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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 Irving’s 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.”Washington Irving, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (New York, 1828), p. 74. 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

Cosmic Questions

Did the Universe Have a Beginning? Topic Index
Scientific Cosmology Meets Western Theology: A Historical Perspective


The Challenge of Copernicus
Two Mythological Arguments
Objections to Copernicus
Osiander's Introduction
Hubble's Expanding Universe and Lemaître's Primeval Atom
The Steady-State, Big Bang and Religion
Too Easy an Answer?


Owen Gingerich

Related Media:

Did the Universe Have a Beginning?
Was the Universe Designed?
Are We Alone?
Interview Index
The Copernican Solar System
Ptolemy's Solar System
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Other Resources:

The Rise of Copernicanism
The Galileo Affair
Glossary Terms
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