The Great Myths 1: The Medieval Flat Earth

The Great Myths 1: The Medieval Flat Earth

New Atheists love astronomer and science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson.  It’s not hard to see why, given that Tyson is a pretty lovable guy: he’s charismatic, articulate, poised, funny and does a good job of bringing science to the masses.  And this is something he did back in January where a rapper called “B.o.B.” began tweeting that the world is actually flat. Yes, this genius actually believes that the whole spherical world idea, known since the sixth century BC and proven by small things like Magellan’s circumnavigation and thousands of space flights, is actually a big conspiracy.  B.o.B also believes that genetically modified crops, the Holocaust, NASA and science generally are all conspiracies as well.  Because he’s a moron.

So Tyson did what a good science educator should do and gave B.o.B. and his fans a quick lesson in how we know that the earth is, in fact, not flat.  And he was doing well … until he tweeted this:

So according to Neil deGrasse Tyson, people 500 years ago believed the earth was flat.  Except, ummm, they didn’t.  Luckily there are a few people out there whose grasp of history is rather better than Tyson’s, so a few days later someone questioned the great man’s assertion:

But the great STEM Lord was having none of this and proceeded to use his mighty powers of sciency scienceness to make declarations about history because, science:

Ah – the “Dark Ages”!  So the impertinent peon was silenced and everyone got back to being all scientific and rational. Neil deGrasse Tyson had spoken and, being a scientist, what he had said must be right.  Because, science.

Except, he was wrong.

Inventing the Flat Earth

Tyson can perhaps be forgiven to a certain extent.  The idea that the knowledge of the shape of the earth was “lost to the Dark Ages” and only finally restored by Columbus’ voyage is still commonly believed and is very much a part of the American foundation myth.  No doubt like most of his generation Tyson would have have seen the 1951 Bugs Bunny cartoon “Hare We Go” in which Bugs helps Columbus prove the earth is round in the face of a medieval king’s scepticism.  And as recently as 1983, when Tyson was in college, Daniel Boorstin was able to write:

“A Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia …. afflicted the continent from A.D. 300 to at least 1300.  During those centuries Christian faith and dogma suppressed the useful image of the world that had been so slowly, so painfully and so scrupulously drawn by ancient geographers.” (The Discoverers, 1983, p. 100)

Boorstin goes on to pour scorn on the “legion of Christian geographers” who followed the path of the stupid sixth century flat-earther Cosmas Indicopleustes and so plunged Europe into this millennium of ignorance.  So, for some at least, the idea of the medieval belief in a flat earth remains a useful stick with which to beat those detested “Dark Ages” and Christianity’s dead hand on “progress”.

Back in 2012 New Atheist blogger Donald Prothero took hold of the flat earth stick and gave Christianity a vigorous beating.  Prothero is Professor of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and he had just seen Alejandro Amenábar’s woeful tripe Agora, so naturally he felt these things qualified him to lecture the readers of Skepticblog about history.  In a post entitled “Hypatia, Agora and Religion vs. Science”, he praised Amenábar’s highly distorted biopic of Hypatia and used that as a jumping off point for a sermon about the alleged suppression of science by religion that was peppered with classic New Atheist bad history howlers.  As I’ve detailed elsewhere, the result was total butchery of the facts, but he finished in grand style, with a reference to “Christians suppressing the heretical notion that the Earth is round”, showing that the Medieval Flat Earth Myth is alive and kicking at the more clueless end of the New Atheist paddling pool.

And it’s easy to see why this myth is so hard for the New Atheists to resist – it conforms to every element of their pseudo historical metamyth.  We have the wise and rational Greeks discovering the earth is a sphere using science.  Then the terrible Christians destroying this knowledge (presumably by burning down the Great Library of Alexandria and murdering Hypatia), plunging Europe into a 1000 year Dark Age of Church oppression where the Bible must be interpreted literally at all times.  And finally, a brave rationalist arising at the dawn of Modernity to boldly defy the Church proves the Greeks right by sailing to the Americas.

But those of us who actually care to check facts – something the New Atheists preach about but, strangely, rarely do on matters historical – know that this is all complete crap.  Anyone who can bother to read Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (1991), Google a Wikipedia article or even read can get a solid understanding of how the idea that the Medieval Church suppressed the concept of a spherical earth and taught that the earth was flat is a wholesale fiction that arose in the nineteenth century.  They can read up on how, in 1828, the American novelist Washington Irving invented the whole idea of a conflict between the Church and Columbus to spice up the otherwise rather dull story in his fictionalised biography A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.  This book, unfortunately, became the best selling biography of Columbus for the next century, and so fixed the myth in the English speaking world as something “everyone knows”.  Despite the fact it was completely made up.

