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Did people ever think the earth was flat?

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  • 10-08-2009 2:16pm
    #1
    Registered Users Posts: 4,586 ✭✭✭


    I was reading a thread on AH and someone posted how the Romans used to think the earth was flat. I hear it a lot actually. I'm just wondering how so many people think this. As I understand it no educated person has thought that the earth is flat for thousands of years.

    In my old Junior Cert History book it said that before Columbus everybody thought the world was flat. I'm just wondering is this true? And if it isn't then why is it in our school textbooks?
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  • Registered Users Posts: 6,440 ✭✭✭jhegarty


    No one educated has thought the early was flat since ancient Greece.

    So that's about 3000 years.

    Columbus definitely knew what he was doing , he just didn't know America would get in the way.


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 246 ✭✭Medievalist


    Even before the Romans, it was accepted that the earth was spherical and the only major arguments were based around determining the size of the earth and what lay beyond the known landmasses. There was a 19th Century writer who claimed, without much substantial proof, that earlier societies believed the earth was flat and a myth was born.


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 1,731 ✭✭✭MarchDub


    In my old Junior Cert History book it said that before Columbus everybody thought the world was flat. I'm just wondering is this true? And if it isn't then why is it in our school textbooks?

    I can tell you this - there were many, many "untrue" things in your school history books. But that's a whole other issue.

    And JHegarty is right - the ancient Greeks knew of the 'heavenly' spheres and the correct shape of the earth. But like our own times, what the educated people knew and observed and what the Joe Soaps believed were often very different matters.


  • Registered Users Posts: 4,586 ✭✭✭sock puppet


    Thanks for the answers
    Even before the Romans, it was accepted that the earth was spherical and the only major arguments were based around determining the size of the earth and what lay beyond the known landmasses. There was a 19th Century writer who claimed, without much substantial proof, that earlier societies believed the earth was flat and a myth was born.

    I didn't know that thanks. I've often wondered how it originated
    MarchDub wrote: »
    I can tell you this - there were many, many "untrue" things in your school history books. But that's a whole other issue.

    Yeah I know. History is an area I'm very interested in. I only finished my Leaving Cert this year and I'd like to do some further reading now that I have a little more time on my hands.:)


  • Registered Users Posts: 282 ✭✭patsman07


    Im a primary school teacher. Last year while reading second class a story the word 'horizon' came up. I asked the class what this word meant and one of the children explained that the horizon is where the land and the sky meet. I then asked the class why is there a horizon? The most intelligent boy in the class put up his hand and said 'it's because the earth is round and the sky comes down around us.' This is exactly the reason for a horizon as far as I know and I think this child is going to be the next Einstein. Incredible observation from a second class child.

    After this incident I began wondering how none of the ancient civilisations realised that horizon=round earth, when this boy could. Always believed that people thought the earth was flat before Colombus. Who was the 19th century writer who created this myth??


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  • Closed Accounts Posts: 1,957 ✭✭✭Euro_Kraut


    This is very interesting. It was me who said on AH that the Romans thought the world was flat. Thanks for the info sockpuppet. Find these accepted 'truths' to be fascinating.

    Also, my apologies to the Ancient Romans


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 246 ✭✭Medievalist


    patsman07 wrote: »
    . Who was the 19th century writer who created this myth??
    I think it was Irving, in his bio of Columbus. He suggested opposition to Columbus' expedition was based on the fact that he could fall off the edge of the earth. Although, it's more likely people believed he would starve to death before reaching land again, or disappear into the wilderness.

    I have a faint recollection that pro-Darwinists used the theory to lambast the Catholic Church and Christian anti-Darwinists. Though don't quote me on that ;)


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 1,731 ✭✭✭MarchDub



    I have a faint recollection that pro-Darwinists used the theory to lambast the Catholic Church and Christian anti-Darwinists. Though don't quote me on that ;)

    This is correct - in spite of the fact that Christianity never believed or held that the earth is flat, a myth was created that they did . It was just an anti-Christian ploy.


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 246 ✭✭Medievalist


    MarchDub wrote: »
    It was just an anti-Christian ploy.

    Such heathen skulduggery! :eek:


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 1,731 ✭✭✭MarchDub


    Such heathen skulduggery! :eek:

    And if you can't trust the heathens, who's left?


