestants who wanted to portray the Catholic Middle Ages as anti-intellectual. The Columbus myth does work for these anti-Catholic and later anti-religion polemicists. Two readable articles are J. Russel’s “Inventing the Flat Earth” in History Today 41 (1991) and L. Cormack’s “That Medieval Christians Taught that the Earth Was Flat” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Cambridge: HUP, 2009), 28–34.