And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

fredag 15. august 2014

That Catholic Round World - flat earth as counter-medievalism

JESPER BAILIFF: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, let us talk of something else. That is some disturbed nonsense, it can make you Catholic in the head
- Ludvig Holberg, Erasmus Montanus (Act 3, Scene 2) (my translation)

Ludvig Holberg, c.1747 by Johan Roselius
Courtesy of this website
One of the most pernicious myths about the Middle Ages remains the idea that medieval people held the earth to be flat. This myth was perhaps most famously propagated in a 19th-century novel about Columbus, where the belief in a flat earth was deployed as a foil to enhance Columbus' intrepid greatness as an explorer and trailblazer. The belief in the medieval belief in a flat earth has stuck resiliently to the collective consciousness, and even today it lingers more strongly than medievalists would like to think.

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of the flat earth myth. In a previous blogpost I offered a possible source for the idea that this was a medieval conviction, but the trajectory is difficult to map. However, in this blogpost, I want to present a very curious case from the 18th century, in which the idea that the earth is flat is presented as a firmly Protestant idea, and in which the idea of a round earth is frowningly labelled Catholic (and as such practically medieval), and also Atheist. (The tendency to conflate Atheism and Catholicism in Protestant countries reaches back to the 16th century.) The case in question is fictional, as it comes from the comedy Erasmus Montanus, written by the Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg in 1722-23. However, despite the fictionality of the story, the way the roundness of the earth is treated is a funny and unusual affair, and one that I as a medievalist find very pleasing. The translations of the quotes from Danish are all mine.

Scene from Erasmus Montanus
Wilhelm Marstrand (1810-73)
Courtesy of this website
The plot of the comedy is the homecoming of Rasmus Berg who has been studying in Copenhagen and there taken the Latinised name Erasmus Montanus. Upon his return, he starts exercising his prowess as a debater and both proves and disproves that his mother is a stone. It all goes wrong when he claims that the earth is round, because his fellow villagers can all see that the earth is "as flat as a pancake", and to claim otherwise is "disturbed nonsense" which "can make one Catholic in the head" (act 3, scene 2). It is further remarked that to believe in a round earth "is nothing else than turn all religion on the head and lead people away from faith. A heathen can not preach worse" (act 3, scene 4). By defending his words and beliefs for the glory of philosophy, Erasmus Montanus antagonises his father-in-law-to-be and various other persons of note. When Erasmus tries to prove the roundness of the earth by various scientific observations, he is met with scorn bred from common sense, and the bailiff comments that Erasmus "is quite close to become an Atheist" (act 3, scene 5). The debate enrages his father-in-law-to-be so much that he ends the bethrotal between his daughter and Erasmus on the grounds that his family has always been good Christian people. In the end Erasmus is tricked into enrolment in the army by a local lieutenant, and to escape from this predicament he rescinds his opinions and professes loudly and desperately that the earth "is as flat as a pancake".

Erasmus Montanus disputing with a local parson
Wilhelm Marstrand, 1843
Courtesy of this website
In 1722 when Holberg wrote Erasmus Montanus, Denmark had been Protestant for almost two centuries. It is therefore difficult to tell whether Catholicism was still seen as something of the old order, something of the very distant past, or something whose presence in Denmark was seen as newfangled and novel. Traditionally in Protestant countries around this period, Catholicism is seen as a vestige of an old world, an ancient superstition, an echo from a dark age. This view is made very clear, for instance, in John Milton's Paradise Lost, where the fallen Adam witnesses the future history of mankind up to the point of salvation and the second coming. We can't tell whether this was also how Holberg's fictional farmers, bailiffs and lieutenants would have seen things, and therefore we don't know whether the round earth is considered an ancient superstition, or a newfangled invention of the universities. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see a feature so widely regarded as belonging to the Catholic Middle Ages as the flat earth presented as a Protestant tenet, and as such counter-medieval (although of course Holberg himself does not suggest this). It is a useful reference for people who still believe that men and women in the Middle Ages held the world to be flat as a pancake.

The steadfastness of Erasmus Montanus
Wilhelm Marstrand, before 1869
Courtesy of this website

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