The Medieval World

The medieval world was ROUND, smaller than in actuality, and largely comprised of a contiguous land mass.  It was not FLAT.  Please excuse my pedantic capital letters, but this week my graduate seminar is examining Columbus historiography, which raises the ongoing issue (not topic) of the so-called “Flat Earth Myth”, the continuing false belief that the majority educated opinion in the medieval “Dark Ages”  was that the world was flat.  Historians have been writing about the Flat Earth Myth for quite some time (see Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth:  Columbus and Modern Historians), but despite their assertions it is still with us:  every year I poll the incoming freshmen in my World History class about what they were taught in primary and secondary school and every year more than half of them raise their hands in support of the medieval flat earth.

The novelist and Columbus biographer Washington Irving is generally given credit for inventing the flat earth, to use Russell’s title term. Irving’s multi-volume Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus accentuated the New World heroism of Columbus by emphasizing the “darkness”  of the Old World from whence he came.  First published in 1828, it remained the definitive text on Columbus until the publication of Samuel Eliot Morison’s Admiral of the Ocean Sea more than a century later, influencing and infusing several generations of American history textbooks and students.  Given this text’s popularity, it is easy for me to understand why a student entering college as late as 1950 might have believed in the flat earth myth, but not 2011.

An 1873 likeness of Washington Irving from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery, his famous house “Sunnyside” in Tarrytown, New York (HABS, Library of Congress), and an illustration from an 1897 edition of The Life and Works of Christopher Columbus.

Many medieval sources, literary and graphic, exist that demonstrate the prevailing belief in the spherical earth, and these sources have been analyzed and discussed at length. Probably the greatest of medieval philosophers, Thomas Aquinas, asserted that “the world is round” in the same way that we might say “the sky is blue”.  It should be common knowledge, but apparently it is not, so here are a few images to reinforce the round medieval world.  I’m beginning, appropriately, with scenes of instruction from the early fifteenth century and then proceeding chronologically.

A geography master from  a fifteenth-century version of the De proprietatibus rerum (a medieval encyclopedia of sorts) of Bartholomeus Anglicus (British Library MS Royal 17 E III):

God holding a very round world, from an Aristotelian manuscript (BL MS Harley 3487, mid 13th century):

Angels turning the (again, round) world on its axis, from Matfres Eymengau de Beziers, Breviari d’amor (BL MS Harley4940, early 14th century):

God creating the Heavens and Earth, and land and sea, from the Bible Historiale of John the Good, circa 1350 (BL MS Royal 19 D II).  This strikes me as a lot of water for a medieval world map, and of course the medievals have no problem illustrating a not-quite transcendent God!

Some images from a fifteenth-century manuscript of thirteenth-century theologian Gautier de Metz’s popular Image du Monde (BL MS Harley 334), with (again) a very human-like God creating a very round earth:

Finally, a great image of the elemental round earth from John Gower’s Vox Clamantis, circa 1400.  The manuscript is from the University of Glasgow Library (MS Hunter 59) and the image is from the Library’s web exhibition Chaucer and his World.  Obviously medieval intellectuals possessed lots of incorrect and strange (to our eyes and minds) geographical ideas, including a complete lack of knowledge about the soon-to-be-discovered western hemisphere, but the flat earth was not one of them.

3 responses to “The Medieval World

  • markd60

    I think humanitys problem is the things they know to be true that aren’t true. A thousand years ago, man KNEW the earth was flat. 500 years ago they KNEW the earth was the center of the universe. What do we know today that is blatantly false, I wonder.

  • Art & History

    What a delightful roundup (ahem) of fascinating info and wonderful pictures.

  • Nancy Marie Brown

    Discovered this wonderful essay while writing myself on the same topic. Beautiful illustrations. Hope you can convince your students.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: