History of the flat-earth Theory

The long association between Christianity and the flat-earth theory begins in the sixth century when a Greek monk of Alexandria, Cosmas, who had traveled widely in the East, retired to a cloister in Sinai and wrote his Christian Topography. In it he refuted the 'false and heathen' notion that the earth is a sphere, and showed that it is really a rectangular plane arched over by the firmament which separates us from heaven. The inhabited earth, with Jerusalem at its hub, is at the centre of the plane, and it is surrounded by oceans beyond which lies Adam's paradise. The sun revolves round a north polar mountain, circling its peak in summer and its base in winter.

Christian Topography was well received by the Church, whose policy at the time was to eradicate all previous knowledge and establish itself as the sole authority in religion, philosophy and science. The flat-earth theory, hitched on to the geocentric cosmology of Ptolemy, prevailed among clergymen (if not among navigators) until the sixteenth century, when Copernicus called it into question by venturing the idea that the earth is a planet orbiting the sun. He was not very assertive. The preface to his book emphasized that the heliocentric system was merely a hypothesis, and Copernicus avoided controversy with the reviewers by dying on the day it was published.

Copernicus first derived his theory from esoteric studies of the Pythagorean and other ancient traditions. His successor, Galileo, challenged the flat-earth believers to scientific experiments. One of theirs was to shoot a cannonball vertically into the air. When it fell to earth near the cannon they claimed to have proved that the earth was not moving. Galileo explained that the reason why the ball was not left behind by the spinning earth was that it partook of the same motion. The argument went on for years, but heliocentricism was in the air. It won its way against the Inquisition and finally triumphed with the cosmological system of Sir Isaac Newton. The Church found that it could after all live with the round-earth idea, and that references in the Old Testament to the four corners of the earth and the pillars on which it rests might have been intended, not literally, but as figures of speech.

From Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions by John Michell (1984) pg. 21-22

August, 2005: The above is quoted verbatim from the source cited. Robin Herbert raises the following objections to the above account, showing that history is difficult:

"There appear to be a number of unsupported assertions here:

1. You claim that Cosmas Indicopleustes was influential in Christianity. Whereby most texts assert that he was not influential.

2. You assert that the flat earth cosmology was held by most clergy well into the sixteenth century. This is clearly not true since a genuinely influential Christian figure the Venerable Bede held that the earth was round like a ball. Clearly the philosopher of the late medieval scholastic movement knew well that the earth was spherical and even debated alternative cosmologies - including that the earth moved and was not the centre of the universe.

3. "Copernicus first derived his theory from esoteric studies of the Pythagorean and other ancient traditions" But he probably derived his theory from more recent works. For example Oresme and the others in the scholastic movement that advanced the idea that gravity is centred around each body rather than just around the earth. It seems sad to me that the work of Oresme and his peers is so little recognized today.

4. "His successor, Galileo, challenged the flat-earth believers to scientific experiments." Of course Galileo would have to have been searching extremely hard to have found a flat earth believer in the 17th century, in the Church or elsewhere.

History is never a done deal.

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