Medieval People Did Not Believe the Earth Is Flat

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)

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Book Giveaway

This week I’m offering Chris Armstrong’s new book Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians (Brazos Press). Here’s the catalog description:

“Many Christians today tend to view the story of medieval faith as a cautionary tale. Too often, they dismiss the Middle Ages as a period of corruption and decay in the church. They seem to assume that the church apostatized from true Christianity after it gained cultural influence in the time of Constantine, and the faith was only later recovered by the sixteenth-century Reformers or even the eighteenth-century revivalists. As a result, the riches and wisdom of the medieval period have remained largely inaccessible to modern Protestants.

Church historian Chris Armstrong helps readers see beyond modern caricatures of the medieval church to the animating Christian spirit of that age. He believes today’s church could learn a number of lessons from medieval faith, such as how the gospel speaks to ordinary, embodied human life in this world. Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians explores key ideas, figures, and movements from the Middle Ages in conversation with C. S. Lewis and other thinkers, helping contemporary Christians discover authentic faith and renewal in a forgotten age.”

Leave your name in the comments section by NLT Friday, May 20 6:00 am EST. I’ll announce the winner that day. If I don’t hear back from the winner within seven days the book will go to another entry.

Chris R. Armstrong (PhD, Duke University) is the founding director of Opus: The Art of Work, an institute on faith and vocation at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, where he also serves as a faculty member in biblical and theological studies. He formerly served as professor of church history at Bethel Seminary and was founding director of the Bethel Work with Purpose initiative. Armstrong is senior editor of Christian History and senior editor of the Patheos Faith and Work Channel. He is also the author of Patron Saints for Postmoderns.

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Some Recommended Reading on Mary

In the Catholic Church the month of May is dedicated to Mary. In honor of that celebration I offer some recommended titles for my readers: Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. Unfortunately, some of these are out of print but I listed them anyway because they are, well, just really good.

By Protestant Authors:

Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary, by Beverley Roberts Gaventa & Cynthia L. Rigby, eds. (Westminster John Knox, 2002)

Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture by Jaroslav Pelikan (Yale University Press, 1996). (Note: At the time of the writing Pelikan was Lutheran. Two years later he was received into full communion in the Orthodox Church.)

Mary For Evangelicals: Toward an Understanding of the Mother of Our Lord by Tim Perry (IVP Academic, 2006, out of print)

The Real Mary: Why Evangelicals Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus by Scot McKnight (Paraclete Press, 2007)

Mary for All Christians by John Macquarrie (Eerdmans, 1990, out of print)

Christian History magazine devoted an issue to the topic of Mary. You can find that here. https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/issue/mary-in-the-imagination-of-the-church/

By Catholic authors (The amount of material on Mary from Catholics is enormous so I’m highlighting only a few that I’ve read myself in the past couple of years.) The last two books are not on Mary specifically but include a good chapter on her.

Behold Your Mother: A Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines by Tim Staples (Catholic Answers Press, 2014)

The Marian Mystery: Outline of Mariology by Denis Farkasfalvy, O. Cist. (St. Pauls, 2014)

Mary’s Bodily Assumption by Matthew Levering (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015)

What Does it Mean to be Catholic? By Jack Mulder, Jr. (Eerdmans, 2015)

Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith by Robert Barron (Image Books, 2011)

By both Catholic and Protestant:

Mary: A Catholic—Evangelical Debate by Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson (Brazos Press, 2003, out of print).

For an Orthodox perspective and some recommended readings see “Mary the Theotokos and the Call to Holiness” by Kyriaki Karidoyanes Fitzgerald in Mary, Mother of God edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Eerdmans, 2004)

The Virgin Mary by Alexander Schmemann (Celebration of Faith series vol. 3, St. Vladamir’s Seminary Press, 1995)

Book Give Away

This week, by special request, I’m offering The Church by Gerald Bray. Here’s the catalog description:

“Renowned evangelical theologian Gerald Bray provides a clear and coherent account of the church in biblical, historical, and theological perspective. He tells the story of the church in its many manifestations through time, starting with its appearance in the New Testament, moving through centuries of persecution and triumph, and discussing how and why the ancient church broke up at the Reformation. Along the way, Bray looks at the four classic marks of the church–its oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity–and illustrates how each of these marks has been understood by different Christian traditions. The book concludes with a look at the ecumenical climate of today and suggests ways that the four characteristics of the church can and should be manifested in our present global context.

This accessible introduction to the church from an evangelical perspective explores ecclesiology through the lenses of church history and doctrine to reveal what it means for us today. Bray discusses the church as a living reality, offering practical ways churches and individuals can cooperate and live together.”

Leave your name in the comments section by NLT Friday, May 13th 6:00 am EST. I’ll pick the winning name that day. If I don’t hear back from the winner within seven days the book will go to another entry.

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