Did People Know the World Was Round at the Time of Columbus?

I know that it seems like simple clickbait, asking a question that is ridiculously easy to answer, but bear with me.

Conventional wisdom today is that, in Columbus’s time, it was widely known that the world is spherical, and that Washington Irving introduced the myth that there had been widespread belief in a flat earth in his book A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Seemingly reliable sources recount this. At least the second part of this, however, is not true. Consider the following:

  1. Irving does not actually say that scholars believed the earth to be flat in the 15th century. Rather, he recounted this as only one of several beliefs prevailing at the time, and a minority view. He suggested that a majority of scholars did believe the earth to be spherical, but supposed the antipodes to be uninhabitable or the size of the earth to be too great to allow Columbus to reach India. (The last of these, of course, was true.)

  2. The modern supposition that people in the middle ages believed the earth to be flat did not originate with Irving. It is easy to find 18th century books retailing the story that people thought the earth was flat until Columbus showed otherwise. Such books, some of them textbooks, continued to be written well after Irving’s time. Irving actually gave the medieval thinkers fairer treatment than was then prevalent.

  3. Long after Columbus, writers continued to feel that they had to demonstrate by argument that the world is spherical. Seventeenth century texts take the trouble to explain that we can tell the world is round because we can see its shadow when there is an eclipse of the moon, and because an approaching ship on a calm sea first reveals its sails, and only later the lower parts of the ship.

So my question is, what do we really know about what people believed at the time of Columbus? Obviously there have been learned men who knew the earth to be spherical since classical times. But how widely accepted was this? For example, would an educated non-scholar, such as a monarch or noble, have thought the earth to be round or flat?

I don’t believe there’s much of a possible answer. As you note, seafaring peoples, even commoners, probably knew the world was spherical from time immemorial. There’s definitely accounts in the ancient world of people demonstrating the earth being spherical based on how a ship appears/disappears on the horizon, this would’ve been known pretty well in societies where sea travel was common and economically important, regardless of established scientific scholarship in said society.

But not all of the world in the 15th century lived near the seas, and only a very small portion of any society were educated at that time. I don’t know of any surveys of the general knowledge of the 90% of the population who were agricultural workers back then, but we can suspect they probably held ignorant beliefs on many issues that their contemporary scholars had more informed opinions on.

Back around 500 BC, there was this guy named Pythagoras who was telling everybody the world was round. By the time Columbus came along a couple thousand years later, it was generally accepted among the educated elite.

Now, whether or not it was possible to survive the trip was a different matter…

Yes, I don’t doubt that many people, probably the majority, supposed the earth to be flat, if they even gave it any thought. I have myself known several uneducated people who firmly believed the earth to be flat. And, of course, reliable surveys are not going to be available. But do we have any information on what educated people believed?

Yes, that’s perfectly responsive to my question. But how do we know this? The assertions that the educated elite knew this tend to come from the same people who say, falsely, that Irving made it all up, so I don’t trust them.

From Wikipedia’s article Spherical Earth:

Astronomy was one of the seven liberal arts which formed the basis of university education in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The basis of astronomy was the Almagest of Ptolemy, which clearly and unambiguously posited a spherical earth and a sky which rotated around it.

So yes, any educated person would be taught about the roundness of the earth. A monarch wouldn’t typically receive a university education, but in any reasonably cultured part of Europe, would probably be tutored at some point by someone who had. As for a noble . . . well, it depends on time, place, and personal inclination.

I know of nobody who recorded their opinions on the shape of the earth, simply because it wasn’t a matter of controversy. People who cared about the matter knew that the world was round. People who didn’t know or care tended not to record their opinions, because they didn’t care.

As OP answers himself, the roundness of the Earth was known in 1492, it just wasn’t widely known. It’s less that people thought the Earth was flat than that they just didn’t think about it at all. (And even today many people say the sun rotates around the earth.) What higher education there was was centered on religion.

Another recent thread discusses the recovery of classical knowledge during the Renaissance. The globe-circling voyage of Magellan was followed a few decades later by Copernicus’ claim that the Earth orbits the Sun. Bringing such basic facts into the foreground helped jog general consciousness away from superstition toward more scientific understanding.

True. Everyone who knew anything knew the Earth was round and you could theoretically sail west from Europe and arrive in Asia. The only argument was over how far away Asia was. Most people said Asia was around twelve thousand miles away and nobody could sail that far. Columbus said it was only around four thousand miles.

Columbus was wrong. Asia is about twelve thousand miles west of Europe. Nonetheless, Columbus sailed west for about four thousand miles and found land: “Aha, Asia, right where I said it would be.”

If I understand it correctly, Columbus’ estimates for the circumference of Earth and Asia were so widely considered to be so inaccurate that king after king declined to finance his explorations.

And he proved it 4 times!

I’m not sure this is evidence of anything. Just personally, as a child I was exposed to (old) books from the early twentieth century that explained this stuff as evidence of why the Earth was round. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if people are still writing stuff explaining such matters in such terms. There’s always an audience to whom this is new.

Otherwise, I’m not sure that any 21st century specialists think that Washington Irving originated the myth. Any expressing an opinion will likely either have read Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Inventing the Flat Earth or Christine Garwood. Both of whom finger Irving for popularising the story, but certainly not for inventing it.
That said, I do think it’s true that, in its details, Irving’s version of the story isn’t quite Burton Russell’s slight caricature of what he said. But it remains extremely plausible that Irving thereby still became the major vector of the myth. What people read into him is probably more important than exactly what he said.

Exactly what people believed in 1492 is much harder to characterise. It certainly true that anybody with a university education ought to have realised that the Earth was round. The likes of sailors also surely did.
The hard problem is to assess how far that percolated beyond such groups. To quote myself from this old thread:

Depends on the country and era Henry VIII of England was very well educated in many subjects, including astronomy, cartography and navigation (sixwives.info). His grandmother Margaret Beaufort supervised it. Henry had rigorous education for his children too.

I’m not saying you’re wrong, but do you have a cite for this?

In any event Isabella Queen of Castile did finance Columbus and this is just one of several great accomplishments by the one called “most infuential woman in history.”

Some people still do not know the earth is round!

The Flat Earth Society…

In 1585 Columbus submitted his proposed plan to King John II of Portugal for financing. John asked the opinion of his experts, who specifically rejected it because they believed Columbus’s estimates of the distance were far too short. He tried again in 1588 and was rejected because by that time the Portuguese had rounded the Cape of Good Hope and saw their way clear to India by that route.

Columbus also sought support from Venice and Genoa, and his brother Bartholomew went to England, all without success.

Columbus proposed his plan to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1586, but it was rejected after being reviewed by experts on the grounds that the distance was too short.

However, he continued to lobby the Spanish monarchs. Ferdinand finally gave in in 1492 after the expulsion of the Moors freed up some funds. (Isabella continued to be mostly against it.) I think they figured it was a long shot but this madman might discover something out there.

I’ve seen it proposed that it wasn’t coincidence that Columbus found land right where he expected it. On earlier voyages, he traveled north to Scandinavia, and it’s possible that he heard tales from fishermen there of fishing grounds off of Newfoundland. If this is the case, then he would have known already that there was land not too far west of Europe, and his mistake was merely in thinking that it was Asia.

If you want to see how deep the ignorance goes, some people think Columbus’ voyage proved the world is round.

Not Magellan, Columbus.

I know.

(Asking me questions isn’t going to clarify anything for either of us. I’m not the one who’s confused here, and I don’t know any more about this misbegotten idea than you do.)

Sail on, sail on!

Thank you. Ignorance fought.