In his new book, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians (Brazos Press), Chris Armstrong does a lot to dispel some of the many myths surrounding the medieval period. What may the biggest myth of all is the notion that people believed the Earth is flat. Armstrong explains why this is not true and how it got started.
“Many modern Protestant Christians still assume medieval people were ignorant haters of scientific knowledge who believed in a flat earth and were sitting around waiting for the Enlightenment to happen so they could finally crawl out of the darkness and into the clear light of reason. In order to get back to the genius of medieval theology, we first need to overcome the stereotype that medieval people were, well, stupid. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
One source of such nonsense today is a misbegotten (and still bestselling) book by William Manchester called A World Lit Only by Fire. Manchester was a historian, but he didn’t let a staggering lack of knowledge of the medieval period hinder him from filling the book’s pages with the Enlightenment polemical agenda hinted at in his title. This resulted (and I’m just scratching the surface here) in lurid and titillating exposés of the period’s supposed barbarous sexual habits and a straight-faced argument that everyone in the Middle Ages believed the world was flat. Historian of science (and editor of the eight-volume Cambridge History of Science) David Lindberg says, “Nonsense.”
Manchester’s story goes that before Columbus, Europeans believed nearly unanimously in a flat earth—a belief allegedly drawn from certain biblical statements and enforced by the medieval church. This myth, according to Lindberg, seems to have had an eighteenth-century origin. For their own reasons, the philosophes of the Enlightenment era, and many academics since then, developed and perpetuated the stereotype of medieval ignorance. But that doesn’t make these stereotypes true. In fact, American author Washington Irving flagrantly fabricated evidence for the flat-earth belief in his four-volume history of Columbus. It was then picked up and widely disseminated in twentieth-century America by the anti-Christian president of Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918), and others.
The truth is that it’s almost impossible to find an educated person after Aristotle (d. 322 BC) who doubted that the earth is a sphere. In the Middle Ages, you couldn’t emerge from any kind of higher education, whether in a cathedral school or in a university, without being perfectly clear about the earth’s sphericity and even its approximate circumference.” (pp. 76-77)