Saturday, June 12, 2021

Did Isidore of Seville Think the Earth is Flat? Yes, Probably.

Isidore of Seville (c.560 - 636) was one of the most influential authors of the early Middle Ages. Although he was a long-serving bishop, he wrote on secular subjects as well as religious ones. He’s best known for his Etymologies, an encyclopaedia in twenty books organised around word origins but covering a great deal more besides. He also wrote a guide to natural philosophy called On the Nature of Things. The sources that Isidore used for these works were wide-ranging, encompassing both pagan and Christian literature. While he was happy to mine pagan authors for useful information, he intended his books for a Christian audience seeking knowledge that was not remotely unorthodox. That meant that when his pagan sources conflicted with his Christian ones, he would almost invariably prefer the latter. But sometimes he must have found it hard to determine which side to favour. The shape of the earth was one area of uncertainty.

Historians have long known that medieval Europeans were well aware that the earth is a sphere. This runs contrary to the popular view that people in the Middle Ages thought the earth was flat until Columbus put them right. Medieval knowledge of the Globe is hardly surprising. It was the near-unanimous view of educated people in the Roman Empire that the earth was a sphere and large numbers of extant ancient texts from Plato and Aristotle in the four century BC to Macrobius and Martianus Capella in the fifth century AD state this explicitly. However, Isidore lived in a period when the western Roman Empire had collapsed and his native Spain was ruled by a barbarian dynasty of Visigoths. Isidore himself was instrumental in restoring knowledge of classical learning among the newly Christianised barbarian kingdoms but in his own lifetime that project was still a work in progress. Unlike the earlier pagan and Christian authors that he drew his knowledge from, he didn’t benefit from a secular education on philosophy and the liberal arts. To a great extent, he was an autodidact. We cannot simply assume that he imbibed ancient natural philosophy wholesale. On the question of the shape of the earth, there is very good evidence that he didn’t. Forty years ago, W.M. Stevens (Stevens, 1980) robustly defended the view that Isidore was a globalist, but more recent scholarship has swung the other way. In 1996, William McCready (McCready, 1996) found that Isidore is, at least, conflicted on this point while twenty years later, Andrew Fear stated “the notion of the flat earth runs throughout” Isidore's On the Nature of Things (p76 Fear, 2016).

Before we examine the text of Etymologies and On the Nature of Things in detail, we need to consider some foibles of the Latin language. The first is the word ‘orbis’. It’s natural to assume that this means orb, so if the earth is described as an ‘orbis’ that is tantamount to saying it is a Globe. But, although it could mean that, ‘orbis’ more usually means a disk. For example, Lactantius, a fourth century Christian writer who definitely thought the earth is flat, refers to the earth as an ‘orbis’ (Divine Institutes 3.23). Unfortunately, modern translators often render ‘orbis’ as globe, which, as well as being unclear linguistically, is very misleading. Also, like English, Latin mixes and matches the words for the earth (‘terra’) and the world (‘mundus’). It’s quite possible for ‘mundus’ to refer to either the earth or the whole universe. We just have to figure it out from the context.

It’s not controversial that Isidore thought the universe is a sphere and the earth is at its centre. He drew much of his cosmological knowledge from a book called Astronomy by Hyginus (d. c. 17AD). Unfortunately, this book is more concerned with the myths behind the constellations, but begins with a brief primer on cosmology. It is also clear that Isidore did not believe there are any antipodeans, that is people who live on the other side of the world. Indeed, he said this was physically impossible as “neither the solidity nor the central space of the earth allows this.” (Etym. IX:2.133) However, none of this tells us whether the earth itself is a globe.

Some of the key passages are in book XIV of Etymologies. Isidore started by telling us the the earth (‘terra’) is at the centre of the universe equidistant from all other parts (this is pretty much a verbatim quote from Hyginus). He then noted that ‘terra’ in the singular refers to the whole ‘orbis’. Now ‘orbis’ could be sphere or disk, but Isidore helpfully sorted out this confusion in the next paragraph. “Orbis” he tells us, “derives its name from the roundness of the circle, because it resembles a wheel.” (Etym. XIV:1.2) That seems clear enough, but then he muddied the waters by quoting from Hyginus again: “The ocean that flows around [the orbis] on all sides encompasses its furthest reaches in a circle.” Then he notes that the ‘orbis’ is split into three continents - Asia, Europe and Africa. Now, if the ‘orbis’ refers to the whole earth, this is a pretty accurate description of the traditional Greek world picture that imagined the earth was a flat disk, girt by water and containing three continents arranged in a circle. However, in the fourth century, Aristotle explained that the earth is actually a sphere so the three continents became the inhabited world (‘oikemene’ in Greek) occupying a band of the earth’s sphere. The ‘oikemene’ was still generally thought of as round, which irritated Aristotle who thought it was actually a strip across the face of the globe, not a circle. 

As for Isidore, he was clear in Etymologies XIV:2 that ‘orbis’ means a circle, not a sphere. Since he describes the earth itself as an ‘orbis’ in XIV:1, we can reasonable conclude he thought it was a disk. It is worth noting that while Isidore described the heavens with the unambiguous Latin word ‘sphera’, he never used this to describe the earth. He never called it a ‘globus’ either. Something else missing from Isidore is the standard pieces of evidence that the earth is spherical. Classical authors from Aristotle onwards used various combinations of arguments to show the earth is a globe, for example that we cannot see southern stars from the northern hemisphere; the shadow of the earth at a lunar eclipse is curved; or a mountain disappears below the horizon as we sail away from it. Isidore had access to these arguments from his reading of Macrobius and Pliny, yet he never mentioned them. If Isidore really did think the earth was a sphere, he also thought it was so blindingly obvious that he didn’t need to provide any evidence. This is in marked contrast to Bede, writing perhaps a hundred years later who was completely unambiguous: “It is, in fact, a sphere set in the middle of the whole universe. It is not merely circular like a shield, or spread out like a wheel, but resembles more a ball, being equally round in all directions.” (On the Reckoning of Time 32) His insistence that the earth is not like a wheel sounds like a direct rebuke of Isidore, whose work he knew well. Bede went on to provide evidence from Pliny that the bright southern star Canopus is not visible to the north and the length of the day depends on latitude.

There is further evidence of Isidore’s views in the diagrams and maps that accompanied his works. The most famous is the T-O map showing the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe in a circular stylised form. These maps may not have originated with Isidore, but certainly propagated widely by being included in his work. In fact, they remained popular right up until the fifteenth century when Europeans’ encounter with the Americas made them obsolete. That’s to say, they remained in use long after every literate person in Europe knew the earth was a sphere. They were interpreted as maps of the ‘oikemene’ and were sometimes even shown on a face of a globe. However, Isidore’s work lacks the additional context on the earth as a whole being a sphere so any reader coming fresh to his text would obviously assume the T-O map showed a flat earth. 

Isidore: TO map

Isidore also provided his own take on the climatic zones enumerated by numerous classical authors. The zones are formed by the projection of great circles in the heavens onto the surface of the earth. For instance, the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn are the maximum distance the sun moves north and south of the equator over the year. Projected onto the earth, the tropics bound the torrid zone of great heat. Macrobius provided a useful diagram of the Globe divided into five bands - the arctic and antarctic are at the top and bottom, then the habitable zones of the northern and southern hemispheres. Finally, the tropics stretch around the equator. Isidore thought the heavens were spherical, so accurately explains how the five zones are delineated by great circles in the sky. But he also thought the earth was flat, which made a nonsense of projecting the circles down to the ground. As a result, he ended up arranging the climate zones into a ring, with the arctic and antarctic next to each other. (On the Nature of Things 10). It is strange he would have done this, rather than presented the diagram of Macrobius (see below), if he thought the earth was a sphere. 

