Warfare of Science with Theology   Chapter II: Geography

The Size of the Earth

But at an early period another subject in geography had stirred the minds of thinking men - the earth's size. Various ancient investigators had by different methods reached measurements more or less near the truth; these methods were continued into the Middle Ages, supplemented by new thought, and among the more striking results were those obtained by Roger Bacon and Gerbert, afterward Pope Sylvester II. They handed down to after-time the torch of knowledge, but, as their reward among their contemporaries, they fell under the charge of sorcery.

Far more consonant with the theological spirit of the Middle Ages was a solution of the problem from Scripture, and this solution deserves to be given as an example of a very curious theological error, chancing to result in the establishment of a great truth. The second book of Esdras, which among Protestants is placed in the Apocrypha, was held by many of the foremost men of the ancient Church as fully inspired: though Jerome looked with suspicion on this book, it was regarded as prophetic by Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Ambrose, and the Church acquiesced in that view. In the Eastern Church it held an especially high place, and in the Western Church, before the Reformation, was generally considered by the most eminent authorities to be part of the sacred canon. In the sixth chapter of this book there is a summary of the works of creation, and in it occur the following verses:

"Upon the third day thou didst command that the waters should be gathered in the seventh part of the earth; six parts hast thou dried up and kept them to the intent that of these some, being planted of God and tilled, might serve thee.''

"Upon the fifth day thou saidst unto the seventh part where the waters were gathered, that it should bring forth living creatures, fowls and fishes, and so it came to pass.''

These statements were reiterated in other verses, and were naturally considered as of controlling authority.

Among the scholars who pondered on this as on all things likely to increase knowledge was Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly. As we have seen, this great man, while he denied the existence of the antipodes, as St. Augustine had done, believed firmly in the sphericity of the earth, and, interpreting these statements of the book of Esdras in connection with this belief, he held that, as only one seventh of the earth's surface was covered by water, the ocean between the west coast of Europe and the east coast of Asia could not be very wide. Knowing, as he thought, the extent of the land upon the globe, he felt that in view of this divinely authorized statement the globe must be much smaller, and the land of ``Zipango,'' reached by Marco Polo, on the extreme east coast of Asia, much nearer than had been generally believed.

On this point he laid stress in his great work, the Imago Mundi, and an edition of it having been published in the days when Columbus was thinking most closely upon the problem of a westward voyage, it naturally exercised much influence upon his reasonings. Among the treasures of the library at Seville, there is nothing more interesting than a copy of this work annotated by Columbus himself: from this very copy it was that Columbus obtained confirmation of his belief that the passage across the ocean to Marco Polo's land of Zipango in Asia was short. But for this error, based upon a text supposed to be inspired, it is unlikely that Columbus could have secured the necessary support for his voyage. It is a curious fact that this single theological error thus promoted a series of voyages which completely destroyed not only this but every other conception of geography based upon the sacred writings.