Heaven and Earth in the Middle Ages: The Physical World Before Columbus, by Rudolf Simek

Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field
Of hair-breadth scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence
And portance in my travels’ history:
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven
It was my hint to speak,–such was the process;
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. This to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline . . . .
Othello, I.iii

This 129-page book is the effort of a German scholar and is surprisingly readable. With generous illustrations, Simek shows that a spherical Earth was no scandal to the medievals and in fact was accepted opinion. The myth of a flat Earth was largely a construct of the Enlightenment, concocted to show the superiority of Rationalism over the Age of Religion. The myth may have arisen from misunderstanding of mapmaking convention, in which the three known continents–Asia, Europe, and Africa–were shown gathered into a disc form and surrounded by ocean on a square page. Still, everyone understood that the world was not actually a disc and that the maps only used a convention to show a spherical Earth in two dimensions. Schematically, the landmasses formed a “T,” with the largest, Asia, taking up the top semicircle, Europe in the bottom left quarter, and Asia in the bottom right quarter. East was at the top, and Jerusalem was the center of the Earth.

Travelers noticed the change of position of the Sun and stars as they journeyed south, and how new constellations came into view. It was known as well from observing the eclipse of the Moon that the Earth was round. A time-elapse photo from a recent lunar eclipse shows this phenomenon:

Earth was considered the center of the universe, but not the most important part of it. Rather, the Earth was the lowest point of a vast cosmos–the real center, in fact, was Hell.

There was some controversy about the existence of the Antipodes–land on the other side of the Earth from Europe. Legends circulated of such a place, populated by fabulous half-monstrous creatures. The controversy arose from a combination of science and theology. It was believed that the Antipodes was unreachable, and that all men were descended from Adam and Eve. Therefore, there could be no human beings in the Antipodes, because they would have to have another origin. Following opinion received from Ptolemy, medievals considered the Equator impassable–a torrid zone, if not a wall of fire, that no one could cross. It was only crossed in 1473, by the Portuguese.

Other stories were told of strange races on the edges of the known world (such as still told by Othello in the quotation above, 100 years after Columbus). St. Augustine taught in the City of God that such monstrous races were entirely possible as the punishment for original sin. St. Isidore of Seville took this up in the seventh century, and it became common medieval opinion. Later, Aristotle’s influence blamed exotic climates for these odd appearances.

Columbus believed that there were only some 130 degrees of longitude on the westward route to Asia, rather than the 230 degrees that we know now. This actually was known at the time, but Columbus chose to follow a minority opinion. This was the dispute over his voyage–not whether he would fall off the edge of a flat Earth, but whether it was really possible to sail over what was assumed to be open ocean for such a distance.

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