Isidore: climatic zones in a ring

Ultimately, the fairest reading of Isidore is that his cosmology was similar to that of the presocratic philosopher Anaxagoras, who said a flat earth is found at the centre of a spherical universe, supported by a cushion of air. (Isidore himself wondered whether the earth was held up by air or water (On the Nature of Things 45)). To read him otherwise requires us to interpret his work in a way that assumes we have already proved he must support the Globe.

There are various reasons that scholars, including such significant figures as Faith Wallis and Marina Smyth, have assumed that Isidore rejected the flat earth. An obvious one is that it was clearly set out in his sources. However, while pagans like Pliny and Hyginus certainly did say the earth is a sphere, Christians such as Augustine and Ambrose, both read carefully by Isidore, equivocate about the point (even though they probably knew it too). The Bible’s authors also assumed the truth of ancient flat-earth Babylonian cosmology. Where there was a conflict between pagan and Christian sources, it is not surprising that Isidore favoured the Christian interpretation. Another reason is Isidore himself was frequently incoherent. He quotes the likes of Hyginus without necessarily twigging that these words might not make sense outside the context of the Globe. But Isidore’s own words, as opposed to quotations from earlier authors, don’t betray a spherical view. He always wrote as if the earth is flat. It is hardly surprising that excerpting manifold authors over many years meant that Isidore committed the occasional infelicity. One such case is Etymologies XIV:5 where he noted in passing that there was a fourth continent “further inland towards the south”, thus contradicting himself and providing support for those who say the flat ‘orbis’ of Etymologies XIV:2 is the inhabited ‘oikemene’ only and not the entire earth.

Macrobius: climatic zones on a globe 

Ultimately, though, I think the misreading of Isidore comes down to two points. One is the understandable desire to debunk the myth that everyone in the Middle Ages thought the earth was flat. Some authors (myself included) have been unwilling to concede that in the early Middle Ages, knowledge of the Globe had to be rediscovered and disseminated before it became widely accepted. Thus we have been too defensive of Isidore, who wrote at the cusp of the transition from ancient to medieval scholarship (p97 White 1993). Finally, alas, we’ve made the understandable mistake of translating ‘orbis’ as orb and not as disk. Once we get that right Isidore, although mistaken about the shape of the earth, at least starts to make rather more sense. 


Bede. The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999.

Bede. On the Nature of Things. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010.

Fear, 2016: Fear, Andrew. “Putting the Pieces Back Together: Isidore and De Natura Rerum.” In Isidore of Seville and His Reception in the Early Middle Ages, edited by Andrew Fear, and Jamie Wood, 75–92. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016.

Isidore of Seville. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Translated by Stephan A. Barney. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Isidore of Seville. On the Nature of Things. Translated by Calvin B. Kendall, and Faith Wallis. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016.

McCready, 1996: McCready, William D. “Isidore, the Antipodeans, and the Shape of the Earth.” Isis 87, no. 1 (1996): 108–27.

Stevens, 1980: Stevens, WM. “The Figure of the Earth in Isidore’s ‘De Natura Rerum’.” Isis 71, no. 2 (1980): 268–77.

White 1993: White, Andrew Dickson. A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1993.

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Saturday, January 05, 2019

Grand strategy computer games: the ultimate waste of time?

I suffer from an addiction. It’s not a craving for alcohol, tobacco or some other substance. My poisons are computer games like Civilization and Europa Universalis. Civilization is up to its sixth iteration now. I was playing the first version at university back in 1992. Aficionados still argue about whether Civ II or Civ IV was the best, but all iterations are essentially the same. You start as a small tribe of nomads in 4000BC about to found its first city. You expand your civilisation over the next 6,000 years and finally attempt to launch your people into space. Along the way, you have to allocate food and resources to scientific research, armies and buildings. The game mechanics haven’t changed in a quarter of a century, although each new edition adds some tweaks and improved graphics.

I played Civilization V on the Steam platform, which allows me to quantify my addiction. It tells me I have spent 470 hours playing the game. During that time, I have won (meaning my civilisation achieved domination over the rest of the world) on the highest difficulty setting of ‘Deity’ just twice. Obviously, the attraction of the game is not just those two victories. Rather, Civ gets its claws into you by being perfectly paced. It lobs small achievements at the you every few turns, each of which provides a dopamine hit that makes you want to continue playing the game in search of the next high. For example, early on in the game, successfully researching writing means you can try to build the Great Library in one of your cities, which in turn lets you discover another technology. Or researching mining allows you to exploit a nearby mineral reserve so you can recruit soldiers with better weapons and biff the barbarians harassing your borders. Later, you’ll be conquering another civilisation’s cities to take control of their uranium reserves and hamstring their nuclear weapons programme. Or you’ll send your submarines to lurk off an enemy’s coast to sink their invasion fleet before it gets anywhere near your capital city.

But like all addictive substances, there is less to Civ than meets the eye. While the game design allows you to play historical civilisations, playing the game misleads you about how the world really works. Scientific research is entirely driven by the resources that your government choses to throw at them. You can tweak your policies to encourage technology, but really the game is based on the false idea that public spending is a key ingredient in scientific advance. Worse, the game assumes that science can be directed and that certain technologies lead inevitably to others. Players pick the technology to research in 3000BC on the basis of what they’d like to discover centuries later. A player’s early bronze age sages might be ordered to develop sailing boats because that makes it possible to discover optics in the late iron age. Thus, Civilization presents history as having a direction. The game’s mechanics ensure that progress in science leads to more advanced technology, industrial success, and political freedom. Players know where they want to go and they can set all their policies to get there.

In the early-twentieth century, Herbert Butterfield famously rebuked his contemporaries for writing ‘Whig history’. His target was habit of scholars to imagine their own civilisation, be it British or French, as being the goal to which mankind has been progressing through the aeons. Marx explicitly claimed that history has a direction that leads inexorably to a socialist paradise. Even Butterfield himself was decidedly whiggish when it came to the history of science, calling the scientific revolution, which we now doubt happened at all, the most significant event in the story of the human race. Whig history is in the DNA of Civ. When you start a game in 4000BC, you know exactly where you want your people to end up in AD2000. Each of my victories at the hardest difficulty setting was the product of loads of play-throughs to establish the perfect strategy to get to the end point before any other country. That makes for a wonderful strategy game, but a woeful simulation of history.

Rather more credible in the history department is Europa Universalis. Steam shows I’ve clocked up 1,300 hours on Europa Universalis IV; over twice the time I’ve spent on Civ V. EU IV is a complicated game with new expansions arriving every few months. As a result, it is hard to get into and extremely difficult to master. The player becomes the ruler of a country in 1440AD and aims to enhance its power until the game ends in 1820AD. While the scope of EU IV covers the whole world and 400 hundred years of history, the game mechanics prevent you from diverging too far from real life. The player can ensure that it is Saxony and not Prussia that unites Germany; or that Spain colonises Brazil and Portugal gets Peru, but the long-term geopolitical and technological realties are fixed. Diverge too far from them, and the game punishes you. In addition, wholly random events completely out of your control can poleaxe your progress. That’s realistic too, but can make playing the game massively frustrating.

