By Danièle Cybulskie
It seems there’s one fact about the Middle Ages that always seems to astound people: medieval people did not actually think the world was flat. I remember being startled myself when this bombshell was dropped on me. If they didn’t think it was flat, what did they think? And why are we all convinced otherwise?
Two big factors contribute to this oh-so-common misconception: a nineteenth-century author, and our own “modern” egos (although it has to be admitted that the Bible also muddies the waters). In 1828, Washington Irving published The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, which, while it sounds like an historical account of the titular life and voyages, was actually a novel. It must have been a pretty convincing novel, given the enduring popularity of the myth of the flat Earth, but we should not blame Irving entirely.
The truth is, ever since the Middle Ages, society has been ready and willing to believe that “our time” is, by definition, superior to the time that has come before. “After all,” we say to ourselves, “medieval people didn’t have iPhones.” It is this superiority complex that has given rise to terms like “The Dark Ages” and “Renaissance;” we, the “modern” people, feel free to judge whole historical periods and the people who lived them. While we certainly have superior technology in many respects, we should be careful not to assume ignorance in the people who came before us, since it can lead to our own.
You might ask, then, how it came to be discovered that the world was round. For this answer, we have to look up. In an age with no electric streetlights, people were constantly exposed to the brilliant beauty, and predictability, of the night sky. In order for the regular pattern of the stars to make any sense, either the Earth or the rest of the universe was moving around. An Arabic astronomer from the ninth century, Ahmad al-Farghani, supported this theory by pointing out that ships do not simply disappear from the horizon, as if they have fallen off; they slowly sink down until they cannot be seen.
Al-Farghani was not the only one who noticed: the Earth is described as a sphere by the Venerable Bede (seventh century), Roger Bacon (thirteenth century), and Thomas Aquinas (also thirteenth century), among others. Roger Bacon even guessed that the movement of heavenly bodies influenced physics on Earth. It wasn’t only big thinkers that thought this way, either. The fact that the Earth’s spherical shape was widely accepted is shown by the use of orbs as a symbolic part of royal regalia, and in pictures of Jesus, “The Saviour of the World” (Salvator Mundi). One of my favourite images of a round Earth is from the works of Hildegard von Bingen, around the twelfth century:
Medieval astronomers didn’t get the whole picture, though, since they believed that what was rotating around the spherical Earth was everything else. (Ironically, it is the revered Greeks that led them astray, notably Ptolemy.) The idea of an Earth-centered universe was an idea that appealed enormously to the Christian church, which adopted it as truth. Theologically, it made sense that the centre of the universe contained Eden, and, more importantly, Jerusalem. Because the Church backed this idea, it took courage for later thinkers, such as Galileo, to challenge and change people’s thinking, and the invention of the telescope helped to support the idea of a sun-centered galaxy.
There is much more to be said, and learned, about medieval astronomy – but that would take more than five minutes. If you want to be a ten-minute medievalist, browse the web to see how big this myth is, and how flimsy the evidence. Just be careful not to fall off the edge of the Earth in your travels.
Danièle Cybulskie is the lead columnist of Medievalists.net and the host of The Medieval Podcast. She studied Cultural Studies and English at Trent University, earning her MA at the University of Toronto, where she specialized in medieval literature and Renaissance drama. You can follow her on Twitter @5MinMedievalist or visit her website, danielecybulskie.com.