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Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea by Garwood Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Jul 8th, 2021

Introduction

It is crucial for courses of World History to cover ideas that have challenged or criticized beliefs accepted by society. Regardless of whether these points were, or are, correct, their existence is a valid subject of investigation because they allow one to explore the different thought processes that people of various eras engaged in. One book that examines the history of critics of the status quo is Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea by Christine Garwood. Garwood’s work collects and reviews information about people who lived over a multitude of periods but were united by one idea – that the Earth is flat. The author focuses on those particular individuals with the most recognized voices in the debate against a round Earth, and includes older findings and theories that people held. The present review will examine the book’s contents, as well as Garwood’s point of view, and argues that this work is a valuable addition to any World History course because of its attentive and focused narrative.

Historical Events

In Flat Earth, Garwood looks at the various points of view in the discussion of the Earth being flat to illustrate how this debate has evolved over time. The author starts with a prologue, which challenges the idea that all medieval people believed the Earth to be flat.1 Moreover, she states that the expedition of Ferdinand Magellan, which he led in 1522, was the key event that greatly weakened the arguments against a round Earth.2 In this part of the book, Garwood attempts to display how people treated beliefs about a flat Earth before the influence of technology and progress, and bases the changes in people’s views on their interpretation of the story that Columbus was the one to introduce and support the idea that the Earth was round.3

In the first chapter of the book, Garwood discusses the impact of religion on flat Earth theories. Here, she provides quotes from the Bible and shows how its interpretation could lead to one supporting the flat Earth idea. Garwood also points out the beliefs of Aristotle and the overall prevalence of the acceptance of a flat Earth in Ancient Greece. While the previous chapter focused on Columbus, this one reviews ancient philosophers, and the religion that was subsequently influenced by Greco-Roman traditions – Christianity. Nonetheless, the author repeats her thesis from the prologue that people in the “Dark Age” did not promote the idea of a flat Earth as an exclusively correct view.4

The following chapters have an even narrower focus since each of them discusses the theory of the flat Earth as propagated by one particular person. The third chapter moves away from ancient and medieval times into the modern revival of the doctrine in the middle of the nineteenth century. Here, the main person of interest is Samuel Birley Rowbotham, otherwise known by his pseudonym “Parallax.”5 Garwood recounts the initiatives that Parallax proposed or completed to prove that the Earth was flat. The author, however, does not only describe his ideas, pursuits, and publications. She also ponders whether Parallax actually believed his own theories.

Following Parallax, Garwood shifts her narrative to one of his followers, John Hampden.6 Then, the author examines the views of Lady Elizabeth Blount, a writer and a creationist.7 To review the movement of the flat Earth-believers at the beginning of the twentieth century, Garwood chooses to discuss Wilbur Glenn Voliva, a member, and later a leader, of the community of Zion, IL.8 Through his bibliography, Garwood tackles the establishment of Zion as well as its Evangelistic structure. Next, the writer presents how space exploration entered the discussion of a flat Earth using the story of Samuel Shenton. Briefly examining the Canadian society of believers in a flat Earth, Garwood presents the final person, Charles Kenneth Johnson, the president of the International Flat Earth Research Society of America (IFERSA). Through this biography, the author looks at the evolution of flat Earth theories in the second part of the twentieth century. 9

Point of View

Overall, one can see that the book tackles not just one historical event but the development process of the flat Earth theory and its fluctuating popularity. However, Garwood appears to be interested in presenting this timeline of events through the lives of the most adamant and recognized advocates. Thus, her point of view is narrow – the author describes what a small number of people felt about the ideology, and the ways they tried to prove it. This book structure allows one to see the line of succession of these persons whose teachings and publications inspired and guided the next generation. Moreover, the choice of narrative style shows that there exists a certain foundation that supports the belief in a flat Earth.

