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Isidore, the Antipodeans, and th

Shape of the Earth
By William D. McCready*


endorsed in the ancient world, in Christian circles it found less favor and was
rejected from the patristic period right up to the rise of scholasticism.l Its most v
opponent was Lactantius, to whom it was manifest nonsense. "Is there anyone,"
"so foolish as to believe that there are men whose feet are higher than their heads
things that lie flat with us hang suspended there; that crops and trees grow dow
that rain and snow and hail fall upwards upon the earth?"2 The root of such absu
he explains, is the notion that the universe is shaped like a globe and that conse
the earth, enclosed at its very center, must also be a sphere. If this is true, each pa
earth's surface must display the same range of topographical features and must a
inhabited by human beings and other animals. "If you ask those who defend th
strosities how it is, then, that everything does not fall into that lower part of the sk

*Department of History, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6, Canada.

1Virgil of Salzburg may have been a rare exception. In a letter of 748 to Saint Boniface, Pope Zacha
him of having claimed "that there are another world and other men beneath the earth, or even the sun
("quod alius mundus, et alii homines sub terra sint, seu sol et luna"). See H. Vander Linden, "Virgile de
et les th6ories cosmographiques au VIIIe siecle," Bulletin de l'Academie Royale de Belgique (Classe de
5th Ser., 1914, 4:163-187; and John Carey, "Ireland and the Antipodes: The Heterodoxy of Virgil of Sa
Speculum, 1989, 64:1-10, esp. p. 1. Vander Linden points to the possibility of Virgil drawing on
source. Carey suggests that his thinking could have been governed by ideas (of Irish provenance) that
merge folk belief in a subterranean or overseas fairyland with the Latin tradition of the Antipodes. Fo
combination of ideas see Patrick Gautier Dalchd, "Entre le folklore et la science: La legende des antipo
Giraud de Cambrie et Gervais de Tilbury," in La leyenda: Antropologia, historia, literatura/La leg
thropologie, histoire, litterature (Casa de Velazquez/Madrid: Universidad Complutense, 1989), pp.
2 "Aut est quisquam tam ineptus qui credat esse homines quorum vestigia sint superiora quam capita
quae aput nos iacent, inversa pendere, fruges et arbores deorsum versus crescere, pluvias et nives et g
sursum versus cadere in terram?" Lactantius, Divinae institutiones 3.24 (Corpus scriptorum eccles
latinorum [Vienna, 1866-], Vol. 19, Pt. 1, p. 254 [hereafter cited as CSEL, followed by numbers rep
volume, part, and pages]), trans. Sister Mary Francis McDonald (Fathers of the Church, 49) (Washingt
Catholic Univ. America, 1964), p. 228 (slightly revised). Cf. Lactantius, Epitome divinarum institu
(39) (CSEL 19.1:709-710): "de antipodis quoque sine risu nec audiri nec dici potest, adseritur ta
aliquid serium, ut credamus esse homines qui vestigiis nostris habeant adversa vestigia. tolerabilius An
deliravit, qui nigram nivem dixit."

Isis, 1996, 87: 108-127

?1996 by The History of Science Society. All rights reserved.
0021-1753/96/8401-0001$01.00 on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


answer that this is the nature of things. Heavy bodies are borne into the middl
are all connected at the center, just like the spokes in a wheel. Things withou
such as clouds, smoke, and fire, are dispersed from the center, so that they mig
sky."3 All things considered, this states the scientific view of the ancient world
well. However, Lactantius does not seem fully to have grasped it. To his mind
down remained absolute, privileged directions, with the consequence that An
must be people literally standing on their heads.
Similar incomprehension characterizes the sixth-century Christian Topograp
mas Indicopleustes, although there is no indication that this marginal figure
exerted any real influence.4 Much more significant, and more representative of th
view in general, was the reluctance of both Jerome and Augustine to endorse
Augustine discusses the issue at length, from which it is clear that, in his case,
considerations were paramount. The idea rests on no empirical basis whatever,
but is simply an example of weak inferential reasoning. "Since the earth is s
between the celestial hemispheres," he states, "and since the universe must hav
lowest and central point," it is thought that "the other portion of the earth wh
us cannot be without human inhabitants." It is the same argument that Lactant
tered. However, Augustine responds by attacking its logic directly. Even if t
could be proved to be spherical in shape, he says, there is no assurance that t
other hemisphere must be a mirror image of the one we inhabit. For all we kn
be covered entirely by water. Even if it is habitable, it does not necessarily fo
is actually inhabited by human beings. On the contrary, there is every reaso
that it is not, for "it is utterly absurd to say that any men from this side of the
sail across the immense tract of the ocean, reach the far side, and then people
sprung from the single father of all mankind."5
Although he does not treat the theological aspects of the issue, the Venera
endorses Augustine's judgment. In chapter 34 of his De temporum ratione, Bed
the five earthly climate zones: the torrid zone at the equator, the arctic and ant
at either pole, and the two temperate zones in between. With regard to the latt

