The Late Birth of a Flat Earth
By Stephen Jay Gould
Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History (New York, 1996)
Introduction: The Mortal Remains of the Venerable Bede (673-735) lie in Durham Cathedral, under a tombstone with an epitaph that must win all prizes for a “no nonsense” approach to death. In rhyming Latin doggerel, the vault proclaims: Hac sunt in fossa, Baedae venerabilis ossa—“The bones of the Venerable Bede lie in this grave.” (Fossa is, literally, a ditch or a trough, but we will let this gentler reading stand.)
In the taxonomy of Western history that I learned as a child, Bede shone as a rare light in the “Dark Ages” between Roman grandeur and a slow medieval recovery culminating in the renewed glory of the Renaissance. Bede’s fame rests upon his scriptural commentaries and his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), completed in 732. Chronology sets the basis of good history, and Bede preceded his great work with two treatises on the reckoning and sequencing of time: De temporibus (On Times) in 703, and De temporum ratione (On the Measurement of Times) in 725.
Bede’s chronologies had their greatest influence in popularizing our inconvenient system of dividing recent time into B.C. and A.D. on opposite sides of Christ’s supposed nativity (almost surely incorrectly determined, as Herod had died by this time of transition, and could not have seen the Wise Men or slaughtered the innocent at the onset of year one). In his chronologies, Bede sought to order the events of Christian history, but the primary motive and purpose of his calculations centered on a different, and persistently vexatious, problem in ecclesiastical timing—the reckoning of Easter. The complex definition of this holiday—the first Sunday following the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox—requires considerable astronomical sophistication, for lunar and seasonal cycles must both be known with precision.
Such computations entail a theory of the heavens, and Bede clearly presented his classical conception of the earth as a sphere at the hub of the cosmos—orbis in medio totius mundi positus (an orb placed in the center of the universe). Lest anyone misconstrue his intent, Bede then explicitly stated that he meant a three-dimensional sphere, not a ﬂat plate. Moreover, he added, our planetary sphere may be considered as perfect because even the highest mountains produce no more than an imperceptible ripple on a globe of such great diameter.