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_Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians_ (1991) by medieval scholar Jeffrey Burton Russell is an interesting examination of the role of the idea that medieval Europeans believed the earth to be flat before Columbus (what Russell refers to as the "flat error"). Russell is to argue that while some ancient and medieval sources maintained a flat earth, most of educated Europe believed in a round earth even before Columbus and the final confirmation of Magellan. Today, the term "flat earther" has been taken on as a term of abuse hurled against those who object to certain theories or adhere to an alternative or religious point of view. The role of this term originates in the alleged warfare between religion and science which was pushed forward in the nineteenth century. Russell is to consider various understandings of the role of science and religion and to argue that this alleged "warfare" in fact is to rest on a fallacy. Russell notes how the "flat error" occurs in many mainstream and respected sources including appearing in the works of the highly respected scholar Daniel Boorstin. Russell argues that the role of the "flat error" can be understood as being a phenomenon as ethnocentric as the imperialism of the nineteenth century.
The book includes the following chapters -
Preface - explains the role of the prejudice among "educated people" that medieval Europeans believed the earth to be flat before the time of Columbus.
The Well-Rounded Planet - considers the voyage of Columbus and the importance of this voyage, noting many of the objections to Columbus from the perspectives of the American natives. Notes how many argue falsely that Columbus's voyage was used to prove to medieval skeptics that the earth was round.Read more ›
Recently, I had a conversation at a store with a salesman who was telling me that people in the past believed the Earth was flat, which I raised disagreement with. Online, one can hear this as a common objection. Often it is treated as an axiom and with the idea that the church was teaching otherwise. Consider this quote from Ingersoll in his essay Individuality
It is a blessed thing that in every age some one has had individuality enough and courage enough to stand by his own convictions,—some one who had the grandeur to say his say. I believe it was Magellan who said, "The church says the earth is flat; but I have seen its shadow on the moon, and I have more confidence even in a shadow than in the church." On the prow of his ship were disobedience, defiance, scorn, and success.
A flat-earther is used to refer to someone today who is a fool and is going against the progress of science. It's certainly easy to write off people as believing this. I know in Elementary school and beyond I was taught that Columbus sailed around to demonstrate that the Earth was round and not flat. (Which even if that had been the case, considering he didn't circumnavigate the globe, he did not prove that anyway.
If only I had know about Russell's book back then.
Russell's book is incredibly short. You can easily read it in a couple of hours like I did. In doing so, you will have invested those hours well. Russell points out that after the time of Christ, there were only two people who really brought out the idea that the Earth was flat. How many followers did they get on that count? None. They were certainly the minority. Alas, these two are thought to be representative of the time as a whole, ignoring all the other evidence that indicates people knew it was round.Read more ›
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He wrote in the Preface to this 1991 book, "The almost universal supposition that educated medieval people believed the earth to be flat puzzled me and struck me as dissonant when I was in elementary school, but I assumed that teacher knew best and shelved my doubts. By the time my children were in elementary school, they were learning the same mistake, and by that time I knew it was a falsehood. Most of the undergraduates I have taught have received the same misinformation... The Flat Earth error is firmly fixed in our minds; I hope this little book will do a little to help dislodge it." (Pg. xiii) He adds, "By the time Copernicus had revolutionized the way people viewed the planets---as revolving around the sun rather the earth---the seed of the Flat Earth had been planted, but it did not grow to choke the truth until much later. When did it triumph and why? Who was responsible? There are the main questions of this book." (Pg.Read more ›
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