Or Where Things Are Not Always What They Seem
When I was small, I clearly remember the third or fourth-grade teacher patiently explaining to us how Christopher Columbus proved the Earth was round “like an apple”. (Some illogical and contrary side of me inwardly commented that apples were not round at all, and had stems, but I likely kept that to myself.)
Columbus, she continued, had braved the forces of the Inquisition to make his point, and had thus proved the rotundity of our globe, rather than the flat disc that obscure medieval minds (there was likely a dig here at the Catholic church, but that went straight at stratospheric height over our wee heads) had propounded until then. One small step for Cristoforo, one giant leap – into the Modern Age – for mankind.
It didn’t stop with elementary school either; in junior high we were entertained by the geography teacher (the geography teacher “did ” history, which was trendily dubbed “social studies”, too – a curious distillation of the two disciplines in a country long on geography and short on history) telling us chilling tales of the Council of Salamanca, which was ready to hand over to the Dominicans (and their dungeons full of the latest information hardware) the grandest explorer of all time because he dared to pretend the Earth was round. (After that he moved on to Canadian history, which was rather less exciting and cloak-and-dagger.
Naturally, as dutiful pupils, we swallowed all this whole. Boy, we thought, were they ever retarded in the Middle Ages. I even plead guilty to indoctrinating in turn, in a book called Vespucci I illustrated (quite) a few years ago. The illustration, though enormous fun to do, likely accompanied a text in the same erroneous vein. (My only excuse is that I did the picture way back in 1989, when the Earth was still flat. As for the portrait of Amerigo on the cover, I did like everybody else, I made it up.)
The story was taught to endless ranks of school kids ( including me). The only problem is it’s not true.
It was all made up.
Like so much “history”, what really happened (or in this case didn’t) only plays the supporting role. This business of medieval man thinking the Earth to be flat, of sailors fearing to sail beyond sight of land because they might “fall off the edge”, is a fairy tale. Made up wholesale, in the 18th and 19th centuries.
We seem to love our ancestors as much as we seem to deplore them. We treat them as superstitious and ignorant, all the while investing them with secret lore and lost knowledge. (In the Middle Ages, man thought the world was flat but he could turn mercury into gold.) It is an exceedingly ambiguous attitude, concomitant with a combined nostalgia for the imagined mysteries and disapproval of the supposed backwardness of the past. We deal in heritage, thinking we are dealing in history. (Of THAT subject, more – and at some length – another time.)
So, in the mid-19th century, after millenia of living on a ball variously floating or upheld in space (just where the earth was in the universe and how it stayed “up” was a matter of great speculation, along the lines of angels on heads of pins, the mores of the inhabitants of the Antipodes and the nature of Hell, but apart from a handful of declarations and the odd curious notion in the head of an astronomer from Alexandria, the Earth was a ball to all), with a deft retroactive stroke of political propaganda, it came to be understood that during humanity’s great dark period between the Roman Empire (collapsed) and the Renaissance (brightly dawning) our forefathers fearfully huddled inland and if they had to venture out on the wine-dark sea, did so with the dread of being swept off the edge or munched by krakens and other sea monsters.
The first to launch the medieval Flat Earth was John William Draper. Draper likely had no real interest in the history of the shape of the Earth; he had the anti-Darwinists in his sights. Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” had touched off a barrage of indignant attacks from conservative and religious circles. Draper rose in Darwin’s defence. He set out to prove that obscurantist theology had long held progress and science in check – anyone foolhardy enough to contradict the Church was persecuted and mocked (when not tortured and obliged to recant). According to him, it was a long-standing war, and this was only the most recent skirmish.
Science and Roman Catholicism, according to Draper, had been waging war on progress since the fall of the Roman Empire, and those brave few who upheld terrestrial sphericity in the face of religion were so many martyrs in the conflict. (Protestantism and science could get along he suggested, since the Protestant church took a more lenient or at least less united stand on men and monkeys.) Columbus became the hero of “The History of Conflict Between Religion and Science”, published in 1873. “Science has never sought to ally herself with civil power. She has never subjected anyone to mental torment, physical torment, least of all death, for the purpose of promoting her ideas” said Draper, considering that humanity was making slow but steady progress despite theological dragging of feet. To better discredit critics of Darwinism and evolutionary theory, what better strategy than to paint them as the direct descendants of obscurantists and dogmatic persecutors of rational science.