The Medieval Sphere of the World

In fact, the idea that the earth was a sphere was never disputed in the Middle Ages.  The weird flat earth cosmology of the sixth century Byzantine writer Cosmas Indicopleustes, who Boorstin erroneously blamed for his alleged centuries of “scholarly amnesia”, was in fact virtually unknown even in the Eastern Roman Empire and was completely unknown in western medieval Europe.  His obscure book did not appear in a Latin edition in Europe until 1706.

The writer who actually influenced western medieval thinking on the matter was Plato, because his Timaeus – the only Platonic dialogue known in the early medieval west and one of the most influential works throughout the period – stated categorically that the Creator “made the world in the form of a globe, round as from a lathe, having its extremes in every direction equidistant from the centre, the most perfect and the most like itself of all figures”.  And if an authority as august as Plato said so, that, as far as most medieval scholars were concerned, was that.

Though after the influx of lost Greek learning via translations from the Arabic in the twelfth century, they were also well aware of the rational proofs of the shape of the earth established by the ancient astronomers and physicists.  In his introduction to astronomy, the Tractatus de Sphaera (“Treatise on the Sphere” – the title is something of a hint), John Sacrobosco (c.1195- c.1256) gave several proofs of the shape of the earth:

“That the earth, too, is round is shown thus. The signs and stars do not rise and set the same for all men everywhere but rise and set sooner for those in the east than for those in the west; and of this there is no other cause than the bulge of the earth. Moreover, celestial phenomena evidence that they rise sooner for Orientals than for westerners. For one and the same eclipse of the moon which appears to us in the first hour of the night appears to Orientals about the third hour of the night, which proves that they had night and sunset before we did, of which setting the bulge of the earth is the cause.” (Sacrobosco, Tractatus, Ch. I.9)

He also shows how it can be known that the surface of the sea is, therefore, also spherical:

“That the water has a bulge and is approximately round is shown thus: Let a signal be set up on the seacoast and a ship leave port and sail away so far that the eye of a person standing at the foot of the mast can no longer discern the signal. Yet if the ship is stopped, the eye of the same person, if he has climbed to the top of the mast, will see the signal clearly. Yet the eye of a person at the bottom of the mast ought to see the signal better than he who is at the top, as is shown by drawing straight lines from both to the signal. And there is no other explanation of this thing than the bulge of the water.” (Sacrobosco, Tractatus, Ch. I.11)

Sacrobosco’s book was the standard text in medieval universities for anyone who studied astronomy, which was essentially anyone who took an Arts Degree.  So the idea that the earth was round was so well known and unquestioned that Thomas Aquinas used it as an illustrative example of an accepted, objective and scientific fact:

“Both an astronomer and a physical scientist may demonstrate the same conclusion, for instance that the earth is spherical; the first, however, works in a mathematical medium prescinding from material qualities, while for the second his medium is the observation of material bodies through the senses.” (Summa Theologica, q.1, a.1).

In short, this was all standard, accepted and unquestioned as far as medieval scholars were concerned.  As Stephen Jay Gould (a scientist who actually did bother to check his facts on history) summarised it:

” … 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.” (Gould, “The late birth of a flat earth”, Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History, pp. 38–50)

“But, what about … ?”

So that, you would think, settles that.  But myths die hard and even those who are made aware of all the abundant evidence that this one is total bunk find ways to clutch at some straws.  One such is to try to claim that while some or even most medieval scholars accepted that the earth was round, there were still a few who did not.  And so it’s claimed that there was some kind of “dispute” over the issue.  Some of those who try to argue along these lines point to assertions made in the Middle Ages about “the antipodes”, disputing that they exist.  For example:

“As to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets on us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours, there is no reason for believing it.” (Augustine, De Civitate Dei, XVI.9)

In 748 AD Pope Zachary declared the belief “that beneath the earth there was another world and other men, another sun and moon” to be heretical and rejection of this antipodean world is found elsewhere in early medieval writings.

But these are not references to any dispute about the shape of the earth.  These writers are echoing a dispute between ancient philosophers about whether the other side of the round earth could have its own lands and inhabitants.  This was disputed on the grounds that the equatorial region was considered so hot that it was impassible, though for Christian writers it was also considered impossible because they believed mankind had been created in the northern hemisphere (with Eden being in the region of Jerusalem) and then spread out from Mount Ararat after the Great Flood.  So Noah’s descendants could not have passed the equator to populate the southern hemisphere and any lands which may be there would be uninhabited.

As it happens, it was medieval travellers who ventured as far afield as Sri Lanka, Java and Sumatra by the thirteenth century that finally debunked the idea of an impassable equatorial zone and put the debate about the antipodes to rest.  But the point here is that this dispute was not about the shape of the earth – on the contrary, it presupposed the earth was spherical.

“Okay, but what about … ?”

