This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Despite what commentators as diverse as Ira Gershwin and Barack Obama would have you believe, Christopher Columbus did not discover that the world was round. That honour goes to Aristotle, who in about 330 BC first postulated a globe-shaped earth at the centre of a spherical universe. James Hannam’s The Globe takes us on a whirlwind 2,000-year tour d’horizon of how the counter-intuitive theory of a round world became accepted as scientific fact.
Hannam brings us first to ancient Babylon, Egypt and Persia to explain the most widely accepted theory both before and after Aristotle: the disc-shaped earth. A dizzyingly rapid condensation of several centuries of Greek theorising then ensues, leading to Aristotle and the experiments of Eratosthenes of Cyrene (c.276–c.195 BC). He famously proved the globe theory by estimating the circumference of the earth using nothing more than the sun, several sticks and a bit of trigonometry.
Subsequent chapters explore the cosmologies of ancient Rome, China, India, Sasanian Persia, and various Jewish and Muslim scholars. We learn of the Chinese four-cornered earth, the way in which Vedic scholars of India first justified the concept of a round earth because it improved the accuracy of their ritual calendar, and how colonisers of various sorts used the flat-earth cosmologies of New World civilisations as “proof” of their unenlightened status.
The book ends as rapidly as it began, with an account of the flat literary worlds created by the medievalists-turned-fantasy authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, in order to make a point about our modern tendency to condescend to historical people whose worldviews we find uncongenial or difficult to understand.
Hannam’s narrative is at its most illuminating when discussing the wide acceptance of the spherical earth theory in the European Middle Ages. Far from the drooling, dogma-blinded pantomime bigots invented by the “Enlightenment” to shame their forebears, mediaeval thinkers were keen cosmologists who by and large had read their Aristotle. Some, such as Bede in the 7th century, arrived at similar conclusions on their own. Take that, Gershwin.
Whilst readers will encounter some familiar names (Augustine, Aquinas and Dante all figure in the section on the High Middle Ages), Hannam takes care to expand his evidence beyond the rarefied preserves of mediaeval academia. After all, it’s one thing to show that the impossibly learned St Thomas Aquinas knew the world was round, quite another to demonstrate that the proverbial mediaeval peasant-in-the-street did.
Christopher Columbus thought it was pear-shaped, apparently
Hannam makes the best of the limited evidence, weaving 13th century French didactic poems, popular travel accounts and contemporary maps into a cohesive narrative. Whilst it might be true that the only thing we know for certain about the 14th century traveller “Sir John Mandeville” is that he was not named Sir John Mandeville, his bestselling account of his journeys to India, China and the Middle East is an important indication that his middlebrow audience was well aware of the spherical nature of the earth.
Christopher Columbus gets rather short shrift. Hannam gleefully skewers the historical truism that the Genoese navigator told 16th century Europe something it didn’t know already. In fact, “about the only European who didn’t think the earth was spherical was none other than Christopher Columbus himself”. He thought it was pear-shaped, apparently.
The Globe ranges widely over both time and place. The sheer profusion of names and concepts might occasionally leave the casual reader searching for a flat surface on which to lie down. Nevertheless, it is a tribute to his vast (though lightly worn) erudition that Hannam has been able to encapsulate such a variety of historical sources into an enjoyable, fast-paced narrative. Those whose scholarly appetites have been whetted can consult the comprehensive and well-chosen bibliography for follow-up reading.
The lasting value of The Globe is not its whistle-stop tour of historical cosmologies, but its neat summary (and dismissal) of the “alleged conflict” between religion and science, and between the world-views of people past and present. Though the dismissal is perhaps a little too neat — not least because the so-called conflict is a whole genre of books in itself — Hannam nevertheless argues persuasively. We ought not cast aspersions on people of the past for not being aware of things we know now — especially when those things are as “divorced from common sense” and everyday experience as the theory of a spherical earth. Read this way, The Globe is as much an indictment of our lazy and self-satisfied readings of the past as it is a rollicking scientific-historical adventure.
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