Saturday, October 10, 2009

Christopher Columbus, Washington Irving, and the Medieval Church

Many Americans will celebrate Columbus Day this Monday- October 12, 2009.

In my school days, Christopher Columbus was presented as a hero (and rightly so), for he not only discovered America, but he proved that the world was round to the unenlightened medieval academia and potentates. And this myth was re-enforced in American culture, even humorously such as a favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon - Hare We Go - as Columbus argues with the King of Spain whether the earth is flat or round.

In my previous blog, Dan Brown's novel Angels & Demons integrated into its plot the Church's pressure on Galileo to recant his helio-centric theories. Hence to this day, Science and Religion are perceived to be poles apart.

We may cast medieval philosophers (scientists of their time) as superstitious, ignorant people, clinging to falsehoods like the flat earth. But the medieval Church never taught that the earth was flat. Medieval sailors knew the earth was round for they observed ships disappearing over the horizon. Much of that perception of the flat earth mentality comes from the fantasies of a 19th century American novelist, Washington Irving, best known for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle.

Irving's biography of Columbus, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, came out in 1828. Before the Great Voyage, a scene in this book describes how Columbus was confronted by the ignorance and bigotry of the Church authorities. They accused him of heresy for claiming the earth was round, when the Church taught that the earth was flat. Hence, Washington Irving's fantasy of Columbus portrayed a false picture that the medieval Church suppressed knowledge and suppressed those who taught to extend the boundaries of Science.

Yet, the philosophers of the Middle Ages saw the purpose of knowledge as useful if it brought them closer to understanding God. Therefore, Churchmen carried out scientific experimentation with the blessing of the Church. Roger Bacon was one of these remarkable Churchmen, who was 400 years ahead of Galileo and Newton in his discoveries. And this, Lord willing, will be the subject of my next blog.

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Replicas of the Santa Maria, Nina, Pinta:

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