Teachers in Focus Magazine, 1997

Flat Wrong

Review of Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians by Jeffrey Burton Russell, Praeger Publishers, 1997, 132 pages.


By Mark Hartwig

Do you remember the stories you heard about Columbus proving that the earth is round? About how this courageous man sailed to America and proved that the superstitious theologians and scholars of his day were wrong?

It never happened.

Although Columbus did make his famous voyage, no educated person of his time--including theologians--ever believed that the earth is flat. And no one ever challenged Columbus for believing it is round.

Experts on Medieval thought and history have known this for decades, if not longer. But the general public, and even some historians, are still in the dark.

In Inventing the Flat Earth, historian Jeffrey Russell, of the University of California at Santa Barbara, argues compellingly that almost no educated person in the western world has believed in a flat earth since the third century B.C. Contrary to the myth that almost all Christians believed in a flat earth until Columbus's voyage, Russell reports that only a handful of early Christian writers declared that the earth is flat.

"In the first fifteen centuries of the Christian era," Russell writes, "five writers seem to have denied the globe, and a few others were ambiguous or uninterested in the question. But nearly unanimous scholarly opinion pronounced the earth spherical, and by the fifteenth century all doubt had disappeared."

So how did this myth get started? Russell traces its origins to two sources: Washington Irving's horribly inaccurate biography of Christopher Columbus, published in 1828, and a scholarly article by French scholar Antoine-Jean Letronne, published in 1834.

Irving, on the one hand, apparently wanted a dramatic image that would grip his readers, so he cast Columbus as the bold mariner who argued courageously for truth and common sense before a council of inquisitors and hooded theologians. In fact, Columbus did appear before a council to defend his ideas. But it was a council of scientists, and the issue was not the roundness of the globe, but how far Columbus would have to sail to reach Asia. The scientists thought that Columbus had grievously underestimated the distance. And they were right.

As Russell points out, "If God or good luck had not put America--the West Indies--in the way to catch him, Columbus and his crews might indeed have perished, not from falling off the earth but from starvation and thirst."

Letronne, on the other hand, was motivated by an anti-religious bias and had to use some shabby moves to make his case. But his prestige was such that other scholars used his material without checking it.

Despite Irving's popularity and Letronne's prestige, their mistakes might have had little effect were it not for Darwin's theory of evolution. Following the publication of his Origin of Species in 1859, the flat-earth myth became orthodoxy when Darwin's defenders began using it to attack their Christian critics. Like many Darwinists today, they portrayed their critics as hopelessly shackled by superstition.

As Russell's book shows, however, the problem was not medieval superstitions, but modern fabrications--a lesson we should not soon forget.