All this makes EU IV complicated, unforgiving if you get something wrong, and requiring a vast amount of time to play. Civ is notorious for how long games take to complete, but it has nothing of EU IV, where a committed player like me can take weeks to finish a game. On the flip side, EU IV is vastly more realistic, being set in a historically accurate past, and allowing players to explore alternative histories that could really have happened. What if the England stayed Catholic; if the Holy Roman Empire had united rather than fallen apart; if the Ottomans had not been stopped at the gates of Vienna; or the Chinese discovered America? The trouble is, all this realism makes for a more hardcore game. Every time the developers try to make it more realistic, they annoy the players who just want to have fun. And realism has it limits: any half-decent player can conquer the entire world if they start with one of the more powerful countries (I subjugated the planet under the Ottoman Empire). And frankly, that isn’t realistic at all.

As the Christmas holidays come to an end, I’m off the sauce of both of these games, distracted myself with altogether less taxing entertainment on an Xbox. But eventually I’ll crack again and kiss the rest of my life goodbye for another couple of weeks.

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Saturday, August 25, 2018

Some thoughts on Toby Huff’s The Rise of Early Modern Science

Why did modern science arise in western Europe and nowhere else? If you ever meet a historian of science, for goodness sake, don’t ask them that question. It implies that the West enjoyed some sort of superiority compared to ancient Greece, imperial China or the Islamic Caliphate. In academia today, cultural relativism isn’t edgy postmodern theory, it’s part of the furniture. So no one likes to be reminded that, whereas many civilisations have had scientific cultures, none of them came close to the achievement of western science.

It wasn’t always forbidden to ask the question. In the late-nineteenth century, there were two broad theories of scientific development. One, associated with the positivism of Frenchman Auguste Comte, emphasised reason as the font of modern science. Westerners were supposedly more rational than other races, so it was hardly surprising that they developed science first. This idea was turbocharged by social Darwinism, which seemed to provide a scientific veneer for theories of western mental superiority. At much the same time, the conflict between science and religion was popularised by the American Andrew Dickson White. White suggested that religion had long held science back and the cause of scientific advance was simply the removal of this impediment.

From the mid-twentieth century, as the history of science began to form its own sub-discipline, scholars got to work undermining these grand theories. The myth of western rationality went first. Historians found that when they studied individual scientists, they were usually behaving in a way that wasn’t rational at all. Sir Isaac Newton, the icon of the scientific revolution, turned out to be obsessed with alchemy and biblical chronology. Johannes Kepler developed his model of the solar system by asking, how would God have done it? Scientific pioneers were obsessed with priority disputes and spent as much time burnishing their public image as they did on science. Philosophers of science, like Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, unpicked the underlying process of scientific discovery and found it didn’t seem to be logical at all.

The conflict between science and religion took a bit longer to fall apart. This was partly because within academia being rude about Christianity is a good deal more acceptable than lauding western rationality. But gradually, historians realised that the likes of Newton and Kepler were even more devout than their contemporaries. And they discovered most of the examples of religion holding back science, such as banning lightening rods or insisting that the earth is flat, were fantasy. Despite spirited attempts by the new atheists to revive it, the conflict between science and religion is wholly defunct among historians of science.

Nowadays, respectable scholars don’t ask why science arose in the West. For instance, Patricia Fara’s Science: A Four Thousand Year History (2009) doesn’t engage with the point at all and ignores the concept of the scientific revolution for good measure. In the place of historians, sociologists have attempted to fill the void. This has not always been a great success. For example, the sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, has been justifiably criticised for his simplistic books on the Christian roots of western civilisation. In contrast, Toby Huff, whose The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West (2017), has now reached its third edition, deserves more serious attention. I read the first edition almost twenty years ago. It was one of the books that alerted me to the importance of science in the medieval world and the unique status of universities as centres of learning. But when I started my PhD, I found academics were less than impressed. For instance, Sir Geoffrey Lloyd was quite dismissive when I asked him about the book and my PhD supervisor assured me that Huff had no idea what he was talking about. Since then, Huff’s reputation has improved to the extent that Fara includes Huff as a key source in the annotated bibliography of Science: A Four Thousand Year History. I featured him in the further reading section of God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (2009).

Reading the third edition of The Rise of Early Modern Science provides a good opportunity to take stock of Huff’s answer to the question ‘why did modern science arise in the west?’ His answer is 'institutions'. He believes that science arose in the West because it had the institutions, primarily universities, in which a scientific culture could develop. Huff calls the comparison of the West with other cultures “comparative civilisational sociology of science” whereby he examines how the institutions in China, Islam and Europe developed and flourished.

Huff is an old school sociologist, so his touchstone is Max Weber, who wrote in 1904 that the belief in scientific truth is “a product of definite cultures”. The scientific ethos was defined by another sociologist, Robert K. Merton, in the 1940s in terms of the four norms of universalism, communalism, disinterestedness, and organised scepticism. Huff suggests these norms became embedded in western science alone because the university existed in the West and not elsewhere.

The importance of institutions has become a commonplace among historians in recent years. Daron Acemoglu and James  Robinson used them to explain Why Nations Fail and Dan Hannan thought they were central to How We Invented Freedom. Huff got there long before. Like Acemoglu and Robinson, he knows that institutions have deep historical roots in the culture from which they spring and thus can rarely be successfully transplanted into new soil (a fact that is relevant to the European Unions’s failure to assimilate the UK). And Huff identifies law as a key facet of culture that explains how institutions develop. The European university is a case in point. It owes its origins to a confluence of Roman and Canon law that allowed the creation of a walled garden for scholarship and education. Universities provided lassitude and a semblance of intellectual freedom in which medieval science could flower. Huff contrasts the madrassa, which he says was bound by Islamic law and enjoyed far less flexibility than western universities. The syllabus was constrained by the concerns of the Imams. As far as Huff is concerned, this restricted the study of astronomy and anatomy in the Islamic world. In China, education was entirely geared towards the needs of the imperial civil service, which was a self-perpetuating elite determined to preserve its influence over the emperor. The civil service was an institution that provided no space for science to thrive.

Huff is surely right to note that institutions develop from the implementation of laws, while laws themselves tend to be have religious or political roots. However, his explanation of why science arose in the west is incomplete. He seems to assume that once the necessary institution is in place, science will spring into existence of its own accord. Today’s science is so successful that it is hard to imagine why any civilisation would not develop it given half a chance. The trouble is there is nothing inevitable about modern science. It doesn’t accord with human nature and simply providing scholars with a safe space isn’t enough. Let intellectuals do as they please and you are more likely to end up with astrology and gender studies than physics and chemistry. In another book, Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution, Huff tried to solve the problem by postulating a cultural artefact called ‘curiosity’. Using the reception of the telescope as a case study, he argued that the West was curious and so investigated the implications of the new discoveries telescopes revealed. Not so China and the Islamic world. Unfortunately, Huff begs the question of what ‘curiosity’ is and why the West has it. His explanation that western society is relatively open to foreign influences seems like a symptom rather than a cause of ‘curiosity’.

