10 October 2011

"Falling off the end of the earth" nonsense

Earth at the center of the Spheres.
in Gossuin de Metz, L'Image du monde.
13th-century Copy.
"Medieval Europeans, even the most learned of geographers among them, are to this day often described as having believed that the world was flat.  But this simply isn't true.  Thanks in large part to the labors of Arab astronomers and mathematicians, ancient Greek proofs of the earth as spherical had survived into the Middle Ages and were circulating in Europe - and at some point early in the thirteenth century an English scholar known as John of Holywood, or Scrobosco, laid them out in an astronomical treaise appropriately titled The Sphere.  For centuries afterward the work would be taught and studied in schools and universities around Europe..."  [Among other arguments, Sacrobosco cited mariners' experience of seeing distant land from the top of a ship's mast, and different sets of stars visible at various latitudes.]
---excerpted from Toby Lester's The Fourth Part of the World
I am recurrently annoyed when I encounter descriptions of Columbus' crew being fearful of falling off the end of the earth because that is such a total misrepresentation of the worldview of the time.  It has been said that no educated person since the 3rd century believed the world was flat, and even uneducated persons could see the shape of the earth during eclipses of the moon.  Sailors probably knew of the earth's curvature better than anyone.

Columbus' crew may have been fearful and unruly, but not because of any fear of an edge to the earth.  They were concerned because they were sailing south - into the "torrid zone" - where they thought the heat might evaporate the water to render the seas too shallow for their ships.  They also may have been concerned that a westward voyage to reach the Indies was impossible because they didn't have enough food and water to cover such a distance (and they were correct - they didn't have enough provisions for a voyage to Asia and would in fact have died had they not bumped into the Americas).

But they never feared sailing off the end of the world.

Image credit, via Luminarium.

Addendum: Conor also points to the Farnese statue of Atlas, which depicts him holding a globe on his shoulders, and which dates from the 2nd century A.D.  [photo at left from Globalization Prehistorica: Maps that Change History website, which has some interesting info and illustrations].

(originally posted August 2010; reposted for Columbus Day 2011)

Second addendum:  Anon points out that the globe held up by Atlas represented the heavens, not the earth.


  1. The story that everyone believed the world was flat at the time of Columbus can be blamed on Washington Irving who wrote a biography on Columbus. He put in this idea that the sailors thought they might sail off the edge of the world. Then everyone read this biography and cited it as fact, it was in many history books in schools

  2. Agreed. I don't know how many times I've had to explain this to people, even ones with higher degrees. Surprisingly enough this even had to be taught in a university-level history course. I still don't believe how people can look at irrefutable evidence -- like a Greek statue of Atlas with a globe on his shoulders -- and still not believe it.

  3. The 3rd century was Aristotle's time? *Ahem*

  4. Oops. Plus or minus 600 years. Fixed. Thanx.

  5. To be fair, Atlas was holding up a celestial globe that represented the heavens, rather than the earth.

  6. Thanks, anon. Hadn't realized that. Added to the post. I appreciate your input.

  7. Could this be one aspect of American history where Americans are often less educated than everyone else?

    I haven't conducted a survey, but my impression is that here in Australia, it's common knowledge that Columbus's voyage was grounded in a dispute over whether the earth was a big sphere or a little sphere, and the reason he sailed west was because he was wrong. Everyone knows that.

  8. He's right, of course, and I'm a little ashamed that I didn't notice for more than a year.

    However, I believe that it's actually the Celestial Sphere; to the best of my knowledge both Celestial Spheres (helio- and geocentric) necessarily revolve around a spherical center, so it still serves as evidence against the flat-earth error.

  9. The works of Aristotle and Ptolemy contain rigorous demonstrations of the curvature of the Earth. Plato mentions the Earth's roundness as common knowledge, as does Cicero.

    The only flat-Earthers in ancient times were the atomists. That's an overstatement as Plato was a round earther but was at least somewhat amenable to atomism. However, Lucretius, a much later Roman source who quotes Democritus frequently, was a flat Earther. The atomist philosophers are often cites as early examples of good science, and in many ways they are. They tried to explain things without resorting to action at a distance, which they thought mystical, but their geography and astronomy were complete failures.

    Gotta give Lucretius credit for concluding that there were discrete "seeds of inheritance" that could disappear and reappear in different generations. He cited many examples. He almost got to Mendelian genetics. Imagine what would have happened if Darwin had reread Lucretius after writing Origin of Species.

  10. Just a minor point:
    Atlas does not hold up the earth. He holds up the sky.
    The sphere of the Farnese Atlas is a map of the constellations--the crystalline sphere bearing the fixed stars, as it was then envisioned, viewed from the outside.


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