Sunday, May 3, 2009
What people believed in the Dark Ages.
I can't recall with certainty if I was told it by a teacher or read it in a book, but when I was a kid I was under the distinct impression that at the time of the voyages of Columbus, many if not most Europeans believed the earth was flat and Columbus' plan ran the risk of sailing off the edge.
It's a great story, but it has the minor disadvantage of not being even remotely true.
Terry Jones of Monty Python fame (now there's a Highlight Reel™ for nearly everyone involved, maybe even a Milk Carton™ for the late Graham Chapman) made a series for BBC called Medieval Lives, which discusses many aspects of life in Europe way back in the day. On the show about philosophers, Jones quotes the proto-scientific Englishman Roger Bacon, who lived during the 1200's. Bacon argued the earth was round because of the precise way you could see farther from a higher altitude such as a hill. No educated person in Europe when Columbus set sail thought the earth was flat. Even uneducated people who lived near a large body of water like the Atlantic or Mediterranean likely had seen a ship approach and noted the top of the sails were visible first. This really wasn't a mystery to folks in Western civilization by the time Christ was born, though there were some Asian cultures including the Chinese that believed it until about the time of Isaac Newton.
So how was it that allegedly educated people in the 20th Century either learned in class or heard from some reliable source that people in the Dark Ages thought the world was flat? The origin of this falsehood is credited now to Washington Irving in his historical fantasy The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Irving has an exciting scene where Columbus is challenged by church leaders at Salamanca for his belief the world was round, which goes against Catholic doctrine.
It never happened. The Catholic Church never held that the world was flat. Center of the universe, yes. Sun revolved around the Earth, you betcha. But the idea of a spherical earth similar in shape to the spherical moon and spherical sun was accepted doctrine by the time the Catholic Church comes into existence. The flat earth critics of Columbus are every bit as historically accurate as other works of Washington Irving, like the biographies of Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane.
My thanks to Terry Jones for clearing up this little bit of odd history. Reading online, the philosopher Bacon had the nickname Doctor Mirabilis, or "wonderful teacher" in Latin. Mr. Jones is some kind of wonderful himself, and like his fellow Python alum Michael Palin, a natural born philosopher.