C.S. Lewis: On a Flat Earth Theory

This comes in addition to my recent post on “Myths” associated with the Middle Ages. An era of ignorance and superstition imposed upon Europe by the influence of Christianity.

flat_earthThe commonly held myth is that Medieval Christendom believed in a flat earth. The origin of these myths can be traced back to intentional slants against Christianity. It was the effort of ‘Enlightened” men to make a break with the past. To discredit useful information intentionally in order to over turn the foundations of the Medieval world and create new foundations for the coming modern age.

Along with intentional historical error are many misconceptions about the Medieval period. It takes the work of experts really to determine that the literature of the ancient world, though it is filled with seemingly barbaric beliefs, they are anything but barbaric. C. S. Lewis had a lot to say about this in his lectures on Medieval Literature. Thankfully this work has been preserved in literary form as well.

“Lewis, perhaps the least familiar to most of his admirers and critics: the distinguished Oxford don and literary critic who packed lecture theatres with his unscripted reflections on English literature, and who went on to become the first occupant of the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at the University of Cambridge.”
Excerpt From: Alister McGrath. “C. S. Lewis; A Life.”

Lewis, therefore, became a foremost scholar, speaking, and writing on the interpretation of literature of the middle ages; its romance, history, poetry, theology, and its science.

On the point of a flat earth. Were Medieval people ignorant as to the spherical nature of the earth?

“Physically considered, the Earth is a globe; all the authors of the high Middle Ages are agreed on this. In the earlier ‘Dark’ Ages, as indeed in the nineteenth century,we can find Flat-earthers [as well as 21st century for that matter]…

The implications of a spherical Earth were fully grasped. What we call gravitation-for the medievals ‘ kindly enclyning ‘-was a matter of common knowledge. Vincent of Beauvais expounds it by asking what would happen if there were a hole bored through the globe of Earth so that there was a free passage from the one sky to the other, and someone dropped a stone down it. He answers that it would come to rest at the centre.Tempera­ture and momentum, I understand, would lead to a different result in fact, but Vincent is clearly right in principle. Mandeville in his Voiage and Travaile teaches the same truth more ingenuously : ‘ from what part of the earth that men dwell, either above or beneath, it seemeth always to them that dwell that they go more right than any other folk. And right as it seemeth to us that they be under us, right so it seemeth to them that we be under them’ (xx). The most vivid presentation is by Dante, in a passage which shows that intense realising power which in the medieval imagination oddly co-exists with its feebleness covercslewis_sm_6386in matters of scale. In jerno, xxxrv, the two travellers find the shaggy and gigantic Lucifer at the absolute centre of the Earth, embedded up to his waist in ‘ Speculum Naturale, VII, vii. ice. The only way they can continue their journey is by climbing down his sides-there is plenty of hair to hold on by-and squeezing through the hole in the ice and so coming to his feet. But they found that though it is down to his waist, it is up to his feet. As Virgil tells Dante, they have passed the point towards which all heavy objects move (7o-ur). It is the first ‘science-fiction effect’ in literature.

The erroneous notion that the medievals were Flat­ earthers was common enough till recently. It might have two sources. One is that medieval maps, such as the great thirteenth-century mappemounde in Hereford cathe­dral, represent the Earth as a circle, which is what men would do if they believed it to be a disc. But what would men do if, knowing it was a globe and wishing to represent it in two dimensions, they had not yet mastered the late and difficult art of projection? Fortunately we need not answer this question. There is no reason to suppose that the mappemounde represents the whole sur­face of the Earth. The theory of the Four Zones taught that the equatorial region was too hot for life. The other hemisphere of the Earth was to us wholly inaccessible. You could write science-fiction about it, but not geography. There could be no question of including it in a map. The mappemounde depicts the hemisphere we live in.

The second reason for the error might be that we find in medieval literature references to the world’s end. Often these are as vague as similar references in our own time. But they may be more precise, as when, in a geographical passage, Gower says

Fro that into the worldes end
Estward, Asie it is.

But the same explanation might cover both this and the Hereford map. The ‘world’ of man, the only world that can ever concern us, may end where our hemisphere ends.”

* Excerpt from C.S. Lewis, Discarded Images: An introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature

In conclusion.

The Myth of middle age Christian imposition of ignorance concerning a flat earth has been compounded intentionally, and unintentionally. The stories are simply not historically accurate. In fact there is a massive contrast in that there is neither any such ignorance at all regarding the relation of the planets, or to earth and its motion.

Categories: Church, Culture, Enlightenment, History, Medieval Period, Modern, Philosophy, Renaissance, Science, Society/Culture | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis: On a Flat Earth Theory

  1. Reblogged this on Constant streams… and commented:
    Yay for the non-round earth!

  2. Since the flat earth theory was made popular by ancient Greek philosophers and scientists I would say that if any medieval person held to that theory, they were simply trying to be scientific and not theological.
    There were enough sailors in the medieval era to dispel any notion of a flat earth.

    • Science was not really practiced until the middle ages. Theologians and scientist were one and the same during the middle ages. All educated people studied theology and science together. The flat earth theory was not popular even in the early middle ages. Even in the Greek period there were spherical earth theories.

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