Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Flat Earth Myth Lives!

Relief swept the Society for the Preservation of Nineteenth Century Nostrums when a brand new sighting of the flat earth myth was reported by field observers. It was found in a new book called the House of Wisdom by Jonathan Lyons. Lyons is interested in the commendable project of bringing the great achievements of medieval Muslim civilisation back to light. Sadly, like many of his co-workers he also feels the need to tell porkies about those stupid Europeans who lived in the Dark Ages.

We get the usual reference to Cosmas (whose fantasies were dissected by Humphrey, my fellow clerk) and this is neatly elided into discussions on the existence of the antipodes and Thomas Aquinas asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

But Lyons pièce de résistance is a spectacular bit of quote-mining from Isidore of Seville's Etymologies. Lyons is clearly illiterate (in the old sense that he can't read Latin) but he is also unaware that etymology is the study of word origins. He quotes an English translation of Isidore on the origin of the word 'orbis'. 'Orbis terra' is a Roman phrase which roughly means the 'ring of the world'. It refers to the fact that the Romans thought only the band between the arctic and tropics was habitable. Isidore, not unreasonably, refers to this as a wheel and then innocently starts ennumerating the continents found in the inhabited world. You can read the Latin here.

Lyons quotes the passage as proof that Isidore thinks the whole earth is the shape of a wheel! He then surpasses himself and names the entire chapter of then book after his misconception. OK, it's not an easy point but scholars have written helpful articles for amateurs like Lyons to help them find their feet (e.g. p 274 Wesley Stevens "The Figure of the Earth in Isidore's "De Natura Rerum" ISIS 71:2 (1980)). He might also have noticed that Isidore defines 'terra' separately from 'orbis'. They are not the same thing.

But this is all churlish. We should be congratulating Lyons on his heroic efforts to defy the evidence and keep the flat earth myth alive.

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Kendalf said...

What a relief! I'd hate for my class unit on the flat Earth myth to become out of date and inconsenquential!

Humphrey said...

Gahhh, amateurs!. The fact that there are entire books on the flat earth myth and its perpetuation doesn't seem to discourage people.

Bjørn Are said...

It's all become part of the unyielding collective unconsciousness, ye know.

Just like the myth of the equal rights, inherently tolerant and benevolent Islam states in the Middle Ages.

That speaks to so much political correctness that no debugging book will rock it either.