The scholars of the Middle Ages are usually said to have been profoundly ignorant as regards the shape of the earth, its size, and the number of its inhabitants, and to have cherished the queerest notions, when they really permitted themselves any ideas at all, as to the antipodes. This is very true if the ideas of the ignorant masses of the people and the second-rate authors and thinkers be taken as the standard of medieval thought. Unfortunately, such sources as these have only too often served as authorities for modern historians of education and modern essayists on the history of science. This state of affairs would painfully suggest the curiously inverted notion of the supposed ideas entertained with regard to science in our day, that would be obtained by some thirtieth century student, were he to judge our scientific opinions from some of the queer books written by pretentiously ignorant writers, who have pet scientific hobbies of their own and exploit them at the expense of a long-suffering world, if by some accident of fortune these books should be preserved and the really great contributions to science be either actually lost or lost to sight. It is from Albert the Great and such men, and not from their petty contemporaries, that the true spirit of the science of the age must be deduced…Albert had more than a vague hint of the possible existence of land on the other side of the globe. He gives an elaborate demonstration of the sphericity of the earth, and it has been suggested by more than one scholar that his views on this subject led eventually to the discovery of America…Albert’s biographer said:

“He treats as fabulous the commonly-received idea, in which Venerable Bede had acquiesced, that the region of the earth south of the equator was uninhabitable, and considers, that from the equator to the South Pole, the earth was not only habitable, but in all probability actually inhabited, except directly at the poles, where he imagines the cold to be excessive. If there be any animals there, he says, they must have very thick skins to defend them from the rigor of the climate, and they are probably of a white color. The intensity of cold is, however, tempered by the action of the sea. He describes the antipodes and the countries they comprise, and divides the climate of the earth into seven zones. He smiles with a scholar’s freedom at the simplicity of those who suppose that persons living at the opposite region of the earth must fall off, an opinion that can only rise out of the grossest ignorance, ‘for when we speak of the lower hemisphere, this must be understood merely as relatively to ourselves.’

“It is as a geographer that Albert’s superiority to the writers of his own time chiefly appears. Bearing in mind the astonishing ignorance which then prevailed on this subject, it is truly admirable to find him correctly tracing the chief mountain chains of Europe, with the rivers which take their source in each; remarking on portions of coast which have in later times been submerged by the ocean, and islands which have been raised by volcanic action above the level of the sea; noticing the modification of climate caused by mountains, seas and forests, and the division of the human race, whose differences he ascribes to the effect upon them of the countries they inhabit. In speaking of the British Isles, he alludes to the commonly-received idea that another distant island called Thile, or Thule, existed far in the Western Ocean, uninhabitable by reason of its frightful climate, but which, he says, has perhaps not yet been visited by man.”

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)


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