A few more tenacious defenders of the myth try even harder and come up with a passage from Isidore of Seville that they think is a clincher.  Isidore’s Etymologiae was an encyclopaedia (of sorts) compiled by the sixth century bishop of Seville (c. 560-636) and organised according to his often highly fanciful etymologies for key words.  Given that the early medieval period had very few such works of general reference, it was a widely copied and read text.  Therefore if Isidore said the earth was anything other than round, surely this indicates that there was some dispute or doubt on the matter, at least in the early part of the medieval era.  And some feel this passage indicates just that:

It is in virtue of its circular form that we speak of the orbis terrae (orb of the earth), because it is like a wheel; hence the name for a small wheel is orbiculus.  The ocean flowing around the land encircles its limits on all sides. It is divided into three parts, the first is called Asia, the second Europe and the third Africa.” (Isidore, “De orbe” in Etymologiae,  XIV.2)

If here we have one of the most influential scholars of the early Middle Ages saying the earth is shaped “like a wheel” then surely this is clear evidence of at least some belief that it was something other than round, right?  Well, actually, wrong.  Sorry.

Elsewhere in the Etymologiae Isidore makes it clear that he understood the earth to be spherical.  For example, here is how he defines and describes the heavens:

The sphere (sphaera) of the sky is so named because it has a round shape in appearance. But anything of such a shape is called a sphaera by the Greeks from its roundness, such as the balls that children play with. Now philosophers say that the sky is completely convex, in the shape of a sphere, equal on every side, enclosing the earth” (Isidore, “De partibus caeli” in Etymologiae, XIII.5)

Obviously if the spherical heavens are enclosing the earth and are “equal on every side”, the earth too must be spherical.  And in another of his works, De natura rerum, he makes the same point:

“The earth, as Hyginus states, is situated in the middle of the universe. Equidistant from all of [the universe’s parts] it occupies the centre.  The ocean, spread out by the limit of the circumference of the sphere, bathes virtually the entire globe.” (Isidore, De natura rerum,  XLVIII)

The explicit references here to “the sphere” and “the globe” here are quite clear.  Finally he makes the point again in Book XIV, just before the “like a wheel” passage quoted above:

The earth is placed in the central region of the [universe], standing fast in the centre equidistant from all other parts of the sky.”  (Isidore, “De terra” in Etymologiae,  XIV.1)

So what was he saying when he goes on to write in the next section of Book XIV that the “orbis terrae” is “like a wheel”?  The key to understanding this apparent contradiction lies in the quote from De natura rerum above.  He notes that the ocean “bathes virtually the entire globe”.  This follows the Greeks, who thought that most of the earth was covered in ocean and that the three continents took up only a portion in the northern hemisphere, with the existence of any land masses in the southern hemisphere merely a conjecture, as discussed above.  More specifically, following Aristotle, they held that the continents occupied the northern temperate zone, between the frigid arctic zone and the torrid and impassable equatorial one:


So how can the “orbis terrae” be “like wheel” while the “globus” is a sphere?  Because when Isidore is referring to the “orbis terrae” he’s referring to the inhabited northern temperate zone in which the three continents sit and he’s imagining this zone as a three dimensional slice with the land masses on the outer rim of the “wheel”.  There is no contradiction here once we understand the cosmology Isidore inherited from Aristotle (via Macrobius).
“Fine, but then there’s …”
Which leaves just one last medieval scholar that some try to claim as a flat-earther, this time from the other end of the medieval era.  Alonso Tostado (c. 1400-1455) was a Franciscan theologian and commentator on the Bible and, for most modern readers, about as obscure a scholar as you could possibly get.  There is no English translation of any of his works largely because anyone who is likely to want to read them would almost certainly be fluent in Latin.
So how does he get dragooned into the rear-guard action in defence of some ragged remnant of the Flat Earth Myth?  Well this is because he is mentioned tangentially in Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, tucked away in an end note.  In a note on Edward Grant’s conclusion that “there were no educated people who denied the roundness of the earth in the fifteenth century” (Russell, p. 14), Russell deals with a couple who could be said to have done so.  He dismisses one, but provisionally accepts that Tostado may be “an anomaly” in this regard and refers to Tostado’s Commentaria in Genesim, though without giving a more specific citation.
He seems to be referring to Tostado’s commentary on Genesis 1:9 – “And God said, ‘Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear” – where Tostado is disputing the opinions of “some ignorant men” and their view that “the entire world was spherical”.  But read in context the issue is not the shape of the world now, but a question of what we could call “flood geology”: was the earth’s surface wholly smooth before the Great Flood and the “hollows and mountains” seen today created by the Deluge or did they exist before this and were in fact created in the “gathering of the waters” on the second day of creation?  Against the “ignorant men”, Tostado argues for the latter on this burning issue (all this is at the end of “Quaestio XIX” and the beginning of “Quaestio XX” of his Commentaria in Genesim for anyone who wants to drag themselves through the turgid Latin).
And to show that Tostado was not actually any kind of “anomaly” and somehow, alone of any scholar in his age, believed that the earth was not round, here is a passage from another of his works that shows he definitely understood the earth was a sphere:

“If we put a man in any part of the world, and we draw the diameter of the earth passing from his feet to the other extremity of the earth, and through the centre of the earth, and if there is another man in that extremity which is touched by the other part of the diameter, those men, who are the diameter of the earth distant from themselves, are called the antipodes of each other.” (Tostado, Commentaria in Deuteronomium, Qaestio IV Cap. VII)

So Tostado clearly understood the earth to be spherical.  No anomalies here.
The Peasants are Revolting!
By now it should be quite clear that the Flat Earth Myth has no foundation and that the knowledge of the sphericity of the earth was not, despite Neil deGrasse Tyson’s confident tweet, “lost to the Dark Ages”.  As we’ve seen, there were no medieval scholars in western Europe in the entire 1000 years before Columbus who considered the earth to be anything other than a sphere.
But deGrasse Tyson’s Twitter followers were not going stand for those who continued to point out that the great man was wrong.  One “Mark Bauermeister” showed he had zero knowledge of medieval exegesis by declaring “Biblical literalism was widespread in the dark ages (obviously)”.  When challenged on this claim he went even more off the deep end: “Remember the black death? Rats were allowed to roam free because people considered cats the spawn of Satan.”  This is a reference to yet another myth, that there was some kind of medieval massacre of cats (there wasn’t) which caused rats to spread the plagues of the 1340s (See my article “Cats, the Black Death and Pope” for a detailed debunking of this one).  Why these pandemics also hit non-Christian regions such as vast tracts of central Asia and the Middle East every bit as hard as Europe is not explained by Mr Bauermeister.
Back to the original claim – further insistence that the Flat Earth Myth was, indeed, a myth was met by more children’s picture book level historical analysis.  A certain “Jake Peninger” solemnly assured us that “it wasnt (sic) widely known and the knowledge didnt (sic) spread. It has only been common knowlege (sic) for 5 centuries”, going on to claim “education in the middle ages was scarce. Like i said, it was not common knowledge.”
And this is the last bastion in the defence of the Flat Earth Myth.  When forced to accept that the Church did not teach that the Bible was literally true on this point and that no scholar in the Middle Ages believed that the earth was anything other than spherical, it is then claimed that perhaps the scholars knew this, but it was not “common knowledge” and the revolting peasants still thought the earth was flat.
Of course, the nature of our source material is such that it is hard to know what the peasants or even the unlearned non-nobles generally believed about pretty much anything.  But the evidence we do have indicates that, in fact, it was common knowledge and was widely understood and accepted by the unlearned as well.
For example, the popular fourteenth century collection of travellers’ tales, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, includes a story of a man who unwittingly returns to his homeland from the west by sailing into the east:

“I have often thought of a story I have heard, when I was young, of a worthy man of our country who went once upon a time to see the world. He passed India and many isles beyond India, where there are more than five thousand isles, and travelled so far by land and sea, girdling the globe, that he found an isle where he heard his own language being spoken…He marvelled greatly, for he did not understand how this could be. But I conjecture that he had travelled so far over land and sea, circumnavigating the earth, that he had come to his own borders; if he had gone a bit further, he would have come to his own district.”

The author doesn’t bother to explain how this would work and assumes his popular audience understood the earth to be a sphere.
Similarly we have multiple passing references to the shape of the earth in a variety of vernacular works intended for an unlearned audience which use the same similes – rond comme une pomme (“round like an apple”) or rund cume pelote (“round like a ball”). Romances, which were written in part to be read to illiterate audiences, include references to the earth sitting like a yolk within the egg of the heavens. Both the Old French Roman d’Eneas and Le Couronement de Louis have references to people circumnavigating the earth. The Roman de Thebes includes a description of a map in the tent of a king divided into the five zones of Greek geography (see above) – a division that only makes sense with a spherical world. In the Alexandre de Paris Darius is depicted sending Alexander a present of a ball implying he’s a child, whereas Alexander declares it a sign that he would conquer the world, implying the audience understood that the earth was ball-shaped. The same poem ends with Alexander’s tomb being topped by a statue of him holding up an apple, symbolising his dominance of the whole world.
This image would have been familiar to medieval audiences, since royal regalia often included the orb, representing the king’s earthly authority. In an age where iconography was a shared language for the illiterate masses, the image of the king on his throne, holding the sceptre and the orb (or rather the globus cruciger, an orb topped with the cross), would have been a familiar one.  And the orb is clearly not a disc.
Finally, the Old Norse King’s Mirror depicts a father explaining to his son the way the sun’s light strikes the earth using a thought experiment that assumes he already knows the earth is a sphere:

“If you take an apple and hang it close to the flame, so near that it is heated, the apple will darken nearly half the room or even more. However, if you hang the apple near the wall, it will not get hot; the candle will light up the whole house; and the shadow on the wall where the apple hangs will be scarcely half as large as the apple itself. From this you may infer that the earth-circle is round like a ball and not equally near the sun at every point.”