Even Copernic was drafted into Draper’s ranks. (That the debate in Copernic’s case was his heliocentric view as opposed to Ptolemaic geocentric and had nothing to do with the actual shape of the Earth he conveniently overlooked.) Columbus, by sailing to America, and Magellan, by circumnavigating the globe, had won a decisive battle, but the war was far from over.
Draper called Lactantius to the witness box, and quoted (or misquoted, to be more exact) Saint Augustine as representing the “officially sanctioned” view of the world. Any who opposed their “universally accepted” views were precursive heros of modernity braving the wrath of religious obscurantism. The “leyenda nigra”, the “Black Legend of Spain”, initially popularized in Queen Elizabeth’s time, was dragged out and dusted off and propped up in the public eye. The Spanish Inquisition – all-hearing, all-knowing – was held to have stopped all scientific progress for half a millenium. According to Draper, they were the shock troops and strategists in the War Against Learning. “The antagonism we thus witness between Religion and Science is the continuation of the struggle that commenced when Christianity began to attain political power.”
Next to promote the conflict theory came Andrew Dickson White, guns also blazing. (He had the Protestants as well as the Catholics in his sights.) Up in arms over fundamentalists of every kind, immigration from Europe (mongrel hordes of Roman Catholic Italian and Irish arriving en masse and tainting American blood was the platform of the thankfully short-lived Know-Nothing Party) and anything else he felt threatened America, White was determined to show the New World as a new departure for society and humanity. Thus, anything that smacked of Catholicism was anathema – if the Church had held that the Earth was flat for the whole of its existence, it had nothing to offer a modern society. Logically enough, Christopher Columbus, with his practical skills and bravery in the face of the unknown, was a leading exemplar in this crusade. Had he not braved the western ocean with the same solid bravoura with which he braved the corrupt and dogmatic church and Inquisition? All these were naturally considered prime American qualities, and Columbus came to typefy a renewed Age of Enlightenment. And of course, to make this sterling endeavour shine all the more brightly, it was necessary to blacken the past – in a good composition, contrast is everything. White’s two-volume “History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom” did just that, with wide and vigorous strokes.
Now, the truth of the matter is that medieval man generally considered (when he needed to consider the question) that the world was indeed a ball. There was debate over whether or not humans could be found in the hypothetical antipodes, but basically what Augustine said was the shape of the Earth, not being explicitly stated in the Bible, was a matter to be left to philosophers, cartographers and astronomers. The different viewpoints were not considered antagonistic. Augustine even went as far as to say that literal interpretation of Biblical texts was hardly the point, they were metaphores and images.
Nor did sailors live in fear of falling off the edge of the world or being parboiled in the waters at the equator. T and O maps, deemed useless by modern authors to get from A to B were not used by sailors or voyagers any more than a drawing of the solar system from a high school atlas would be given to astronauts to guide them to the Moon. The coastline of a 14th-century portolan of the Mediterranean, laid over a satellite view of the same, is practically exact down to the last detail. The other principal type of medieval traveller’s map was very close to what any internet route planner will offer : a detailed list of localities and distances, with helpful instructions, between departure and destination.
One of the main culprits in the inventing of the Flat Earth, curiously enough, is Washington Irving. Best remembered for headless horsemen and well-aimed pumpkins, Irving possesed a prolific pen, travelled widely and wrote a good deal of wishful history. (He also coined the name “Gotham” for New York, as well as the saying « the almighty dollar ».) Irving spent three years researching in Spain before he wrote his “Life and Discoveries of Christopher Columbus”. (What exactly he researched is a matter of debate, but it certainly wasn’t anything that was going to rain on his gripping tale of one lone pragmatist against a legion of dogmatic persecutors that must have been assembling in his mind.) Published in 1828, Irving’s book was reprinted 175 times before the end of the century.
“Such was the period when a council of clerical sages was convened in the collegiate convent of St. Stephen, to investigate the new theory of Columbus. It was composed of professors of astronomy, geography, mathematics, and other branches of science, together with various dignitaries of the church, and learned friars. Before this erudite assembly, Columbus presented himself to propound and defend his conclusions. He had been scoffed at as a visionary by the vulgar and the ignorant; but he was convinced that he only required a body of enlightened men to listen dispassionately to his reasonings, to insure triumphant conviction.” (Irving, Life & Voyages, p. 61).