Many of the criticisms of Huff’s project have been based on the mistakes he inevitably makes in ranging so widely. Even though it has reached its third edition, a few of these persist in The Rise of Early Modern Science. For example, a list of Greek texts translated into Arabic includes writings on mathematics by Pythagoras and sun-centred theory by Aristarchus, despite the fact that neither of these are extant in any language. In the case of Pythagoras’s maths, it probably never existed at all. But Huff has successfully seen off his critics on more substantial questions, most notably on the prohibition of human dissection in the Islamic world and the uniqueness of western universities.
Sadly, as is so common with academic books nowadays, Cambridge University Press apparently decided not to employ the services of an editor for this third edition, leaving too much repetition and infelicitous phrasing in the final book. But overall, Huff’s sociological look at the big unanswered question in the history of science is a successful example of interdisciplinary work. That it does not provide a complete solution should not detract from its value.

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Sunday, January 28, 2018

A tribute to my grandmother

My grandmother, Nana, died at the age of 101 late last year. Here's my tribute from her funeral.

Nineteen sixteen seems a very long time ago. It was the year of the Battle of the Somme in the midst of the Great War. But in June that year, just a week before that great battle started, there was another event, less remarked by historians: the birth of Mary Marjorie in Liphook in Hampshire. Although her first name was Mary, she was always called Marjorie as there were, she told me, already a sufficiency of Marys in the family. That her given name was not her first name would continue to confuse officials and bureaucrats right up to her dying day.

Nana was the middle child of three, the daughter of an antiquarian book dealer from Glasgow and that was where she was brought up. Her time there left her with an abiding suspicion of those two most powerful Glaswegian institutions, the Roman Catholic Church and the British Labour Party. That said, and although she was a woman of firm opinions, Nana was not above changing her mind. Meeting the late Cardinal Basil Hume late in life, she was extremely impressed by his obvious holiness, and since then I never heard her utter another word against the Church of Rome. For the Labour Party, however, there would be no such redemption.

When Nana was eleven, the family moved down to Barnet in North London, and the Second World War saw her working in the West Country, as a member of the Timber Corp. One day, she took her dog to the vet in Sherborne. Dogs were always an important part of Nana’s life. Perhaps it’s not surprising in a vet’s family, but the last thing that Nana said to me was ‘Isn’t it odd that we have all always had dogs’. And, both daughters, grandson and granddaughter, we all do. The line of succession for Nana’s dogs included Bill and Merry, Doodle (named after the V1 rockets crashing onto London), Dusty, Jingle, Kelpie, Bonnie, Sadie, Dougal, and finally Shadow.

The vet on duty in Sherborne that day, when Nana arrived with her dog, was Robert Brown, also from Glasgow. They married in early 1944 and the honeymoon was a week in St Ives. The time was not wasted and my mother Lesley was born nine months later.  The birth was complicated and Nana’s life only saved by some military grade penicillin, then not officially available to civilians. Nana didn’t fight in the war: I can’t help thinking it might have been a bit shorter had she done so. But hers was the quieter and less celebrated burden of waiting at home with a young baby not knowing if her husband would ever come back. In contrast, by all accounts, husband Robert was having a lovely time as an army vet, gallivanting around Italy on a horse.

After the war, the family lived in Yeovil at Grove Dene where Robert had his veterinary practice. Ten years later, my Mum was joined by a little sister Heather. But simply being a wife and mother was not enough for Nana, important though those things are. She threw herself into the Girl Guides rising to President for Somerset and was awarded the Laurel Award for Exceptional Service by Lady Baden Powell herself. Her dedication to the guides certainly went above and beyond. One night, at a huge guide camp in Jersey, she found the site was being invaded by a group of boys. Nana pulled on her wellington boots, donned a sou’ wester and black oilskin, then charged across the campground in this battle dress, swinging a mallet around her head. The intruders were put to flight, and no more trouble was had from the local youth.

However, Nana still needed other outlets for her drive and talent. Today, thank goodness, women have many more opportunities and she might have made a fine litigation partner in a solicitors’ firm. Instead, she had to content herself with becoming a magistrate, quite a radical step back then when most justices of the peace were men.

In the late 1960s, Mum moved out, met Dad and settled down in London. Nana, Papa and Heather moved out of Grove Dene to a lovely little house in an orchard called Virgin’s Living. My sister and I loved to scamper around the garden there, walk the dogs on Ham Hill and play with Mum and Heather’s old toys. But Grove Dene was always THE family home of which I heard so much as I was growing up, despite never having set foot there.

But in 1978, tragedy struck when Robert died suddenly in the garden of Virgin’s Living. Heather had already left home and Nana was on her own. She moved to The Quest in Over Stratton where she lived for the rest of her life. Then she began to spread her wings. Mum used to complain that when she was a girl, holidays involved a long drive to Scotland. Nana now went much further afield. She visited Mexico, Canada, Australia, went on several safaris, cruised up the Amazon and visited the Soviet Union, which was born the year after she was and didn’t last nearly as long. She flew over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter and rode off on a camel in India.

It took a long time for her to slow down. When she did, it was because her eyesight was failing. But there were still dogs to be walked and visits to be made. No one was surprised that she reached her century last year.

“I go a long way back, you know” she told us just before she died. Longer than anyone else I’ve met in fact. It has been a privilege to have known this remarkable woman for so many years. I am thankful for that and will always miss her.

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Saturday, September 09, 2017

Three points

1. Jerry Pournelle, science-fiction author extraordinaire, has died. I'm more affected by this than I can justify. I wrote over at Agent Intellect that the universe seems smaller now. I note that less than two months ago he wrote "Niven and Barnes will be over in an hour to discuss our latest book," so we still have one more beauty from him to read.

2. The Cassini mission is almost over. The spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn for over 13 years now, and it will plunge into the ringed planet on September 15th. Both of my kids have always lived in a universe with a spacecraft in orbit around Saturn, so it's humbling to me to see it go.

3. Forgive the self-promotion, but I was interviewed about my book for the philosophy podcast Who Shaves the Barber? You can follow that link and scroll down to it; I'm episodes 4 and 5, although 5 won't be released until next week. You can also watch it on YouTube.

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Monday, August 07, 2017

Blowing up the flat earth

Daniel J. Boorstin was a historian and Librarian of Congress. He is known among historians of science for his absurd claims about the flat earth myth in his book The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself. The following is a fisking of one of the more egregious passages from chapter 14, "The Flat Earth Returns." At first I was going to make this a quote of the day with some comments afterwards, but there were so many details I wanted to comment on that I decided to intersperse my comments throughout. As is my pattern (see here and here), Boorstin's text is in red font and indented with my comments in normal text.

"Can any one be so foolish," asked the revered Lactantius, "the Christian Cicero," whom Constantine chose to tutor his son, 

OK, stop. Lactantius's views were controversial enough to be condemned as heretical after his death. And yes, the Renaissance humanists called him the Christian Cicero, but this was over a millennium after his death, and it had nothing to do with his views on the shape of the earth (nor did his condemnation for that matter). I don't mean to suggest that he was not held in high esteem by some, but Boorstin is only presenting the positive assessment of him. Leaving out the negative assessment is pretty misleading.

"as to believe that there are men whose feet are higher than their heads, or places where things may be hanging downwards, trees growing backwards, or rain falling upwards? Where is the marvel of the hanging gardens of Babylon if we are to allow of a hanging world at the Antipodes?" 

Yup, Lactantius was one of five Christians who affirmed (or at least apparently affirmed) the unusual view that the earth is flat. Five. Total. Lactantius was by far the most prestigious of them, and whatever accolades he received were unrelated to his bizarre view about the earth's shape. The sphericity of the earth was the almost universal position within the Roman Empire and Christendom at that time.

