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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a good statement of the obvious
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...
Published on June 19, 2002

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14 of 87 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Well-Argued, but False, Position
In less than 80 pages, the author - who taught history and religious studies at many US universities - presents a readable and well-argued case that the consensus in the Middle Ages was that the Earth was round, not flat.

However, I do not buy the package. The author agrees there were, from Antiquity to the Renaissance, authors who argued for both views. He...
Published on July 29, 2004 by Robert Firth


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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a good statement of the obvious, June 19, 2002
By A Customer
This review is from: Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (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. Most people who accuse all medieval people of being "flat-earthers" rest their case on Cosmas, but he was unknown in western Europe (since there was no Latin translation of his Greek work), and at least two Greek-speaking scholars during the Middle Ages dismissed him as a quack.
After making relatively short work of the actual geographical knowledge of medieval Europe, Russell charts the progress of the myth of the medieval flat earth, and traces it from the late 18th and early 19th century to the present (with a focus on the mid to late 19th). In this section of the book the author poses some fundamental questions about how and why history is written, and about the very notion of "modernity." For the general reader, this section may hold less appeal than the opening chapters on medieval geography.
The book is not perfect. Short shrift is given to flat earth traditions outside of medieval Christianity, including the Near Eastern tradition that accounts for some language suggesting a flat earth in the Old Testament (such references would not have troubled medieval theologians, who did not necessarily privilege the literal sense of scripture). Also Russell should have made more of the association of the medieval belief in the flat earth (myth) with the medieval belief in the geocentric universe (fact). The acceptance of the idea that the Middle Ages believed in the flat earth has been abetted by the ecclesiastical opposition towards Galileo and other early modern heliocentrists, and Russell brushes this aside too quickly. Occasionally, Russell wears his own religious beliefs on his sleeve, and this will discomfit some readers.
In general, however, this is a good attempt to discuss medieval geographical knowledge and question our assumptions about modernity. For some of my friends this book has been pretty bewildering, since the myth Russell destroys is so firmly ingrained in our culture. It is nice to see more popular books, like Lies My Teacher Told Me, continue to attack the myth.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good introduction to the history of geography, August 4, 2005
This review is from: Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (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. Letting a foolish contrafactual myth stand in the face of all evidence in textbooks and the popular mind has little to do with apologism and more to do with correcting the prejudices of the modern age.

In the end, I'd like to quote a little tidbit from the Norse Middle ages Russel probably does not know of. The "King's Mirror", a secular book written for the education of younger sons of norwegian nobility of the 13th century, has the following to say on the shape of the earth:

"Take a burning candle and put it in a big room. Then suspend an apple from the roof near to the flame - so near the apple becomes hot. Then, it will almost put in shadow the one half of the room or even more. But if you hang it by the wall, it does not warm up, and the candle light the entire room, and the shadow of the apple on the wall is barely the size of the apple itself.

Now you must know from this that the earth's sphere is like a ball, and does not at all places come as close to the sun as others. Where the rounded part of it comes closer to the sun's path, it will be hottest. And in some of the lands that lie directly against its beams, one cannot live"

While this quote certainly shows that norwegian high medieval nobility had some incorrect ideas of the movement of the sun and the earth (as elsewhere, due to their lack of observational instruments), it cannot be disputed that they agreed that the world was a sphere.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good introduction to historiography, July 6, 2003
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This review is from: Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (Paperback)
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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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Odd tidbits in Dave Bills review, March 29, 2005
By 
Marshall Fritz (Fresno, CA United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (Paperback)
Imagine my surprise when one of my heroes, Jeffrey

Burton Russell, was savaged in an ostensibly erudite

review by Dave Bills (April 4, 2002). At first, he

seemed to know what he was talking about.

Then I noticed the little signs of poor scholarship:

1. Misspelling Russell's last name both times he used it.

2. Referring to Russell as a theologian, not a historian,

when Amazon itself describes him as a Professor of

History at the University of California, Santa Barbara,

something a bit of Googling could easily confirm.

Speaking of Googling, that was my next step: Rather than

wade through tons of stuff on St. Cyril or St. Boniface,

I Googled the more obscure Cecco d'Ascoli. Ah! Only 802

hits! Won't take long!

And it didn't. I stopped after just two, Columbia

Encyclopedia and some Brit who has a pretty sensible

Faith and Reason website.

The encyclopedia's entire entry showed me that Dave Bills'

review is not to be trusted:

"1269?-1327, Italian astrologer, mathematician, poet, and physician, whose real name was Francesco degli Stabili, b. Ascoli. A teacher of astrology at several institutions in Italy, he was professor of mathematics and astrology at the Univ. of Bologna (1322-24). He was denounced as heretical largely because, in defending astrology against Dante's attack on it in the Divine Comedy, Cecco himself had accused the great poet of heresy; he was burned at the stake. His chief work was L'acerba, an allegorical didactic poem of encyclopedic range."

Then I read this from James Hannam, the aforementioned Brit.,

in a larger piece taking Andrew Dickson White to task:

"In chapter 2, White informs us "In 1327 Cecco d'Ascoli, noted as an astronomer, was for this [the doctrine of antipodes] and other results of thought, which brought him under suspicion of sorcery, driven from his professorship at Bologna and burned alive at Florence." Cecco D'Ascoli was indeed burnt at the stake in 1327 in Florence. He is the only natural philosopher in the entire Middle Ages to pay this penalty and was executed for breaking parole after a previous trial when he had been convicted of heresy for, apparently, claiming Jesus Christ was subject to the stars. This is not enough for White who claims, entirely without foundation, that Cecco met his fate partly for the scientific view that the antipodes were inhabited as well as dishonestly calling him an `astronomer' rather than an `astrologer' to strengthen his scientific credentials."

