What is the truth of the matter regarding the claim that people in the Middle Ages thought the earth was flat?

Have you ever heard that people in the late fifteenth century believed that the earth was flat?  As the story goes, Christopher Columbus was trying to find financial support for his voyage to sail westward to reach Asia.  The monarchs all turned him down because they believed that the earth was flat and he would sail right off its edge.

This idea is ludicrous.  More than 1600 years before Columbus sailed the earth, the Greek philosopher, Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth.  Columbus was the one who ignored these calculations and insisted that the earth had a much smaller circumference.  For this reason, he claimed he could sail to Asia.  If he had not lucked upon the New World, he and his men would most assuredly have starved to death.  The monarchs refused to support him, because they didn’t share his belief in the size of the earth.  They knew he would die if he attempted such a voyage.

It was not until the 19th century that we even hear of the claim that there were people in the Middle Ages who believed the earth was flat.  This myth can be cited back to two people.  Lactantius (c. 245-325) was a Christian heretic who declared that the pagan philosophers had no good arguments to prove that the earth was a sphere and since the Bible said nothing one way or the other, there was no reason to believe in such a theory.  Lactantius, however, was a former pagan and was known for claiming that the pagans were wrong about everything.  Moreover, his clash with traditional Christian beliefs was caused by his claim that there was one God who created Christ and Satan – two equal but opposed creations.  This claim clearly is not representative of orthodox Christians.  The second person is Cosmos Indicopleustes, an early 6th century Greek traveler and geographer, who created a theoretical model of the universe, presenting a flat world with the heavens formed in the shape of a bow – the total look being a box with a curved lid.  It is significant to note that both these authors wrote in Greek and their writings were not translated into Latin until much after Columbus’s time. (Europeans did not even read Greek during the Age of Discovery and would not have had access to these writings.)

So, why was this myth propagated?  Sometimes people take the word of authoritative figures as law and they don’t bother to check their sources.  Such was the case with the writings of Washington Irving (1783-1859) and Letronne (1787-1848).

Irving wanted to portray Columbus as a romantic hero and he created a fictional account of a council, during which Columbus was lectured to on what Lactantius had said about a flat earth.  But the brave Columbus was not deterred.  He resisted this attempt at dissuasion and resolutely decided to sail anyway.  This story is nonsensical because (as stated before) Lactantius’ writings would not have been familiar to Europeans during this time.

The other culprit, Letronne, claimed that, although some historians knew the earth was a sphere, the vast majority believed it was flat.

The truth is that people in the 19th century wanted to believe that the Christians were dim-witted and backwards.  They wanted to show how Christianity debased the intelligence of mankind.  The “flat-earth” myth backed up their claims, so they swallowed it without questions.

So if you want to have accurate knowledge, be sure that backup evidence and research agrees with the authors you cite.

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What do you think is the central point of the essay you read by Mario Vargas Llosa?

In 1519, the Spaniard Hernán Corté led an expedition to the newly discovered Mexico and with just 1200 soldiers and a few horses he defeated the native Aztec empire of roughly 5 million.  In 1572, another Spaniard, Francisco Pizarro, followed suit.  His victory was even more mind-blowing than Corté’s.  With only 180 men, 27 horses, and a canon, he managed to conquer the native Inca Empire in Peru, a population of more than 16 million.

The natives in these regions were by no means primitive.  Unlike the scattered tribes in North America, these natives were sophisticated and socially developed.  In fact, they were, in some ways, more agriculturally developed than the Spaniards.

The obvious question here is: how on earth did a couple of tiny groups of Spaniards conquer these two massive empires?  The Aztecs were already going through social disruption and civil war when Corté began his conquest, and he took advantage of this.  European diseases also claimed many natives, whose immune systems didn’t have time to develop resistance.  But these factors don’t come close to meeting the statistics mentioned above. The horses, gunpowder, and bullets terrified the natives who suspected that the gods, themselves, were charging them.  But even the advanced weaponry couldn’t have brought on such victories.  Mario Vargas Llosa, attributes the victories to the collectivist thinking of the natives.  The natives were raised as ants in an ant community.  Just as an ants’ only function is to do as he is told, so the Aztec and the Inca’s only purpose is to follow orders.  The native communities shared a collective religion, collective belief system, collective system of law, and a collective leader.  There was no individual respect or free will.  The native was required to serve selflessly for the benefit of all.  He would never have dreamed of questioning the decisions of those in authority.  As soon as their leaders were captured, the natives quit fighting.  They just stood in confusion, watching the unrelenting slaughter of thousands of their brothers, and waiting for their turns to come.  The Europeans, on the other hand, were known for rendering judgment even on their own societies.  They thought individualistically and could adapt to the situation changes immediately – either assuming control themselves or changing allegiance when a superior fell.

