Flatism is one of those seductive constructions that reassure contemporary mediocrity: yes, before us there were people dumber than us, more limited, more narrow-minded—boorish people who persuade us to believe in the inevitability of progress. It comes to stand alongside creationism, and all the convenient myths that progressists like to evoke to discredit the old order. Before the eruption of the Enlightenment and happy modernity, there were people who believed that women had no soul, that Africa was populated by monkeys, and that the Earth was flat. These beliefs would have lasted for centuries, to the great misfortune of humanity.
However, this deep-rooted conviction that men have lived for centuries under the obscurantist illusion that the Earth was flat is simply an invention of modernity. This is the subject of the fascinating investigation carried out by two historians, Violaine Giacomotto-Charra and Sylvie Nony, in an essay published in 2021 by Les Belles Lettres: La Terre plate. Généalogie d’une idée fausse.
The condemnation of obscurantist flatism is part of a larger framework: that of presenting false witness against the medieval world. The Middle Ages, which represent nearly a thousand years of our Western history, from the fall of Rome in 476 to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, or to the “discovery” of the Americas by Columbus in 1492, depending on the reference point chosen, continues to be considered as a dark and dusty period in which the light of reason did not shine anywhere.
The common belief, relayed in school textbooks or in mainstream television programs, is that the Middle Ages lost sight of the antique knowledge, which was fortunately rediscovered through contacts with the Arab world—often portrayed as a model of science and wisdom. Subsequently, the Renaissance and the Reformation freed Western man from the intellectual, religious, and philosophical yoke of the Catholic Church.
Medieval man, the poor fellow, believed that the Earth was flat because one could not walk upside down. He indulged in representations of the universe in the shape of a dish or a soup plate with all around dark and raging waves populated by big and fat creatures with scales and a grimy look. This cliché has a long life and does little to honor the genius of these men who built cathedrals and deepened Aristotle’s philosophy like no other. For Violaine Giacomotto-Charra and Sylvie Nony, there is no doubt that the men of the Middle Ages knew perfectly well that the Earth was round: “Not only is the idea that the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat historically false, but it is also the result of a manipulation of the history of science, and above all of consciences, resulting from positivism and the idea of progress defended since the 18th and especially the 19th century.”
The legend developed mainly in the 19th century, but it appears timidly from the 17th, then the 18th, especially through the work of Voltaire, an expert in defamation, all busy to extirper l’infâme and destroy the traditional civilization, whose destinies are indissolubly linked to the Catholic Church. For Voltaire, two heroic figures made it possible to overcome this flat-earth belief maintained by a retrograde Church: that of the scientist enlightening the laws of nature by reason, and that of the intrepid navigator braving the prohibitions of religion.
The procedure employed by progressist historians and philosophers has consisted in overvaluing the writings of some obscure medieval thinkers who were able, in their works, to suggest that they did indeed doubt the rotundity of the Earth: thus, the rhetorician at the end of the 3rd century, Lactantius, who questioned the existence of the antipodes—while being neither philosopher nor scientist. Another typical case: the valorization of Cosmas Indicopleustes, a Nestorian Christian from the 6th century, author of The Christian Topography, defending the idea of a flat Earth. Voltaire, again, gives Cosmas an importance that he never had historically, because as a Nestorian, he was a heretic. He was never translated into Latin, so his work went completely unnoticed throughout the Middle Ages. On the other hand, the philosophers of the Enlightenment and the positivists of the 19th century ignored the familiarity that medieval Christianity had with the writings of Eratosthenes or Ptolemy, both of whom established several centuries before Jesus Christ that the Earth was indeed round. The flatist Presocratics were not known in the Middle Ages.
Blinded by their ideological bias, those who feel contempt for medieval civilization prefer to play on anonymity and explain that “it was believed at the time that the Earth was flat,” without ever specifying of whom they speak. As far as the literate elites, the scholars, the fathers of the Church are concerned, there was no doubt about it: examples of medieval texts about the roundness of the Earth are legion. Saint Augustine wrote in Book XII, chapter XXV, of The City of God about divine virtue, that it is “the cause of the roundness of the Earth and the Sun.” He contests the idea of the populating of the antipodes, which is a completely different matter. Isidore of Seville, the last of the Latin Church Fathers and founder of medieval encyclopedism, explicitly described the Earth as a “globe” in the 6th century. Later, Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly (1351-1420), who was familiar with Ptolemy’s work, produced a widely circulated Imago Mundi and Compendium cosmographiae around 1410—all of which prove that the sphericity of the Earth was perfectly accepted in the Middle Ages.
But if we put aside the flatist issue, the Galileo affair is—fortunately, some may think—still on the table. The problem is that the tug-of-war between the Church and the astronomer over heliocentrism did not originate in the medieval world. It took place in the first half of the 17th century, when “modernity” was already well established. The trial took place at a time when the stakes were much higher than those of cosmological research, with numerous power and influence struggles within the Roman Church. But the myth of the reactionary Church, like that of the flatist Middle Ages, has a life of its own: on est toujours l’obscurantiste de quelqu’un—one is always someone’s obscurantist. And it is so convenient! In these pandemic times, the flatist fiction which was invented in the modern age to stigmatize the opponent still remains operational.
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).