Saint Augustine, Chrysostom, and others of their stature heartily agreed that the Antipodes ("anti"-"podes," a place where men's feet were opposite) could not exist.

Augustine, Chrysostom, and others did not agree that a place where men's feet were opposite could not exist but that men where men's feet were opposite could not exist. "Podes" means feet and a place doesn't have feet -- men do. The references of Augustine and others were not geographical statements about the shape of the earth but anthropological statements about the geographical extent of the human race. One of our earliest references to antipodes, after all, comes from Plato's Timaeus in the fourth century BC, and it explicitly affirms the sphericity of the earth.

Classic theories of the Antipodes described an impassable fiery zone surrounding the equator which separated us from an inhabited region on the other side of the globe. 

Yes, exactly right. The issue with antipodes was not whether there was an other side of the earth but whether there could be human beings there. It was thought at the time that the equatorial region was too hot to travel through and the ocean too wide to sail across. As such, if there were "people" on the other side of the earth, they couldn't be the descendants of Adam and Eve because there would have been no way for them to get there from here; and if they weren't descendants of Adam and Eve then they wouldn't be human beings because they would not share a common origin with us. This raised further theological questions as to whether antipodes would be stained by original sin, and if so, whether Christ's atonement would apply to them -- questions that could be avoided if we simply denied the existence of antipodes. However, it should be pointed out that this move was far from universal. Other Christians accepted the possibility of antipodes. It was controversial to affirm their existence, certainly, but not heretical. Note also how similar this is to the question today of whether intelligent extraterrestrials exist; if so whether they are fallen; and if so whether Christ's atonement would apply to them, or whether God will have provided some other form of redemption for them. In both cases, for the antipodes and the aliens, we don't have enough information to answer these questions, so absent further revelation, we can only speculate. I wrote a post to start a series on this issue several years ago but never followed through on it. Now I'm thinking I should reboot it.

So, returning to Daniel Boorstin, at this point I start thinking, aha, at first he sounded like he was going to exaggerate the extent of flat-earthism within Christianity, but he knows that the issue about antipodes was anthropological not geographical, so maybe he's going to get it right.

This raised serious doubts in the Christian mind about the sphericity of the earth. 

(Sigh) No, no it didn't Daniel.

The race that lived below that torrid zone of course could not be of the race of Adam,

That's about people, not the shape of the earth.

nor among those redeemed by the dispensation of Christ.

That's about people, not the shape of the earth.

If one believed that Noah's Ark had come to rest on Mt. Ararat north of the equator, then there was no way for living creatures to have an Antipodes.

That's about people, not the shape of the earth.

To avoid heretical possibilities, faithful Christians preferred to believe there could be no Antipodes,

That's about people, not the shape of the earth. Also, as mentioned, affirming the existence of antipodes was controversial but not heretical. I've only ever heard of one guy, Vergilius of Salzburg, receiving any kind of opprobrium for affirming the existence of antipodes. And the issue there was the theological issues mentioned above by myself and Boorstin: if there are inhabitants of the other side of the world, do they share a common origin with us, do they share the stain of original sin with us, and does Christ's atonement apply to them? If the issue raised "heretical possibilities," which it didn't, it would have been in this area, not with regards to the sphericity of the earth

or even, if necessary, that the earth was no sphere.

And there it is. Five. Five Christian writers affirmed a flat earth, Daniel.

Saint Augustine, too, was explicit and dogmatic, and his immense authority, compounded with that of Isidore, the Venerable Bede, Saint Boniface, and others, warned away rash spirits.

None of these people claimed the earth was flat. Isidore is sometimes included among the flat-earthers, but most historians deny that he was one.

The ancient Greek and Roman geographers had not been troubled by such matters. But no Christian could entertain the possibility that any men were not descended from Adam or could be so cut off by tropical fires that they were unreachable by Christ's Gospel. 

Plenty of people did. It was a controversial issue, and controversies don't become controversies if there aren't people on both sides of them. Most people in the early Middle Ages were skeptical about the possibility of antipodes, but some accepted it.

"Yes, verily," declared Romans 10:18, "their sound went forth all over the earth, and their words unto the ends of the whole world." Neither Faith nor Scripture had any place for beings unknown to Adam or to Christ. 

OK, I suspect -- I hope -- "unknown to Adam or to Christ" is a way for Boorstin to refer to the theological issues about creatures with distinct origins from us and the extent of Christ's atonement. Because otherwise it makes no sense. Unknown to Christ? See, here's the thing: according to Christianity God is omniscient. That means he knows everything. So if there are antipodes God knows them. And while Christ gave up the exercise of his omniscience (not his omniscience itself), he only did so during his incarnation. Unknown to Adam? I'm not sure what this even means since everyone alive in the first millennium AD would have been unknown to Adam, having been born after he would have died. Maybe Adam is a stand-in for the human race, so Boorstin is saying "Neither Faith nor Scripture had any place for beings unknown to humanity." But if that's what he means, then it's obviously false. They didn't suffer from delusions of grandeur, they didn't think they might be omniscient, they knew perfectly well that there were many places they hadn't been to yet, and they didn't know precisely what was there. So, again, since I can't make sense of "beings unknown to Adam or to Christ," I strongly suspect Boorstin is just using this as shorthand to refer to the theological issues discussed above. But, regardless, it's just not true that "Neither Faith nor Scripture had any place for beings" outside the human race. Wouldn't angels fit into that category? I'm pretty sure Scripture, faith (whatever Boorstin means by that), and theology affirm the existence of angels.

I further suspect (I could easily be wrong) that Boorstin has in the back of his mind what I'm going to call "The Big Fish in a Small Pond Myth." The suggestion here is that people thought the universe was much smaller in ancient times because they thought the earth was the most important place, and so there couldn't be a lot of space or a lot of locations that were irrelevant to human life. But of course this is completely ridiculous, as I wrote here. Long story short: the earth was considered one of the smallest objects in an unfathomably large universe. The only bodies they thought were smaller than the earth were Mercury, Venus, and the Moon: everything else was bigger, even the smallest stars. And while they thought the universe only extended out to Saturn's orbit plus a sphere of stars, they had approximated the distance to Saturn pretty well, and that distance is simply greater than our imaginations can handle. If you don't believe that, check out If the Moon Were Only One Pixel and scroll right to get an idea of the incredible distances involved. Remember, you only have to go out to Saturn, but also remember that the ancients had gauged that distance pretty accurately. For all practical purposes, they thought the earth was a point of zero volume within an infinitely large universe, and they stated this pretty directly.

The bearing of this on the Big Fish in a Small Pond Myth is that the ancients and medievals thought that the vast, vast majority of the cosmos was completely irrelevant to human existence, at least in a spatial sense. So the idea that there were places outside of humanity's influence was common knowledge. I doubt anyone seriously thought otherwise.

"God forbid," wrote a tenth-century interpreter of Boethius, "that anybody think we accept the stories of antipodes, which are in every way contradictory to Christian faith." 

Yep, it was controversial. But not heretical. And it didn't imply that the earth was anything other than a sphere.

"Belief in Antipodes" became another stock charge against heretics prepared for burning.

Really? Like who? Who was burned for believing in antipodes? Who was even excommunicated? Vergilius was reproved, and he's the only one I can find who even suffered that.

Some few compromising spirits tried to accept a spherical earth for geographic reasons, while still denying the existence of Antipodean inhabitants for theological reasons. But their number did not multiply.

