I’ve been reading Umberto Eco’s really fun text, The Book of Legendary Lands (2013) and discovered a fun Victorian fact.
Everyone knows that in the medieval era, everyone thought the world was flat, and Columbus discovered the Americas in part because he was trying to circumnavigate the globe, to prove it was round, and to end up in India, right?
Except all of this is wrong.
Eco tells us that people have known the world was spherical since ancient Greece. “Parmenides seems to have guessed its spherical nature, while Pythagoras held that it was spherical for mystical-mathematical reasons [and] subsequent demonstrations of the roundness of the Earth were based on empirical observations: see the texts by Plato and Aristotle. Doubts about sphericity linger in Democritus and Epicurus, and Lucretius denies the existence of the Antipodes, but in general for all of late antiquity, the spherical form of the Earth was no longer debated” (11).
Eco goes on to list a great number of scientific and literary sources from antiquity, through the classical age, the early dark ages, all the way through the high middle ages, that accept as a matter of common knowledge that the Earth is round.
“Naturally, Ptolemy knew the Earth was round; otherwise he would not have been able to divide it into 360 degrees. Eratosthenes also knew this, because in the third century BC, he had made a pretty good calculation of the length of the terrestrial meridian . . . . So why has it long been believed, and why do many still believe to this day . . . that the original Christian world had abandoned Greek science and returned to the idea of the flat Earth?” (12).
The answer, as you may have guessed, is because of the Victorians. The Medieval Revival in the nineteenth century was huge, as were discoveries in archaeology, sociology, and history. People were obsessed with their origins and histories, so naturally the medieval era became a particular source of interest.
However, despite their intellectual leaps forward, the Victorians were wonderful revisionists. They are the reason why we all seem to think that Vikings had helmets with horns on them (Vikings never wore anything like that), and they were also the reason why we think nude statues from the Renaissance were sculpted with olive leaves over their genitals (they weren’t–the leaves are bits of plaster that the Victorians put over the private parts long after the fact, for the purposes of modesty).
Eco writes, “Nineteenth-century secular thinkers, irritated by the fact that various religious denominations were opposing evolutionism, attributed the idea of the flat Earth to the whole of Christian thinking (both patristic and scholastic). It was a matter of demonstrating that, just as they had been wrong about the spherical form of the Earth, so the churches could be wrong about the origin of species.
“So they exploited a Christian author of the fourth century, Lactantius (in his Divine Institutes). Because the Bible describes the universe in the form of the Tabernacle, and hence in a quadrangular shape, Lactantius opposed the pagan theories about the roundness of the Earth” (12-13).
So, basically, a few Victorian writers and thinkers, frustrated with religious resistance to evolution, found the ONE fringe medieval Christian dude with some completely wackadoo ideas about a flat Earth, held him up as a standard for the entire medieval Church, and said, “Well, if the Church was willing to believe this nonsense, they can clearly be wrong about other stuff! Like evolution!”
This is despite the fact that most medieval people, and certainly all educated people associated with the Church, would have absolutely believed in the scientific evidence from centuries past that the Earth was round.
As a side note, the author Lactantius also didn’t believe in the Southern hemisphere, because he couldn’t comprehend how you would be able to walk “upside down” without falling off the Earth. Even though this was a concept that most people at the time had no problem understanding.