Flat Earth and the Qur'an/Myth of the Flat Earth

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Myth of the Flat Earth (Wikipedia, June 11, 2013)[1][edit]

The famous "Flat Earth" Flammarion engraving originates with Flammarion's 1888 L'atmosphère: météorologie populaire (p. 163)

The myth of the Flat Earth is the modern misconception that the prevailing cosmological view during the Middle Ages saw the Earth as flat, instead of spherical.[2] The idea seems to have been widespread during the first half of the 20th century, so that the Members of the Historical Association in 1945 stated that:

"The idea that educated men at the time of Columbus believed that the earth was flat, and that this belief was one of the obstacles to be overcome by Columbus before he could get his project sanctioned, remains one of the hardiest errors in teaching."[3]

During the early Middle Ages, virtually all scholars maintained the spherical viewpoint first expressed by the Ancient Greeks. From at least the 14th century, belief in a flat earth among the educated was nearly nonexistent, in spite of fanciful depictions in art, such as the exterior of Hieronymus Bosch's famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, in which a disc-shaped earth is shown floating inside a transparent sphere.[4]

According to Stephen Jay Gould, "there never was a period of 'flat earth darkness' among scholars (regardless of how the public at large may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the earth's roundness as an established fact of cosmology."[5] Historians of science David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers point out that "there was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth's] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference".[6]

Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell says the flat earth error flourished most between 1870 and 1920, and had to do with the ideological setting created by struggles over evolution.[7] Russell claims "with extraordinary [sic] few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat", and credits histories by John William Draper, Andrew Dickson White, and Washington Irving for popularizing the flat-earth myth.[8]


In Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, Jeffrey Russell describes the Flat Earth theory as a fable used to impugn pre-modern civilization, especially that of the Middle Ages in Europe.[9]

James Hannam wrote:

The myth that people in the Middle Ages thought the earth is flat appears to date from the 17th century as part of the campaign by Protestants against Catholic teaching. But it gained currency in the 19th century, thanks to inaccurate histories such as John William Draper's History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White's History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Atheists and agnostics championed the conflict thesis for their own purposes, but historical research gradually demonstrated that Draper and White had propagated more fantasy than fact in their efforts to prove that science and religion are locked in eternal conflict.[10]

Early modern period[edit]

French dramatist Cyrano de Bergerac in chapter 5 of his The Other World The Societies and Governments of the Moon (published 2 years posthumously in 1657) quotes St. Augustine as saying "that in his day and age the earth was as flat as a stove lid and that it floated on water like half of a sliced orange."[11] Robert Burton, in his The Anatomy of Melancholy[12] wrote:

Virgil, sometimes bishop of Saltburg (as Aventinus anno 745 relates) by Bonifacius bishop of Mentz was therefore called in question, because he held antipodes (which they made a doubt whether Christ died for) and so by that means took away the seat of hell, or so contracted it, that it could bear no proportion to heaven, and contradicted that opinion of Austin [St. Augustine], Basil, Lactantius that held the earth round as a trencher (whom Acosta and common experience more largely confute) but not as a ball.

Thus, there is evidence that accusations of flatearthism, though somewhat whimsical (Burton ends his digression with a legitimate quotation of St. Augustine: "Better doubt of things concealed, than to contend about uncertainties, where Abraham's bosom is, and hell fire"[12]) were used to discredit opposing authorities several centuries before the 19th. Another early mention in literature is Ludvig Holberg's comedy Erasmus Montanus (1723). Erasmus Montanus meets considerable opposition when he claims the Earth is round, since all the peasants hold it to be flat. He is not allowed to marry his fiancée until he cries "The earth is flat as a pancake". In Thomas Jefferson's book Notes on the State of Virginia (1784), framed as answers to a series of questions (queries), Jefferson uses the "Query" regarding religion to attack the idea of state-sponsored official religions. In the chapter, Jefferson relates a series of official erroneous beliefs about nature forced upon people by authority. One of these is the episode of Galileo's struggles with authority, which Jefferson erroneously frames in terms of the shape of the globe:[13]

Government is just as infallible too when it fixes systems in physics. Galileo was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error. This error however at length prevailed, the earth became a globe, and Descartes declared it was whirled round its axis by a vortex.