Dude. Five Christians denied the earth is a sphere. Apart from them, EVERYONE who denied the existence of the antipodes accepted a spherical earth. "Their number did not multiply"? Other than those five, their number includes EVERYONE.

It was a fanatical recent convert, Cosmas of Alexandria, who provided a full-fledged Topographia Christiana, which lasted these many centuries to the dismay and embarrassment of modern Christians.

Well, yeah, Cosmas is embarrassing, but if only wise and intelligent people could become Christians, that would probably constitute a reason to reject Christianity. At any rate, Cosmas wasn't even translated into Latin to make the Topographia available to western Europe until the early 18th century. You know what Greek works were translated before then? All of them. In 1509, Copernicus translated some short writings of Theophylactus Simocatta from Greek into Latin. He had to settle for such an obscure text because all of the good stuff had already been translated, many of them more than once. Theophylactus was the dregs. Cosmas wasn't translated for another two centuries. He had zero influence.

We do not know his real name, but he was called Cosmas on account of the fame of his geographic work,

I don't know why he was called Cosmas, but I know it wasn't for the reason Boorstin states, viz. "the fame of his geographic work." You know how I know that? Because his geographic work achieved no fame. He was unknown in his own time, unknown throughout the rest of the Middle Ages, unknown during the Renaissance, and unknown in the early Modern era. It was only when he was translated in the 18th century that people became aware of him as a curiosity. That translation was itself motivated by the translation of a few excerpts from his book a few decades earlier by some manuscript collectors. He exerted virtually no influence on his contemporaries or the Middle Ages.

and nicknamed Indicopleustes (Indian Traveler), because he was a merchant who traveled around the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and had traded in Abyssinia and as far east as Ceylon. After his conversion to Christianity about A.D. 548, Cosmas became a monk and retired to a cloister on Mt. Sinai where he wrote his memoirs and his classic defense of the Christian view of the earth.

Oh for *@#%'s sake. "The Christian view of the earth"? Really? If anything, the Christian view of the earth at the time would have been Ptolemy's view of the earth, since that was the science of the day, and the Ptolemaic view unambiguously affirmed the earth to be a sphere.

This massive illustrated treatise in twelve books gives us the earliest surviving maps of Christian origin.

Well if that just means the earliest surviving maps written by a Christian, then I guess that's true. Of course, given Ptolemy's authority, Ptolemy's map would have been the Christian one at that time for the same reason that Ptolemy's cosmology was the Christian one. It was the science of the day.

Cosmas rewarded the faithful with a full measure of vitriol against pagan error and a wonderfully simple diagram of the Christian universe. 

"The Christian universe." Right. Not "The universe as advocated by a lone conspiracy-theory-minded crank" but "The Christian universe." And Cosmas wasn't able to reward the faithful with his vitriol and diagrams because nobody read him.

In his very first book he destroyed the abominable heresy of the sphericity of the earth. Then he expounded his own system, supported, of course, from Scripture, then from the Church Fathers, and finally from some non-Christian sources. 

Dude, that's what conspiracy theorists do. They pick and choose some information, remove it from its context, ignore all the evidence supporting that context, and then use the little pieces of information to construct a new context. You can find people doing that in support of just about any view. There's people who defend Christianity or atheism in this way, but that doesn't mean you can smear all Christians and atheists as dishonest and/or unintelligent hacks.

What he provided was not so much a theory as a simply, clear, and attractive visual model.

. . . which nobody read.

When the apostle Paul in Hebrews 9:1-3, declared the first Tabernacle of Moses to be the pattern of this whole world, he conveniently provided Cosmas his plan in all necessary detail. Cosmas had no trouble translating Saint Paul's words into physical reality. 

Huh. It's curious that no one else took the author of Hebrews the way Cosmas did. It's almost as if Cosmas was going against the established understanding of the text. Also, Paul probably isn't the author of Hebrews, although it was thought that he was until the Modern era. But I think we can assume that by ascribing Hebrews to Paul, Boorstin is probably just giving what Cosmas would have thought about it.

The first Tabernacle "had ordinances of divine service and worldly sanctuary; for there was a Tabernacle made; the first wherein was the candlestick, and the table and shewbread, which is called the Sanctuary." By a "worldly" sanctuary Saint Paul meant "that it was, so to speak, a pattern of the world, wherein was also the candlestick, by this meaning the luminaries of heaven, and the table, that is, the earth, and the shew-bread, by this meaning the fruits which it produces annually." When Scripture said that the table of the Tabernacle should be two cubits long and one cubit wide, it meant that the whole flat earth was twice as long, east to west, as it was wide.

Huh again. It's also curious that no one followed in Cosmas's footsteps in this interpretation of Hebrews. It's almost as if it has no exegetical basis whatsoever.

In Cosmas' appealing plan, the whole earth was a vast rectangular box, most resembling a trunk with a bulging lid, the arch of heaven, above which the Creator surveyed his works. In the north was a great mountain, around which the sun moved, and who obstructions of the sunlight explained the variant lengths of the days and the seasons. The lands of the world were, of course, symmetrical: in the East the Indians, in the South the Ethiops, in the West the Celts, and in the North the Scythians. And from Paradise flowed the four great rivers: the Indus or Ganges into India; the Nile through Ethiopia to Egypt; and the Tigris and the Euphrates that watered Mesopotamia. 

And we have people who think the planes that hit the twin towers on 9/11 were holograms, or that the Moon landings were fake, or that the Holocaust didn't happen, or that Jesus never existed. So what? There's always silly people making silly claims. Unless you have a reason to think the silly claims were more widespread than a single writer who exerted no influence on his contemporaries or the Middle Ages, spending so much time on Cosmas is an attempt to mislead people into thinking he is representative when he isn't.

There was, of course, only one "face" of the earth -- that which God gave to us the descendants of Adam -- which made any suggestion of Antipodes both absurd and heretical.

Only. Five. Christians. Affirmed. A. Flat. Earth. Point to someone who was excommunicated for affirming antipodes, Daniel. Point to an official decree declaring belief in antipodes to be heretical. No? You can't? What a surprise. I should give Boorstin some grace here though: maybe he's just speaking in Cosmas's voice. That is, maybe he's just stating what he thinks Cosmas said or would have said.

Cosmas' work is still very much worth consulting as a wholesome tonic for any who believe there may be limits to human credulity. 

You know what other work could be similarly consulted Daniel? Yours. Ba dum ksh.

After Cosmas came a legion of Christian geographers each offering his own variant on the Scriptural plan. 

And none of whom affirmed a flat earth. Remember that? The actual subject you're writing about? I mean, the title of this chapter is "The Flat Earth Returns" for Pete's sake. It seems kind of significant that now you're talking about people who denied that the earth is flat without mentioning that fact.

There was Orosius, the Spanish priest of the fifth century who wrote a famous encyclopedia, Historiae adversum paganos, where he retailed the familiar threefold division of the world into Asia, Europe, and Africa, embellished by some generalizations of his own:

Which didn't include a flat earth. The following is a quote from Orosius that Boorstin gives.

Much more land remains uncultivated and unexplored in Africa because of the heat of the Sun than in Europe because of the intensity of the cold, for certainly almost all animals and plants adapt themselves more readily and easily to great cold than to great heat. There is an obvious reason why Africa, so far as contour and population are concerned, appears small in every respect (i.e., when compared with Europe and Asia). Owing to her natural location the continent has less space and owing to the bad climate she has more desert land.

This seems pretty tame and utterly irrelevant to the issue of the earth's sphericity.

