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Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians Paperback – January 30, 1997

ISBN-13: 978-0275959043 ISBN-10: 027595904X

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Praeger (January 30, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 027595904X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0275959043
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.4 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,228,753 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"Inventing the Flat Earth...is a jewel of a book that provides important new insights into the way historians have interpreted Columbus's achievement."-The New York Times Book Review

Book Description

Inventing the Flat Earth…is a jewel of a book that provides important new insights into the way historians have interpreted Columbus's achievement. The New York Times Book Review

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4.4 out of 5 stars
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 19, 2002
Format: Paperback
This is a neat little book, almost too short a book, in which Jeffrey Russell aims to make clear to a popular audience what professional medieval historians have known for years: that the cherished modern notion that all medieval minds thought the earth was flat is simply false. Yet setting the record straight is not Russell's only concern, for in the second half of the book he engages in a historiographical account of how nineteenth century writers invented the notion.
Anyone familiar medieval intellectual history has encountered innumerable references to the spherical earth. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Roger Bacon, writers of travel narratives like John Mandeville, and many others all assumed sphericity (Aquinas, writing around 1250, even offers the statement "the world is round" as an example of something so obvious it needs no proof). In this respect, trying to "prove" that medieval intellectuals did not think the earth was flat is a bit challenging-how does one begin? Russell does a pretty good job, beginning with the controversy over Columbus' voyage (which had nothing to do with the shape of the earth, but was about its circumference), and working backward in a vain attempt to find evidence of flat earth belief. In the process he comes across only five indisputable "flat earthers," at least two of whom were ridiculed during the Middle Ages for being so silly as to be unaware the earth was a sphere. The main culprit is Cosmas Indicopleustes, who thought the earth was flat and beneath a vaulted heaven shaped like a tent.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Endre Fodstad on August 4, 2005
Format: Paperback
Russel has written an excellent introduction to the history of the perception of the sphericity of earth. As most historians of medieval thought already know and agree upon, the view of the sphericity of earth was more or less common knowledge among the learned people of the middle ages (and for the reviewer who points to the Hereford mappae mundi as "proof" of otherwise, he can't have read Russels book very thoroughly - the Hereford map, a wonderful work of art, is a classical T-O mappae mundi, a map meant for religious use, not navigation. The stupidity of such statements would be similar to believe that the Rand McNally 2005 US Road Atlas shows that modern americans believe that there are no other continents because it doesn't show them in this, also very flat, map).

Some aspects of the book are lacking, though. Russel goes so much into the minority beliefs of Cosmas and Lactantius that these two atypical writers occupy more space in his book than the vast majority of medieval and ancient writers who took the sphericity of the earth for granted from their observations and corpus of learning. Also, he doesn't really discuss why modern people (post-1900) haven't revised the popular view - his hypothesis that the progressivist worldview that predominates today makes people WANT to believe medieval academics to be stupid because it fits the idea of constant development is probably valid, but he does not show this sufficiently.

On the other hand, his bibliography and source listings are excellent, and are the main reasons I had for buying his book.

While I really do not profess to know Russels' religious views - he might certainly be a christian apologist - this does not matter.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Craig Schamp on July 6, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Christopher Columbus was a radical who thought that the earth was round while everyone around him believed the earth was flat. That's the history that most of us are taught, but it's wrong. The fallacy of this view and the intellectual fraud that perpetrated it are explained in Jeffrey Burton Russell's short book.
There were a few medieval "flat earthers," to be sure. Russell explains, though, that no one of any stature was influenced whatsoever by them, and especially not by Cosmas Indicopleustes, who has been given undue attention by writers eager to hold him up as typical of the period.
The ancient Greeks believed that the earth was a globe. Modern historians invented, and in some cases continue to teach, that this knowledge was suppressed by the Catholic church in the middle ages. According to Russell, the church did not stand athwart history yelling "Stop!" Augustine, Origen, and Bede, as well as other Christian intellectuals, acknowledged the sphericity of the earth.
People living in the middle ages, if they thought about such matters at all, could see that the earth was likely a sphere. After all, the hull of a ship disappeared over the horizon before the mast did. The stars also provided evidence that the world was not flat. Russell convincingly shows that the concept of a "dark age," during which the ancient Greek and Roman knowledge was lost, is pure fantasy and was promulgated by modern historians in part to make their own work at "reinterpreting" the classics seem more profound. The "Flat Error," as Russell calls it, was amplified over time as some intellectuals repeated the claim of earlier secondary sources without checking the primary sources for the evidence.
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