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The Earth is Round?

By JA Belanger.

What, round like a ball?

Sacrobosco's De Sphaera

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

While it is not as common now, the misconception that all medieval people did not know the world was round used to be quite popular. Sometimes, this misconception was extended to include all pre-modern peoples, but that was rarer.




It is quite easy to disprove this misconception. There are many medieval depictions and descriptions of a round Earth. Just to name three: in the 8th Century work The Reckoning of Time, St Bede the Venerable stated: “For not without reason is it called ‘the orb of the world’.” In St Hildegard von Bingen’s 12 Century Work of God, there is a clear illustration of a round Earth. In the 13th Century, Johannes de Sacrobosco also depicts a round Earth in his aptly named On the Sphere of the World.


It is also no coincidence that all three examples I have given are members of religious communities, two monks and one nun. This was not a situation where the scientific community knew that the world was round and was repressed by a rigid, overly dogmatic religious community.

And yet, despite all this, in 1893, Professor Orlando Ferguson of South Dakota, USA, produced this map, with the words "Four hundred passages in the Bible condemn the Globe Theory or the Flying Earth."

That's lack of progress for you.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

It is not clear why this myth became so prevalent, unlike the myth discussed in my previous article, Did Premodern People Die at a Young Age? . I can offer my own personal speculations; however, they would still be only speculations.


First, it seems to be used as a common insult towards whoever a person does not like. And reaching for simple insult is quite common.


I do have a second speculation. While I do not claim to have invented the idea, I do not hear it talked about. Possibly that is because it is rather complicated.


In the early Christian Church, there was a discussion on whether there could be uncontactable people living at the antipodes of the world, and it was determined that there could not be.


But the key point of the argument is that the people living at the antipodes “are not able to be contacted” (thus cannot hear the Word of God), not that the physical antipodes themselves do not exist. For someone who may not be familiar with the argument, it is not hard to see how a misunderstanding could happen.


But what would history be like if this misconception was true? Whether it be because the knowledge was lost, or the ancients just never discovered that the world is round. To keep the timeline going, I am going to assume that for whatever reason, Europeans never discover the world is round until they literally sail around the world.




It is the mid-16th Century; European trade stretches all over the known world. The longest known trade route, sailing around of Cape of Good Hope to China, is travelled regularly, but is dangerous. Many falsely claim that the only thing a veteran sailor fears is falling off the edge of the world. However, any good sailor knows that this would be impossible. If they could sail over the edge, then the water of the oceans would have fallen long ago. There must be some wall preventing that from happening.




For the past thirty years, tales of islands in the far west, sparsely populated by “primitives”, have been coming from Basque and Breton fishing ships. The kings of Europe paid little heed to these tales. The supposed islands are too far away and do not seem to provide any gain to their kingdoms except fish, which the fishermen are already taking. However, a group of missionaries had arrived on these mysterious islands. They had set up a small settlement and begun learning the native’s language and customs. As the natives teach the missionaries, the missionaries teach the natives about Christianity.


Not long after the missionaries established themselves, horrible diseases broke out among the native tribes. The missionaries tried to help, but there was very little that they could do. Those that survived were fully incorporated into the mission’s settlement since there were not enough of them to survive on their own. But even together, the winters were harsh and difficult.


Not understanding that they were the ones bringing the disease, the missionaries often tried to expand their teaching to the nearby unexplored landmasses. Often, the missionaries requested for more help from Europe, but it never came. Religious conflict had erupted all over Europe; there was no help to spare.


Two generations later, the religious conflict has died down. Europe had become divided into two different groups; the old Catholics and the new Reformers. Now the islands on the edge of the world offered a unique opportunity. The kings could now compete for who can convert the most souls to their preferred type of religion. Missionaries were sent by the score.


