As the Middle Ages began to
wane, when the information explosion brought about by printing with movable
type was about to change the intellectual face of Europe, one of the popular
genres of books was entitled Cosmographia - literally,
the mapping of the cosmos. European Christendom had readily adopted a
geocentric Aristotelian cosmology into its own sacred geography, with mankind
at center stage and with God ruling from empyrean regions just beyond the shell
of fixed stars. These printed,
illustrated cosmographies reinforced the images found here and there on
cathedral walls, but their pictures were about to meet a serious challenge.
The challenge was not to do away with a flat earth,
because educated people already knew full well that the earth was round. The whole mythology that Columbus had to
persuade Ferdinand and Isabella that the earth is round begins, as far as the
English-speaking world is concerned, with Washington Irvings two-volume
biography of Columbus published in 1828.
One of his most graphic, but highly fictionalized scenes, is set at the
Spanish court in Salamanca, where Columbus faced a panel of clerics, an
imposing array of professors, friars and dignitaries of the church, who came
propossessed against him, as men in place and dignity are apt to be against
poor applicants. According to Irving, they ridiculed the idea
of the roundness of the earth and quoted scripture to infer its flatness. Columbus, a profoundly religious man, found
himself in danger of being convicted not only of error but also of heresy.
The historical reality is
that the imposing array of professors and clerics told Columbus not that the
world was flat, but that its circumference was much bigger than Columbus
supposed, and that Japan was more than 2500 miles beyond the Azores. They were right, of course, and they would
never have made the voyage.
Contributed by: Dr. Owen Gingerich