No, Columbus Wasn’t Worried About Falling Off the Edge of a Flat Earth

I think it’s fair to say that most Boomers (and some who came afterwards) were taught that one reason Columbus sailed west to determine whether the earth was flat.  But this won’t wash, as BizzareVictoria notes:

Everyone knows that in the medieval era, everyone thought the world was flat, and Columbus discovered the Americas in part because he was trying to circumnavigate the globe, to prove it was round, and to end up in India, right?

Except all of this is wrong. 

Eco tells us that people have known the world was spherical since ancient Greece. “Parmenides seems to have guessed its spherical nature, while Pythagoras held that it was spherical for mystical-mathematical reasons [and] subsequent demonstrations of the roundness of the Earth were based on empirical observations: see the texts by Plato and Aristotle. Doubts about sphericity linger in Democritus and Epicurus, and Lucretius denies the existence of the Antipodes, but in general for all of late antiquity, the spherical form of the Earth was no longer debated” (11).

In addition to providing additional backup to this claim, BizzareVictoria goes on to detail how Victorians, frustrated at the opposition of the church to evolution, spread the idea that the medaevals, following Lactantius, thought the earth was flat.

To all that I’d like to add the following:

  1. The Bible does not teach that the earth is flat (cf. Isaiah 40:22.)  There was a great deal of knowledge interchange amongst the civilisations of the Middle East, including the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians and Greeks, a fact that was better appreciated in ancient times than it is now.
  2. Dante certainly conceived the earth as round, which is closer to Columbus’ time than the Bible.
  3. If there was a central fault in medaeval science, it was an over-reliance on the ancients for scientific fact.  That’s why Galileo butted heads with the schoolmen of his day. In this case, however, that reliance was correct.

As for Lactantius, he wasn’t exactly in the top shelf of Patristic writers, a fact also recognised in medaeval times.  One thing he was dead right on, however, was the rapacity of Late Roman tax collection methods, which doubtless hasn’t endeared him to the bureaucrats.

HT Tim Harding.

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