Was the Earth Believed to be Flat in the Middle Ages?
In the Middle Ages, People Knew The Earth Was Spherical!
In the Middle Ages, it was believed that the Earth was flat. In fact, it was feared that Christopher Columbus would fall off the edge of the Earth as a result of the journey he was trying to make. Thanks to the success of Columbus’ voyage, European scientists realized that the Earth was not flat, but round.
The idea that in the Middle Ages everyone believed the Earth was flat is a 19th century myth. Apart from Europe, it is easily understood in the texts obtained from the Islamic geography that the dominant view of the world in the Middle Ages was the “round Earth”. The flat earth belief is an idea that was largely confined to Europeans and prevailed for a very short time. Even among philosophers and academics in Europe, the idea of a “Flat Earth” was never accepted; it remained a belief that was only partially widespread among the people. However, it is presented as if it was an idea that was believed in the Middle Ages constantly and all over the world, including scientists.
Origin of the Allegation
In his book titled “Inventing the Flat Earth” written in 1991, Jeffrey Burton Russell, a former professor at the University of California, states that the idea that everyone believed in a flat Earth in the Middle Ages was invented by the authors of the 1800s, Washington Irving and Antoinne-Jean Letronne. Although a book titled “The Life and Travels of Christopher Columbus” by Irving in 1828 was written in the language of a biography, much of it is fiction. For the first time, this book describes how Europeans realized that the Earth was round, thanks to Columbus’ travels. This is a fabricated claim and has no scientific or historical basis. Similarly, in the books written by Letronne it is written that Christians all believe the Earth is flat. Although this is almost entirely erroneous, Letronne has been cited extensively.
We find the first ideas that the Earth is round in the 6th century BC in Pythagoras’ inscriptions. Interestingly, even bees take the Earth’s sphericity into account when notifying each other of their nectar locations; is aware of this fact. So the fact that our species discovered the roundness of the Earth 2600 years ago is hardly impressive. However, it is important to understand that the fact that the Earth is round is not as new as one might think.
Pythagoras’ determination was hardly taken into account. However, Aristotle, who came after him, participated in the determination of Pythagoras in the 4th century BC. To prove this, Aristotle pointed to the fact that the southern hemisphere constellations appeared higher in the sky as he traveled south. In addition, Aristotle was the first person to mention the roundness of the Earth’s shadow on the Moon during a lunar eclipse.
The great mathematician Euclid also talked about the roundness of the Earth. But perhaps most importantly, Eratosthenes, the chief librarian of the Library of Alexandria, not only accepted that the Earth was round, but was able to experimentally and mathematically measure its circumference. He noticed that no shadow was formed when the sun hit a well in Aswan, Egypt, at noon on the summer solstice. On the same day, he noticed that the shadow of a stick he had erected on Alexandria, 5000 stadiums (about 800 kilometers) away from Aswan at the same hour, was cast at an angle of about 7 degrees (that is, about 1/50th of a circle). Using simple Euclidean Mathematics, Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth as 250,000 stadiums, or 40,000 kilometers, based on the length of the shadow, the length of the pole, and the distance between cities. The true circumference of the Earth is 40,075 kilometers!
Ptolemy (Ptolemy) writes in his book Geography, which he wrote 1300 years before Columbus sailed, during the heyday of the Roman Empire, that it is a widely accepted fact that the Earth is round.
In the book titled The Beginning of Western Science, written by David Lindberg in 1992, medieval cosmology is covered in detail and it is emphasized that it was widely known among the people that the Earth was round in the Middle Ages. In the book, it is shown that in the writings of medieval writers such as Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Albert Magnus, Dante, the Earth is rounded in an ordinary way.
In fact, it is difficult to find information that the Earth is flat in the texts of the period. For example, in university books written between 1200 and 1500, it is clearly stated that the Earth is in the form of a sphere.
Did Columbus Try To Prove The Roundness Of The Earth?
Similarly, the information that Christopher Columbus proved that the Earth is round is also incorrect. Columbus had no intention of proving that the Earth was round, neither before nor during his voyage. He hadn’t even developed any arguments this way or the other! Columbus’ aim was to prove that the distance between Spain and China was not as great as it seems. Its main purpose was to show that sailing west to reach China would take much less time and be much safer than following the coast. His journey was indeed financially supported by the scholars and scientists of the time; but none of them sought to prove the roundness of the Earth. Not many people thought otherwise. Their concern was that the size of the Earth could be much, much larger than Christopher Columbus thought. Therefore, the distance to China was much greater than previously thought. So what they were worried about was that Columbus’ voyage might take much longer than the material resources allocated. They were afraid that eventually their ship would sink and they would die (thereby wasting the resources allocated to them).
Accordingly, it is also said that the sailors working on the ship of Christopher Columbus tried to persuade him to refuse, fearing that he would fall from the edge of the Earth. If you read Columbus’ diaries, you can see that at least once, sailors complained about Columbus. But their fear was not of falling off the end of the Earth, but rather that they were beginning to think that the journey would take much longer than Columbus had said, and that the winds blowing nonstop from the east would make it impossible to return to Spain. Robert Osserman, tenured professor of mathematics at Stanford University in 1995, in his book titled “The Poetry of the Universe: A Mathematical Study of the Cosmos” made it clear that Columbus never had any concerns about “falling off the edge of the Earth.”
It is true that at the beginning of the Middle Ages, many people, especially in Europe, believed that we lived on a flat Earth. But that was Europe’s problem. During this period, Islamic scholars had extensive knowledge about the roundness of the Earth, thanks to the preservation and development of the knowledge they received from the Greeks, and they did not even mention the flatness of the Earth. Already in Europe, in the middle of the Middle Ages, it caught up with the science of Islam and succeeded in passing it. Thus, there are not many people left in Europe who believe in the flatness of the Earth.
Even in the medieval texts of Europe, the flat view of the world is almost never found. Therefore, the idea of a flat Earth was not accepted in academia, even in medieval Europe.