Between disease and fighting the native population of the Americas was reduced from 25 million in 1492 to 730,000 in 1620.  Certainly, the Europeans have some blame for this devastation, but the Spanish conquests demonstrate the power of individual freedom.  The essence of Western Civilization is the right to liberty… not merely for a country, government, or city, but for an individual.  Our ancestors fought and died for individual freedom.  Today, society would trade this freedom for collective security… It is you and I, my friend, who must not allow this to happen.

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Are Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales closer in outlook to Greek and Roman literature than they are to Hebrew, Christian, and medieval literature?

Throughout this course, I have studied and learned about several civilizations by assessing their literature based on these five themes: sovereignty, man (authority), law, sanctions (causation), and succession.  Let’s compare these civilizations using these same themes.

The Hebrew outlook was based on the Old Testament.  They believed in a Creator and absolutely sovereign God, with man as His agent over creation.  It was man’s duty to adhere to God’s Law, and those who did so would be rewarded with positive sanctions, both temporally and eternally.  Conversely, those who disobeyed God’s law would have negative sanctions on this earth and ultimately eternally if they did not change their ways. Central to the Hebrew faith, is the hope of inheritance.  The greatest blessing one could receive, apart from eternal life, was to be chosen to be in the line of the Messiah.

The Greeks were polytheistic.  They believed that their lives were affected by the Olympian gods, the underground gods, the gods of their cities, and their own personal household god(s).  The problem with all these deities is that they didn’t necessarily agree.  Their conflicts often created wars between those that ritually honored them. Ultimately, man was just the pawn that was moved on the chessboard.  He was a plaything.  Opposing authorities also created opposing laws.  It was difficult to know which law to follow.  One law, however, was unbreakable – the law of revenge.  Revenge was carried inter-generationally and could not be satisfied.  One death would be avenged by another death, then that death would need to be avenged, and so on… It never ended.  As far as sanctions and succession, the Greeks could count on the negative sanctions of Revenge through history, but they did not have any positive hope in the immediate or distant future.

The Roman worldview was based on Greece’s worldview.  Their gods and religious practices were very similar to the Greeks but they tended to be much more politically-based.  They believed in the partial sovereignty of multiple gods.  They were careful to perform the required ritual sacrifices in hopes of appeasing the gods, but ultimately they too were just playthings.  The Romans believed that there were five ages of men.  Each age was more degenerate than the previous one.  Mankind, they believed, would continue to decline as time went on.  The only hope was to stop time by creating an empire.

The Christian literature that this course covered was mostly concurrent with Roman literature.  Authors of these works upheld the sovereignty of God in contrast to the Roman gods.  Although they believed in the higher Law of God, the early Christians were ready to submit to Roman law, unless it directly contradicted God’s Law.  But even then, they didn’t revolt, but merely rejoiced in their persecution, looking with hope toward an eternal future.  They didn’t view themselves as having any role in history.  History would end with the final judgment and the world’s blessings just weren’t worth pursuing.  The only succession in history they counted on was that the Church would last until the end of time.  They didn’t claim that the Church would be triumphant in history – only that it would last.

Medieval literature also recognized God’s sovereignty.  It emphasized hierarchical obedience in institutional systems.  God was always at the top, but the typical man obeyed a superior who obeyed God.  Apart from obedience, law was not really addressed.  There was not even an attempt to relate the obedience of specific laws of God to success in history.  Indeed, sanctions and succession in history were not even mentioned.  Eternal inheritance, however, did appear to relate somewhat to one’s works on earth.  However, (at least in the case of the famous medieval work, Little Flowers, by Francis of Assisi) it appeared that purgatory was foreseeable for most people, no matter how many good works they did.  There didn’t seem to be anything you could do personally to prevent your purgatory.  You were entirely dependent on the spirituality and prayers of third parties.

