Has Thomas Friedman Fallen for the Columbus Myth?
Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN and the author of several books about the myths of history, including, Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History.
Thomas Friedman, the NYT columnist, is selling his newest book with a clever title: The World Is Flat. A summary of his argument was featured in the NYT Magazine on April 2, 2005.
In the article he reiterates one of the most common assumptions about Columbus. Namely, that Columbus, by sailing west to go east, proved"definitively that the world was round." Friedman doesn't say that Columbus proved the world is round. He hedges. He says proved"definitively" the world is round, as if to indicate that some people, perhaps many people, thought the world was round but didn't know for sure. But it's essential for his argument that Columbus did something about proving the world was round. Otherwise the columnist's metaphor--and he loves his metaphors--falls flat. It works only because people generally believe that it was a momentous event in history that we discovered in the 15th century that the world was round. Now in the 21st century we are discovering it's flat. Ha!
But we didn't discover the world was round in the 15th century. Whether Friedman knows the truth or not and it's hard to say because he so artfully hedges his statement by including that little modifier, definitively, it is well known among scholars that the Columbus story is, as they say, pure moonshine. As Professor Jeffrey Burton Russell explained in his book, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (Praeger, 1991),"there were no skeptics" in the 15th century about the world's sphericity."All educated people throughout Europe knew the earth's spherical shape and its approximate circumference. This fact has been well established by historians for more than half a century."
Of course, not all historians know that the myth, which has been traced to Washington Irving's biography of Columbus, has been decisively exploded. The late librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, included the myth in all its glory in his 1983 book, The Discoverers. He even had a theory to explain why Europeans were so dumb as to believe the earth was flat when the ancients had proved it was round. They were the victims, he wrote, of the"Great Interruption," a"Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia [which] ... afflicted the continent from A.D. 300 to at least 1300."
Does Thomas Friedman know the truth? Perhaps someone can ask him and let us know.
Footnote #1: In the opening chapter of his book Friedman relates that Columbus headed to the Indies in search of spices, among other things. This is yet another myth, as HNN debunked here in the fall of 2004.
Footnote #2: In one of the stories on the Pope's funeral, the Toronto Star managed to bring up the flat earth myth. A story published on April 7, 2005 claimed:
In the 2nd century AD, Ptolemy, an Egyptian astronomer, proved mathematically what everyone had thought: The Earth was a globe. Except the early Church wanted it to be flat, with Jerusalem at the centre, like the hole in a CD, and so it became for more than a thousand years. The historian Daniel Boorstin called this"the Great Forgetting."
And so the myth goes on.
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Vince Treacy - 4/18/2005
On Sunday, April 3, 2005, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published an article, “It's a Flat World, After All,“ by Thomas L. Friedman, which began with the words
“In 1492 Christopher Columbus set sail for India, going west. He had the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. He never did find India, but he called the people he met ‘Indians' and came home and reported to his king and queen: ‘The world is round.’''
I sent a letter to the editors:
To the Editor of the New York Times Magazine:
On April 3, 2005, Thomas Friedman wrote in his article "It's a Flat World, After All," that Columbus reported to his king and queen that "the world is round.'' Friedman repeats one of the oldest myths in American history, a legend that rivals the tale of George Washington and the cherry tree. Columbus and his sailors did not believe that the Earth was flat, nor did the King and Queen of Spain. They all knew the world was a globe, from the shape of the Earth during lunar eclipses. Aristotle and Eratosthenes had discerned this 1,800 years earlier.
The church taught that the Earth was a globe, but argued that the Sun revolved around it. The real question at issue was the size of the Earth, not its shape. Columbus thought the globe was small enough to reach China and the east by a relatively short voyage, while others correctly argued that the Earth was too large for such a voyage to be practical. They were right, but Columbus found America rather than Asia. Columbus did not prove the Earth was round, and no one feared sailing off the edge.
The flat-Earth myth was exposed by J.B. Russell in his book, Inventing the Flat Earth. James W. Loewen, in his book, Lies Across America, traced the legend to a fable by Washington Irving in 1828.
My letter was not fit to print and received only automated replies.
I also wrote a letter on April 6th to the Public Editor appointed in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal to act as ombudsman.
Dear Public Editor:
The New York Times Magazine on April 3 published an article by Tom Friedman opening with the statement that Columbus reported that the world was round. This is a false statement of fact. Columbus and his men never believed the earth was flat and neither did the authorities at the time. I have pointed this out in letters to the editors of the Magazine and of the Editorial Page (which posted the article on its website).
I am writing separately to you because of the wider implications. Why is the Times propagating false historical information? Why is it portraying myth as fact? Why not require the writer to state correctly that "legend has it that Columbus proved the earth was round"?
This is just appalling. Everyone believes that "Columbus proved the earth was round," but now they will believe it more because it is printed in the Times.