So much for the “dark ages”.
Of course, this is not to say that there were not some or perhaps even many among the unlearned in the period who had no conception of the earth as a sphere.  Given that in 2012 a survey found that 26% of American respondents were under the impression the sun went around the earth and we get people like our idiot rapper friend B.o.B. trying to convince people the earth is flat even today, it’s very likely there were people similarly confused back then.  And some of the language used in popular medieval literature is sufficiently ambiguous that it may be that the writers though that the world was round like a wheel rather than round like an apple.  But there is sufficient evidence that knowledge the earth was a sphere was widespread or even common, even if we can’t know how common it was.
Why It Matters
Of course, the fact that the average person still gets their idea of medieval cosmology from a 1951 Bugs Bunny cartoon is not really the issue here.  The problem is that the Flat Earth Myth keeps popping up in New Atheist critiques of religion, despite it being patent nonsense.  If it were just people like Tyson’s Twitter defenders whose grasp of history was so inadequate that they believe this stupid myth this would not be an issue.  But when a man like Tyson, who is regarded as some kind of authority on all things (not just science), and who has 5.21 MILLION Twitter followers, peddles this pseudo historical crap it’s small wonder New Atheists have a warped view of history.  Donald Prothero is nowhere near as influential, but as an educator, it’s deeply concerning that he takes it upon himself to lecture others on this subject, despite the fact he doesn’t have the faintest idea what he’s talking about.
What we see here, in short, is everything that is wrong with New Atheist Bad History – outdated myths backed by garbled evidence peddled by non-historians who have irrelevant authority by merit of being scientists and who are motivated by an emotionally-driven ideological bias against religion.  The result is, yet again, total garbage presented uncritically by people who are meant to be rationalists and sceptics.  And that’s the problem.
Edit (July 1 2016):  
Since I posted my article above, a list of errors of fact made by Neil deGrasse Tyson was posted on Hop’s Blog, entitled “Fact checking Neil deGrasse Tyson” and including his blunders over the Medieval flat earth myth.  Tyson commented on the post and included a defence of his comments about flat earth being “five centuries regressed in … thinking”.  Here’s what he said:

“I neglected to mention that the “five-centuries” reference in my tweet the B.o.B refers to the dawn of the earliest maps of a spherical Earth. A time where all doubt was removed from the minds of cartographers. I am most fascinated by this transition of world view, before which everybody drew themselves in the center of a flat circle.”

Unfortunately for Tyson, in trying to pretend he didn’t make a blunder he blundered further.  The transition from symbolic medieval mappae mundi to actual cartographic maps did not represent any “transition of world view” and it definitely didn’t indicate any final removal of “all doubt” about a flat earth.  As I detail in my blog post, there was no “doubt” to be finally “removed”.  And the earlier maps were iconographic clusters of symbolism overlaid over a very general and schematic cartographic rendition.  So to compare them to later actual cartographic charts is comparing apples to oranges and to conclude the difference between the two represents some change in “world view” or the removal of any “final doubts” is just pseudo historical garbage.
His attempted defence doesn’t seem to have cut much ice with the commenters at that blog and one of them was good enough to post a link to my article above to show exactly how wrong Tyson’s “history” actually was.

38 thoughts on “The Great Myths 1: The Medieval Flat Earth

  1. hey thanks for this blog tim
    it is entertaining AND informative.
    i got here because thony tweeted about it and i got to his (also entertaining and informative) blog because history of science / science historians provided me (lay person, non-historian, artist) with answers that didn't smack at all of ideology.
    and i waded into all this stuff seeing how certain folks were duking it out online like this
    A) says _______ has been proven.
    B) responds no it hasn't, you're a ninny
    on & on.

    i'm no atheist, i'm not much of a theist either. somewhere between pantheist and agnostic maybe. hoo-boy. whatever the case i enjoy information presented in a way that doesn't stink of arrogance and holier-than-thou crapola.

    i look forward to future posts.
    ideas i'd love to read about :
    experts in one field proclaiming stuff about another field while also deriding others for doing the same.
    an EZ 101 break down of the whole conflict thesis.
    how 'scientism' is denied by those that maybe ascribe to it (if that makes sense)

    thanks again


  2. Yes, Aryabhata in the 5th century AD, the great Indian Astronomer (and inventor of zero as a placeholder, leading to the decimal system), in his book the Aryabhatia talks not just of a spherical Earth, but goes on to explain in Golapada (gola = round in Sanskrit) trigonometry of a Celestial Sphere and calculates the circumference (like Erastothenes, many centuries before) of the Earth.


