Columbus and The Flat Earth Myth: Washington Irving's "Mischievous Nonsense"

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
He took three ships with him, too,
And called aboard his faithful crew.
Mighty, strong and brave was he
As he sailed across the open sea.
Some people still thought the world was flat!
Can you even image that?

- A traditional child’s poem -

In a recent post we remarked that conventional wisdom assumes a perpetual conflict between Christianity and science—perpetual and inevitable—because the two are inherently irreconcilable.[1] The history of science is said to be the history of the emancipation of the human race from the ignorance and superstition foisted upon society by two millennia of Christian teaching by obscurantist clergy who suppressed (sometimes violently) discoveries that undermined the view of the world as depicted in the Bible.

John William Draper, for example, accused the Catholic Church of “ferociously suppressing by the stake and the sword every attempt at progress.”[2] This idea of the violent persecution of scientists during the Middle Ages is firmly fixed in the popular imagination but bears little resemblance to actual history. As Ronald Numbers writes on behalf of the twenty-five contributors to his Galileo Goes to Jail: And Other Myths About Science and Religion, “No scientist, to our knowledge, ever lost his life because of his scientific views.”[3]

A number of historians of science have recently shown the conflict thesis to be a myth.[4] Nevertheless, the myth persists, no doubt because it's a useful piece of anti-Christian propaganda. One of the many sub-plots in this mythic narrative is that of Columbus fighting the medieval error of a flat earth.[5] Surely you have heard it many times:  Medieval Europeans believed that if a ship sailed too far west in the Atlantic it would fall off the edge of the earth? 

Picture credit:  P. J. Hill

Supposedly, this belief was derived from Scripture as taught by some of the church’s leading intellects. Andrew Dickson White pinned a large share of the blame on Lactantius (c. 250-325) and Cosmas Indicopleustes (fl. 540) as if they were typical and influential of Christian leaders. But as Russell says,

[White] admitted that Clement of Alexandra, Origen, Ambrose, and Augustine knew about the round earth and that Isidore of Seville in the seventh century and Bede in the eighth defended it, but then he made the odd statement that they went against the dominant theology of a flat earth… White did not explain how Origen and Augustine, two of the most influential fathers, and Isidore and Bede, the two most influential early medieval writers, could be said to be against the “dominant theology of Lactantius, condemned as a heretic, and of Cosmas, unread and ignored.[6]

Lindberg says of Cosmas that he was,

...a self-educated, widely traveled merchant. Converted to Christianity, he was persuaded by certain biblical passages, literally interpreted, that the earth was flat—a flat rectangle, covered with a vault containing the stars and planets. He developed this theory in a book, Christian Topography, in which he employed a variety of arguments in defense of his theory of the flat earth. 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 (as readers of this book must know by now) 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. The myth of pre-Columbian belief in a flat earth, finally laid to rest by Columbus, was the invention of the American essayist Washington Irving, writing in the 1820s.[7]

Washington Irving
As Lindberg indicates, the inventor of the “Columbus as hero, fighting the scientifically ignorant medieval clergy” myth was Washington Irving (1783-1859). Irving is best known for his short stories “Rip Van Winkle” (1819) and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820), but he also wrote a number of historical works, including biographies of George Washington, Muhammad, and Christopher Columbus. As Christine Garwood observes, however, Irving “established a reputation as a humorist with a taste for teasing the public with clever mixtures of fiction and fact.”[8]  His four-volume History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus was published in 1828, and it’s here that we find the origin of the myth. Irving depicts a dramatic confrontation in 1486 at the University of Salamanca between Columbus, on the one hand, and the clergy and the professors of mathematics, geography, and astronomy on the other—a  confrontation with possibly life-threatening implications for the great mariner who feared he might be condemned and burned as a heretic for his denial of a flat earth. In his magisterial, Pulitzer Prize-winning, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, Samuel Eliot Morison calls this version of events “pure moonshine” and “misleading and mischievous nonsense.” He accuses Irving of “letting his imagination go.”[9] The fact of the matter is that no writer contemporary with Columbus refers to the shape of the earth as a point of contention. Columbus never mentions it in his journal, nor does his son, Ferdinand, in his biography of his father, which contains “an extended account” of the meeting.[10]

Nevertheless, Irving’s “mischievous nonsense” was to have a wide-ranging impact.