The Danes and other Scandinavian countries tried to cut everyone else out of the game by claiming that the islands were already rightfully theirs. Their claim came from the mentions of fabled western lands in the old sagas. Weaker countries, such as Spain, which was on the verge of financial collapse, were dissuaded from continuing. Others, such as England and France, were not deterred. The Scandinavian countries were not powerful enough to frighten them, and a new, large nearby island had just been discovered by the missionaries.


The new island turned out to be a whole continent, and all filled with people who did not know Christianity. Exploration west was difficult; a large mountain range and expansive forest blocked the way. However, if one was to go south, they could follow the coast. England and France both staked their claims on the more populated mainland. There they often found stories of a terrible plague that had wrecked the lives of the native’s grandfathers.


England and France would begin to import furs, tobacco, beans, potatoes, squash, and many other things from the New Land, although Europeans would be slow to adopt the new crops. The furs did prove to be valuable enough to justify establishing some trading posts.


For another century or so, not much else developed in the New World. The missionaries were established and there was little reason to invest more. Few Europeans cared to venture to the New World beyond outcasts, adventurers, and missionaries. Diseases still ravaged the natives, but the epidemics would become less common in areas which were firmly established by the missionaries.


The native’s populations were beginning to recover, and with the help and interventions of their various European “protectors”, they began to rebuild their civilisations.


All of this changed when adventurers reached further south. Firstly, they found the ruins of a fallen civilisation. Those who now lived in that area called the haunted ruins the “Mēxihcah”. The Europeans ignored the local warnings and explored the ruins. There they found gold, more gold than any of them could have imagined. It was this discovery that recaptured Europe's attention. Mexican fever caught the imagination of both young and old. The kings' courts even began to model their decorative motifs after them.

Up to this point, European nations had a rather hands-off approach to the New World. The trade was nice, but it was nothing to lose sleep over. Recently, some enterprising settlers had started to grow sugar in warmer areas, such as the gulf islands, but this had only just begun. Now England, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden all competed for Mexican gold, and they divided the area.


With all the explorers hunting around for the lost Mexican Gold Mines, the theory that the New World was the barrier of the flat Earth was disproven, and a whole new ocean was discovered on the western side. And Brazil, a land the Portuguese had found by accidently being blown off course, was also rediscovered.


In the south extremes of the New World, the Catalan and Portuguese finally met a people who could fight back against Europeans. There had been a few rebellions against European protectionism, most notably by the Haudenosaunee after their population recovered from the plagues. They were only able to compete because they had adopted European technology, but since they could not produce the technology themselves, there was only so much they could do.


The Inca were different. While they would use firearms when they could, their armies were more organised and they waged a guerilla campaign in the mountains for many years before they were defeated.




It took a long time for the west side of the New Continent to be explored, even after the Pacific Ocean was proven to exist. As it was being explored, the east coast became more developed. Crop plantations would grow throughout the New World. These plantations would be locally run by the native protectorates. Then the protectorates would sell the crop as tribute to their European protectors.




As the 19th Century came in, the Southern Continent was discovered. Many ships would attempt to map the coast of the continent, attempting to find some habitable area.


Many of those ships were lost before one finally returned with a stunning discovery. They sailed west from Cape Horn with a month’s supply of food and water. Halfway through that month, they lost most of their supplies in a storm. Unable to even make it back to Cape Horn with what they had left and with nothing to lose, they pushed on. When starvation set in, they made the contemporarily controversial decision to hunt whales for food, as there was little else.

Whaling. Not a lot of fun for anyone.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

They survived off of the whales, eating the meat, using the oil for heat, and drinking melted snow for almost two months. And then to everyone’s surprise, after another storm had blown them too far north, they found land. Specifically, they found the Cape of Good Hope.


Many found their tale impossible. If they had sailed west from Cape Horn and arrived at the Cape of Good Hope, that would mean the world would have to be round!




Bede. The Reckoning of Time. Liverpool University Press, 1999.





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Joe Belanger is the author of the young adult series on the post-Arthurian myth, The Pendragonling.





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