Then the even more influential Christian encyclopedist Isidore Archbishop of Seville in the seventh century explained that the earth was known as orbis terrarum because of its roundness (orbis) like a wheel. 

"Round like a wheel" (quia sicut rota est) is a phrase that Isidore himself uses, so I can't give Boorstin grief for repeating it here. This is one of the passages that make some people count him among the flat-earthers. However, Isidore is only referring to the land mass that includes Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa. Like all maps of the time (apart from Cosmas's perhaps), he's referring to the known world. Since he gives indications elsewhere that the earth is spherical, most historians do not take him to be affirming a flat earth here.

At any rate, this kind of map is more commonly called a T and O map. These maps were certainly round and flat, but the reason they were flat is . . . wait for it . . . they were maps. You might think that's unnecessary to point out, but I have encountered people who argue from the fact that ancient and medieval maps are flat to the conclusion that the people who drew them must have thought the earth was flat. I'm serious.

"It is quite evident," he observed, "that the two parts Europe and Africa occupy half the world and that Asia alone occupies the other half. The former were made into two parts because the Great Sea called the Mediterranean enters from the Ocean between them and cuts them apart." Isidore's "wheel maps" followed the convention of the time by putting east at the top:

Again, Isidore's maps, like all other maps of the time, were meant to show the known world. I've never heard them referred to as "wheel maps," and Boorstin doesn't give a reference for that phrase. However a google search on "Isidore" and "wheel maps" comes up with a few hundred results, so I guess he could be quoting someone. What follows is a quote from Isidore.

Paradise is a place lying in the eastern parts, whose name is translated out of the Greek into Latin as hortus [i.e., garden]. It is called in the Hebrew tongue Eden, which is translated in our language as Deliciae [i.e., place of luxury or delight]. Uniting these two gives us Garden of Delight; for it is planted with every kind of wood and fruit-bearing tree having also the tree of life. There is neither cold nor heat there but a continual spring temperature.
From the middle of the Garden, a spring gushes forth to water the whole grove, and, dividing up, it provides the sources of four rivers. Approach to this place was barred to man after his sin, for now it is hedged about on all sides by a sword-like flame, that is to say it is surrounded by a wall of fire that reaches almost to the sky.

Once again, I don't see how any of this is relevant to the issue of whether the earth is round. Isidore is merely commenting on his understanding of Genesis 2. I'll just note here that, centuries earlier, Origen, one of the early Church Fathers, argued that "no one of understanding" could take the account of the garden of Eden as referring to an actual place (De Principiis 4:1:16).

Christian geographers who lacked facts to fill their landscapes found a rich resource in the ancient fantasies. While they were contemptuous of pagan science, which they considered a menace to Christian faith,

Yeah, that's complete crap. Of course there are exceptions, but in general Christians accepted pagan science. Certainly they assigned a low priority to it, they thought other things were much more important, but they didn't tend to treat it with contempt, much less did they consider it "a menace to Christian faith." Again, this is in general: it varied from person to person. David C. Lindberg, probably the greatest science historian of the last half century, writes, "No institution or cultural force of the patristic period offered more encouragement for the investigation of nature than did the Christian church. Contemporary pagan culture was no more favorable to disinterested speculation about the cosmos than was Christian culture. It follows that the presence of the Christian church enhanced, rather than damaged, the development of natural sciences."

their prejudice did not include pagan myths.

I'm not sure what he's referring to here. The early Christian church (earlier than the period that Boorstin is writing about) was very hostile to pagan myths. Over time the church certainly adopted some pagan practices, like those we now associate with Christmas, but not the accompanying myths. If Boorstin is just thinking of these practices, then I guess you could make that claim, but once again, it's pretty misleading. It sounds like he's referring to the stories in those myths, not just the practices. So it's interesting that Boorstin gets these two points exactly backwards: he says the Christians were hostile to pagan science but not pagan myths, when actually they were hostile to pagan myths but not pagan science.

Once again, I suspect -- and I could be wrong -- that Boorstin is thinking about the claim that there are parallels to Jesus' life in world mythology, and that these may have influenced the development of Christian theology. So there are allegedly virgin births, resurrections, last suppers, baptisms, etc. in all sorts of myths around the world before the advent of Christianity. The problem with this is that it is not true. The myths in question do not parallel Christianity in any serious detail, and this has been the consensus view of New Testament historians for over a century. To see my earlier posts on this, see here, here, here, and here.

These were so numerous, so colorful, and so contradictory that they could serve the most dogmatic Christian purposes.

Oh that's cute. Pagan myths were contradictory and so could be used to serve Christian dogma. Gosh, what does that imply? Certainly not that most of the great logicians in human history were Christians. Certainly not that Christian theologians spent their lives reflecting on doctrines in order to make them logically coherent and consistent with the larger body of knowledge. You know, one of the first things I discovered when I was trying to refute Christianity was that it couldn't be dismissed as foolish. It might be false, but too many people much, much smarter than me thought it made sense. I couldn't bring myself to seriously think my knee-jerk reaction was a surer guide to truth than the lifelong reflections of some of the most intelligent people who have ever lived.

While Christian geographers feared the close calculations of Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, and Ptolemy,

Like who? Who feared these close calculations? What did they write that leads you to that conclusion? What about the Christians who built on their calculations?

they cheerfully embellished their pious Jerusalem-centered maps with the wildest ventures of pagan imaginations. Julius Solinus (fl. A.D. 250), surnamed Polyhistor, or "Teller of Varied Tales," provided the standard source of geographic myth during all the years of the Great Interruption, from the fourth till the fourteenth centuries.

Rather than comment on his throwaway line about "the Great Interruption," I'll just point you to James's book God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (American title: The Genesis of Science).

Solinus himself was probably not a Christian. Nine-tenths of his Collectanea rerum memorabilium (Gallery of Wonderful Things), first published about A.D. 230-240, came straight out of Pliny's Natural History, though Solinus does not even mention his name. And the rest was foraged from other classical authors. Solinus' peculiar talent, as a recent historian of geography observes, was "to extract the dross and leave the gold." It is doubtful if anyone else over so long a period has ever influenced geography "so profoundly or so mischievously."

OK, now we're not even talking about Christians anymore, let alone flat-earthers. Boorstin's argument is that "Stupid Christians believed the earth was flat because look at this one guy nobody read. And there's another guy who wasn't a Christian who said some stupid stuff about other subjects too." Come on man, focus.

Yet Solinus' dross had wide appeal. Saint Augustine himself drew on Solinus, as did all the other leading Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages. 

I hate to think I'm growing cynical, but I'm starting to suspect that Augustine may have just quoted Solinus once or twice, and a handful of other Christian authors may have as well, and those who didn't are excluded from the guild of "leading Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages" on grounds that Boorstin considers too obvious to mention. And we'll just ignore all those non-Christian authors who quoted Solinus as well because that wouldn't serve our purpose.

The stories and fabulous images that Solinus retailed enlivened Christian maps right down to the Age of Discovery. They became an all-encompassing network of fantasy, replacing the forgotten rational gridwork of latitude and longitude, which had been Ptolemy's legacy.

