In 1523, Peter Martyr d’Anghiera wrote to Pope Adrian VI, the first non-Italian pope and the only one until the election of John Paul II in 1985, about the Magellan-Elcano Expedition, properly called the Armada de Malucco. He had been chaplain to the court of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, and was a historian of Spanish explorations, who became a member of Emperor Charles V’s Council of the Indies in 1518.
In his letter, he says: “Let us now try to explain how the Spaniards have completed the circuit of the globe, for the fact is difficult to believe. There, however, one proof: let Your Holiness have a terrestrial sphere marked with the different continents brought…” and proceeded to describe the journey of the Magellan expedition.
His surprise at the success of the journey had nothing to do with the shape of the Earth but the surmounting of the great odds against the success of the expedition.
There was no question that time that the Earth was considered a globe, and not a shred of evidence that any significant number of people believed to the contrary. The oldest terrestrial sphere in existence dates from 1492 and may have inspired the first expedition of Columbus that year. Maps of the period clearly show the lines of latitude and longitude, the latter curved to represent the spherical shape of the Earth.
Yet in the 1920s, Edgar Haewood, librarian of the Royal Geographic Society could write that the flat earth concept held sway among churchmen and the general public. That view is reflected in shelves full of school and history textbooks and is the inspiration for the title of Laurence Bergreen’s popular Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe.
Nowhere in that forest-worth of paper can be found a single contemporary reference to medieval mariners being afraid of sailing over the edge of a flat Earth nor that most people at the time, especially churchmen, Catholic or Protestant, believed in a flat Earth off of which they could tumble into some infinite void.
That a Catholic churchman like Peter Martyr d’Anghiera should tell Pope Adrian VI, to look at a spherical globe to trace Magellan’s route already makes the point.
It shows that Magellan did not prove that the Earth was round, it was already the prevailing paradigm. Since those were times when knowledge spread slowly and Columbus had only returned to Spain after bumping into what he thought was part of Asia just 30 years before, that Columbus didn’t either.
As I intend to show, the myth of widespread belief in a flat Earth in the Medieval period and that mariners were afraid of falling off its edge, were a 19th century invention by an imaginative biographer of Christopher Columbus, an anti-clerical French writer, and and a brilliant, British born scientist, John William Draper.
Belief that people in the Medieval period thought the Earth was flat was a product of the widespread increase in literacy and the industrialisation of written media in the 1800s and early 1900s. In a similar fashion, todays greater access to information and the ability to spread one’s opinions across the planet easily and quickly means that it is likely that more people believe in a flat earth today than ever did in the history of the world since about 300 BCE.
It is unwise to dismiss those promoting the Flat Earth with a roll of the eyes and a shake of the head, however, modern day Flat Earthers have played a pivotal role on Social Media in disseminating a wide range of false information and fake news (Lanusa & Ong) to support the 2016 election of Duterte in the Philippines and Trump in the US, producing administration with a clear tendency towards authoritarian populist rule undermining democracy in both countries. These efforts appear to have been well-funded with centralised control.
If the myth of a medieval belief in the Flat Earth can survive in history books for almost 200 years, the present politicised Flat Earth movement and its leveraging of fake news for political ends potentially threatens long term harm of a substantial nature.