Now while I encourage everyone to read White's "Fiat Money

Inflation in France" (available via Amazon), I have found White

much less trustworthy when writing on religious history than

on economic history.

And it seems Dave Bills shares with White an extreme anti-

Christian bias and he fails to fight the bias strongly enough

to present us Amazon readers with truth.

I hope I have fought my pro-Christian bias sufficiently so that

the information above will stand the scrutiny of my fellow

Amazon.com users.
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28 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fun book!, January 22, 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (Paperback)
A short, readable book that's great for loaning to people that believe the myths that:
(1) Columbus proved the world was round.
(2) People in the "middle ages" believed that the world was flat.
(3) The Church was/is "against science"
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Abolishes a Hoary Rationalistic Fairy Tale, February 28, 2001
By 
Jan Peczkis (Chicago, IL USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (Paperback)
During the 19th century, rationalists sought to blacken the reputation of religious believers by attributing to them all forms of malevolence and ignorance. This included inflating the victims of the Inquisition one-hundred fold. So also was the one about medieval theologians wondering how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. It also included the myth about Columbus' contemporaries believing in a flat Earth, largely at the insistence of the Church. This book provides an eye-opening rebuttal to this widely-held rationalistic myth.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but dense, March 2, 2011
By 
Steve Harrison (Tucson, Arizona USA) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (Paperback)
This little book is apparently intended more for specialists than for a general audience, thus the debates that a work on a comparatively arcane topic has inspired among these reviewers. For what it's worth, I always thought that epicycles and deferents were spheres resulting in movement in circles; the mappemundi issue is addressed in the book. In any event, the book is fascinating for those with some grounding in early medieval science but may be tough going otherwise. One suspects that the author's expertise inclines toward that period since events in the 18th and 19th centuries, though more important to his thesis, are more lightly handled. The criticisms that it is repetitive are correct.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Useful but sometimes repetitive, June 27, 2008
This review is from: Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (Paperback)
This is a handy book to have around if you want to correct modern "flat-earthers" who deny, not the evidence of science, but the evidence of history showing proving that a spherical earth was not a complete unknown in the Middle Ages. It's a quick read, too. Some people might find the large number of obscure names daunting, but I encourage anyone not to be discouraged if they sometimes feel lost. The thread is easy enough to pick up again.

The most significant flaw, I think, is the repetitiveness--ironic in such a short book. Someone deeply interested in the things Russell is talking about will not have a problem. Others might want to cry out: "enough already! I get the point!" Some things needed to be expanded; others, trimmed.

Despite these failings, Russell has written a much-needed book, and I can't recommend anything better on the subject. I know it seems like I'm damning with faint praise, but really, it's a good book, and when it first came out it was groundbreaking.

I do want to take the time to reply to another reviewer. Frank Tipler wrote that "there were a few rather serious factual errors in the book. For example, on page 13, Russell writes "The astronomers reviving Proltemy's cosmology in the fifteenth century created a more complex system of spheres modified by smaller spheres called epicycles and deferents. " Actually, as some of Russell's own references (e.g. his reference 69, Thomas Kuhn's The Copernican Revolution) would have informed him, the epicycles and deferents were part of Prolemy's own system; they were not added by the 15th century astronomers. Further, epicycles and deferents were CIRCLES, not spheres."

These comments are based on a couple of misunderstandings. First, Russell does not mean that the fifteenth-century astronomers (I suspect he has in mind Peurbach and Regiomontanus) complicated Ptolemy by adding epicycles and deferents; rather, he means that by reviving Ptolemy, who used epicycles and deferents, they complicated the earlier, simplified view of the cosmos based on true concentric spheres. (For what it's worth, Russell has left out a lot of detail here, like the simplified version of Ptolemy learned from Arabic textbooks and taught in some 13th and 14th century universities--but that's another issue, and not terribly relevant to what Russell's trying to accomplish.)

Second, epicycles and deferents definitely WERE spheres according to quite a few major astronomers, including Ptolemy himself, who described orbs based on those circles in the Planetary Hypotheses. In the fifteenth century Peurbach wrote a popular astronomy book explaining Ptolemaic astronomy in terms of sets of orbs. His work was based, ultimately, on a similar textbook by Ibn al-Haytham (known to the Latins as Alhazen). The idea was actually not that uncommon in the time Russell is trying to describe.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars earth shaking, February 28, 2008
By 
Jon Mccullough (chicago illinois) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (Paperback)
a whole new world view in a book, that this myth of science which i myself learned as a child has been so uncommented on is disturbing. a bit dry and short.
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9 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good historical review., January 3, 2004
By 
Jon E. Malander (Ft. Collins, Colorado United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (Paperback)
To the person who started his review by stating: "This terrible little book is pure lies", I would say that this is the type of closed minded thinking that is perpetuating the Flat Earth error. A biased view point can only distort the truth. The book by Mr. Jeffrey Russell is in fact a very reasonable review of historical studies in relation to the issue of what he calls the "Flat Error". I gave it 4 stars as Mr. Russell seems to accept without question the Copernican system. Science is just beginning to realize that even the "Heliocentric truth" is not so solid as once believed. Since the advent of Einstein's General Relativity Theory, persons from the likes of philosopher Bertrand Russell to astrophysicist Fred Hoyle have realized that the Copernican system is not necessarily "the truth". Even as to the Bible, people tend to read into the text their preconceived notions. Dispite that fact that the book of Genesis does not state the geometric shape of the Earth,Sun or Moon, a friend of mine, having read the first few chapters of Genesis said it proved the bible holds to a flat earth. Where would he get that idea except from the fact that the "Flat Error" is a continuing myth of our time. I recommened the reading of "this terrible little book".
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Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians
Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians by Jeffrey Burton Russell (Paperback - Jan. 1991)
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