Holy crap, did he just refer to the forgotten legacy of Ptolemy? Admittedly, Ptolemy's legacy was felt more in astronomy than geography: Almagest was more well-known than Geographia, but the latter was still extremely influential. Moreover, Ptolemy's legacy regarding astronomy involved as a core element that the earth is a sphere, and this legacy was all but universal throughout late antiquity and the Middle Ages. As Albert Van Helden writes in Measuring the Universe: Cosmic Dimensions from Aristarchus to Halley, "From the second to the sixteenth century, astronomy was a commentary on Ptolemy. No man ever wielded posthumously such a pervasive and long-lived authority in astronomy, and it is to be doubted that anyone ever will again." Since a spherical earth was one of the foundational elements of Ptolemy's astronomy, for Boorstin to use maps to suggest that people thought the earth was flat in the Middle Ages is just intellectually dishonest. You couldn't explore medieval science sufficiently to find out the influence of Ptolemy's geography without finding out the influence of his astronomy and the spherical earth upon which it is predicated.

I'll stop here, but man, Boorstin's scholarship is sloppy to say the least. It's almost like The Discoverers was written by an Internet troll. Just in case you need another example, here's a quote from chapter 20, "Ptolemy Revived and Revised": "No amount of theology would persuade a mariner that the rocks his ship foundered on were not real. The outlines of the seacoast, marked off by hard experience, could not be modified or ignored by what was written in Isidore of Seville or even in Saint Augustine." OK, exactly what theological claims would bear on where rocks were located in the sea? And where did Isidore or Augustine write about the coastlines? (Spoiler: they didn't. Boorstin just made it up.) At some point, you have to disregard an author as a crank, and I'm afraid Boorstin reaches that point all too quickly.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Monday, April 17, 2017

The Bones of St Leonard's

We visited the seaside at Hythe in Kent, one of the five Cinque ports, on Saturday. Hythe is a pleasant little market town, although nothing like as pretty as Rye or Winchelsea.

The highlight of Hythe for medievalists is found beneath St Leonard’s Church. The church itself is an enormous edifice up on the hill, largely built in the fourteenth century, with features going back to the eleventh century. That is all quite typical of an old Kentish church, and luckily St Leonard’s has been left relatively unscathed by the dreaded Victorian Church Restorers.

St Leonard's Ossuary
Under the chancel, there is a long-forgotten chamber that holds a remarkable collection of medieval bones. Over a thousand skulls are neatly arrayed in racks and there is a huge neat stack of bones. Local legend claims that these are victims of the Battle of Hastings, but analysis has revealed the majority are women, and there are few wounds in evidence. The crypt’s attendant had a much more prosaic explanation for where the bones came from: when the chancel was built in the fourteenth century, much of the churchyard was dug up. The bones of parishioners found during the building work were stored in the cellar of the church and forgotten about for centuries. The earliest references to the ossuary date from the seventeenth century and the current layout, with its neat stack of bones, was assembled in 1910. The collection has recently yielded interesting information on the health of medieval people, which wasn’t great.

St Leonard's Ossuary
The crypt is not as spooky as an old room housing thousands of human bones might be. There are large windows providing plenty of natural light and the skulls seem content to mind their own business as we tourists passed through. But I found that if I stopped to examine the bones more closely they ceased to be gothic decor and became the remains of individuals. Once, these grey and decaying relics were people who were in the centre of their own universes, just like I am in mine. The owners of some of these skulls knew and maybe loved the owners of others. Now every one of them is anonymous and unknown. The dead are democrats as they all now count for the same.

While ossuaries are not uncommon on the Continent, there is nothing else quite like the St Leonard’s crypt in England. It is generally open over the summer and well worth a visit.

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

New articles on science and religion/history of science

Although my new book is on What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax, I have been contributing to various books on the history of science, and on science and religion in the last few years.

First up, and out this month in the US, is the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017). This is a massive new encyclopaedia to which I was invited to contribute a number of the historical articles, including on Giordano Bruno, Hypatia and biblical chronology. Although it is edited from an evangelical perspective, it contains a wide variety of viewpoints and looks like a useful resource for anyone interested in the intersection between science and Christianity.

I have also written an introduction to a collection of academic articles published last year in Medieval Science Fiction (KCLMS, 2016). This is a rather pricey academic tome, but an expanded version of my introduction is available at my web site. To help get to grips with how ordinary medieval people viewed the cosmos, in this piece I’ve mined some of the most significant works of medieval literature for nuggets of scientific wisdom. I was quite pleased with how it came out. Other contributors to the volume include Michael Flynn, well known in these parts (that’s the science fiction writer rather than Trump’s erstwhile advisor).

A few years back, I wrote a chapter on the history of popular science for a book on Successful Science Communication (Cambridge University Press, 2011). I’ve added that chapter to my website as well. It is a whistle stop tour of how scientists have communicated with the general public, from ancient Greece to the present day.

Finally, if you are in the UK or Europe and would like a signed copy of my book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, then I have a few available and will happily inscribe one with a message of your choice. You can order from the website. Sorry, but for licensing reasons, I can’t sell copies to the US where there is a separate edition of the same book called The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution. The hardback is now only $15 on

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

My new book: What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax

I have a new book out called What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax. In it I take look at the UK tax system and provide non-specialist readers with an easy-to-understand explanation of tax and tax policy to show them just how much they pay, how the money is collected and how tax affects ordinary people every day. While this is a very different subject from God’s Philosophers, tax consultancy has been my day job for over 20 years and I wanted to clear up some of the confusion surrounding it.

What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax is published by Wiley, best known for their For Dummies series, and is available from bookshops, and direct from the publisher (use the code JHT30 for 30% off if you order from Wiley).

With no accounting or legal knowledge required, it contains practical examples to illustrate how tax functions in the real world, for example: how the VAT on a plumber's bill all adds up; why fraudsters made a movie to throw HMRC off their scent; how a wealthy couple can pay minimal tax on a six-figure income without any fancy planning; and the way tracing the money you paid for your iPad sheds light why the EU is demanding Apple pay billions extra in tax.

Written in a conversational style, What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax gives you a real-world look at how tax in the UK works. In it you will be able to:

  • Learn about the many ways that the tax system separates us from our money
  • Discover how Brexit could change the way we pay taxes
  • Understand how changing tax policy affects people's everyday lives
  • See through the rhetoric from politicians and the media surrounding tax controversies

The system's underlying logic is illustrated through three 'golden rules' that explain many of the UK tax regime's oddities:

  1. Lots of small taxes together add up to make big tax bills – “The point of all these taxes is to spread the pain so we notice it less.”
  2. No matter what name is on the bill, all taxes are ultimately suffered by human beings – taxes levied on manufacturers are passed on to the consumer through a higher price for the product
  3. Taxes are kept as invisible as possible – “Since we all hate paying taxes, the government has perfected the art of ensuring that we rarely have to hand over the money ourselves. Most taxes are paid by businesses on our behalf.”

With tax, there are no easy answers. No one enjoys paying them, but without them, the government would shut down.

Whether you are self-employed, have a general interest in the way the UK tax system works, are a finance or tax professional, or a student wanting to understand more about taxation in a break from traditionally dry text books, What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax gives you the background and foundational knowledge you need to be a well-informed taxpayer.

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Monday, January 30, 2017


Some University of Washington philosophers are teaching a course this coming spring term on critical thinking. A very specific aspect of critical thinking. Their course title is "Calling Bullsh*t" without the asterisk. Right away, though, I'm disappointed. In their syllabus, the second week's required reading will be a chapter from Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. But Sagan was as much a purveyor of bullsh*t as anyone, especially when accusing others of purveying bullsh*t. The title of the book is one example. Here's another. People who laud themselves as skeptics are only skeptical about what they want to be skeptical about.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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