Earth

The myth of the Flat Earth

The myth of the Flat Earth is the modern misconception that the prevailing cosmological view during the Middle Ages saw the Earth as flat, instead of spherical.

During the early Middle Ages, virtually all scholars maintained the spherical viewpoint first expressed by the Ancient Greeks. From at least the 14th century, belief in a flat Earth among the educated was almost nonexistent, despite fanciful depictions in art, such as the exterior of Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, in which a disc-shaped Earth is shown floating inside a transparent sphere.

According to Stephen Jay Gould, “there never was a period of ‘flat earth darkness’ among scholars (regardless of how the public at large may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the Earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology.” Historians of science David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers point out that “there was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth’s] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference”.

Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell says the flat-earth error flourished most between 1870 and 1920, and had to do with the ideological setting created by struggles over evolution. Russell claims “with extraordinary [sic] few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat”, and credits histories by John William Draper, Andrew Dickson White, and Washington Irving for popularizing the flat-earth myth.

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