One comment on a Facebook thread in 2021 referred to “…Magellan who Lighted the Dark Medieval Flat mind of Ignorance & Superstition…”, a statement which shows that the myth that Magellan proved the Earth was round and that the common belief that in the ‘Dark Ages’ there was a common belief that the Earth was flat, is still in circulation.
Not only did Magellan ‘prove’ nothing of the sort, the Dark Ages of myth never existed and were an invention of 17th and 18th century writers. How did these myths arise?
It widely assumed, wrongly, that present day humans are more intelligent and resourceful than their ancestors of thousands of years ago. It is the sort of thinking that Erik Von Daniken depended upon for his popular books about aliens building the Egyptian pyramids, and which still produces fanciful History Channel series like Ancient Aliens.
The human species is both a thinking species and a pattern recognition species. It tries to make sense of the world, and the environment, by identifying patterns and coming up with reasons for those patterns. Sometimes those patterns don’t really exist, the result of random events and incomplete information. It is a species that uses pattern recognition as an aid to survival and seeks control in a frighteningly chaotic universe. It doesn’t always come to the correct conclusions, which is why we have superstitions – to fill in the gaps between what we know and what we don’t.
Ancient man did not walk around blindfolded. He saw, and sometimes observed, the phenomenon of the natural world. He saw the Moon and the Sun, observed their links to the seasons, to harvests and the rise and fall of the tides. He accepted these phenomenae and built calendars of stone of extraordinary complexity, like Stonehenge in England, to make use of them.
As he walked to and from his village he would have noticed that the nearer he was to it the more of it he could see. If he climbed a tree to pick fruit he’d be able to see farther. Going up a hill to hunt or collect wood for his fire, he would be able to see farther still. Sometimes he’d go through a mountain pass thousands of metres high and he would be able to see even more. It did not matter which direction he walked, he would see the same phenomenon.
Seafarers and fishermen would have noticed that while sitting in their boats the horizon was, maybe 4.5 kilometres away. If he stood up, he could see another kilometre. Climbing up a mast, he could see farther still. And when moving towards or away from land he would see it rise and sink, as would other vessels that approached him or went away from him. It did not matter which way he looked or travelled. Strabo, who lived between 64BCE and 24CE, in fact suggests that Mediterranean seafrers had long know the Earth was round.
The idea that this effect at sea was due to an oceanic meniscus, a bulge in the water like the one that can be seen glass tubes or the top iof drinking vessels, would not explain exactly the same phenomenon on land. But most people probably would not have thought that far, just simply accepting that it was the way things were and not of immediately concern in his daily affairs.
He would have seen that during an eclipse when the Earth cast its shadow on the moon, the shadow was always circular, which it could not be if the Earth was flat.
What these people really thought about the shape of the Earth we do not know because it was not recorded, their lives and opinions were of little interest to those who could read and write and whose opinions influenced the elite rather than the commoner, who may have instictively understood the spherical nature of the Earth without understanding why, just as he accepted the phases of the Moon without understanding gravity.
Pythagoras suggested that the Earth was a sphere about 500BCE, on the basis that it was a perfect shape. In a way he was right – it is the shape things like water and rocks adopt in freefall or without gravity. Plato, a student of Pythagoras, taught that the Earth was a sphere, but did not provide a rationale.
In 350BCE, Greek philospher Aristotle, prehaps inspired by Plato, put all these easily accessible phenomenae together and argued that the world was a sphere and not a very big one. He gets the credit but that does not necessarily mean that he was the first to understand the Sphericity of the Earth.
Next came Eratosthenes, another Greek thinker, in 276BCE or thereabouts. He heard from travellers about a well in Aswan, Egypt, where at noon on the summer solstice, the sun illuminated the entire bottom of the well, without casting any shadows, so the sun was directly overhead. Eratosthenes then measured the angle of a shadow cast by a stick at noon on the summer solstice in Alexandria, and found it made an angle of about 7.2 degrees, or about 1/50 of a complete circle meaning that the Earth was around 38,600 kilometres in circumference, not far off todays more accurate measure of 40,073 kilometres.
Columbus and Magellan were certainly aware of the Greek philosophers works and studied them. As, in fact, did their critics – not one of whom referred to a flat Earth.
Early cosmologies, like those of the Babylonians, Egyptians and the Vikings don’t actually tell us much about how the ordinary people viewed their world, their purpose was theological, to describe man’s relationships with their deities rather than present a real-world description. Early Christian maps did the same thing while accepting that the Earth was a globe.
Just because early Christian maps were drawn on a flat surface it does not mean that they considered the Earth flat. We know they did not, because when a three dimensional representation was required, as in statues and paintings, and even coins, depicting Christian kings, the subject were shown holding what is called a globus cruciger, a sphere with a cross on top to represent monarchical power over the Earth.
The Romans accepted the Greek view that the Earth was a globe and spread that knowledge throughout their empire.
By 400CE Rome collapsed and, we are told, an age of violence, ignorance and superstition reigned with knowledge stifled by the powerful Catholic Church which taught that the Earth was flat. It was the Dark Ages which lasted for a thousand years.
But the ‘Flat Earth Dark Ages’ were a myth.