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Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians
by jeffrey burton russell
praeger, 117 pages, $12.95

Revisionist history offers satisfactions of several kinds to a certain type of writer. Not only does the reviser feel a sense of superiority to his predecessors, the benighted drudges who wasted their lives mired in ignorance and error. He, or increasingly she, often has the added pleasure of superiority to contemporaries as well: the bearer of the light understands the past, therefore also the present, and may confidently propose a future—usually of an impeccably progressive cast. For such intellectual laborers, Harold Bloom might have said (perhaps he already has): all vision is revision.

Yet from another quarter we receive whispers of ancient warnings: he gnosis phusioi, scientia inflat, knowledge puffeth up—not the knowledge itself, naturally, but what we allow it to do to us. And when what we think is superior knowledge turns out itself to be an intellectual imposture, what course remains but the revolutionary expropriation of the expropriators? With ideologies and empires crumbling around us in the late twentieth century, the revision of the revisionists bids fair to become a central intellectual growth industry.

In Inventing the Flat Earth, Jeffrey Burton Russell, a medieval historian, has assembled evidence exploding one of the most influential historical hoaxes ever perpetrated by revisionists. We have all heard it vaguely claimed that Christopher Columbus proved to a dark and disbelieving late-medieval Europe that the world is not flat. Russell shows beyond dispute that any educated person in medieval Europe already knew that. Later historians simply invented a progressive Columbus myth for several reasons. Some hated the Spanish Empire and Roman Catholicism. Others wanted to demonstrate the superiority of the modern world. Still others thought it crucial to portray religion (particularly Christianity) as a reactionary force and an opponent of enlightenment.

How was what Russell calls the Flat Error constructed? Only two ancient Christian writers of any significance put forward a flat-Earth theory: Lactantius (c.245–325), a Latin convert who ignored the sophisticated hermeneutics of Fathers like Augustine and Chrysostom and propounded a crude “biblical” cosmos; and Cosmas Indicopleustes (writing around 547–549), a Greek who argued that the universe was a vaulted arch with the earth as the floor. Lactantius was posthumously condemned as a heretic, and Cosmas was, and is, so obscure that a graduate student may easily finish a degree in medieval studies without ever coming across his name. (Of further importance to the present context is the fact that Cosmas was unknown to Western Europe until 1706 and could have had no influence in Columbus’ time.)

As anyone who has read Dante’s Divine Comedy will recall, that medieval author takes for granted a spherical Earth and a Ptolemaic universe, in fact makes them of major structural significance in his poem. All other serious medieval thinkers held the same belief. How then did their views get steamrollered into the Flat Error? (A “Wizard of Id” cartoon included among the illustrations to the volume shows a mock-Solomonic king reconciling a dispute between the court’s flat partisans and round partisans by proclaiming that the world is both flat and round: “I call it the Pizza Theory.”) Russell points to two main schools of earlier revisionist historians as the primary sources: the progressives of the early nineteenth century and the Darwinians after 1870. Both groups had an interest in revising the record for contemporary purposes.

Washington Irving, probably the best known of the progressives, felt obliged to present an image of modern man freeing himself from the constraints of feudal and Catholic Europe to help create the democratic and Protestant New World. During a stay in Spain, therefore, he read some of the original archival materials on Columbus and selected among them to make of that Catholic Genoese navigator the unlikely hero of American Protestantism and progressivism. The whole vivid, romanticized, dramatic, and almost entirely fictitious moral tale was published in 1837 as the History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Despite its shortcomings as truth, the book set the tone of Columbus studies for the rest of the century and, to a certain extent, beyond.

Samuel Eliot Morison, a canny sailor himself and judicious historian of Columbus, describes Irving’s dramatic scenes of Columbus in argument with the learned doctors at the University of Salamanca as “pure moonshine.” As we know beyond question, such conversations as Columbus had with scholars at the behest of the Spanish crown did not deal with questions of the earth’s roundness but of its size and the location of land masses. (The theologians’ theories, incidentally, were far closer to the truth than Columbus’ optimistic projections.) In Washington Irving, however, and in a host of other self-styled progressive writers after him, the Inquisition and “monastic bigotry” are the forces that must be overcome to create America. The “learned” theologians, therefore, confront Columbus with a passage from—Lactantius! “Is there anyone so foolish as to believe that there are people living on the other side of the earth with their heels upward and their heads hanging down?”