The story started as a fable in the 19th Century, then was exposed as fiction in the 20th. Now, the Times has restored it to fact in the 21st.
I recall that J.B. Russell's book, Inventing the Flat Earth, was reviewed in the New York Times by Peter Steinfels when it was first published in 1991, and that Steinfels wrote a full article exploding the myth. This legend should not be news to the Times.
The book is Inventing the flat earth : Columbus and modern historians, by Jeffrey Burton Russell, foreword by David Noble, published by Praeger, New York, 1991.
Then, I got a little impatient with the Times, and sent them another, sort of testy, letter:
Dear Public Editor:
I have written earlier about Tom Friedman's belief that the earth was flat in 1492. Please be advised that the earth was round then and is round now.
This news has not reached the Times, which is printed on flat newsprint and thus must compress a round globe onto a flat page.
Perhaps some modern-day Columbus will sail around Times Square and find enlightenment.
I am a mere amateur historian, but allow me to share the insight of a real historian [Here I inserted Rick Shenkman’s article from HNN.]
The Times replied on Monday, April 11, 2005.
Dear Mr. Treacy,
This office deals with concerns regarding articles which appear in The Times and does not extend to books by Times staffers or other papers owned by The New York Times Company.
Office of the Public Editor
The New York Times
Apr 12, 2005
Dear Mr. Bovino;
My letter did concern an article which appeared in The Times.
The article, entitled "It's a Flat World, After All," in The New York Times Magazine on April 3, 2005.
Thomas Friedman wrote that Columbus reported to his king and queen that "the world is round.''
In this case, The New York Times is actively promoting the sales of a book by a columnist in its pages by running an extensive excerpt. Does this practice concern your office?
My own letter on this topic was submitted to both the Editorial Page (where the article was posted on the online edition) and to the Magazine, in an effort to notify the responsible editors.
Their next response:
April 13, 2005
Dear Mr. Treacy,
Thank you for your message.
I have forwarded your concerns to a senior editor.
If you have not heard anything from us within two weeks please let me know.
Office of the Public Editor
The last word from the Times:
April 18, 2005
Dear Mr. Treacy,
Mr. Okrent didn't see anything here to be concerned about but thanks for writing.
Office of the Public Editor
My last word:
Dear Mr. Bovino and Mr. Okrent:
You are very welcome.
I am sorry that the Times, which published Jayson Blair and then appointed a Public Editor to address such problems, is not concerned about a point of historical accuracy which, however minor, would be very easy to correct.
How hard is it to say that Mr. Friedman used the Columbus story as a central, unifying metaphor for his article and book, that there was no intent to assert that the story was historically accurate, and that "according to popular legend" Columbus reported that the world was round?
The Washington Post was concerned enough to address the issue.
The following letter was published in the Washington Post in 2003:
Washington Post Book World
Sunday, February 16, 2003; Page BW10
The Flat World Made Round
In her review of 1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies (Book World, Jan. 19), Louise Levathes refers to "Columbus's sailors who believed that if they ventured too far west they would fall off a flat Earth." She repeats one of the oldest myths in American history, a legend that rivals Parson Weems's tale of George Washington and the cherry tree. Neither Columbus nor his sailors believed in a flat Earth, nor did any of the authorities at the time. They knew the world was a globe. Aristotle and Eratosthenes had discerned this 1,800 years earlier. People knew the shape of the Earth from lunar eclipses. The church taught that the Earth was a globe but argued that the Sun revolved around it. The real question at issue was the size of the Earth, not the shape. Columbus thought the globe was much smaller than it was, and that he could reach China and the east by a relatively short voyage. Others correctly argued that the Earth was too large for such a voyage to be practical. They were right, but Columbus found America rather than Asia. Columbus did not prove the Earth was round, and no one feared sailing off the edge.
The flat-Earth myth has been exploded over and over, especially by J.B. Russell in Inventing the Flat Earth. See also Stephen Jay Gould's Rocks of Ages. James W. Loewen, in Lies Across America, traces the legend to Washington Irving's fable in 1828. It is ironic that Levathes attacks Menzies' claims that the Chinese discovered America but stumbles over a basic fact about Columbus himself. Couldn't Menzies dismiss her criticism because she shows ignorance of this aspect of the age of exploration? The
Washington Post should not further such a myth.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
Vince Treacy - 4/11/2005
Thank you for this Great Deflation of the flat earth myth.
The ignorance of the New York Times seems invincible. I sent letters to the editorial page, to the Magazine, and to Daniel Okrent, the Public Editor, but the Times seems adamant. Or perhaps it wishes to preserve the book sales of its star columnist.
I recall a short science article by Isaac Asimov as far back as the early 1960s that debunked this fable, but it lives on.
It seems to me that a legend born in the 19th Century and demolished in the 20th now has new life in the 21st.
- William & Mary launching a gay history project
- "I teach the largest gay and lesbian history class in the country."
- Another year of declines in history enrollments