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I've heard it numerous times, that in the old days people thought that the world was flat. Most commonly I heard this in connection with the voyage of Columbus, that he believed the earth to be a sphere while most other people thought he must fail to reach India as the world is flat.

Is there any direct evidence, e.g. written documents, that shows when people first knew that the earth is a sphere? And since when was this common knowledge in the educated population?

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    See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myth_of_the_flat_earth which is about exactly this (the myth that a belief in a flat earth existed). Feel free to improve. Mar 14, 2011 at 14:21
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    It is worth pointing out that while people in the middle ages (and even long before then) did know that the earth was round, extremely early civilizations did assume the Earth flat. Your question hints at this, but most of the answers do not. Mar 28, 2011 at 15:24
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    It was known as far back as ancient Greece that the Earth was a sphere, what's more they even managed to come up with a pretty good estimate of its size. Whether it was common knowledge or just known to the intellectual elite of the time (and presumably of subsequent times) is another matter.
    – GordonM
    Oct 17, 2016 at 12:09
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    There is a point here that I think is being missed. It would be completely normal for someone without any education to assume that the earth is flat. It's only when a modicum of science is introduced that it becomes obvious that the earth is round. Oct 5, 2021 at 13:36
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    The people with no education (which was the vast majority of people) contributed no written documents to serve as evidence. When you say "people thought..." do you mean only the very small educated class?
    – GEdgar
    Oct 5, 2021 at 15:39

10 Answers 10

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According to Dr Karl, it was known that the earth was a sphere as far back as Aristotle. The three reasons were:

  • The top of the mast being sighted before the rest of the ship
  • Lunar eclipses always throwing a circular shadow
  • The rising of the high point of certain constellations as one travels further south

The scientists thought Columbus's voyage would fail, not because they thought the earth was flat, but rather because he would have to travel 20000 nautical miles, rather than 5000.

So, for the last 2500 years, in Europe and in the Middle East, the flat-earthers were in a very small minority. At least, this is what the historian Jeffrey Burton Russell, of the University of California at Santa Barbara, reckons.

His book, In Inventing the Flat Earth, claims that since the third century BC, practically all educated people in the western world believed in a spherical earth.

Looking as a historian into the historical record, he found tens of thousands of Christian theologians, poets, artists and scientists who believed that the earth was a sphere.

On the other hand, he could find only five Christian authorities who believed in a flat earth.

The Straight Dope also discussed this.

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    "...practically all educated people in the western world..." However the majority of people in the western world at that time were most likely not educated.
    – morganpdx
    Mar 7, 2011 at 18:40
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    And Columbus' voyage would have failed, were it not for the New World being in the same spot where Columbus thought he would find Asia.
    – dan04
    Mar 17, 2011 at 5:40
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    actually, the new world wasn't where he'd thought to find Asia, it was quite a bit further west :) He'd made a major error in calculating the size of the planet (possibly because of getting references to ancient Greek and Ptolemaeic measures wrong).
    – jwenting
    Mar 21, 2011 at 12:27
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    The use of an orb with a cross (globus cruciger) at the coronation of Christian monarchs for the last 1600 years is evidence that both the religious and the secular state thought the world was a sphere. Images of this (e.g. on coins) would have spread the idea to the less educated.
    – Henry
    Mar 24, 2011 at 16:46
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    Also, Dante's Divine Comedy, written 1308-1321, provides a complete Medieval cosmology based on the Ptolemaic model. It includes a round Earth, with Hell at the center. Jun 14, 2011 at 2:12
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According to historian James Hannam, the trope that the people in the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat was created in the 19th Century.

It is not difficult to see how the story of Columbus was adapted so that he became the figure of progress rather than a lucky man who profited from his error. According to Jeffrey Burton Russell here, the invention of the flat Earth myth can be laid at the feet of the nineteenth century writer Washington Irving, who included it in his historical novel on Columbus, and the wider idea that the everyone in the Middle Ages was deluded has been widely accepted ever since.

The Real Flat Earthers

The myth that Christians in the Middle Ages thought the world was flat was given a massive boost by Andrew Dickson White's weighty tome The Warfare of Science with Theology published in 1896. This book has become something of a running joke among historians of science and it is dutifully mentioned as a prime example of misinformation in the preface of most modern works on science and religion. The flat Earth is discussed in chapter 2 and one can almost sense White's confusion that hardly any of the sources support his hypothesis that Christians widely believed in it. He finds himself grudgingly admitting that St Clement, Origen, St Ambrose, St Augustine, St Isodore, St Albertus Magnus and St Thomas Aquinas all accepted the Earth was a globe - in other words none of the great doctors of the church had considered the matter in doubt. Although an analysis of what White actually says suggests he was aware that the flat Earth was largely a myth, he certainly gives an impression of ignorant Christians suppressing rational knowledge of its real shape.

