|The Flammarion engraving, 1888, artist unknown|
“Medieval people thought the world was flat.” No they didn’t, not educated people at least (and after all there’s still a Flat Earth Society today, whose members appear to believe that the moonshots were a hoax, though it’s hard to tell how many of them are simply having a bit of straight-faced fun.) And there were plenty of educated medieval people.
Actually, the pre-Christian early medieval Norse did – theoretically – believe in a sort-of flat earth. They imagined earth surrounded by an encircling ocean, with Yggdrasil, the World Tree, growing up from the centre of the land. Even then, the delving roots and high branches of Yggdrasil speak of other dimensions. But this poetic, mythic explanation of the universe was unlikely to have been applied in any serious way to the voyages the Vikings made, which were guided by careful observation of landmarks and ocean currents, of drifting seaweed and circling gulls, of the migration of whales and the position of stationary clouds over land.
I rather suspect early medieval Norse sailors of performing that simple human trick of being able to believe two incompatible things at once: religio-mythic descriptions of the universe were one thing: the sea route to Greenland was quite another. In my book ‘West of the Moon’, the storm-driven Norse sailors of the knarr ‘Watersnake’, sailing across the North Atlantic, argue about their position:
“What if we miss Vinland altogether and sail over the edge of the world?” Floki piped up, conjuring in every mind a vision of the endless waterfall plunging over the rim of the earth.
“Showing your ignorance, Floki,” said Magnus. “The world is shaped like a dish, and that keeps the water in. Ye can’t sail over the edge.”
“That’s not right,” Arnë argued. “The world’s like a dish, but it’s an upside down dish. You can see that by the way it curves.”
Magnus burst out laughing. “Then why wouldn’t the sea just run off? You can’t pour water into an upside-down dish.”
“It’s like a dish with a rim,” said Gunnar in a tone that brooked no arguments. “There’s land all round the ocean, just like there’s land all round any lake. Stands to reason. And that means so long as we keep sailing west, we’ll strike the coastline.”
Gunnar is wrong, of course, but in a practical sense he’s also right. Sail far enough west from anywhere in Europe, and you’ll strike the American continent somewhere.
And Arnë’s right too in his observation of the curvature of the world’s surface, obvious to any sailor who sees the land rising out of the sea as he sails towards it. In Canto II of Dante’s early 14th century ‘Purgatorio’, the boat bringing the souls of the saved to the island of Purgatory rises above the horizon as it approaches: Dante spies the tips of its guiding angel’s wings before the boat itself is visible:
...as Mars reddens through the heavy vapours, low in the west over the waves at the coming of dawn, so a light appeared… coming over the sea so quickly that no flight equals its movement, and when I had taken my eyes from it for a moment to question my guide, I saw it once more, grown bigger and brighter. Then something white appeared on each side of it, and little by little, another whiteness emerged from underneath it.
My Master did not speak a word, until the first whitenesses were seen to be wings… and it came towards the shore, in a vessel so quick and light that it skimmed the waves.
(trans. A.S. Kline © 2000)
The Greeks of the 4th century had discovered that the world is a sphere, and the fact was commonsense observation and no news to most medieval people, including churchmen. However, commonsense observation can also deceive. With their own eyes, medieval people could see the sun, moon and stars turning around the earth. But as C. S. Lewis points out in his book ‘The Discarded Image’, this geocentric view of the universe didn’t necessarily mean they thought the central Earth was the most important thing in it. To get a genuinely Euro-medieval view, you have to turn your ideas about the cosmos inside out. The eternal, unchangeable, holy realms were all out there, beyond the circuit of the changing Moon. The sun and moon and stars and planets all turned around the earth, set in crystal spheres, making heavenly harmony as they went. This is why Lorenzo exclaims to Jessica in ‘The Merchant of Venice’,
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings…
Merchant of Venice, Act V, Scene 1
|From The Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493|
My 12th century Welsh heroine Nest, in ‘Dark Angels’, expresses it with the aid of a mural painted by her dead mother:
“See this picture, how beautiful it is? A map of the whole of Creation! Mam painted it herself. I used to sit on a stool eating nuts and watching her.”
She pointed. “Look, here’s the Earth in the middle, like a little ball. All around it is the air. Above that, the Moon.” She traced a line up the wall. “Next, Mercury and Venus.” Her finger landed on a fiery little sun with a human face, crackling with life. “Here’s the Sun. Then Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, spinning around and around the Earth, all of them set in crystal spheres, each one bigger than the last! Then, this dark blue circle with the stars painted in it – that’s the Fixed Stars, all turning around together. And then the sphere that makes them all move, and beyond that” – her finger burst through the last ring, like a chicken pecking through an eggshell – “Heaven.”
She drew a deep breath. “That’s where my mam is! Outside the universe. Safe with God.”
There’s a grandness of imagination to the medieval design of the universe, which for centuries worked well as a mathematical model – it takes into account huge distances, but on a human scale. Humans are small, living on a world that is tiny compared to the vastness of the Primum Mobile, the sphere of the First Mover - but not scarily insignificant.
Chaucer’s Troilus, in ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ (written mid 1380’s), ascends to the seventh sphere after his death and looks down:
And when that he was slain in this manere
His lighte ghost full blissfully is went
Up to the holowness of the seventh sphere…
…And down from thennes fast he gan avise
The litel spot of erthe, that with the sea
Embraced is, and fully gan despise
This wrecched world, and held all vanity
To respect of the plain felicity
That is in heven above…
|Dante's Satan by Gustave Dore|
Hell was of course located underground, at the centre of the earth – where Dante and his guide Virgil find gigantic Satan buried up to the waist at the very bottom of the funnel that is Hell – and have to turn around as they climb down his hairy body, to find themselves ascending as they pass the midpoint of the world. Dante narrates:
[Virgil] took fast hold upon the shaggy flanks
and then descended, down from tuft to tuft
between the tangled hair and icy crusts.
When we had reached the point at which the thigh
Revolves, just at the swelling of the hip,
My guide, with heavy strain and rugged work
Reversed his head to where his legs had been
And grappled on the hair, as one who climbs.
I thought that we were going back to Hell.
But Virgil explains:
...When I turned, that's when you passed the point
to which, from every part, all weight bears down.
(trans: Allen Mandelbaum)
I’m struck dumb with admiration at Dante’s utterly fantastic feat of imagination here. He died in 1321, and it would be over 350 years before Isaac Newton worked out his theory of gravitation – which underlines my point: people observe things, and can deploy them for practical purposes, long before they can adequately explain them.
By the way, the medieval universe also included another underground world besides Hell. Tinged with a whiff of the same infernal smoke - with a suspicion that the back door might lead much deeper down - in shallow caves and holes and hollow hills was Elfland…
But that is another story.