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  • Moderators, Category Moderators, Science, Health & Environment Moderators, Society & Culture Moderators Posts: 47,245 CMod ✭✭✭✭Black Swan


    You may find it of interest that there is an organisation called The Flat Earth Society?:rolleyes: Link: http://www.theflatearthsociety.org/


  • Registered Users Posts: 2,892 ✭✭✭ChocolateSauce


    As late as the 1880's, the president of the Transvaal was a flat-earther, despite having friends who were sailors who had circumnavigated the Earth.


  • Registered Users Posts: 110 ✭✭RedNiamhy


    I was watching yet another repeat of an old QI on Dave last night (a TV station on sky, not an uncomfortable way of lying on my boyfriend to watch television) and Stephen Fry (The ultimate walking encyclopedia as far as I'm concerned) said that no-one has ever believed that the earth was round, it has been known to be spherical for a long, long time. (Even thugh it's not exactly spherical, but that's another thread!)


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 3,185 ✭✭✭asdasd


    I have a faint recollection that pro-Darwinists used the theory to lambast the Catholic Church

    Yeah, pretty sure that some of it is that utterly fake Whig view of history which dominates English speaking culture.


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 3,185 ✭✭✭asdasd


    Why is QI a bad source? And why is a properly research wikipedia article a bad source?


  • Registered Users Posts: 282 ✭✭patsman07


    The Greeks apparantly weren't the first to discover that the earth was flat:
    "It is he that sitteth upon the CIRCLE*
    of the earth." --Isaiah 40:22

    This is claimed as proof to some of the Bible's validity.
    Although 'the circle' could refer to a 2 dimensional circle as opposed to a sphere.
    Just incase your an atheist who might be worried about the Bible having some validity:
    'And after these things I saw four angels standing on FOUR CORNERS OF THE EARTH, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree'
    Revelation 7:1


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 6,093 ✭✭✭Amtmann


    asdasd wrote: »
    Why is QI a bad source? And why is a properly research wikipedia article a bad source?

    QI might be a bad source; on the other hand, it might be accurate. But what are its sources?
    A "well researched" wikipedia article might be great. On Monday. By Friday a few innaccuracies might have krept in. Better to trust in footnotes and peer reviewed material in my opinion.


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 3,185 ✭✭✭asdasd


    A good wiki has proper citations at the bottom ( otherwise it is flagged as not having citations).

    QI is well researched, and I have heard Fry correct himself at one stage ( the next week) when there was some ambiguity.

    So both good sources.


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 6,093 ✭✭✭Amtmann


    asdasd wrote: »
    A good wiki has proper citations at the bottom ( otherwise it is flagged as not having citations).

    QI is well researched, and I have heard Fry correct himself at one stage ( the next week) when there was some ambiguity.

    So both good sources.

    Citations alone do not legitimise a piece. Poorly researched material could be cited, or pseudo-history, such as something by Houston Stewart Chamberlain on the history of the west for instance. This is why peer review is a crucial step in making something professional and authoritative. It's a rigorous process. That said, I generally like wikipedia and have contributed to a few articles. For a serious scholar, though, it's not definitive and should never be where your search for information ends.
    As for QI, it's comedy on the telly. Take it as gospel if you like. It probably is accurate most of the time (nothing is accurate all of the time), but because it doesn't give its sources, we can't really be certain. Besides, basing a whole belief or stating something on the basis of "I heard it on QI" doesn't really cut it.


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 3,185 ✭✭✭asdasd


    Dude, at your standard for belief we would have to all be experts in a certain field to discuss the field. So the answer to the question - Did people ever think the Earth was flat would be only open to historians of the period in question, and even then we would have to be careful they did not have an agenda. ( Anyway, is history really peer reviewed?)

    So no ordinary person can know anything. Its possible to have less formal standards - a well read man ( like Fry) probably knows a lot.


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  • Closed Accounts Posts: 6,093 ✭✭✭Amtmann


    ( Anyway, is history really peer reviewed?)

    History written by professional historians is always peer reviewed, whether it is published as a journal article or as a book.
    So no ordinary person can know anything. Its possible to have less formal standards - a well read man ( like Fry) probably knows a lot.

