… when he said the world was round”. This belief is widespread; that the obscurantist Catholic Church believed in a flat earth and brave Columbus stood up for the new idea of a spherical earth and proved his point by his voyage to unexpectedly discover America rather than India – or ‘the Indies’ as he had thought. It’s a good story, but it’s simply not true; in reality, Columbus had got it wrong and was very lucky America was there!
The sphericity of the earth had been known from some time BCE, and had its most thorough expression in the ideas of the astronomer Ptolemy. In the Ptolemaic system the definitely spherical earth was the centre of the universe, with sun, moon, planets and stars revolving around the earth. Though ‘pagan’ in origin rather than biblical, this was the system the Roman Catholic Church really believed through the Dark and Middle Ages of Europe. In England Bede, centuries before Columbus, based his calculations for the date of Easter on the Ptolemaic system, and there is a point in his writings when he refers to the Earth as round, then realises that’s ambiguous and adds ‘that is, a sphere’. At almost exactly the time of Columbus’ voyage, the Church was actually making the very different mistake of trying to defend the earth-centred Ptolemaic system against the new ‘sun-centred’ ideas of one Nicolas Copernicus!
The real objection in the Spanish court was not because the church taught a flat earth. They believed in a round earth just as much as Columbus did – the problem was, they knew how big it was…. I can never remember whether it was two centuries before or after Jesus, but a clever Greek-Egyptian mathematician had calculated the circumference of the spherical earth. He had heard that away south of Alexandria there was a place where on a certain day at midday the sun was absolutely straight overhead shining down a well. On that day, he set up a pole so that he could measure the angle of the sun at Alexandria; then he had professional distance-measurers pace out the distance between Alexandria and the town with the well – after that simple geometry enabled him to calculate the circumference. I understand he was right to well within ten-per-cent of the modern value.
And the trouble, which it appears Columbus’ opponents had realised, was that if the earth was that big, then Columbus wouldn’t get to the Indies by sailing westwards – the voyage would be so long he and his sailors would die of thirst or starvation weeks before reaching any known land. They thought the Pacific and Atlantic were the two sides of the same ocean, and they knew it was big!! And indeed they were right; by the time Columbus made landfall his supplies were running short and he might well not have been able to return home but for resupplying in what we now call the West Indies.
That being so, how did Columbus persuade the Spanish royalty to support his apparently doomed voyage? Well the next bit involves some speculation even today, but it seems that in fact Columbus knew that there was a land there – it’s just that he wasn’t quite imaginative enough to envisage a whole ‘New World’ and therefore he reasonably but wrongly believed that land was India. How did he know? He knew because it had already been discovered – more than once!
The earliest example with any real certainty is the Irish legend of St Brendan, who set off with fellow monks in a sea-going curragh – a kind of super-coracle with a leather skin over a longship style frame. Tim Severin has fairly convincingly reconstructed Brendan’s voyage to show how the various islands he describes fit, though a bit exaggerated, with the real islands you would meet on a voyage across the North Atlantic – the Faeroes, Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland/Labrador. Other Irish accounts are more fanciful but may have some truth behind them. Wales has the legend of Prince Madoc founding a colony in America (though ‘Portmadoc’ with its famed Festiniog Railway is named after an early 19th Century Mr Madocks).
Definitely historical, the Vikings have the ‘Vinland Saga’ of a discovery of Labrador c1000CE. The colony they established has been found archaeologically at ‘Lancey Meadows’ (actually ‘Jellyfish Creek’ from the French ‘L’Anse aux Meduses’) and lasted quite a few years before, like their colony of Greenland, it was made unsustainable by a medieval ‘Little Ice Age’. The Scottish kingdom of Albany had an account of a New England colony – there is apparently an anomalous (though disputed) medieval tower in one coastal town. And fishermen from Bristol had long been taking cod from the Grand Banks and may occasionally have gone to the land beyond. Columbus, it seems, had traded in England and Northern Europe and heard these stories – so he could reassure his royal backers the journey would not be fruitless, even though he’d guessed wrong about the land these northerners had found; he probably thought Labrador was somewhere around Northern Japan/Eastern Siberia.
On the other hand, if the Spaniards wanted to lay claim to their discoveries, it wouldn’t be wise to be too open about that prior knowledge – that would cede a prior claim to those earlier discoverers. So confusion remained. Columbus’ discovery meant the opposition looked silly, though as I say in a way they were right apart from the unexpected new continent!
Where did the ‘flat earth’ story come from? Apparently it came long after Columbus from 19th Century American author Washington Irving, better known for Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; and it’s not clear whether he really believed his version – but he certainly intended to write anti-Catholic or possibly anti-religious propaganda. When Irving’s account got attached to that catchy song quoted in my title, it became widely believed.
I am no great supporter of Roman Catholicism and its claims of authority. It was bad enough that they got it wrong about Copernicus’ theory in a way that held back science in Catholic countries for centuries, and their treatment of Galileo was appalling and must cast serious doubt on the validity and the usefulness of the claim of supposed ‘papal infallibility’. Bad enough also that they had an unbiblical place of privilege in states which enabled them to force their views upon people against the evidence. But I’m far from happy to see a false account of the Columbus episode put about as anti-church propaganda and causing serious confusion for people’s understanding of those times – and indeed of earlier times, as people who have fallen for Irving’s travesty will also fail to realise how advanced science and knowledge was even back to ancient Greece. As a Christian, truth should be paramount because Jesus himself is the Truth. Lies are of the Devil even when they are attacking and mocking my enemies. There is plenty for which the Catholics can be legitimately criticised, and no need whatever to make up false stories about them. And anyway, the truth about the Columbus episode, with its confusion and all those prior stories of the discovery of America, is much more interesting.