Okay, now it is time to tackle a silly but persistent myth about the Middle Ages. For some reason we think that the medieval mind thought that the world was flat until Columbus sailed the wide blue and discovered the new world. Well I’m sorry but that just isn’t true. Nor is the story about Columbus being interrogated by the Church in Salamanca. In point of fact the whole idea that medieval people thought that the earth was flat is a lie concocted by a pair of writers at about the same time. Antoine-Jean Letronne, a French anti-religious academic in his work On the Cosmographical Ideas of the Church Fathers written in 1834, and an American novelist named Washington Irving. You may remember Irving as the author of such historically accurate works as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. In 1828 he wrote the equally reliable biography of Christopher Columbus which included the Salamanca scene. The only problem is that Irving made the whole thing up. The Church had never taught that the world was flat.
Aquinas, in the 13th century, wrote that “the astronomer and the natural philosopher both demonstrate the same conclusion, such as the world is round; yet the astronomer does so through mathematics, while the natural philosopher does so in a way that takes matter into account”. Roger Bacon, who lived at the same time as Aquinas, was taught that Greek mathematicians had measured the earth’s circumference. It was obvious that the earth was round, for how else would things disappear beyond the horizon? Bacon also noted that “The… curvature of the earth explains why we can see further from higher elevations”.
Medieval scholars were actively considering the existence of America too by the way. They realized that the people of the world they knew only inhabited one hemisphere and devoted a great deal of discussion as to what was happening on the other side. Some said that it was all water, but others theorized that there may exist another land mass, the antipodes “on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us”. The chance that these antipodes were inhabited was a subject of intense speculation.
But what about those medieval world maps where Jerusalem is in the middle of the world? Don’t they show that medieval people had no idea about the shape, size, look, nature, plan, organization or concept of the earth as it really is? These are mappae mundi. Mappa mundi means “cloth of the world”, “not map of the world”. They were encyclopedic depictions of the known world to help remind people of the significant points: the three known continents (Europe, Asia and Africa), and the waters in between. A mappa mundi is a depiction of the world as a place of experiences, human history, notions and knowledge. It was not, and never intended to be, a chart to be followed by travelers. That is what they had travel itineraries for. A travel itinerary showed the roads, villages, and towns and the time required to travel from one to another. The word “journey” comes from the walking times on itineraries; “journee” referred to one day’s travel by foot.