Aspects of Irving’s tale were regurgitated through the course of the nineteenth century in the work of several French writers… As anticlericalists, they had ideological reasons for using versions of the flat-earth myth to attack the Church for its alleged suppression of scientific knowledge. In terms of the medieval flat-earth belief, Letronne’s scholarly article ‘On the Cosmological Opinions of the Church Fathers’, published six years after Irving’s biography, was an especially influential source for the idea that early Christians believed the earth was flat and that such views were commonplace through the ‘Dark Ages’ of Western civilization.[11]

The debate in Columbus’ time was not whether the earth was flat or round. That had been settled long before. The view that the earth is spherical goes all the way back to classical antiquity. Pythagoras (c. 582-500 B.C.) postulated a spherical earth for aesthetic reasons. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) supported the idea with arguments from observation:  the circular form of the earth’s shadow on the moon during an eclipse; and the change of position of the sun and stars observed when one travels from north to south. Eratosthenes (c. 276-195 B.C.) was the first to estimate the circumference of the globe. He observed that when in southern Egypt the sun was vertically overhead at noon during the summer solstice, it deviated by about 7 degrees at Alexandria in northern Egypt. From this information he calculated the size of the earth to be 18,000 miles.

All educated people knew the earth was a sphere, including the leaders of the church. Augustine (AD 354-430) referred to the earth as a “massive watery sphere,”[12] and he speculated on whether or not there were people who lived on the opposite side of the earth.[13] The Venerable Bede (673-735), known as the Father of English history, maintained the earth “is…a sphere set in the middle of the whole universe. It is not merely circular like a shield [or] spread out like a wheel, but resembles more a ball, being equally round in all directions.”[14] Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) also referred to the earth as being round.[15]

With hardly an exception, Christian leaders from the beginning accepted the notion of a spherical earth. The debate in Columbus’ day was not the shape of the earth, but its size. Columbus accepted Eratosthenes’ estimate of 18,000 miles for the circumference of the earth. The real distance is 25,100 miles, much closer to the 24,000 mile estimate of Columbus' opponents. His underestimate of the earth's circumference, combined with his overestimate of the eastward extension of Asia, led Columbus to conclude he had to travel only 2,300 miles west from the Canaries to Japan. 

The true distance is 12,200 miles. There was no ship in that day that could have been provisioned for such a long journey. Fortunately for Columbus and his men, the Americas stood in the way. They would never would have survived otherwise.

Again, the disagreement between Columbus and the leading scholars of his day was over: (1) not the shape of the earth but its size, and (2) how far the Asian landmass extended eastward toward Europe. On both counts, Columbus was wrong. This is what gave him such difficulty in finding a patron to finance his expedition. Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain finally agreed to the risky enterprise because Portugal, the more advanced sea-faring nation at the time, dominated the southern route to the Indies around the horn of Africa. One would be hard-pressed to find a more successful outcome to a more ill-conceived endeavor in all of history. 

[2] Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, Kindle edition, loc. 4548
[3] Ronald L. Numbers, ed., Galileo Goes to Jail:  And Other Myths about Science and Religion (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 6. Numbers describes the contributors’ religious views: “Nearly half, twelve of twenty five, self-identify as agnostic or atheist (that is, unbelievers in religion). Among the remaining thirteen there are five mainstream Protestants, two evangelical Protestants, one Roman Catholic, one Jew, one Muslim, one Buddhist—and two whose beliefs fit no conventional category (including one pious Spinozist)." (pp. 6-7)
[4] For example, see Joshua Moritz, Christianity and Science: Beyond Warfare and Toward Understanding (Winona, MN:  Anselm Academic, 2016); Helen De Cruz, Religion and Science, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Archive (Jan. 17, 2017); Stanley L. Jaki, The Savior of Science (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000); and David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science:  The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450 (Chicago, IL:  The University of Chicago Press, 2007)
[5] Draper, chapter VI, ; White chapter III; Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself (New York, NY: Random House, Inc. 1983) chapter 14 “The Flat Earth Returns”;
[6] Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1997), p. 45
[7] David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science:  The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450, p. 161 (emphasis is in the original).
[8] Christine Garwood, Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea (New York, NY: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin Press, 2008), p. 6
[9] Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (Boston, MA:  Little, Brown and Company, 1942), p. 89
[10] Russell, pp. 7, 54
[11] Christine Garwood, Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, p. 8
[12] Augustine, Literal Meaning of Genesis, 30, 33
[13] The City of God, Book XVI, Chapter 9
[14] On the Reckoning of Time, chap. 32
[15] Summa Theologica, Question 1, Article 1


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