Inventing the Flat Earth

Quotes from Nancy Marie Brown, The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages

p. 129 ‘The error begins with the Italian poet Petrarch, who is known for two things: developing the sonnet, and coining the therm “the Dark Ages”.  Sometimes called the first humanist, Petrarch divided history into ancient (before Rome became Christian in the fourth century) and modern (his own time, the fourteenth century). Everything in between was dark.’

p. 129 ‘This intellectual attitude made it easy for Washington Irving, in The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, to write a revisionist version of the discovery of the New World in 1492.’

p. 129-130 ‘Finding the truth a little dry, he decided to embroider a bit on the historical Council of Salamanca, which had been conveyed to judge whether Columbus’s proposed voyage to discover a western route to India was a good risk of the king’s money.’

p. 130 ‘They threw the heretic Lactantius at him, Irving claims, as well as Saint Augustin’s view of the Antipodes. “To his simplest proposition, the spherical form of the earth, were opposed figurative texts of Scripture”, Irving writes: The Psalms and Saint Paul describe the heavens as being like a tent, ipso facto the earth was flat like the floor of a tent.’

p. 130-131 “Why does the Flat Earth Error remain so popular? Americans like to think that before we were discovered, all the world was sunk in darkness.”

p. 131 ‘His [William Whewell, 1850] History of the Inductive Sciences, which became a standard textbook, portrayed religion as inimical to science. He introduced two sources as proof that medieval Christians believed the earth was flat: the heretical Lactantius and the unread Cosmos Indicopleustes.’

p. 131 ‘Andrew Dickson White, the founder of Cornell University, put two and two together in 1896 in his History of Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. “A few of the larger-minded fathers of the Church,” White conceded, thought the earth was round, “but the majority of them took fright at once.” ‘

p. 131 ‘Over a hundred years later, the idea that medieval Christians like Gerbert thought the world was flat has not disappeared. It remains a weapon in the war between science and religion that defines modern America.’

04.03.18. See also Stephen Jay Gould, Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History, Essay 4, The Late Birth of a Flat Earth.