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a Victorian era novelist invented the flat earth theory

May 29, 2012

Apparently Washington Irving came up with the flat earth theory in his fictional novel, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus I (1829). Then John Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s book A History of The Warfare Between Science and Theology in Christendom picked it up and popularized the idea that everybody thought the earth was flat until Columbus.

Rubbish!  That’s what happens when you let novelists write history.  So feel free to ignore Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.  Novels shouldn’t be read as history.

In his book, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, Jeffery Burton Russell outlines the historical reality that from the third century B.C. onward, the vast majority of educated people believed the earth was round.  The medieval church as a whole did not teach or hold to a flat earth; rather this was a theory non-Christian Victorians popularized as part of the myth of conflict between science and religion.  Summarizing his book’s findings, Russell told the 1997 American Scientific Affiliation Conference:

[W]ith extraordinary few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat. A round earth appears at least as early as the sixth century BC with Pythagoras, who was followed by Aristotle, Euclid, and Aristarchus, among others in observing that the earth was a sphere. Although there were a few dissenters—Leukippos and Demokritos for example–by the time of Eratosthenes (3 c. BC), followed by Crates(2 c. BC), Strabo (3 c. BC), and Ptolemy (first c. AD), the sphericity of the earth was accepted by all educated Greeks and Romans.

Nor did this situation change with the advent of Christianity. A few—at least two and at most five—early Christian fathers denied the spherically of earth by mistakenly taking passages such as Ps. 104:2-3 as geographical rather than metaphorical statements. On the other side tens of thousands of Christian theologians, poets, artists, and scientists took the spherical view throughout the early, medieval, and modern church. The point is that no educated person believed otherwise.

You can find the quote above and a lot more context over at the blog Contra Mundum,

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 11, 2016 1:53 pm

    Благодарствую за неуместный черный юмор.
    Вчитал всю соль. Из текста следует, что преуспеть
    уже завтра очень легко? Приятно удивлен.

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