Here is Columbus before the Coucil of Salamanca, painted by William Powell. It is a delightful picture, with a cluster of ecclesiastics pointing out pertinent scriptual passages or recoiling in consternation, while white-haired and dignified Columbus, sure history will eventually vindicate him, stands his ground as if he was on the bridge of the Santa Maria. That he WILL triumph is demonstrated by the boy poring over the maps on the lower right – proof that the next generation will understand. (You’d think this kind of erroneous allegory would by now be consigned to history books itself. Think again.)
That there was no such thing as the Council of Salamanca did not trouble Irving. I was just too good a story.
Columbus Before the Council of Salamanca, by Frank Duveneck (1848 – 1919). Another variation on the same theme, complete with crouching ecclesiastics ready to pounce on Columbus and tear him to bits. (Apologies for the quality of the image, I wasn’t able to find a better one.)
This is my favorite, though, not so much for the image, but for the accompanying text ; please forgive me for including a sizable chunk. It sounds like history, but really isn’t; in fact it is a pretty astonishing read. From the January 1867 issue of Sword and Trowel, by C. H. Sturgeon.
OUR FRONTISPIECE REPRESENTS an interesting scene in the life of the discoverer of the New World. A plainly-attired, earnest-looking mariner, with that steady determination which characterises all true men whose convictions are strong and whose faith is steady, is meeting the objections of a number of learned professors of the sciences, dignitaries of the Romish Church, and learned friars, and defending the theory of the rotundity of the earth. An obscure navigator, strong in his belief, scouted by the illiterate, seeks in the Dominican convent in Salamanca, the great seat of learning in Spain, the sympathy and co-operation of the most erudite assembly his country can muster. Does he gain either sympathy or help? History answers, No. In the first place, anything new, however true, was stigmatized as heresy in those Inquisition times, and Columbus might well fear the consequences of indulging any thought that savoured of heresy. Priestcraft, that great curse of mankind, was sure to oppose a new theory which overturned the testimony and traditions of the Church. Then, too, the scholastic body had too much learned pride to yield to a simple navigator. “It was requisite,” says Las Casas “before Columbus could make his solutions and reasonings understood, that he should remove from his auditors those erroneous principles on which their objections were founded;” which Columbus could not do, as the Ptolemaic plan had not yet been reversed, Copernicus not having at that time discovered the true theory of the solar system. Very small hope for Columbus to convert so stubborn an audience!
It is noteworthy how admirably Columbus replied to his objectors. He combated the fancies of the philosophical world with great ability. “Las Casas,” says Irving, “and others of his contemporaries have spoken of his commanding person, his elevated demeanour, his air of authority, his kindling eye, and the persuasive intonations of his voice. How they must have given majesty and force to his words, as, casting aside his maps and charts, and discarding for a time his practical and scientific lore, his visionary spirit took fire at the doctrinal objections of his opponents, and he met them upon their own ground, pouring forth those magnificent texts of Scripture, and those mysterious predictions of the prophets, which, in his enthusiastic moments, he considered as types and annunciations of the sublime discovery which he proposed.” Notwithstanding the dense bigotry and stupidity of his audience, a few were convinced of the reasonableness of the new theory, and these converts, doubtless, shielded Columbus from the ecclesiastical censures of the prejudiced. But the greater number doggedly persevered in their old opinions, and the poor navigator, as our readers well know, had to fight an uphill battle for years, and had to conquer many adverse circumstances before he saw the “Land of the Free.”
(Indeed Columbus, fought an uphill battle (a surprising metaphor to use for a sailor) all his life, since the joint ventures he proposed were risky and often unprofitable. His choice of Ptolemey’s calculation of the Earth’s circumference, off which he conveniently pared a few extra degrees wherever he could, was to convince his reluctant sponsors the risks were acceptable and enhance the likelhood of success. Had he proposed Eratosthenes’s calculations (one-third larger again and uncannily close to the real circumference of the Earth for someone making his measurements 240 years before Christ) to Isabella, it’s likely she would have locked her jewels back in their casket. It’s also doubtful he brandished fruit in front of the crowned heads of Aragon and Castilia, or discussed the sphericity of the Earth at all. He did write one memorable letter to his Queen, however, stating that he had discovered one of the rivers that flowed out of Eden, which was located on a protuberance of the Earth, likening it’s shape to a pear or a breast. From his “Narrative of the Third Journey 1498-1500”, in his own words: “I have always read that the world of land and sea is all spherical. All authorities. . . have constantly drawn and confirmed this picture…I have found such great irregularities that I have come to [the conclusion]. . . that it is not round as they describe it, but the shape of a pear, which is round everywhere except at the stalk, where it juts out a long way; or that it is like a round ball, on part of which is something like a woman’s nipple… [The Garden of Eden] lies at the summit of what I have described as the stalk of a pear. . . As I have said, I do not believe that anyone can ascend to the top. I do believe, however, that. . . waters may flow from there. . .” Exactly what Isabella’s reaction to that must have been will, alas, remain forever in the realm of conjecture.
