The Myth of Columbus and the Flat Earth

While I’m in Orlando I’m taking Rodney Stark’s book The Triumph of Christianity to read. I doubt I’ll get much reading done (mostly on the plane) but I’ve enjoyed the snippets that I’ve read so far. Stark’s book was selected as World Magazine’s book of the year for 2012. I’ve been skipping around a little and read this part which I thought was classic Stark. This comes from the chapter on “Faith and the Scientific ‘Revolution.'” He begins with a quote from Andrew Dickson White’s (1832-1918) book A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. The first paragraph here is the quote from White, the rest is Stark’s commentary.

“‘The warfare of Columbus [with religion] the world knows well: how the Bishop of Ceuta worsted him in Portugal; how sundry wise men of Spain confronted him with the usual quotations from Psalms, from St. Paul, and from St. Augustine; how even after he was triumphant, and after his voyage had greatly strengthened the theory of the earth’s sphericity . . . the Church by its highest authority solemnly stumbled and persisted in going astray. . . . [T]he theological barriers to this geological truth yielded but slowly. . . . Many conscientious [religious] men oppose the doctrine for two hundred years longer.’

Unfortunately, nearly every word of White’s account is a lie–as are so many of the other stories he wrote about conflicts between religion and science in his now discredited, but long-esteemed, work. Long before the fifteenth century, every educated European, including Roman Catholic prelates, knew the earth was round. Sphere was the tide of the most popular medieval textbook on astronomy, written early in the thirteenth century. The opposition Columbus encountered was not about the shape of the earth, but about the fact that he was wildly wrong about the circumference of the globe. He estimated it was about 2,800 miles from the Canary Islands to Japan. In reality it is about 14,000 miles. His opponents knew how far it was and opposed his voyage on the grounds that Columbus and his men would all die at sea. Had the Western Hemisphere not been there, and no one knew it existed, the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria might as well have fallen off the earth, for everyone aboard would have died of thirst and starvation.

Amazingly enough, there is no hint about Columbus having to prove that the earth is round in any contemporary accounts, not in his own Journal nor in his son’s History of the Admiral. The story was entirely unknown until more than three hundred years later when it suddenly appeared in a biography of Columbus published in 1828. The author? Washington Irving (1783-1859), best know for his fiction: in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow he introduced the Headless Horseman. Although the tale about Columbus and the flat earth is equally fictional, Irving presented it as fact. Almost at once the story was eagerly embraced by historians who were so certain of the wickedness and stupidity of the medieval church that they felt no need to seek any additional confirmation, although some of them must have realized that the story had appeared out of nowhere. Anyway, that’s how the tradition that Columbus proved the world was round got into the textbooks.” (273-74)


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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One Response to The Myth of Columbus and the Flat Earth

  1. Ha! I would’ve never guessed a connection between a flat earth and headless horsemen!


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