“The Origin of the Myth”

How and why did the flat-earth myth get started? The legend was popularized by Washington Irving in his three-volume History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828). Irving, best known for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” used his fiction-writing skills to fabricate a supposed confrontation that Columbus had with churchmen who maintained that the Bible taught that the Earth was flat. No such encounter ever took place.

Irving had a bad habit of fictionalizing history. His History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (1809) was published under the pseudonym Diederich Knickerbocker. “He perpetrated a prolonged hoax in order to persuade the reading public that Knickerbocker was a real person.”[1] In the 1848 edition of the History of New York Irving admitted that he had embellished “the few facts” he could collect “with fragments of [his] own brain.”[2]

Irving’s fictionalized account describes Columbus as being “assailed with citations from the Bible and the Testament: the book of Genesis, the psalms of David, the orations of the Prophets, the epistles of the apostles, and the gospels of the Evangelists. To these were added expositions of various saints and reverend Commentators. . . . Such are specimens of the errors and prejudices, the mingled ignorance and erudition, and the pedantic bigotry, with which Columbus had to contend.”[3] There is only one problem with Irving’s account: “It is fabrication, and it is largely upon this fabric that the idea of a medieval flat earth was established.”[4]


[1] Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (New York: Praeger, 1991), 52.**
[2]** Washington Irving, A History of New York, ed. Michael L. Black and Nancy B. Black (Boston, 1994). Quoted in Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth, 52.**
[3]** Quoted in Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth, 53.**
[4]** Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth, 53.