    He does. And you can be sure that as a well read man he values peer reviewed sources ;)


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 6,093 ✭✭✭Amtmann


    Sorry, I'll just respond to this before I call it a night.
    asdasd wrote: »
    So the answer to the question - Did people ever think the Earth was flat would be only open to historians of the period in question

    Naturally. Who else is qualified to say? Not everyone can read Latin and ancient Greek. The butcher down the road probably isn't familiar with classical and medieval conceptions of geography and astronomy either. Historians of the period are though. They are the authorities on this matter.
    Suppose, though, that you and I were sitting at a bar having a pint. And suppose I put the question to you, "did people in ancient and medieval times believe that the world was flat?". Now, let's suppose that no historian had tackled the subject before, and, in fact, that no one has ever even thought of the question before. How would YOU try to answer it? What approach would you adopt? What sources would you use? Where would you locate those sources, how would you read them, and, vitally, how would you criticise them? Because source criticism is a vital part of the training of all historians worth their salt (hence my skepticism regarding Wiki and, er, 'QI'!). Without training in source criticism, regardless of what one thinks one knows, you're not a historian. History is about far more than simply knowing that xyz happened on a certain date, or that the Black Death was spread initially by rats.
    Primary documentation is vital.
    Secondary scholarly literature is too.
    I regard grand general histories - which generally rely on scores of secondary works - as tertiary sources. But the further away from the original you get, the greater the opportunity for error and misrepresentation of the primary sources.
    (BTW, I have to point this out: If a student referenced QI as a source in an essay at any university, she would fail.)
    and even then we would have to be careful they did not have an agenda.

    Peer review will expose any agenda.


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 246 ✭✭Medievalist


    Although I would never use Wikipedia in an academic sense, it can give some guidance on where to start looking into a subject.

    We can all only truly be experts in very confined fields. If someone has an interest in medieval history (or any other subject for that matter) I would much prefer that they look up Wikipedia and feed that interest, than abandon all interest because they have no hope of becoming experts in the area.

    The first book on history that I encountered was not exactly a reputable, academic source (although it did have much nicer pictures than academic sources, and the text was a little easier to read). Didn't stop me from going on to get a degree in history though!


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 6,093 ✭✭✭Amtmann


    Although I would never use Wikipedia in an academic sense, it can give some guidance on where to start looking into a subject.

    We can all only truly be experts in very confined fields. If someone has an interest in medieval history (or any other subject for that matter) I would much prefer that they look up Wikipedia and feed that interest, than abandon all interest because they have no hope of becoming experts in the area.

    The first book on history that I encountered was not exactly a reputable, academic source (although it did have much nicer pictures than academic sources, and the text was a little easier to read). Didn't stop me from going on to get a degree in history though!

    I fully agree with all of the above. My concern is with the authority of a source. Wikipedia is a first step for many people, and that's fine. QI might be too. They are not academic sources, but if they lead you to, or encourage you to use academic sources, that's fine by me.


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 246 ✭✭Medievalist


    You're right, Furet. People who take Wiki as an absolute truth and don't use it as a stepping stone, or take it at face value, are going to have a slightly skewed view of things. Then all of a sudden the earth is flat, or some other such nonsense.


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 3,185 ✭✭✭asdasd


    (BTW, I have to point this out: If a student referenced QI as a source in an essay at any university, she would fail.)

    We are not talking about university knowledge.

    Basically you are saying that nobody but a historian can talk about these issues, and then only the experts in the field. Clearly I disagree. The answer for well read people - most with with degrees in other fields - is to read the most respected writers on their subject.

    And to read lots. So having some ideas of what the church actually taught, where we can go back to primary sources, know about ptolemy, and read other educated people from late roman times to medieval times. And I dont need a university doctrate in the subject to "know" what happened.

    Just as you dont need the technical mathematical models of the planets, nor be able to solve the equations, to know that the Earth goes around the Sun.


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 911 ✭✭✭994


    Many isolated groups would have believed the earth to be flat. Even sailors who see a round horizon could believe it - it could be that the light bends downwards, or that faraway objects are invisible.


