Busting a Columbus Myth

Is this what you remember learning in school? Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain in 1492 and crossed the Atlantic Ocean, disproving a common belief in those days that the Earth was flat and that he would fall off the edge if he ventured too far.

Well, it’s not true. Historians say there is no doubt that the educated in Columbus’ day knew quite well that the Earth was not flat but round.

In fact, it was known many, many years earlier.

As early as the sixth century B.C., Pythagoras--later followed by Aristotle and Euclid-- wrote about Earth as a sphere. Ptolemy wrote "Geography" at the height of the Roman Empire, 1,300 years before Columbus sailed, and considered the idea of a round planet as fact.

“Geography” became a standard reference. Columbus owned a copy.

Indeed, for Columbus, the big question was not the shape of the Earth but the size of the ocean he was planning to cross.

During the early Middle Ages, it is true that many Europeans succumbed to rumor and started believing they lived on a flat earth.

But Islamic countries knew better and preserved the Greek learning. By the late Middle Ages, Europe had caught up and in some cases surpassed the state of knowledge of ancient Greece and medieval Islam.

Several books published in Europe between 1200 and 1500 discussed Earth’s shape, including "The Sphere," written in the early 1200s, which was required reading in European universities in the 1300s and beyond. It was still in use 500 years after it was penned.

So how did it become common thought in the 20th century that people in the 15th century believed the Earth was flat?

In a 1991 book, "Inventing the Flat Earth," retired University of California professor Jeffrey Burton Russell explains how the myth was perpetuated in the 1800s by writers who included Washington Irving and Antoinne-Jean Letronne.

In 1828, Irving wrote “The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus,” which sounds like a biography but is mostly fiction. It says that Europeans learned from Columbus’ trips to the New World that the planet was round.

Letronne insisted that early Christian writers thought the Earth was flat. Though they did not believe this, he was widely quoted for many years.

Others, too, helped perpetuate the myth.

The 1995 book “Poetry of the Universe: A Mathematical Exploration of the Cosmos,” by Robert Osserman, professor emeritus of mathematics at Stanford University, makes clear that Columbus did not worry that he would fall off the Earth’s edge.

There was, though some concern about what would happen if they got to the bottom of the spherical planet.

Did you grow up believing that Columbus thought the Earth was flat? What other things did you learn in school that you came to learn were untrue?

By Valerie Strauss  |  October 12, 2009; 11:39 AM ET
Categories:  Checking It Out  | Tags: Christopher Columbus, Columbus Day, flat earth Share This:  E-Mail | Technorati | Del.icio.us | Digg | Stumble Previous: Every Parent's Nightmare
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I was definitely taught Columbus and his counterparts thought the earth was flat and he was discovering a new world. Never a word about the cruelty he (and his peers) inflicted. I was also taught Rosa Parks just happened to be tired and didn't feel like getting up on that fateful day. Never talked about Malcolm only Martin. I don't think I learned about slave rebellions until college either. That hole in the curriculum led to the assumption that American slaves lied down and took all the abuse heaped on them. It goes on and on but the only women I remember from secondary school history were Marie Curie and Susan B. Anthony. My history courses in college were a revelation not to say that I enjoyed them all but they were far more interesting than anything that was previously taught.

Posted by: flabbergast | October 12, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Or this:
Ah, Columbus day. The day we celebrate a man who couldn’t ask for directions and then refused to acknowledge he was in the wrong place…

Posted by: edlharris | October 13, 2009 2:06 AM | Report abuse

Or this:
Ah, Columbus day. The day we celebrate a man who couldn’t ask for directions and then refused to acknowledge he was in the wrong place…

Posted by: edlharris | October 13, 2009 2:06 AM | Report abuse


Nice. Very nice. Pretty much sums up all men before and after Columbus.

Posted by: traderdad37 | October 13, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

I was taught that Columbus thought the earth was flat in elementary school. Fortunately, as I moved into higher grades, I continued to improve my literacy skills and came to realize that those who rely on teachers to convey adequate knowledge are fools.

Teachers don't transmit knowledge they transmit expectations. History can only truly be learned by picking up books and reading them.

This is at the heart of our "education problem." We view the learning issue as one where students are presented information and then apply it. We should be seeing education as the process of students seeking knowledge and skills. Teachers should be expected to offer opportunities for that knowledge to be demonstrated and act as guides in the development of skills.

Posted by: dansummers | October 13, 2009 3:15 PM | Report abuse

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