19th century[edit]

File:Orlando-Ferguson-flat-earth-map edit.jpg
Flat Earth map drawn by Orlando Ferguson in 1893. The map contains several references to biblical passages as well as various jabs at the "Globe Theory".

The 19th century was a period in which the perception of an antagonism between religion and science was especially strong. The disputes surrounding the Darwinian revolution contributed to the birth of the conflict thesis.[14][15]

Irving's biography of Columbus[edit]

In 1828, Washington Irving's highly romanticised biography, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus,[16] was published and mistaken by many for a scholarly work.[17] In Book III, Chapter II of this biography, Irving gave a largely fictional account of the meetings of a commission established by the Spanish sovereigns to examine Columbus's proposals. One of his more fanciful embellishments was a highly unlikely tale that the more ignorant and bigoted members on the commission had raised scriptural objections to Columbus's assertions that the Earth was spherical.[18]

The issue in the 1490s was not the shape of the Earth, but its size, and the position of the east coast of Asia, as Irving in fact points out. Historical estimates from Ptolemy onwards placed the coast of Asia about 180° east of the Canary Islands.[19] Columbus adopted an earlier (and rejected) distance of 225°, added 28° (based on Marco Polo's travels), and then placed Japan another 30° further east. Starting from Cape St. Vincent in Portugal, Columbus made Eurasia stretch 283° to the east, leaving the Atlantic as only 77° wide. Since he planned to leave from the Canaries (9° further west), his trip to Japan would only have to cover 68° of longitude.[20]

Columbus mistakenly used a much shorter length for a degree (he substituted the shorter 1480 m Italian "mile" for the longer 2177 m Arabic "mile"), making his degree (and the circumference of the Earth) about 75% of what it really was.[21] The combined effect of these mistakes was that Columbus estimated the distance to Japan to be only about 5,000 km (or only to the eastern edge of the Caribbean) while the true figure is about 20,000 km. The Spanish scholars may not have known the exact distance to the east coast of Asia, but they believed that it was significantly further than Columbus' projection; and this was the basis of the criticism in Spain and Portugal, whether academic or amongst mariners, of the proposed voyage.

The disputed point was not the shape of the Earth, nor the idea that going west would eventually lead to Japan and China, but the ability of European ships to sail that far across open seas. The small ships of the day (Columbus' three ships varied between 20.5 and 23.5 m – or 67 to 77 feet – in length and carried about 90 men) simply could not carry enough food and water to reach Japan. The ships barely reached the eastern Caribbean islands. Already the crews were mutinous, not because of some fear of "sailing off the edge", but because they were running out of food and water with no chance of any new supplies within sailing distance. They were on the edge of starvation.[22] What saved Columbus was the unknown existence of the Americas precisely at the point he thought he would reach Japan. His ability to resupply with food and water from the Caribbean islands allowed him to return safely to Europe. Otherwise his crews would have died, and the ships foundered.

Letronne, Whewell and Flammarion[edit]

In 1834, a few years after the publication of Irving's book, Jean Antoine Letronne, a French academic of strong antireligious ideas, misrepresented the church fathers and their medieval successors as believing in a flat earth, in his On the Cosmographical Ideas of the Church Fathers.[23] Then, in 1837, the English philosopher of science William Whewell first identified, in his History of the Inductive Sciences, two minimally significant characters named Lactantius (245–325, also mocked by Copernicus in De revolutionibus of 1543, as someone who speaks quite childishly about the Earth's shape, when he mocks those who declared that the Earth has the form of a globe) and Cosmas Indicopleustes, who wrote his "Christian Topography" in 547–549. Whewell pointed to them as evidence of a medieval belief in a Flat Earth, and other historians quickly followed him, although they could identify few other examples.[24]

The widely circulated engraving of a man poking his head through the firmament surrounding the Earth to view the Empyrean, executed in the style of the 16th century was published in Camille Flammarion's L'Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888, p. 163).[25] The engraving illustrates the statement in the text that a medieval missionary claimed that "he reached the horizon where the Earth and the heavens met". In its original form, the engraving included a decorative border that places it in the 19th century; in later publications, some claiming that the engraving did, in fact, date to the 16th century, the border was removed. Flammarion, according to anecdotal evidence, had commissioned the Flammarion engraving himself.