Now, let’s apply these summaries to Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

I have written about the devastation of the Black Death in some of my previous essays.  Such an occurrence has incredible aftermath.  Socially and religiously speaking, it overturned Europe. Boccaccio and Chaucer write post-Black Death stories, and their writings portray how radically different the typical European’s outlook became in a matter of a few decades.  Europe had been religiously united by the Catholic Church, but when the Church was unable to stop the insurmountable deaths, people began to lose faith.  They gave up on the Church and they gave up on life itself.  Nothing stopped the terrible plague.  Some isolated themselves and some indulged themselves.  But neither approach affected the random death patterns.

Boccaccio and Chaucer’s writings show no trace of a sovereign God.  Instead they attack the corrupt hierarchies of both the Church and the state.  They offer no program of social redemption and no system of ethics.  They do not even identify a system of predictable causation.  They reflect only loss of hope.  It is as though there is no longer any point to life.  But then, this is not surprising, is it?  If one had no reason to do anything; if there was no hope for results from one’s actions, what would be the point of life?  You’d think that perhaps, if they did not speak of historical succession, they would at least mention eternal succession.  But the Church had lost its influence, and eternal succession was barely mentioned in the stories.

In the repercussions of the Black Death, the steady religious belief system in the sovereignty of God, in man’s responsibility to God and His Law, in the ethical causation in history, and in eternal inheritance had been completely abandoned.  Although perhaps not in name, the people could have believed in classical (Greek and Roman) religion.  The pagans performed the correct rituals and left the rest up to fate.  Because there was no reliable causation in their religion, there was nothing more they could do.  Similarly, the literature of Boccaccio and Chaucer reflects despair.  People no longer acted, expecting a particular result.  No, the Black Death had proved to them that there was no such thing as ethical causation.  Sure, they continued to use the religious expressions of the Church, and sure they continued to invoke God.  But it was as meaningless as the ritual sacrifices of the Greeks and the Romans.  Just as those sacrifices offered no surety to the future, so these invocations had no real meaning.

It is no wonder that Europe met with the Renaissance shortly after these pieces were written.  The Renaissance was basically a rebirth of ancient culture.  People identified with the ancient Greeks and Romans religiously, and now they wanted to identify with them culturally.

The Church never again had the widespread authority and respect which it had enjoyed before the Black Death.  A whole new era had begun.

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What can we say about the condition of the Catholic Church on the eve of the Protestant Reformation?

The Protestant Reformation shaped history during the sixteenth century, but it did not come from out of the blue.  The Catholic Church had deteriorated over a long period of time.

Regular Mass attendance in the late fifteenth century had gone down, yet there was increased interest in dramatic spectacles such as High Masses (masses commemorating particular saints).  Large crowds often gathered to hear famous preachers.  Several literary works of piety were produced during this time.  One of these was the Imitation of Christ, by Thomas A. Kempis.  This devotional encouraged the public to model their lives after Christ so they might receive His guidance.  Pilgrimages were common during this time as well.

But not all the public trends were commendable.  Superstitions were widespread with particular focus on death and astrology.  There was exaggerated devotion to the saints.  Extreme cruelty was not uncommon – the wars were particularly savage, the heads of enemies were saved and pickled in salt, executions would be prolonged so that the convict was tortured for a whole month before being killed and some were even buried alive…

Conditions in the Church institutions themselves were even worse.  Much of the clergy was impoverished to a state of destitution, provoking a desire for money, which they incessantly demanded off the public.  Reports of clergymen’s immoral conduct (including gaming, drinking, loose living, and keeping concubines) were common, but it is difficult to know if (or how much) these reports were exaggerated.  Absenteeism (bishops who collect their income but do not reside in their dioceses and do not administer their spiritual duties) was a growing problem as well.  There was widespread clerical ignorance because there were no seminaries to teach the preachers.  Monasteries had strayed very far from traditional rules such as that of St. Benedictine or St. Francis.  Many monks practiced adultery and demanded unwarranted amounts of money from the laity.

Since the spirituality on the earth, namely the institutions of the Church, was thoroughly corrupt, people sought spirituality outside the earth. Some became involved in mystical theology which claimed that all knowledge was in vain and one only needed love, obtained through contemplation and meditation on God.  The eremitic tradition, promoting hermitage, also saw a revival.

A movement for religious reform known as Devotio Moderna began in the late fourteenth century.  It is known today largely through the Imitation of Christ (c. 1400), by Thomas à Kempis.  This devotional encourages Christians to reform themselves and model their lives after Christ.

Overall, the Church’s need for reform was desperate.  Even devout Catholics despaired over its widespread corruption.  But it wouldn’t be until the sixteenth century that reformation would finally come to pass.  The council of Trent addressed worldliness, superstitions and immorality in the Church.  Preserving the liturgy and traditional teachings of the Church, it dealt with abuses by particular people.

The Protestants, however, were done with the reoccurring reforms of the Church institutions.  They instigated a reformation unlike any other, one that sought to abolish the Church institutions themselves.  The common person should be accountable to God and God’s Law alone, not to man – pope, clergyman, or otherwise.

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Discuss some of the significant aspects of the reign of Louis XI.

Louis XI reigned in France from 1461-1483.  He was thirty-eight when he became king and he lived very simply.  He was involved in intrigue and employed many spies nationally and internationally.  Humanism also appeared to have some effect on Louis, for he was an avid reader and very interested in literature and art.  He was always careful to surround himself with educated people.

He is most remembered for his absolute commitment to the centralization of France.  Feudalism had allowed local people to exercise substantial authority, and Louis wanted to redirect this allegiance to the monarchy of France.  He believed that centralizing France would build it up after the many years of war (The Hundred Years’ War ended in 1453.).  He set up a postal service that went through the estates and demanded dues to the king, which had long gone unpaid.  Louis’ efforts were successful in uniting France and establishing a strong monarchy.

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Discuss the Italian War of 1494-1498.

Charles VIII of France invaded Italy in 1494, hoping to take over Naples which would lead to French domination of trade in the Mediterranean.  Charles was cheered on by Milan – Naples’ rival.  On his way, Charles marched through Pisa and Florence, capturing them easily.  Indeed, his victories were so rapid and so sweeping that the Milanese feared he might not honor their support.  What if he decided to add Milan to his collection of Italianate states?

Milan joined in a resistance league with the Holy Roman Empire and forced Charles to retreat from Italy.  The French tried to invade multiple times later but were largely unsuccessful, succeeding only in causing a lot of grief to the Italians.

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Discuss the rise and fall of Girolamo Savonarola.

Girolamo Savonarola was an Italian Dominican friar who lived in Florence during the late fifteenth century.  He is known for his passionate preaching against the Renaissance spirit, denouncing it as pagan and sinful.  He encouraged Italians to return to the simplicity of the moral message of the gospel.  Exposing the corruption and immorality of the Church, he particularly criticized the ruling Medici family for their luxurious lives.

He was a commanding preacher and many were instantly changed by his sermons.  The great artist Botticelli heard him preach and was so transformed by his sermons that he decided to put all his art toward religion from that time forward.  Many others participated in the burning of their pagan literature and art, demonstrating their desire for the pure truth.

Soon Savonarola went beyond Church reform and became involved in politics.  He forged a new constitution for Florence and came into power, instigating a kind of “dictatorship of the virtuous.”  His preaching began to clash with the thinking of Pope Alexander VI, who eventually excommunicated him.  Savonarola countered this blow by trying to call a council to depose the pope.  At this point, the people had had enough.  They still remembered the Great Western Schism, and they feared the results of a pope/dictator conflict.  His popularity waned fast.

Savonarola had previously mentioned his ability to perform miracles to demonstrate his divine calling, and a rival Franciscan preacher suggested that he follow through with this statement and walk through fire.  The last straw was broken when Savonarola absolutely refused to make good on his claim.  The people lost all faith in him and had him imprisoned.  Under torture, he confessed that his teachings were invented and in 1498 he was executed.

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Do you think that the old man in the Pardoner’s Tale was death?

The third story in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is written as though it was told by a pardoner.  A pardoner is someone in medieval times who made a living off selling papal indulgences which were believed to spare people from hell and sometimes even from purgatory.  The pardoner tells a tale about three hard partying fools who, upon seeing a corpse being carried out to a grave, decide to defeat Death once and for all.  The three fools join together by oath and swear to kill Death.  They set out and soon happen upon an old man who greets them, informing them that death won’t take him.  He goes on to instruct the men to go up a crooked path and there they will find death under a tree.  The men do as they were instructed and discover eight bushels of gold florins under the tree.  It would now be possible for them to indulge themselves on a permanent basis and they forget their oath.

The youngest man draws the lot to go to town and steal some food and wine.  The other two plan to kill him on his return so they can obtain a larger share of the gold.  But the youngest man also plans to kill his companions by putting poison in their food.  Both these plans were carried out successfully and all the men die without making use of the fortune.

The old man in the tale seems to impersonate death – appearing in disguise and mocking the fools.  Death proves to the men that “he” will always win.

This story was written as an allegory to demonstrate the foolishness of buying indulgences.  Neither physical death nor eternal damnation can be overcome by man.

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Discuss the key artists of the High Renaissance and mention one work from each.

Michelangelo (1475-1564) thought of himself as a marble carver but his skills far surpassed this.  He engaged in an incredibly long working life – 70 years.  He followed after classical example in his much of his choice of subject matter as well as material choice.  He is known for his intense focus on man and human musculature and the absence of landscapes in his paintings.  His most famous work is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Originally, when he was nominated for this job, he didn’t want to take it because he didn’t consider himself to be a painter.  But he became convinced that his rival-enemy Bromate had persuaded the pope to designate him for the job in hopes that he would not take it.  In response to this supposition, Michelangelo took the job.  It proved to be very difficult, especially because of the awkward positioning he was forced to assume.  After four years, he finally finished it – 5800 square feet of painted ceiling.

Raphael (1483-1520) is attributed for many paintings including 50 of “the Madonna” and numerous self-portraits. His work endeavored to harmonize Christianity and Classical ideals.  His last painting is known as the Transfiguration, and it depicts the Transfiguration of Jesus on top of a mountain in combination with another Gospel event when some of the disciples unsuccessfully attempted to exorcise a demon from a possessed boy.  This painting uniquely blends aspects of realism (in the expressions of those featured) with supernatural aspects (Jesus levitated above the apostles).

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an architect, inventor, engineer, and painter.  He had a very diverse range of interests.  He believed that a painter had to study what he depicted in order to do so accurately.  All these interests led Leonardo to constant involvement in multiple projects at a time, and he was known for not finishing things.  Of the ten paintings that have survived, which we know for sure to be Leonardo’s, probably the most popular one is The Last Supper.  This work illustrates a difficult scene in which Jesus is partaking of the Passover Supper with his disciples and he tells them that one of them will betray him and each asks “Is it I?”.  It would be difficult to portray the emotion of this scene, but Leonardo manages to dramatize it very touchingly.

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What were some of the problems associated with the Renaissance papacy?

Several of the popes during this period were immoral and provided an appalling example as Christians.  Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503), for instance, had multiple children and numerous love affairs.  He didn’t even attempt to hide this from the public, but instead paraded his children around.

Other popes engaged in diplomatic and military enterprises.  Julius II (1503-1513) viewed the pope’s role as the “political protector.”  He even attacked the cities of Perugia and Bologna in person when they refused to join with him in his attempt to defeat Venice.  Political activity and diplomacy consumed his papal reign and he paid little attention to the need for Church reform.

Leo X (1513-1521), on the other hand, was anti-war.  His interests were instead in scholarships and arts, but he was still unaware of the need for church reform.

Whether moral or immoral, the Renaissance popes were generally distracted and didn’t recognize and address the screaming need for Church reform.  They would pay for their obliviousness, because it was during this time that Martin Luther instigated the Protestant Reformation.

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