I originally wanted to collect enough images of Columbus to work up something on the subject of heroic imagery, but fell a little short in Salamanca. Another time.)
The indirect result of all this diligent slander left us with the persistent notion of a millenium of obscurity, when scholarship and knowledge were on hold : “the Great Interruption” or the « Dark Ages »*. It also flattened the Earth, before permitting Columbus to make it round as an apple once again. Nor did it remain a quarrel in some ivory tower. Good story-telling, involving all the right ingredients, percolated to every level of story-telling, whether classroom or fiction.
“The American Pageant”, the college-level history textbook written in 1971 by Thomas A. Bailey, stated of Columbus’ crew: “The superstitious sailors… grew increasingly mutinous…because they were fearful of sailing over the edge of the world.” Pure nonsense, but then history taught in school textbooks is often not really to teach history, but to instill a notion of heritage, which is not a bad thing in itself, but pernicious when it makes light of facts. (The text has recently been amended, I believe.)
Howard Pyle writes, in “Otto of the Silver Hand”:
“Between the far away past history of the world, and that which lies near to us; in the time when the wisdom of the ancient times was dead and had passed away, and our own days of light had not yet come, there lay a great black gulf in human history, a gulf of ignorance, of superstition, of cruelty, and of wickedness. That time we call the dark or Middle Ages. Few records remain to us of that dreadful period in our world’s history, and we only know of it through broken and disjointed fragments that have been handed down to us through the generations.”
Pyle’s Middle Ages is a marvellous world of fantasy. His Arthurian cycle, several volumes which he wrote and illustrated, is an imperishable classic, and naturally lawless and chivalric times make for better storytelling. (Pyle was also very kind to Robin Hood, making the traditional outlaw of Sherwood rather less cruel, largely contributing to the image of him in popular culture today.)
One honestly endearing (and undoubtedly irritating to his contemporaries) individual did take the Flat Earth very much to heart. In the mid-19th century, which was decidedly a time of most unusual and eccentric movements, Samuel Rowbotham (1816-1884) published, under the pseudonym of Parallax, « Earth Not a Globe », first in the form of a 16-page pamphlet published in 1849, later expanded into a 221-page book by 1865 and finally a 430-page opus by 1881. According to his theory of « Zetetic Astronomy » the Earth is a flat disk with the North Pole in the middle, and a 150-foot wall of ice around the outside edge. (Discworld springs unbidden to mind.) Rowbotham and his followers engaged in spirited debates with scientists and geographers, were occasionally sued for fraud and libel and must have had a generally lively time. After Rowbotham’s death, his devotees founded the Universal Zetetic Society, published a magazine entitled The Earth Not a Globe Review, which petered out after World War I. Instead of quietly passing into obscurity, the ideas were revived in the United States and taught in community schools of the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion, Illinois from the late 1890’s until the community petered out in the ‘50’s. The Flat Earth Society was periodically revived by amiable crackpots like Charles Johnson : « … we say, “The World is Flat”. Historical accounts and spoken history tell us the Land part may have been square, all in one mass at one time, then as now, the magnetic north being the Center. Vast cataclysmic events and shaking no doubt broke the land apart, divided the Land to be our present continents or islands as they exist today. One thing we know for sure about this world…the known inhabited world is Flat, Level, a Plain World.
… The Wright brothers said: “Science theory held us up for years. When we threw out all science, started from experiment and experience, then we invented the airplane.” By the way, airplanes all fly level on this Plane earth.»
So, is there a moral to all this? Not really. Just that things are not always what they seem, and the edge off which we fall isn’t always the one we think.
