Published in Canadian Historical Review - Volume 73, Number 4 December 1992

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Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians.

JEFFREY BURTON RUSSELL. New York: Praeger 1991. Pp. xiv, 118, illus. $12.95

Reviewed by OLIVE PATRICIA DICKASON University of Alberta

In this quincentennial year of Columbus's world-changing voyage, the discoverer's epic achievement is being celebrated with floods of printed and filmed material, not to mention exhibitions and a host of events of various sorts. What exactly did Columbus do to inspire such a frenzy of celebration? Besides the obvious answer of discovering unsuspected continents, the response that is often given is that `Columbus showed that the world was round.' That is pure invention, according to Jeffrey Russell, who maintains that the sphericity of the Earth was already well known in Columbus's day, as was its approximate circumference. What Columbus had set out to do was to reach `India' - a term that referred to the entire Far East - to open its riches to European trade, and the souls of its peoples to Christian missionaries. Columbus shared the general European belief that Asia was waiting to be Christianized. The doubts he had to overcome concerned the distance he would have to sail to reach his objective; authorities feared it would be too far for the supplies the ships of the day could carry for the subsistence of the crews, and that the curvature of the Earth would prevent a safe return. Besides, they did not think there could be inhabitants on the other side of the planet, because they would not be descended from Adam. Columbus finally won his point by cooking the figures: he estimated the voyage at 20 per cent of its actual length. As Russell observed, it was the navigator's great good luck that the Americas were in his way.

What, then, about those stories of the Council of Salamancea arguing against Columbus that the world was flat, and if he sailed too far, he would fall off? Russell attributes them principally to Washington Irving (1783-1859) and Antoine-Jean Letronne (1787-1848). Irving was a better storyteller than historian; as one critic observed, `his final claim must rest upon his having turned the story of Columbus into a work of art.' Letronne's prestige was so great in academic circles that when he wrote that medieval scholars generally espoused the flat Earth fallacy, his views were accepted without checking. He had used the fact that a few of those scholars did support the theory - Lactantius was a much-used example - to argue that the belief was generally held in the `Dark Ages.' Thus was error built upon error until the flat Earth fallacy became inextricably linked with the medieval worldview in mainstream scholarship of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The error remains pervasive today, despite overwhelming evidence against it. Russell's tracing out of the process by which such a thing can happen makes for compelling reading. As he says, there are some important things to be learned from all this. His points are worth repeating in abridged form. First, there is the ease with which errors of fact or interpretation can be unwittingly repeated and propagated when methodology and sources are not checked; no one's word is above verification. Second, scholars and scientists can be led by their biases rather than by the evidence. Third, there can be no privileged systems by which to judge the truth of other systems. Accepted theories and world views should be critically assessed, as well as reputed facts. Fourth, the assumption that today's views are superior to those of older cultures leads to undervaluing the past. The flat Earth error is based on the convictions that ignorance and superstition ruled the day in the Middle Ages, and that the church was consistently opposed to science. This was demonstrably not the case, particularly in the earlier period. Finally, it is important to realize that fallacies or `myths' can become so embedded in thought that they take on a life of their own; a shared body of such myth can overwhelm reason and evidence.
Historians of science have known for more than sixty years that Columbus was sharing a widespread belief of his day when he held that the world was spherical. That has not prevented the flat Earth fallacy from continuing to appear in histories.