Here is the link that Hannam is referring to. In it Jeffrey Burton Russell writes:

In my research, I looked to see how old the idea was that medieval Christians believed the earth was flat. I obviously did not find it among medieval Christians. Nor among anti-Catholic Protestant reformers. Nor in Copernicus or Galileo or their followers, who had to demonstrate the superiority of a heliocentric system, but not of a spherical earth. I was sure I would find it among the eighteenth-century philosophes, among all their vitriolic sneers at Christianity, but not a word. I am still amazed at where it first appears.

No one before the 1830s believed that medieval people thought that the earth was flat.

The idea was established, almost contemporaneously, by a Frenchman and an American, between whom I have not been able to establish a connection, though they were both in Paris at the same time. One was Antoine-Jean Letronne (1787-1848), an academic of strong antireligious prejudices who had studied both geography and patristics and who cleverly drew upon both to misrepresent the church fathers and their medieval successors as believing in a flat earth, in his On the Cosmographical Ideas of the Church Fathers (1834). The American was no other than our beloved storyteller Washington Irving (1783-1859), who loved to write historical fiction under the guise of history. His misrepresentations of the history of early New York City and of the life of Washington were topped by his history of Christopher Columbus (1828). It was he who invented the indelible picture of the young Columbus, a "simple mariner," appearing before a dark crowd of benighted inquisitors and hooded theologians at a council of Salamanca, all of whom believed, according to Irving, that the earth was flat like a plate. Well, yes, there was a meeting at Salamanca in 1491, but Irving's version of it, to quote a distinguished modern historian of Columbus, was "pure moonshine. Washington Irving, scenting his opportunity for a picturesque and moving scene," created a fictitious account of this "nonexistent university council" and "let his imagination go completely...the whole story is misleading and mischievous nonsense."

You can see Aquinas - who lived in the 13th Century - referring to the sun lighting up the "hemisphere" at Question 67 of the Summa Theologica, which is evidence that it was a commonplace understanding that the Earth was a sphere at that time. [Interestingly, Aquinas disputes that light is a body on the grounds that the movement of light cannot be discerned at large distances. His reasoning is impeccable; his measuring instruments were insufficient; his conclusion was wrong.]

In case the quotes from Aquinas seem too indirect, here is a far less quote from a respected authority, Bede the Venerable, from more than 500 years earlier:

The Earth is a sphere, set in the middle of the universe. It is not circular like a shield or spread out like a wheel, but looks round, like a ball.

This plaque with that quote has been on open display in the British Library: bede quote from British Library

Bede was a well known Benedictine Monk, teacher and scholar in 7th and 8th century Northumbria, known as "the father of English history" for writing Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He was very well known across Europe in his lifetime so it is unlikely that his view on the shape of the earth was unknown or aberrant for the time.

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    I find this source highly suspect. In the article guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2009/oct/22/… (titled 'How catholics must fight back'), he makes his pro-religion and pro-catholic stance very clear. A quote from the link used in the article I obviously did not find it among medieval Christians. Notice how the word obvious is used. The quoted text is mainly aimed at showing how pro-science the Church and Christians have been. For this reason, I think the source is inherently biased.
    – apoorv020
    Apr 21, 2011 at 14:49
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    As for Aquinas, I think "the whole hemisphere" relates to the apparent skydome hemisphere. I cannot see how words the lighting of the earth hemisphere could be used as an example of light being instantaneous. It seems just to describe that in the very moment the sun raises on east, even the west part of sky is lit.
    – Suma
    Apr 22, 2011 at 8:17
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    Hannam is a Catholic and a historian. Because of his religious perspective, he takes the time to vet statements and claim that have made their way into the modern culture, which in English-speaking countries tends to be hostile to the Catholic contribution to history, and which is prepared to believe nonsense like "people believed the world was flat." Hannam is, therefore, balance - the skeptic viewpoint - to the conventional wisdom. Apr 23, 2011 at 18:57
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    As for Aquinas, what he was referring to was that light appeared to be instantaneous because it lit up the entire "hemisphere." In Aquinas Question 67, Aquinas may be talking about the hemisphere of the sky, but it isn't clear that he isn't referring to the hemisphere of the Earth. In Question 54 of the First Part of Second Part, Article 2, reply to objection 2, Aquinas clearly refers to the earth being round. newadvent.org/summa/2054.htm#article2. See also 1a, Q 1, a1, newadvent.org/summa/1001.htm#1. The clear point being that Aquinas recognized the Earth was round. Apr 23, 2011 at 19:09
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    @apoorv020, perhaps he's biased, perhaps he's not. It doesn't actually matter. The question is whether he shows his sources. If he does, then it doesn't matter whether he's "biased". Either there's evidence to contradict him or there's not.
    – Kyralessa
    May 1, 2011 at 13:34
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Eratosthenes (276–195 BCE) is famous, among other things, for calculating the circumference of the Earth – which of course implies that the knowledge about Earth’s shape was available in his days.