Though Lactantius had himself been declared heretical more than a thousand years earlier, historical ignorance made it but a short step to the kind of truth v. orthodoxy morality play that has persisted even as late as this exchange in Joseph Chiari’s Christopher Columbus (1919):

Columbus: The Earth is not flat, Father, it’s round!
The Prior: Don’t say that!
Columbus: It’s the truth; it’s not a mill pond strewn with islands, it’s a sphere.
The Prior: Don’t, don’t say that; it’s blasphemy.

Columbus the bearer of universal enlightenment was to find a successful career in France and other continental nations as well.

After 1870, the Flat Error was found to have a second use, this time among what might be called the anti-anti-Darwinians. Darwin’s defenders were looking for any ammunition they could find in their struggle with fundamentalist Christians. None of the major Church Fathers or medieval thinkers, says Russell, would have dreamt of using the Bible all by itself as a complete guide to scientific matters. From the first, biblical hermeneutics were generally too sophisticated for that. But threatened by the advances of science, some modern Christians tried that desperate tactic. In the evolution controversy, therefore, Darwin’s supporters—who were not very theologically sophisticated themselves—had a vested interest in making all so-called “biblical” thought appear benighted.

Dug up by some scholar or other, Cosmas Indicopleusies was translated into English for the first time in 1897 and was immediately portrayed not only as a fool himself, but the emblem of Christian foolishness. His name began to appear in histories and textbooks as if he had been the main cosmological theorist of the Middle Ages.

The medieval Church had been a sponsor of science, of course, but the Darwinian dynamics were projected back upon the earlier age. For example, Andrew Dickson White, the founder of Cornell University, became one of the principal late-nineteenth-century propagators of the Flat Error out of opposition to contemporary Christian obscurantists. Ignoring the medieval scholarship that was available even in his day, he accepted on faith the misstatements of several fellow polemicists. Russell comments: “White and his colleagues ended by doing what they accused the Fathers of: namely, creating a body of false knowledge by consulting one another instead of the evidence.”

Though for at least the last fifty years all this has been known to scholars as a simple comedy of errors, the myth persists. The Flat Error continues to appear, of course, in widely used primary, secondary, and college textbooks. But even some of the most influential modern historians have been taken in. The distinguished historian and former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin in his lively and generally reliable volume The Discoverers, for example, falls prey. In chapter 13, “The Prison of Christian Dogma,” Boorstin asserts that during the Middle Ages Christians engaged in an “amnesiac effort to ignore the growing mass of knowledge [about a spherical earth] and retreat into a world of faith and caricature.” As evidence, Boorstin cites the hapless Cosmas and over several pages mixes that eccentric figure with more mainstream Christian thinkers like Augustine to evoke a wholly imaginary “legion of Christian geographers” who believed that the earth was flat.

When even a Daniel Boorstin can be taken in by a scholarly imposture that has become widespread, is it any wonder that far less learned people look down on the past in general and the religious past in particular? The historian David Noble, who wrote the foreword to Inventing the Flat Earth, laments this situation and reminds us that progressivism has a deep human genealogy: once the medieval sense of the world’s unity is rejected and time “is conceived in discontinuous terms, it becomes necessary to believe in progress to escape the terror of a world without meaning.” So all traces of progress are carefully husbanded by progressives for fear of falling, not off the edge of the Earth, but off the edge of presumed knowledge.

The Flat Error will probably continue its fugitive life in the odd nooks and crannies of modern pedagogy. Our schools have for some time been sponsoring a colossal loss of basic historical knowledge, ironically mirroring the very kind of medieval amnesia we are told that they remedy. Perhaps one way at least to begin a recovery of history, now that even the Flat Error can no longer stand the light of day, is to take a hard look at the truth and revise the facile, stubborn, and obscurantist myth of progress.

Robert Royal is Vice President and John M. Olin Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which will publish his book 1492 and All That later this spring.