20th century[edit]

Since the early 20th century, a number of books and articles have documented the flat earth error as one of a number of widespread misconceptions in popular views of the Middle Ages. The misconception has had no currency in historical scholarship since at least 1920, but it persisted in popular culture and in some school textbooks into the 1960s. Both E.M.W. Tillyard's book The Elizabethan World Picture and C.S. Lewis' The Discarded Image are devoted to a broad survey of how the universe was viewed in Renaissance and medieval times, and both extensively discuss how the educated classes knew the world was round. Lewis draws attention to the fact that in Dante's The Divine Comedy about an epic voyage through hell, purgatory, and heaven, the earth is spherical with gravity being towards the center of the earth. As the devil is frozen in a block of ice in the center of the earth, Dante and Virgil climb down the devil's torso, but up from the devil's waist to his feet, as his waist is at the center of the earth.

An American schoolbook by Emma Miller Bolenius published in 1919 has this introduction to the suggested reading for Columbus Day (12 October):

When Columbus lived, people thought that the earth was flat. They believed the Atlantic Ocean to be filled with monsters large enough to devour their ships, and with fearful waterfalls over which their frail vessels would plunge to destruction. Columbus had to fight these foolish beliefs in order to get men to sail with him. He felt sure the earth was round.[26]

Previous editions of Thomas Bailey's The American Pageant stated that "The superstitious sailors [of Columbus' crew] ... grew increasingly mutinous...because they were fearful of sailing over the edge of the world"; however, no such historical account is known.[27] The 1937 popular song, They All Laughed contains the couplet "They all laughed at Christopher Columbus/When he said the world was round". In the Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon Hare We Go (1951) Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand the Catholic quarrel about the shape of the earth. The king states the earth is flat. In Walt Disney's 1963 animation The Sword in the Stone, wizard Merlin (who has traveled into the future) explains to his apprentice that "One day they will discover that the earth is round". Jeffrey Burton Russell rebutted the prevalence of belief in the flat earth in the monograph 1991 [Russell, Jeffrey Burton (1991), Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and modern historians, New York: Praeger, ISBN 0-275-95904-X] and the paper 1997 [Russell, Jeffrey Burton (1997), "The Myth of the Flat Earth", Studies in the History of Science (American Scientific Affiliation), retrieved 2007-07-14]. Louise Bishop (2008) states that virtually every thinker and writer of the 1000-year medieval period affirmed the spherical shape of the earth.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ("Myth of the Flat Earth", Wikipedia, accessed June 12, 2013 (archived), http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Myth_of_the_Flat_Earth&oldid=556807448. )
  2. Template:Harvnb. See also Template:Harvnb.
  3. Template:Harvnb In this pamphlet the Historical Association listed "Columbus and the Flat Earth Conception" second of twenty in its first-published pamphlet on common errors in history.
  4. Template:Harvnb
  5. Template:Harvnb
  6. Template:Harvnb
  7. http://www.christiananswers.net/q-aig/aig-c034.html
  8. Template:Harvnb.Template:Page needed See also Russell's book Template:Harv.
  9. Template:Harvnb.Template:Page needed
  10. James Hannam. "Science Versus Christianity?".
  11. The Other World The Societies and Governments of the Moon, translated by Donald Webb
  12. 12.0 12.1 Second Partition, Section 2, Member 3 "Air Rectified. With a Digression of the Air" The Anatomy of Melancholy
  13. [1] Jefferson, Thomas, 1743–1826 . Notes on the State of Virginia, Query regarding RELIGION. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.
  14. Template:Harvnb
  15. David B. Wilson writes about the development of the conflict thesis in "The Historiography of Science and Religion" Template:Harv.
  16. Template:Harvnb
  17. Template:Harvnb.
  18. Irving, p.90.Template:Citation needed
  19. Ptolemy, Geography, book 1:14.
  20. Template:Harvnb, vol. 1, p. 65; Template:Harvnb, pp. 27–30.
  21. Template:Harvnb, pp. 1–2, 27–30.
  22. Template:Harvnb, pp. 209, 211.
  23. Template:Harvnb.Template:Page needed
  24. Template:Harvnb
  25. History_of_Science_Collections
  26. Template:Harvnb quoted in Template:Harvnb.
  27. Template:Harvnb, p. 56.
  28. Template:Harvnb.


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