In fact, his method of measuring Earth’s circumference is routinely taught in school today1 so it’s a bit surprising how many people still think that people in the middle age believed Earth to be flat.


1 At least in France and Germany it’s part of the standard curriculum of physics.

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    Devil's advocate: just because person X knew the Earth is round in 200 BCE, doesn't mean that everyone and his grandma knew the same in the middle ages. (Or know it today, for that matter.) Concrete and steam engines were invented thousands of years ago, too, but then the knowledge was lost for many, many centuries, and they had to get re-invented all over again.
    – RegDwight
    Mar 7, 2011 at 20:31
  • @Reg: true that. I wanted to add that his method of computing the circumference was widely hailed at the time (i.e. that it was widely known and acknowledged to work) but I couldn’t find a good source. Mar 7, 2011 at 20:34
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    Aristosthenes also believed that the Earth revolves around the sun along with the other planets, and it seems likely to me that Appolonius even understood that the orbits were elliptical with an area law (or at least off-center circles). This stuff was lost, probably due to the Bible's insistance on Babylonian cosmology. The Bible also insists that the Earth is flat, although this is easier to hide. the fact that ancient people knew stuff doesnt mean mideval people did.
    – Ron Maimon
    Mar 27, 2012 at 6:07
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    @Ron I’d like to see some good references on that one. Furthermore, even if Aristotles believed that his evidence may have been sketchy. While certain inferences about the orbits could be made by observing the stars, I think civilisation of Antiquity lacked fundamental pieces (both in understanding & technology, e.g. good telescopes) to make informed claims about this. In summary, I don’t think these two situations are comparable. Furthermore, if “that stuff was lost” how do you know about it? Was it re-discovered later? Mar 27, 2012 at 10:40
  • @KonradRudolph: The evidence for Aristarchus (sorry, not Aristosthenes, I mixed them up) knowing the Earth revolves around the sun is from Archimedes surviving "Sand Reckoner", where he uses this idea as the default position, in a way that strongly suggests he supports it. Appolonius and Archimedes were contemporaries working on similar things, and Appolonius develops the epicycle/equant system, which is known to be an Earth-centered approximation to an off-center circle (or ellipse) which is cited by Ptolmey in the Almaghest (Appolonius's work on this is destroyed).
    – Ron Maimon
    Mar 29, 2012 at 4:15
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There is an essay by the late Stephen Jay Gould, “The Late Birth of a Flat Earth”, that discusses this very question. In a nutshell, Gould traces back the myth that people in the Middle Ages thought the earth was flat to a 19th-century origin in the form of a fabricated textbook passage. The text is included in Gould’s 1995 collection of essays, Dinosaur in a Haystack.

Gould recounts a reconstruction of the flat-earth myth from a book by historian J.B. Russell, who traces the myth back to two 1870s books, by John Draper and Andrew D. White (founder of Cornell University), respectively, which argued for a continual, and ultimately winning, struggle of reason and science against the obscurantism of the Church. But, as Gould vividly explains, scholars from the Venerable Bede to Roger Bacon and Thomas Aquinas took a spherical earth entirely for granted. The upshot: neither Dark nor Middle Ages were quite as benighted as some stories would have them.

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About the fact the (educated) Middle Age people knew well that the Earth is spherical, let me add that the Earth Dante had in mind was indeed spherical, and in his Divine Comedy he describes precisely the moment in which, when he reaches the bottom of the Inferno, which is an enormous conical empty space having its vertex in the centre of the Earth, Dante goes through the centre of gravity of the planet and his "up" become his "down":

The Guide [Virgil] with labour and with hard-drawn breath
Turned round his head where he had had his legs,
And grappled to the hair [of Satan, who stands at the centre of the Earth], as one who mounts,
So that to Hell I thought we were returning.

(Inferno, XXXIV, 78--81, translation by Longfellow; see also the following lines).