*The term “Dark Ages” was coined by Petrarch, who was busily extolling humanist values. The fact that there was no “eclipse” of knowledge between the Ancients and 14th-century Italy did not matter. All the classics were being regularly read in scriptoriums and libraries throughout Europe, but to better shine a light, a dark background helps. (Even “humanistic” script is a revival of Carolingian, which was smack in the middle of nowhen if the promoters of the Renaissance are to be believed.)
The term “Middle Ages, while invented in the 15th century (to a “medieval” scholar it would have made no sense), gained popularity in the 17th, with Christoph Keller’s « Historia Medii aevi », published in 1675. It was around this time that the universal notion of “periodizing” history was developed.
For a concise and eminently readable account of the Flat Earth conspiracy, read « » Inventing the Flat Earth : Columbus and the Modern Historians » by Jeffrey Burton Russell. For Amerigo Vespucci, a much more reliable account that the one I illustrated is « Amergo : The Man Who Gave his Name to America », by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. The chapters concerning Vespucci’s and Columbus’ later years and the time they spent in each others’ company are in themselves ample reason to buy it.
Where my Knowledge of Geography is Improved Considerably
Recently, yet another site selling prints by illustrators was brought to my attention (my thanks here to all the vigilant eyes out there). Fantasy Wallpapers dot net proposed a portfolio of about 200 illustrators, each with a gallery of between 10 and 250 images, all downloadable and with prints enabled from three different online photoprint services. All, of course, entirely without anyone’s consent.
Happily, the discovery of such things is like a stone thrown at a wasp’s nest, so within 24 hours the company hosting the site must have received a few dozen irate e-mails from varius illustrators and the site promptly disappeared. The site owner was in Moldova.
Moldova, I thought, now where the devil is that? (The first thing that sprang to mind was Syldavia, from Tintin.) So I looked it up. Bessarabia was ceded by the Ottomans to the Tsars in the 19th century, briefly united with Wallachia as the kingdom of Romania in 1859 and then changed hands several times and was eventually swallowed the the Soviet Union. It has been independant since 1990. I had to forcefully stop myself from hopscotching from hotlink to hotlink in Wikipedia before I got so sidetracked I forgot the reason I was looking in the first place, but I did swing by amazon and order a book on the history of the region. Now I’m quite looking forward to the next crook from some exotic country – always a chance to learn something new.
Where I Can’t Believe What I’m Reading
A friend of mine who runs an agency sent along this request she recently received. It’s basically a request for information to pad out selling illegal prints. It’s so naive it’s almost funny and sweet.
hello, i was wondering if you could tell me what (the artist) thinks of this
painting, what period of her life she painted this in and whether culture
effected (sic) this painting in any way, this would be great as i am looking
for some real facts so i can sell a print along with some fun information.
Where I Take a Little Trip
Comic Con later this month.
Here’s the program so far:
16h00 The One Ring.net webcast
16h00 Signature session, Impact Publishing booth
12h00 Spotlight Panel, Room 3
14h00 Signature session, Impact Publishing booth
Where I Take Another Little Trip
If you’re anywhere near the Edinburgh Book Festival on August 23rd:
8:00 pm at the RBS Corner Theatre.
Where I Go Abroad (but Manage to Stay Home at the Same Time)
A new exhibition, Swiss Design in Hollywood, sponsored by ProHelvetia and created by Patrick Gyger, director of the Maison d’Ailleurs, premiered at the Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (the NIFFF) la couple of weeks ago. It’s a novel concept for exporting Swiss culture and basically consists of a digital package which can be requested from the Swiss Embassy of your country, printed out and exhibited. Each exhibitor chooses, with advice from ProHelvetia, the optimal concretization of the actual show. No originals are involved, and no shipping, and the show is very complete and elegant. (Naturally, whoever decides to exhibit the show gets an artist or two thrown in free.) Lining up alongside the legendary H. R. Giger, there are two other Swiss artists: Deak Ferrand and Christian L. Scheurer, and one ex-pat Canadîan from Neuchâtel. There is also audio-visual material – a recut version of There and Back Again by Anders Banke and François Boetschi, with a new interview we shot a month or two ago here in Neuchâtel.
Where I Take a Bit of a Break…
… from the newsletter, at any rate. Next newsletter: August 31st.
Have a good summer. See you then.