  3. First, Tyson also equates Europe with "the world" in the Middle Ages. Zheng He, the Chinese Ming admiral, sailed below the equator to southern Africa. The only way one can make sense of the "sun on the other side" is with a round earth. Ditto for the Portuguese once they cleared the equator, to bring it back to Europe.

    Unknown: On China, you've just been given your answer.

    Given that India had ocean-going trade with the Romans, it surely knew the earth was round, too.


  4. Zheng He's voyages took him to India, Arabia and the Horn of Africa, but not to southern Africa. All of his voyages were north of the equator apart from the ones to Java and Sumatra, which would have taken him south of it. But the Chinese stuck to a conception of the earth as flat with a domed sky above it until the idea of a spherical earth was introduced by Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century:

    "The Chinese thought on the form of the earth remained almost unchanged from early times until the first contacts with modern science through the medium of Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century. While the heavens were variously described as being like an umbrella covering the earth (the Kai Tian theory), or like a sphere surrounding it (the Hun Tian theory), or as being without substance while the heavenly bodies float freely (the Hsüan yeh theory), the earth was at all times flat, although perhaps bulging up slightly." (C. Cullen, "A Chinese Eratosthenes of the Flat Earth: A Study of a Fragment of Cosmology in Huai Nan tzu 淮 南 子". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 39 (1): 106–127 [p. 107])

    Indian scholars did accept a spherical earth, though this seems to have been from the influence of Greek philosophy via Alexander's empire. The traditional Hindu conception of the earth was of a flat disc with four continents grouped around a central mountain like petals of a flower, surrounded by an outer ocean.


  5. Wikipedia shows him going as far south as Mombasa, Kenya, which is 4 degrees south latitude, and I've seen speculation he went even further south. That, plus "mastheads on the horizon," would surely have told Chinese sailors, at least, that the earth was round. And, that may be one additional reason why the Hongxi Emperor reigned him in.

    And, albeit indirectly via India and Sri Lanka, Rome had trade with China, that surely the idea got there.

    Now, because of Chinese metaphysics, or whatever, you're likely it was quashed. But, the idea was surely entertained by people in a position to know in China before the arrival of the Jesuits, even if we don't have written records of this.


  6. I've already noted that he went as far south as Java, which is 7 degrees south. Though I'm failing to see how this would automatically lead to a conclusion the earth is round. No, there is no evidence that the very indirect trade between Chinaand Rome lead to the exchange of this particular concept. And the idea that the concept of a spherical earth made it to China but we just don't have records of this is not history, it's historical fiction. There is no evidence that the Chinese had any conception of a round earth.


  7. Apparently, Cosmas Indicopleustis' work (as well as the work of another Late Antique flat-earther, Severian of Gabala) was popular in middle-late medieval East Slavic lands (as told in Russian academic book "Cosmological works in Ancient Rus' literary culture"). The same academic book, however, notes that the works of Christian thinkers who advocated classical spherical-earth Ptolemaic model (John of Damascus, for one) were also relatively widespread there, with both flat-earth and Ptolemaic traditions being somehow considered equally authoritative.


  8. Thanks for this wonderful post Tim. I'm glad that there are people like you who are willing to bash bad history(the idea that Jesus of Nazareth never existed as a historical figure…etc…) and give it the beating it deserves and giving the correct info. Wonderful and enlightening info that explodes the "Dark Ages" BS. Also, I recently started a blog myself.


  9. Your historical argument here is correct (I covered the same ground in the Junior Skeptic section of Skeptic magazine) and your general critical point well-taken—skeptics and science popularizers should, indeed, take care not to spread popular misconceptions ourselves. However, your critique would have more force if you did not identify Neil deGrasse Tyson as a "New Atheist."

    New Atheism is not a synonym for "science enthused materialist," but a particular small subset of the atheist community, which itself is a small subset of the wider community of nonbelievers or secularism-minded people. The communities of skeptics, science popularizers, and working scientists are all mixed in terms of religious perspectives. Something like a third of skeptics are atheists (not necessarily New Atheists) while others are agnostics (about another third). Other people active in skepticism identify with some other tradition or worldview; some skeptics (like scientists) are people of faith.

    As a matter of factual accuracy, Tyson does not identify as a New Atheist, nor as an atheist at all. He identifies as an agnostic. Like Carl Sagan, Tyson has been clear that although he is "widely claimed by atheists" he "is actually an agnostic."


  10. "Tyson does not identify as a New Atheist, nor as an atheist at all. "

    Thanks for your comment Daniel. But I don't say anywhere in my article that Tyson is a New Atheist himself. Note my very first sentence:

    "New Atheists love astronomer and science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson."