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    This demonstrates that one writer knew of the concept in the 14th Century, enough to inspire a fictional work. Doesn't mean he believed it. Doesn't mean others did or didn't. Doesn't answer the question.
    – Oddthinking
    Nov 29, 2011 at 2:41
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    My answer, of course, doesn't "demonstrate" anything. Studying Dante's work and times does. The relevant literature is not exactly small: is this the right place to give it?
    – DaG
    Dec 4, 2011 at 16:21
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    If by "literature" you mean more English literature (as opposed to scientific literature) then I haven't managed to make my point, sorry. I am complaining about the quality of the literature, not the quantity. By analogy, I could produce a large quantity of literary texts that showed that, at the beginning of the 21st Century, people believed that a zombie invasion was imminent. Finding fictional work that mentions an idea doesn't mean many people are exposed to it or that many people believe it to be true. It doesn't even show the author believes it to be true.
    – Oddthinking
    Dec 4, 2011 at 22:15
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    @Oddthinking, Dante's aim was that to provide a unified view and a real and vivid description of heaven, purgatory and hell to the common man. While he clearly writes fiction, he is doing so with a pedagogic intent (similar to what Galilei does in the "Dialogue"). It is not exactly the same as zombie novels...
    – Sklivvz
    Apr 2, 2012 at 22:34
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    @Oddthinking see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_Comedy#Scientific_themes
    – Sklivvz
    Apr 2, 2012 at 22:36
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Myth of the Flat Earth I found this to be a very good source

We all know that Christopher Columbus encountered stiff resistance about his idea of sailing off West to try and reach the East Indies. Many of us have laboured under the impression that people were concerned that he would sail off the edge of the Earth which was widely believed to be flat. History is thought to have vindicated Columbus against those filled with the Christian superstition of a flat Earth who held on to old fashioned beliefs. A minority of people are even under the impression that Galileo's trial centred on the subject rather than whether the Earth orbited the sun.

It comes as some surprise, therefore, to find that Columbus was wrong and his critics were right - not because the world is actually flat after all, but because at the time everyone knew it was a globe and were arguing about how big it was. The idea that the uncouth people of the Middle Ages thought the Earth was flat is an example of the myth that has been propagated since the nineteenth century to give us a quite unfair view of this vibrant and exciting period."

[...]

In particular a committee set up in Salamanca examined the plans and rejected them on the grounds that Columbus had underestimated the distance he would have to travel.

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    Yes Columbus was wrong in his calculus while other detractors were right. But he discovered a new continent (though he thought it was India). Maybe we need stupid people that will undertake what intelligent ones will not dare.
    – Nikko
    Apr 2, 2012 at 15:54
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Eratosthenes of Cyrene (Wikipedia)

My man Carl Sagan tipped me off to this one in the Cosmos. If you haven't seen it, go watch it now! Youtube! Free and available to everyone because he was a beast!

I do think it was a generally accepted concept among those who cared to think about it before Eratosthenes, but he gets the credit for proving it.

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Aryabhata (476-550 AD), an Indian mathematician and astronomer, in his Aryabhatiyam used the word "Bhoo Gola (भूगोल​)" to refer to the Earth in which the word "भू (Bhoo)" means the earth and "गोल​ (Gola)" means a sphere or the globe.

In the introduction of the book, source[1] mentions that

The "गोलपाद (Gola Paada)" section of the Aryabhatiyam deals with the motion of the Sun, Moon, and the planets on the celestial sphere. It describes the various circles of the celestial sphere and indicates the method of automatically rotating the sphere once in twenty-four hours ; explains the motion of the Earth, Sun, Moon, and the planets; describes the motion of the celestial sphere as seen by those on the equator and by those on the north and south poles, and gives rules relating to the various problems of spherical astronomy. It also deals with the calculation and graphical representation of the eclipses and the visibility of the planet.

Aryabhata believed that the Earth rotates about its axis and calculated the period of one sidereal rotation of the Earth equal to be 23:56:4.1 while the modern value is 23.56:4.091

Sources :

  1. Aryabhatiya of Aryabhata by Kripa Shankar Shukla,1976, Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi

  2. Aryabhata - Wikipedia article

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    As this is 800 years after Aristotle - did Aryabhata's ideas come from Greek knowledge or was this a new discovery? Also what did Chinese astronomers think
    – mmmmmm
    Oct 5, 2021 at 10:47
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    @mmmmmm, as far as anyone can tell, a spherical Earth was a decidedly minority view among Chinese scholars.
    – Mark
    Oct 6, 2021 at 0:28
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Eratosthenes had proved the Earth was round and calculated its circumference to within 1% of its actual circumference (he calculated 1°, i.e. 1/360, of circumference to be 59.5 nautical (6076 ft) miles) in ~200BC and his writings were well known among educated people at the time (And since universities were still primarily religious and geared towards theology, this included the Church leadership). Columbus actually massively underestimated how far west Asia due to 2 mistakes:

  1. He preferred (because it was newer) the circumference calculated by the Persian geographer Alfraganus, who had calculated 1° to be 56.67 miles. However, he was using Arabic miles (7091 ft), which Columbus didn't know about, so he assumed that those were Roman (4856 ft) miles and thought that the Earth's circumference was 3/4 of its actual size.
  2. He "interpreted" Marco Polo to mean that Asia stretched 8000 miles further east than it actually did.

