Veni in altitudinem maris, et tempestas demersit me
- Psalm 68
De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine
- Psalm 130
One of the most persistent myths about the Middle Ages, is the idea that medieval men and women thought the earth was flat. This myth has become one of the rafters in the great narrative of modernity, which is built around the idea of continuous historical progress in which mankind's self-improvement is as linear as the passing of time. The grand narrative of modernity is largely based on an intense, unrelenting optimism and enthusiasm about technological advancement and societal development, to a great extent propped up by a secularist dislike of religion and the rise of relativism. The main idea seems to be that since society is always improving - which is one of the great dictums of modernity's champions - things must have been pretty bad all those centuries ago, especially since the world was dominated by a tyrannical, monolithic church and science was kept at bay by the metaphysics of monks. That this is grossly simplistic can be seen in this short article on the myth of the flat earth.
Olaus Magnus map of the northern reaches from 1539
Courtesy of medievalists.net
The origin of this idea has been traced to the novel The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus by Washington Irving, published in 1828, in which the belief in a flat earth becomes the foil of the medieval powers and elevates the hero Columbus who single-handedly proved the earth's spherical shape. This misconception is prevalent even today, and has been taught in schools for a long time.
Although the myth has been ascribed to Washington Irving's novel, the idea that the medieval world was flat may have been in circulation long before 1828. In this blogpost, I will look at an excerpt from Adam of Bremen's Gesta Hamaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, written in the 1070s, which may show us one of the sources for the idea of a flat medieval earth.
The excerpt in question describes a voyage into the deep northern waters for the purpose of finding out whether there was any solid land beyond Iceland (which is described as the world's outermost region, even further away than Greenland and Vinland). Eventually, the expedition reaches the northern waters and discover that the world is covered by a thick fog, and after a while they reach the end of the earth where there is a deep chasm in which water flows in and out. This is the fount of tides, according to Adam of Bremen. Since it was still unknown in the 11th century that the moon affected the tides and ebbs of the earth, it was believed that the tide was caused by the ocean issuing out of this great abyss. The excerpt is found in book four, chapter 39. The following is my own translation, and it can be checked against the Latin text. I have also used, as a corrective reference, the translation into Norwegian by Bjørg Tosterud Danielsen and Anne Katrine Frihagen from 1993.
Thereafter passing on this side Denmark and on the other side Britain they arrived at the Orkneys, which they kept on their left side when passing, having Norway on the right side and assembled after a long voyage at the frozen Iceland. From this point they plowed the waters into the furthermost region of the seven stars [i.e. the Arctic], and after a while they put behind them all the islands that could be seen - of which I have spoken above - and commending their brave journey unto the omnipotent God and the blessed confessor Willehad, they then were plunged into this dark mist of the frozen waters, which the eyes could penetrate only with great difficulty. And lo: the unstable channel of the ocean returning to the hidden beginning of its source, and the unfortunate, despairing sailors - indeed, imagining death only - were drawn with a most forceful urge towards chaos [it is said to be the chasm of the bowels of the earth] [sic.], [towards] this deep in which, rumour has it when the sea seems to withdraw, all the seas return and are then swallowed up and again spewed back up from whence they are said to have sprung. When these sailors now solely implored the merciful God to receive their spirits, the force of this returning sea washed some of the ships away, while others were repelled by the flowing water and brought back a long way behind the rest. And after they had been liberated from this present danger, which their eyes clearly saw, by help of the favourable God, with great strength they took to the oars to help the escape.
What is interesting to my purpose here is the idea of a great chasm at the end of the world. This image, sailors falling off an edge and into the deep unknown, is emblematic of how the idea of the medieval flat earth has been represented. However, Adam of Bremen is not talking about a flat earth, he is talking about a chasm in the Arctic from which water issues and is drawn back, thus creating those mysterious tides. The chasm in itself, as any discerning reader will note, does not and can not suggest a flat earth, for if it did the water that went into the chasm could not be regurgitated from it. Elsewhere in his work, it is also very clear that Adam operates with a spherical world, as he refers to the British sea which runs into the Arctic and covers the whole world - not in the sense that it flows to the edges of the world and then falls into the void, but in the sense that it runs around the globe.
When considering this excerpt from Adam's Gesta hamaburgensis, it is easy to see a possible origin for the idea that medieval men and women thought the world was flat. If the anecdote about the Frisian sailors who toppled into the chasm at the end of the world entered folklore and became one of those stories of imprecise and unknown origin, you don't need many steps before the regurgitating chasm is replaced by a cosmic void. Of course, we don't know that this confusion has taken place, and I'm certainly not saying that Adam is the source for Washington Irving's misconception, but the anecdote nonetheless illustrates those potential misunderstandings which become so ingrained in public consciousness as to morph into factoids.
Courtesy of this website