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Columbus and the Flat Earth Conception (1951)

Columbus and the Flat Earth Conception.–The idea that educated men in the time of Columbus believed that the earth was flat, and that this belief was one of the obstacles to be overcome by Columbus before he could get his project sanctioned, remains one of the hardiest errors in historical teaching…

The facts are that in 1486 the Castilian government appointed some learned men to report on Columbus’s proposals, and that the most important of the questions discussed was that of the breath of the ocean to be traversed before the explorer would reach Asia by the western passage. Columbus asserted that the gap between Western Europe and Eastern Asia was comparatively narrow. Certain of his examiners believed it to be much wider, too wide, in fact, for the voyage to be feasible. Neither side convinced the other, and years afterwards Queen Isabella was moved rather by faith than by reason in her decision to equip Columbus. Washington Irving misunderstood the nature of the discussion, let his imagination carry him away, and wrote a fictitious account of Columbus asserting the spherical earth against bigots who held that the earth was flat. In reality a committee of educated men would be no more likely to hold that view in the fifteenth century than in the twentieth.

It is unnecessary to discuss here the more general question of the belief in the sphericity of the earth, persisting from the ancient world through the dark ages to the Renaissance. That has been recently dealt with in the Association’s Pamphlet No. 126, Ideas on the Shape, Size and Movements of the Earth, by Professor E. G. R. Taylor (1943).

Source: Common Errors in History, The Historical Association, 21 Bedford Square, London, W.C.1, 1951.

I present this simply as yet another example of the power of a cohesive narrative. The fact that I learned this “hardiest error” – love that :-) – at some point in my schooling, some thirty years after this was published is at once, astounding, and, in the light of more recent events, all too expected.

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