    I then detail Tyson's very public perpetuation of the medieval flat earth myth to show (i) how common it is and (ii) how New Atheists get their history from bad sources. Then I talk about Donald Prothero, who is a New Athiest.

    My point is that scientists tend to make bad historians, but New Atheists often use them as sources of information about history. Tyson (like Sagan) is a serial offender in this regard, but I get New Atheists citing him as authoritative because "he's a scientist". As though this magically makes him an oracle of wisdom on all subjects.


  11. Thanks for the clarification. I'm actually not personally certain that Don identifies as a New Atheist either, though I'd guess that he'd be very comfortable with that label. I will note in passing that Skepticblog was not a New Atheist blog; you don't say specifically that it was, but I thought that might not be clear to readers who are unfamiliar with it.

    "My point is that scientists tend to make bad historians, but New Atheists often use them as sources of information about history. Tyson (like Sagan) is a serial offender in this regard, but I get New Atheists citing him as authoritative because 'he's a scientist'. As though this magically makes him an oracle of wisdom on all subjects."

    Yes, this point is well taken. I've advocated for greater attention to history, expertise limits, accuracy, and <a href=">due diligence</a> in skepticism.


  12. "I'm actually not personally certain that Don identifies as a New Atheist either, though I'd guess that he'd be very comfortable with that label. "

    Read the first post on this blog, where I define how I'm using the term "New Atheist". I'm using it as a shorthand for "atheists and other non-believers who have an ideological animus against religion and are activists against it". This shorthand includes those who don't identify themselves by reference to that term (in fact, many who fall into my category reject the term as some kind of slur, while others embrace it)

    "Yes, this point is well taken. I've advocated for greater attention to history, expertise limits, accuracy, and in skepticism."

    Good articles. We're definitely on the same page. Prothero also wrote a post on the dangers of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, warning about people who stray from their own areas of expertise. These were wise words. But deeply ironic ones, given his own rather terrible foray into ancient history which I mention above. Scientists really should stick to science.


  13. "What is myth 2 and when can we expect it?"

    Probably the persistent myths about the Great Library of Alexandria. Though I've had a few attacks on me over historical matters by prominent New Atheists, so I may have to respond to them first.


  14. Well, you have already written about that in detail on your other blog. So you'll just need to paste (not that there's anything at all wrong with that). Anything brand new?


  15. Anything brand new?

    Plenty. The other articles you refer to were focused more on the myths around Hypatia (which will get an article or two here as well) propagated by the 2009 film Agora. But there is much more detail to go into about the Alexandrine Library and some of the myths and weird obsessions New Atheists have with it. Why, for example, do they regard it as some unique repository of ancient knowledge while not paying any attention to any of the other great libraries of the ancient world? And why do they seem to think it was full of books on technology and science when the evidence indicates it was largely made up of texts on literature and the humanities? Then there is the tangled story of its "destruction" that New Atheist memes lament as a significant one time event, despite the fact there was no "destruction".

    There's a lot to say mainly because the real history is, as usual, much more complex and interesting than the dumbed-down New Atheist caricature.


  16. Graeco-Roman coins have been found on Pemba, the smaller island of the Zanzibar archipelago, and most interpretations of the "Periplus of the Erythraean Sea", from the 1st century CE, accept that it describes a trade route well into modern Tanzania. Ibn Batuta, who got everywhere in the early 14th century, visited Kilwa in southern Tanzania, near the border with Mozambique. This stuff is all documented.


  17. Thanks for mentioning my blog. I've linked to this article from my section on the B.o.B. fiasco. You have lots of good cites and references.

    It's bizarre how fiction can evolve into bad history. Maybe future bad historians will mistake the stories of Dan Brown or Tom Clancy as factual accounts.


  18. A very good article Tim. Previous to this, one of the best, and certainly the most detailed refutations of the "Flat Earth Myth" on the net was by "Ethical Atheist". Unfortunately that web page no longer exists.


  19. The "Ethical Atheist" guy originally wrote his page on the history of the flat earth idea that got the whole medieval period totally wrong. He misinterpreted Isidore and assumed that Cosmas was influential in the west instead of totally unknown.

    But was smart enough to get people to check his facts and posted a link to the original form of his page to the Usenet group soc.history.medieval. And when a number of people there including myself explained how much he had got wrong he totally revised the page and added an interesting essay on "confirmation bias" and on atheists needing to be wary of accepting information because it fits with what we would like to be the case rather than checking facts. He was wise enough learned a lesson to which many of the current crop of New Atheists seem oblivious.


  20. No, it didn't. Being at the "centre" was actually being at the bottom. Literally in the "excremental part of the cosmos" – where all gross and base matter concentrated. It was the lowest and worst place in the universe. One of the philosophical objections to Copernicanism was the way it "demoted" the Sun to this "ignoble" position.