In combination, this made sailing West to Asia (without the Americas in the way) a workable proposition from a 101% suicide mission. After been repeatedly told that he's an idiot by people in the know, Columbus famously convinced queen Isabella of his idea and the rest, as they say, is history.

That's why, to his last breath, he refused to believe he had discovered a new continent, because that would make him a lucky fool and the continent is named America and not Columbia.

-1

While admiring the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights painted by the Dutch artist, Hieronymus Bosch, between 1490 and 1510, I was struck by the painting that is depicted on the outer panels, entitled The Creation of the World.

enter image description here

This grisaille represents the creation of the world on its third day before the sun, moon, and stars were created and before the world was populated with animals and humans. In the painting, we see that the earth is made up of land and water and its flat surface is covered with vegetation. The world is indeed shaped like a sphere but the hemisphere–or the top dome– represents the celestial sky while the lower hemisphere appears to be a solid mass. I am attempted to propose that Bosch painted the earth disc floating on top of the ocean as it's clear a body of water surrounds the terrain. However, it's difficult to tell, and I couldn't find any detailed description that either confirmed or rejected my interpretation.

Wikipedia says

The Earth is encapsulated in a transparent sphere recalling the traditional depiction of the created world as a crystal sphere held by God or Christ. It hangs suspended in the cosmos, which is shown as an impermeable darkness, whose only other inhabitant is God himself. […]
Surrounding the interior of the globe is the sea, partially illuminated by beams of light shining through clouds.

Those rays of sunlight, would have been impossible as the Bible claims that God created the sun on the 4th day, instead the light mimics the reflection of a glass/crystal ball, the ‘beams of light’ give the globe a convincing three dimensional appearance similar to the transparent globe that artists depicted in the hand of Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World).

enter image description here
Source: Detail from Christ as Salvator Mundi by Andrea Previtali (1519)

Conclusion

Today it is poplar to debunk the claim that people in the medieval age ever believed that the world was flat.

Indeed, in a presentation summarizing his book ‘Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians,’ (1991) [Professor] Russell states:
No one before the 1830s believed that medieval people thought that the Earth was flat.

Nevertheless, there are pictorial representations during the 15th century that suggest otherwise. The Earth is represented as a flat disc albeit trapped in a sphere.

Moreover, does the horizontal band present in the orb, represent the Earth as a flat disc? Does the line symbolise the two hemispheres of the world; the land and sky? Why does the vertical band, which is topped by a cross, only begin halfway? These are the questions I am asking myself for which I have not found any satisfactory answers.

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  • This does not answer the question on when people first knew that the world was a sphere. The question is asking how long has the knowledge been around not if everyone in the middle ages thought if the world was a sphere or flat.
    – Joe W
    Jan 23 at 17:02
  • @JoeW It answers the original question before it was edited in 2021 Did people think the Earth was flat? but it also challenges the emphatic assertion that has been quoted several times: “no one before 1830s believed that medieval people thought the Earth was flat”.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 23 at 17:48
  • @JoeW This answers the Q “And since when was this common knowledge in the educated population?" If it was common knowledge then why did Bosch depict the world as a flat disc? Why did painters paint the orb as a crystal in the 16th century? And I never suggested that everyone in the Middle Ages thought the world was either a sphere or flat.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 23 at 17:51
  • If that was really the case I think someone else would have provided a similar in the roughly 11 years since this question was asked. Yet all the answers appear to be on showing examples of people who discovered the earth was round rather then examples that might show they thought it was flat. The painting you referenced could have been a stylistic choice or it could have been a belief choice but I see no evidence in your answer to say either way. Even ignoring that this doesn't show what wide spread belief was at the time or if anyone really thought much about it.
    – Joe W
    Jan 23 at 18:47
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    This doesn't answer the question "How early did people know it was a sphere?" It purports to answer the question "How late did people still think it was flat?" It fails to make that point because it relies on symbolic art which doesn't purport to convey a literal truth.
    – Oddthinking
    Jan 24 at 4:33

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