Colorized flat-earth woodcut, main page logo

Shape of the Earth


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Kerry Magruder


Does the flat-earth theme support a medieval origin?

Do we use the woodcut to depict the charming naivete of medievals who believed the Earth was flat? So thought J.D. Bernal when he used a cropped version to illustrate his popular survey of the history of science (first image); and Daniel Boorstin when he chose a colorized version as the jacket illustration for his telling of The Discoverers (second image).

JD Bernal cropped print with caption
"In medieval times there was a return to the concept of a flat Earth and a dogmatism about the crystalline celestial spheres, here epitomized in a woodcut showing the machinery responsible for their motion discovered by an inquirer who has broken through the outer sphere of fixed stars. Sixteenth century." J.D. Bernal, Science in History, vol. 1 of The Emergence of Science (4 vols)

There may be a twist to the story of our woodcut after all. Its provenance is notoriously difficult to track down. Despite Bernal's typical if erroneous caption, the illustration credits at the end of his book offer no traceable source for his cropped-version of the woodcut.

Daniel Boorstin colorized version

Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers (dust-jacket illustration;
attributed to a 16th-century woodcut by the Bettmann Archive)

Although the jacket of Boorstin's bestseller, The Discoverers, attributes this version to an "early 16th century woodcut," it cites only the Bettmann Archive for its source (so evidently they didn't know where the original for their image came from either). Where did they get it? The Discoverers does not say. This image is cropped like Bernal's, but not with identical boundaries, so it does not seem to have been copied directly from Bernal and then colorized. Boorstin himself does not discuss the picture, but he does perpetuate the erroneous myth about medieval belief in a flat Earth.

So where did this woodcut come from?

Thanks to books like Bernal's and Boorstin's, many people still do not know that most medieval people knew the Earth was spherical, at least roughly spherical, and they also knew roughly how large it was. That knowledge became part of an academic cliche about the differences between astronomy and cosmology, since either science could prove the same conclusion (i.e., the sphericity of the earth) from its own (different) principles. Understanding of the sphericity of the earth in the middle ages reached beyond the educated elite; it permeated aspects of popular medieval culture such as almanacs, feudal ceremonies, sermon illustrations, and cathedral iconography. It is a myth, popularized by in part by Washington Irving, that Columbus had to debate with scholars who thought the Earth was flat. (Columbus actually argued that the Earth was smaller than others knew it to be.) The modern belief that medieval people did not know the Earth is spherical is the real "flat-earth myth." See Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth (New York: Praeger, 1991), for a brief yet judicious account (with penetrating questions about the persistence of the myth today--e.g., on what basis have most of us believed the idea that medieval people thought the Earth was flat?).

Coming soon!documentary evidence for medieval understanding of the shape of the earth...

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  • Kerry Magruder, page last revised: 7/28/2003
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