It is often suggested today that Columbus was a scientist who was opposed by the religious establishment who believed that the world was flat. While this creates an exciting tale, and Columbus has been treated by some in the West as either the great villain or the great intellectual hero, in reality, his opponents before his voyage were probably correct, and he was lucky that an unknown landmass (the Americas) lay between him and Asia.
In reality, it had long been known that the earth was a sphere; in fact, it had been proven by Ptolemy before the Christian era. This was both known and accepted by the intellectual class of the time, including the monastic schools, and was largely uncontroversial. Before Kepler, Ptolemy was largely accepted because it matched the observations available, and expectations people had from the Aristotelian physics that were accepted at the time. (One real reason why the Copernicus revolution did not happen immediately is because the revolution is misnamed, it should be the Keplarian revolution. Before Kepler, Copernicus’s writings did not provide a system that better matched the observations of universe than did Ptolemy’s, this will be discussed later with our discussion of Galileo).
So why was there a controversy over Columbus’s voyage that included churchmen, particularly learned churchmen? The question was not the roundness of the earth, but the distance of the earth’s circumference. Columbus thought the Earth to be much smaller than was thought by the churchmen, and for that matter much smaller than it actually is. This created a problem for the ships that were available in Columbus’s day – the trip around the earth was such that it was believed impossible to carry sufficient supplies for the journey. Ironically, the error made by the church in this regard was an oversight made by Columbus as well – no one thought of the possibility of a large landmass between Europe and Asia, something that would actually prove to be Columbus’s salvation.
History is often stranger than fiction, often our assumptions about the past are unjustified. Worse still, often modern myths are created because there is value for the propagandist.
Further reading: C S Lewis – The Discarded Image; Philip J Sampson 6 Modern Myths about Christianity and Western Civilization.