  21. He also shows how it can be known that the surface of the sea is, therefore, also spherical:

    That does not imply spherical Earth with certainty. You can have semi-spherical Earth with all observed phenomena and without Antipodes, which are not mentioned in Bible.
    In fact, Magellan gave first definite proof that the Earth is indeed a sphere and antipodes exist.


    1. It implies it with enough certainty that no-one had any doubt. And medieval travelers had traveled south of the equator and noted this fact long before Magellan. By the thirteenth century medieval Europeans had traveled as far south and east as Java and Sumatra, so there was no doubt about the existence of “the Antipodes” either.


      1. Definitely not. You have no reason to think that you are upside down when you are in China. 🙂
        The point is to go to east and come from west. Still, even this is not a absolutely final proof, but at lest this made hypothesis of a spherical Earth very probable.


        1. I have no idea what the comment about China is meant to be saying. Or why you think Magellan’s voyage is very relevant to anything I’ve said. Again, no Europeans doubted the world was spherical in Magellan’s day and none had done so for many centuries before his time. People were quite clear on the concept of circumnavigation by heading east until they came back to their starting point since at least 1357, when a story about someone doing so began circulating in England.


  22. “Though after the influx of lost Greek learning via translations from the Arabic in the twelfth century, they were also well aware of the rational proofs of the shape of the earth established by the ancient astronomers and physicists. ”

    It is indeed strange, that the Dark Age is a myth, and for some unknown reason Greek learning is lost and must be translated from Arabic in 12 century. Very strange.

    “if it shall be clearly established that he professes belief in another world and other people existing beneath the earth, or in [another] sun and moon there, thou art to hold a council, and deprive him of his sacerdotal rank, and expel him from the church.”
    Pope Zachary about Vergilius of Salzburg who believed in Antipodes and spherical Earth in 8 century.


    1. The only thing “strange” here is this comment. The idea that the whole of the period before the so-called “Renaissance” was a “dark age” is the myth. That there was a catastrophic loss of much ancient learning that began in the third century and accelerated with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire is not a myth. It was this loss that the Twelfth Century Revival sought to redress.

      And both Pope Zachary and Vergilius of Salzburg agreed that the earth was a sphere, they just disagreed about its southern hemisphere being inhabited. That’s what the references to “another world” and “other people existing beneath the earth” are talking about. I explain this in the very article you’re commenting on. Perhaps you should actually read the article – that usually works best.


      1. Dark Age is catastrophic loss of leaning and cultural and economic stagnation, so you yourself indirectly confirm that Dark Age is not a myth.

        “Perhaps you should actually read the article”
        I don’t actually see in article Zachary opinion on the shape of the Earth, I just see your attempt to interpret what he mean by opposing Antipodes. And I see from your article that indeed church suppressed freedom of scientific thought when scientific thought contradicted religious dogma. You yourself tell this in article.

        “Again, no Europeans doubted the world was spherical in Magellan’s day and none had done so for many centuries before his time.”
        Bold claim, especially considering that the vast majority of European than were illiterate.

        So long and thanks for all the fish, my English unfortunately poor.


        1. “Dark Age is catastrophic loss of leaning and cultural and economic stagnation, so you yourself indirectly confirm that Dark Age is not a myth.”

          As I’ve already explained to you once, that there was a catastrophic loss of learning after the collapse of the Western Empire is not a myth. That it lasted until the fifteenth century is. And the medieval period was not a one of “economic stagnation” either. That Roman collapse led to western and northern communities being forced to be self-sufficient, leading to agrarian and technological innovation that in turn led to an economic boom by the tenth century. Later Medieval Europe was vastly richer and more technologically advanced than its Roman equivalent had ever been. You seem to be relying on outdated cliches, yet again.

          “I don’t actually see in article Zachary opinion on the shape of the Earth, I just see your attempt to interpret what he mean by opposing Antipodes. “

          Since I’m drawing on both evidence from the time and the consensus of modern scholarship on this point, it would be amusing to watch you try to actually argue with my “attempt”. Augustine was quite clear that the earth was a sphere yet I quote Augustine making the usual arguments against an inhabited antipodes. You just don’t understand the material and are clinging to your own prejudiced interpretation out of bias.

          “And I see from your article that indeed church suppressed freedom of scientific thought when scientific thought contradicted religious dogma. You yourself tell this in article.”

          Really? Where?

          “Bold claim, especially considering that the vast majority of European than were illiterate.”

          And that’s something else I cover in my article. But I was talking about the literate ones anyway. If you have any evidence that any literate person actually believed the earth was flat in Magellan’s time, it’s odd that you’ve failed to produce it. We can only assume you have nothing.

          “So long and thanks for all the fish, my English unfortunately poor.”

          Your English is fine. Your grasp of history and capacity to analyse it objectively, however, is terrible.



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