Last night I watched a perfectly dreadful movie about Christopher Columbus. This was the 1949 biopic starring Frederic March in the title role (it was called simply Christopher Columbus), and it was about as bad a warping of history as you’d expect from a low budget British film from the 40s. The movie raised my hackles in the first 30 seconds when the narrator, an authoritative-sounding British fellow, repeated the egregiously false claim that people in the 15th century generally believed the world was flat.
As a teacher of history, I’ve found that the myth about belief in the shape of the earth is probably the single most pervasive and hard to eradicate misconception that people have about history. Almost everybody takes it as an article of faith that people in the Middle Ages considered the world to be flat, and Columbus’s big contribution was to prove that it was round. I’m sure you’ve heard the story. Columbus supposedly sold Ferdinand and Isabella on the idea of funding his expedition to India (yes, it was India he was looking for) by showing them an orange and saying, “Look, this is the shape of the earth!” Ferdinand and Isabella, being shallow-thinking rubes (or so the story goes), stared at the orange and went, “Ooooooooo! Now that’s a mind-blowing concept! Here’s your money, Chris! Go to it!”
This is not only a violent and offensive distortion of history, but it’s mind-blowingly stupid once you think about it. This story is entirely reductive in its approach and insulting to the intelligence of the people of the 15th century–as well as those in the 21st who honestly believe that this is how it happened. Bizarrely, once you investigate the myth of the myth of the flat earth, you realize that it is only fairly recently–since the late 19th century–that people began to believe that 15th century people thought the earth was flat. Until then, everyone knew that everyone knew it was round. What happened?
Ferdinand and Isabella, Columbus’s benefactors. They weren’t stupid. Why should we believe they were?
First of all, the shape of the earth has been a well-known scientific fact since ancient times. As I stated in a post a few months ago, the Greek philosopher Eratosthanes not only proved the world was round, but also came pretty close to estimating its size. This knowledge was not forgotten or obscured by religious dogma. So far as I know the Catholic Church never asserted that the earth was flat–I can’t imagine how that would conflict with religious teaching–and I know for a fact that Byzantine theology never disputed the shape of the earth as determined in classical times. Medieval scientists, thinkers and even lay people were well aware that the world was round. It just wasn’t a controversy.
Columbus did not set out to prove the size of the earth. I wrote about Columbus recently, and you can see from that article that his main goal was profit–to find a cheap water route to India, and the luxury markets of East Asia, that would bypass the land routes now controlled by hostile (to Europeans) powers. Columbus was greatly mistaken about the size of the world, but no one laughed at him for asserting correctly its shape. The bureaucratic resistance to his expedition was based on financial and political concerns, not religious or cosmological ones. The shape of the earth simply never entered into Columbus’s preparations. Never.
Most of the confusion about the early modern thinking about the earth comes from sloppy or biased “scholarship” from the 19th century. While the myth of the myth of the flat earth may have been circulating as early as the 1600s, it really got going in the 1800s, first with the utterly fraudulent “biography” of Christopher Columbus by Washington Irving, who repeats the myth/myth as truth, and later in the century with the publication in 1874 by John William Draper of a book called History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. This book was an entry into the science vs. religion sweepstakes that was triggered largely by Darwin in the 1850s and 1860s. In it, Draper claimed, absolutely falsely, that the Catholic Church tried to assert the world was flat through most of the Middle Ages. Draper’s claims were picked up and amplified by various other books in the same genre, and with the same bias, until the myth/myth began to crystallize in mass-produced textbooks in the 20th century. This is where most modern people learned the ridiculous “fact” that people thought the world was flat.
Hello, Mr. Irving? Mr. Munger would like to have a word with you, please. Pick up line 2.
I remember being taught this in about 4th grade, and the Columbus-and-the-orange story was trotted out as truth. I was in 4th grade in 1981. Imagine that. Nineteen-eighty-one and this folderol was still being pumped into the minds of children! Still, these myths are very hard to break. I recall being in a history lecture once, where my academic advisor was giving the first lecture of a freshman-level American history class. When he asserted that Columbus knew full well the world was round, a freshman, about 18, raised his hand and said, “Are you sure about that?” The professor for this class had been teaching it for 25 years and was an expert in the history of early America. That’s how deeply held this myth is.
I guess I don’t fault people for believing in the myth of the myth of the flat earth. After all, when it’s drummed into your head in reductive soundbites from when you’re very small, it’s tough not to believe it. But things like this unfortunately make the job of history teachers much harder. It’s difficult enough to present the facts as they are, but harder still if, before you even get there, you have to deconstruct all the wrong information people have been learning for decades.