Even in the Middle Ages, People Didn’t Think the Earth Was Flat

Atlanta rapper B.o.B got a lot of attention this week by suggesting in a series of tweets that he believes that the Earth is flat, saying we have all “been tremendously deceived.”

While B.o.B is obviously wrong about the shape of the Earth—an assertion that seems too silly to bother correcting in detail—he is right about being deceived. Not only do no serious, intellectually honest people currently believe the Earth is flat; the fact is this was never a widespread belief, at least in the way that you may have heard. Even astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson got things a bit wrong—sacrilege, I know—when he tweeted that B.o.B was “five centuries regressed in [his] reasoning.” In reality, knowledge that the Earth is spherical is much older than that, and hasn’t been seriously questioned by more than a few wingnuts in the last two millennia.

“With 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,” historian Jeffrey Burton Russell wrote in 1997. “A round Earth appears at least as early as the sixth century B.C. with Pythagoras, who was followed by Aristotle, Euclid, and Aristarchus, among others in observing that the earth was a sphere.” By the first century A.D., “the sphericity of the earth was accepted by all educated Greeks and Romans.”

Nor did this situation change much with the advent of Christianity. While between two and five early popes denied the sphericity of the Earth, the vast majority of people disagreed. “The point is that no educated person believed” the Earth was flat, Russell notes.

Eminent scientist and writer Stephen Jay Gould wrote in a 1997 essay that "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.”

Columbus and the Spaniards knew the Earth was round—Columbus’s plans to sail to Asia were questioned because the ocean was thought to be too vast to sail across, not because anyone thought the Earth was flat, Gould writes. Even the religious authorities of the 15th century knew better. So why on Earth have so many schoolchildren been taught otherwise?

The fault lies with 19th century writers such as Washington Irving, Jean Letronne and others. Letronne was “an academic of strong anti-religious prejudices... who cleverly drew upon both to misrepresent the church fathers and their medieval successors as believing in a flat earth, in his On the Cosmographical Ideas of the Church Fathers,” published in 1834, Russell writes.

Irving also penned a “history” of Christopher Columbus in 1828 that was treated as fact, but was largely fictional, and Russell credits him with inventing “the indelible picture of the young Columbus, a ‘simple mariner,’ appearing before a dark crowd of benighted inquisitors and hooded theologians at a council of Salamanca, all of whom believed, according to Irving, that the earth was flat like a plate.”

These falsehoods were picked up and amplified by historians such as John Draper and Andrew Dickson White, and “perpetrated in texts, encyclopedias, and even allegedly serious scholarship, down to the present day,” Russell notes.

Why bother perpetuating falsehoods? Russell and Gould suggest the flat-earth myth was used to demonize Christians and religion in general, and to lionize scientists. “The falsehood about the spherical earth became a colorful and unforgettable part of a larger falsehood: the falsehood of the eternal war between science (good) and religion (bad) throughout Western history,” Russell writes.

“The reason for promoting both the specific lie about the sphericity of the earth and the general lie that religion and science are in natural and eternal conflict in Western society, is to defend Darwinism,” he continues, which was introduced around the same time.

“The flat-earth lie was ammunition against the Creationists. The argument was simple and powerful, if not elegant: ‘Look how stupid these Christians are. They are always getting in the way of science and progress. These people who deny evolution today are exactly the same sort of people as those idiots who for at least a thousand years denied that the earth was round. How stupid can you get?’”

The false narrative that science and religion are warring, necessarily conflicting forces continues to the present day, and impedes “a proper bonding and conciliation between these two utterly different and powerfully important institutions of human life,” Gould writes.

Of course, none of this is to discourage “fringe” beliefs or unpopular ideas; most ideas that have revolutionized the world were first regarded as such. (And, if you want to figure out for yourself that the Earth is round, here are 10 ways to do that.) The point is rather the opposite, to do your own research and question things you have been taught—like the crazy idea that people once widely believed Earth is flat.