Garwood’s preliminary investigation into the contents and possible meanings of the Bible is not accidental – the author reveals that this information is what influenced the majority of advocates. It is clear that Garwood views the theory of a flat Earth as untruthful and incorrect. The author’s statements, such as “educated people in fifteenth-century Europe did not believe that the Earth was flat”, reveal her position in this discussion.10 Nevertheless, one may also see that Garwood treats the lives of her research subjects with attention and care, providing arguments for why they would believe in the theory.

Accuracy of Representation

Overall, the book can be said to provide an accurate and meticulous representation of the described events. It is vital to note that Garwood does not investigate the circumstances of every person’s point of view. Instead, the writer takes an individual perspective and recounts events as connected to its thought leader. However, the overall narrative aligns with what other scholars have discovered. For example, research into the shape of the Earth in medieval times reveals that both spherical and flat-form theories were present in Europe during the fifteen and sixteen centuries.11 Furthermore, people deemed the flat Earth model less believable after the journey of Magellan taken in 1522.12 This finding aligns with the descriptions of Garwood. Her recollection of how the myth about Columbus was altered and distributed also adheres to other scientific results.

While the connection between the flat Earth and religion as an overarching narrative is an idea that is not as easy to confirm as historical recollections, it is also supported by other works. Paolillo considers the modern movement of the flat Earth theory’s supporters and mentions religious fundamentalism – a belief that the Bible should be interpreted literally.13 Garwood investigates fundamentalism as well, noting that this movement made significant contributions to the development of this idea.14 Thus, one may see that existing scholarly evidence supports the information presented in the book.

The Use of the Book in World History Courses

Garwood’s book could be used in courses for World History for multiple reasons. First of all, it presents a summary of many events that define the movement of the flat Earth believers. It includes ancient, medieval, and modern times, comparing and contrasting their foundations and thought processes. Second, the author chooses the most prolific activists to demonstrate the actions and ideologies that were deemed valuable in supporting the theory of a flat Earth. As an outcome, this book also serves as a collection of biographies of multiple individuals. Finally, Garwood connects technology, history, and religion, including providing readers with information on Christianity and its branches. After reading this book, a person will gain significant knowledge about the approaches of science critics, as well as their persistence when faced with the ever-evolving world of research.

Conclusion

In her book Flat Earth, Garwood investigates an interesting theory of the Earth being flat that has been present in societies for centuries. The author, however, presents a person-focused discussion, examining a number of biographies rather than the movement’s overall popularity. Such names as Parallax, places as Zion, and societies as the IFERSA, are all important parts of this theory’s history. Garwood demonstrates the line of ideology succession that existed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She connects Christianity and the flat Earth theory, at the same time disproving or challenging some of the old myths. Overall, this book is a study of the flat Earth idea that reveals the difficulties of debating this and similar topics with devoted supporters. Other scientific research seems to support the author’s statements. World History courses may benefit from including this work into their curriculum since it provides comprehensive and detailed information, as well as focused critical analysis.

Bibliography

Allegro, James J. “The Bottom of the Universe: Flat Earth Science in the Age of Encounter.” History of Science 55, no. 1 (2017): 61-85.

Garwood, Chistine. Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008. ePUB e-book.

Paolillo, John C. First Monday 23, no. 12 (2018). Web.

Footnotes

  1. Chistine Garwood, Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), ePUB e-book, chap. 0.
  2. Ibid., chap. 0.
  3. Ibid., chap. 0.
  4. Ibid., chap. 1.
  5. Ibid., chap. 2.
  6. Ibid., chap, 3.
  7. Ibid., chap. 5.
  8. Ibid., chap. 6.
  9. Ibid., chap. 9.
  10. Ibid., chap. 0.
  11. James J. Allegro, “The Bottom of the Universe: Flat Earth Science in the Age of Encounter,” History of Science 55, no. 1 (2017): 61.
  12. Ibid., 81.
  13. John C. Paolillo, “The Flat Earth Phenomenon on YouTube,” First Monday 23, no. 12 (2018), Web.
  14. Garwood, Flat Earth, chap. 6.
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