When the Earth was Flat

Does any of this sound familiar?

You’re a faithful Christian passionate about sharing the faith and taking down the dictatorship of relativism. You’ve engaged your opponent and you’re making a real effort not to see them as an enemy but a fellow truth-seeker. You are gracious, you are factual, you are making a brilliant point about the universality of the religious impulse, and the richness of the Christian heritage through the ages, and…

Gossuin de Metz - L'image du monde, BNF Fr. 574 folio 42

Gossuin de Metz – L’image du monde, BNF Fr. 574 folio 42

“Yeah, well, people used to think the earth was flat too.”

Congratulations, your lofty discussion of the Heavens just crashed – and into a flat earth no less. At that point, many will groan and just move on but I say No! It’s time we set the world (flat or otherwise) straight.

Here’s the truth.

Galileo didn’t disprove the world was flat.

Columbus didn’t disprove the world was flat. 

Why? Because every knew it wasn’t flat. They knew it the earth was spherical, circular, globular. Not. Flat. 

They knew it in the Middle Ages, in the Dark Ages, at the time of Christ and going all the way back to Ancient Greece.

The theory that the earth is spherical is attributed to Pythogoras in the 6th Century BC. It was certainly well-accepted by the Pythogoran School which followed him in the 5th Century BC. In the 3rd Century BC, Aristotle decisively proved it through empirical observation, particularly of eclipses. (There is also good evidence that sailors and the like knew the earth was round centuries before any Athenian big-wig “proved” it by observing the curve of the horizon at sea.)

From then on, everyone agreed: the earth was round. It was not an issue. It was a fact.

This knowledge was retained by the inheritors of Greco-Roman culture, both Christians and Muslims. The latter did some amazing stuff with cosmology and have the best maps, like the Al-Idrisi map below from 1054 AD, which you will notice, is round. It was done by a Muslim geographer, Muhammed Al-Idrisi (1099-1165) who lived in Sicily, for the Norman King Roger II.


The knowledge of a spherical earth was retained even by those backward, dastardly Christians in the (supposed) Dark Ages. For example, we have this description from the Venerable Bede (673-735):

“We call the earth a globe, not as if the shape of a sphere were expressed in the diversity of plains and mountains, but because, if all things are included in the outline, the earth’s circumference will represent the figure of a perfect globe… For truly it is an orb placed in the center of the universe; in its width it is like a circle, and not circular like a shield but rather like a ball, and it extends from its center with perfect roundness on all sides.”

On the Reckoning of Time (De temporum ratione), 725 AD

More than five hundred years, St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) used the example of a spherical earth to prove a philosophical point about habits. (I don’t understand the philosophy but the assumptions are clear enough!)

The physicist proves the earth to be round by one means, the astronomer by another: for the latter proves this by means of mathematics, e.g. by the shapes of eclipses, or something of the sort; while the former proves it by means of physics, e.g. by the movement of heavy bodies towards the center, and so forth.

– Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 54, Article 2, Reply to Objection 2.

Now, to be fair, geography wasn’t the Medievals’ strong suit. When it came to maps, they had a tendency to put things where they thought they should be, rather than where they actually where. (And then there’s the whole “Here Be Dragons” thing.) But it continued to improve. The first physical globe we have is from 1492, which doesn’t have the Americas (let alone poor Australia) because this globe was made prior to Columbus’ return to Europe.


(My favourite map, however, is the Fra Mauro map from fifty years earlier. You should really click on this one because it is stunning!)

Even if we didn’t have any documentary evidence or any maps at all from the time, we could still safely assume the Middle Ages believed in a spherical earth. One of the more ancient symbols of kingship was the orb or globus cruciger, a globe topped with a cross. It represented Christ’s dominion over the whole earth. That’s right, the medieval symbol for the world is a globe.

It’s the same kind as carried by our gracious Queen at her coronation in 1953. And oh look, there’s the soon-to-be-killed King Harold with an orb in his hand, 886 years earlier.


Bayeaux Tapestry (11th C) & Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation (1953)

So no, folks, people didn’t used to think the earth was flat. (Ok, they did in China for a fair while but let’s not get into that because it involves missionaries and God forbid we should think that there was anything positive about them.)

If anyone says otherwise, I give you permission, by the power invested in me as a medieval history major, to call them all the nasty names you can think of.

Or, you could quietly point out the irony that the myth of the Flat Earth is just that, a myth; and perhaps, if we actually investigated the truth, we might be surprised that our ancestors weren’t quite so ignorant or credulous as we think.

In fact, we might discover that we are credulous ones.


12 responses to “When the Earth was Flat

  1. Very nicely done! I have a lesson that I do with my 7 th graders about Pope Sylvester II, who reintroduced the abacus to Western Europe… Among the things they’re surprised to learn about him is that despite being one of those backwards medieval Catholics you read about, dude was well aware of the fact that the world was round…

  2. Well done, my friend. Far too often we here this bromide and walk away but we know better, really we do, the Greeks even calculated the circumference of the world within a few miles. The Middle Ages had their problems all right, but they weren’t nearly as dark as some like to think. 🙂

    • Indeed we do know better! It’s so bizarre that this myth even got starter. I’ll have to look into why it did! And totally agree with you about the Middle Ages. They were just like every other age or time in history: full of the good and the bad, precisely because they are full of people, who are both good and bad!

  3. Pingback: New Things This Week | New Things·

  4. Yep, the so -called arguement between the Pope and Galileo was not about his insisting that the earth was round as to flat, but that he jumped the gun on many issues of protocol when there were better scholars around than him. (forgotten the minutiae of it ) But it suits the purposes of “they who write the history books to dismiss Catholics as bumpkins.
    Loved the rich illustrations by the way!

    • Yes, it was far more a clash of egos than of scientific theories! I’m glad you enjoyed the pictures too. They so often speak much more effectively than I can! 🙂

  5. On QI once, Mr. Fry said that nobody ever thought the world was flat. Always wanted to see the evidence, and now I have it. =)

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