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 6,093 ✭✭✭Amtmann


    asdasd wrote: »
    We are not talking about university knowledge.

    Basically you are saying that nobody but a historian can talk about these issues, and then only the experts in the field. Clearly I disagree. The answer for well read people - most with with degrees in other fields - is to read the most respected writers on their subject.

    Isn't that the point that I've been making? "The most respected writers" are the scholars. And they're respected because their material has been vouched for by their peers, who are other scholars - in this particular case, historians. Once people have read the works of professional historians (which anyone can do), then you are in a position to speak with authority on the subject. So you saying that "only experts can speak about the topic" is a strawman.
    And to read lots. So having some ideas of what the church actually taught, where we can go back to primary sources, know about ptolemy, and read other educated people from late roman times to medieval times. And I dont need a university doctrate in the subject to "know" what happened.

    Just as you dont need the technical mathematical models of the planets, nor be able to solve the equations, to know that the Earth goes around the Sun.

    Yeah, grand. You come onto a history forum and actually meet a historian who tells you that QI and wikipedia really aren't all that authoritative (hardly a shocking statement) and you grow churlish. Whateva...


  • Closed Accounts Posts: 3,185 ✭✭✭asdasd


    Not quite. Just making a point that i think trusted sources need not be academic, but obviously must reference academic sources ( hence my reference to wikipedia and its citations).

    I am actually surprised that wikipedia works so well given the possibilty for abuse.

    As for QI, the trusted source there is Fry and the team behind them. I have seen them correct themselves ( albeit rarely have they had to). In fact all quiz shows must be correct, unless they are the clear piss takes ( like Buzzcoks).

    The questions on Who wants to be a millionaire are not necessarily academic, but surely must be correct. In other words if I learn something from these shows - from an answer - I assume it to be correct with a very high degree of probability, Particularly since there is money involved.

    In other words if I can trust the source, and assume they have done true research, I personallly dont have to go back to the original research they are presenting.

    So QI is a trusted source.


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  • Closed Accounts Posts: 6,093 ✭✭✭Amtmann


    asdasd wrote: »
    So QI is a trusted source.

    The cult of QI and Stephen Fry really is quite amazing. I've met so many people who are devoted to him and it. I really enjoy the show myself. It's very funny, and yes, informative too.

    Look. For a source to be GOOD (by good I mean authoritative), two things are necessary.

    1) It must be accurate
    2) It must be verifiable

    I agree that QI is probably very accurate most of the time. But it is not verifiable. And that is why it's not a 'good' source in the authoritative, academic sense of the term.

    I think we have been talking at cross purposes all along, asdasd.

    Like I said in the reply to Medievalist, I think shows like QI have a real value in terms of imparting knowledge in an entertaining way. But they should not be taken as holy writ by someone who wants a thorough knowledge of a subject - especially one like history, which isn't clear-cut like mathematics and physics are.
    Did people believe the earth was flat? Stephen Fry says 'no'. Fine. What civilisations are we talking about though? The Egyptians? The Greeks? The Persians? The Chinese? And within these, are we talking about sailors or philosophers or farmers or masons? And when? BC or AD? Were these beliefs consistent over time?
    Do you see what I mean? When I speak of QI as not being 'authoritative', that's what I'm referring to. Sure, it can say that most of the air in our atmosphere is made from Nitrogen and this is unambiguously true. But a lot of the time, with history, questions are not as simple, and answers are not as clear-cut as they first seem. For me, an authoritative source would consider these questions and, using primary sources, try to answer them.
    But I agree that Stephen Fry did some service in debunking the myth that mariners in the fifteenth century thought the earth was flat. They didn't. Well done Stephen. Thank you. My point is that if you want to be an authority on the subject, then read the scholarly histories. Ditto for Wikipedia. What is to stop someone there from writing that two million women were burned as witches during the early modern witch craze? Absolutely nothing. Then someone comes along and puts in one of those [citation?] thingys and I come back and supply a source from a thoroughly debunked early twentieth-century feminist pseudohistory which circulated that innacuracy to begin with. People see the new bibliographic reference, which has been correctly inserted, and Bob's your uncle. Misinformation has been spread. Easy as that.
    Now that's me done with this discussion because I've made my points as best I can and I have nothing further to add.


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