Many people, including me, have been told that people in the Middle Ages believed that the world was flat. This idea was taught to many children when they asked about who Christopher Columbus was. There is proof now that people in the Middle Age never believed that the Earth was flat. In fact, no one believed this absurd fact. If people in the Middle Ages never believed in this, where did the myth come from?
There were two men, Lactantius (c. 245 – 325) and Cosmas Indicopleustes (died 550 AD), who supposedly told people that the Earth was flat. Historians who were trying to make people believe this myth claimed that everyone listened to these two men. However, we now know that that was incorrect.
Lactantius was a Christian heretic who converted from Paganism. He was always quick to refute anything the Pagans said or believed in. When they said that the Earth was a sphere, Lactantius argued that the Earth was flat. No one listened to any of Lactantius’ claims, and no one treated him as some great philosopher.
Cosmas was an early 6th century traveler and geographer from Greece. Unlike Lactantius, he was not trying to make people believe that the Earth was flat. He created a diagram of the Earth that showed that it was flat, but he did not seem to believe that the Earth was actually flat. This diagram was used as an excuse to claim that Cosmas believed the world was flat and was trying to make others believe this as well. There is a fault in this statement though. Cosmas only wrote in Greek, which was not a language people read during the Middle Ages. His works were only translated into Latin in 1706, years after Christopher Columbus’ journey “around the world.”
If no one believed the world was flat, where did this myth come from? American historian Jeffrey Burton Russell believed that Washington Irving (1783 – 1859) and Antoine-Jean Letronne (1787 – 1848) were responsible for the start of this belief.
Irving’s works were often blurred the lines of fact and fiction. It was difficult for his readers to tell what was real and what was not. In his work about Christopher Columbus he made up an interaction between Columbus and a council who were supposedly warning him about falling off the edge of the flat Earth.
Letronne received his academic training from men who exaggerated the ignorance of people in the Middle Ages. In his writings, he gave the people the idea that a vast majority of the population in the Middle Ages believed in this lie.
As you can see, not everything you ae taught is necessarily true. This myth was started by men who wanted to exaggerate the idiocy of people during the Middle Ages. You live and you learn, right?
Thanks for reading!