You probably know by now that I like this sort of thing. Writing for History Today in 1991, Jeffrey Russel uncovers the sources of the lie that people in the Middle Ages thought the earth was flat and that Christopher Columbus was going to fall off the edge when he headed out to explore the world. It's an absolute fabrication that, like Marie Antoinette saying "Let Them Eat Cake", has been debunked over and over and yet persists in sloppy thinking about the past. The article concludes:
We have seen how the Error was established. The question is why it persists in gripping the educated public imagination after having been debunked by historians over six decades. Because the medieval worldview is so foreign to the modern, positivist worldview, it is misunderstood as superstition: medieval people were so superstitious that they must have believed in something as foolish as the flat earth. Underlying this is the Protestant prejudice against the Middle Ages for being Catholic, the Rationalist prejudice against Judeo-Christianity as a whole, and the Anglo-American prejudice against the Spanish, a prejudice so common that it is known to historians as 'the Black Legend of Spain'. The few actual medieval flat-earthers were belaboured to confirm the prejudice, and the bulk of the evidence on the other side was ignored.
And beneath this distortion is the ethnocentric contemporary urge to believe that contemporary post-industrial society is the outcome of a beneficent progress. The attribution to a group of a belief system which the group itself does not actually hold is a manifestation of blind prejudice familiar to sociologists.
Chronocentrism – the assumption of the superiority of 'our' views to that of older cultures – is the most stubborn remaining variety of ethnocentrism. 'Irrationalism born of hope never dies', and the trust that we are making progress toward a goal (which is not defined and about which there is no consensus) leads us to undervalue the past in order to convince ourselves of the superiority of the present. And this extracts a heavy price. The belief that history or providence or whatever is inexorably leading us in some direction reduces our sene of responsibility for ourselves in the moment that is the present.
Our determination to believe that Flat Error arises out of our contempt for the past and our need to believe in the superiority of the present – that is, of ourselves. And since the present is transformed day by day, minute by minute, second by second, into the past, while the future is unknown and unknowable, we are left on the dark sea without stars, without compass or astrolabe, more unsure of our position and our goal than any of Columbus's sailors. The terror of meaninglessness, of falling off the edge of knowledge, is greater than the imagined fear of falling off the edge of the earth. And so we prefer to believe a familiar error than to search, unceasingly, the darkness.
Russell introduces a new term for the whig view of history--chronocentrism--based on our rather irrational belief that we are always progressing.
Read the rest of the article here.