only one of these can be proven to be inhabited. No credence whatever is to be given to popular
tales about Antipodeans, nor does any historian say that he has either seen or heard or read of
anyone who, leaving the winter sun behind and traveling into the southern regions, has crossed
the extreme heat of Ethiopia and found in the areas beyond regions tempered by heat on the
one side and cold on the other and fit for human habitation. Pliny, the expert investigator of
the facts of nature, maintains [non negat] that the earth, "although in the shape of a pine cone,
is nonetheless inhabited all around." Note, however, what he says when writing of these zones:

3 "Quodsi quaeras ab iis qui haec portenta defendunt, quomodo ergo non cadant omnia in inferiorem illam
caeli partem, hanc respondent rerum esse naturam, ut pondera in medium ferantur et ad medium conexa sint
omnia, sicut radios videmus in rota, quae autem levia sunt, ut nebula fumus ignis, a medio differantur, ut caelum
petant": Lactantius, Div. inst. 3.24 (CSEL 19.1:256), trans. McDonald, pp. 229-230 (revised).
4 See Cosmas Indicopleustes, Topographia Christiana 1.14, 1.20 (Sources chr6tiennes [Paris: Cerf, 1942-],
Vol. 141, pp. 284-286, 290-292 [hereafter cited as SC, followed by numbers representing volume and pages]).
Cf. Wanda Wolska, La topographie chretienne de Cosmas Indicopleustes: Theologie et science au Vle siecle
(Paris: Presses Univ. France, 1962), pp. 211-212.
5 See Jerome, In Hiezechielem 1.1.6-8 (Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina [Turnhout: Brepols, 1953-], Vol.
75, p. 11 [hereafter cited as CCL, followed by numbers representing volume and pages]), where he comments
briefly on the two Cherubim of the Temple (1 Kings 6:23-28): "Alii vero, qui philosophorum stultam sequntur
sapientiam, duo hemisphaeria in duobus templi Cherubim, nos et antipodas quasi supinos et cadentes suspi-
cantur." For Augustine's views see Augustine, De civitate Dei 16.9 (CCL 48:510), trans. Gerald G. Walsh and
Grace Monahan (Fathers of the Church, 14) (Washington, D.C.: Catholic Univ. America, 1952), pp. 504-505. on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


"There are only two temperate zones between the torrid one and the frozen ones, and these
have no communication with each other because of the fiery heat of the heavenly body."6

Bede is clearly aware of the views of Pliny the Elder, who states that the weight of learned
opinion is that human beings are distributed all around the world, treading the same earth
at the center of the universe beneath their feet and sharing the same sky overhead. The
uneducated, Pliny goes on to say, are inclined to wonder why those on the other side of
the world do not fall off-as if their counterparts in the other hemisphere could not equally
well ask the same question of us!7 Generally Bede is respectful of Pliny's views. Here,
however, he rejects them categorically, arguing that, on Pliny's own premises, they are
Given the virtual unanimity in other early medieval sources, it is surprising that the
question of the Antipodae was not handled more consistently by Isidore of Seville. (For a
depiction of Isidore and his sister see Figure 1.) His principal statement on the matter
might well have served as a model for Bede, although, unfortunately, it is marred by more
than a modicum of confusion:

With regard to those who are called Antipodae-because they are thought to be opposite us in
that, placed beneath the earth, as it were, their footprints oppose our own-it is by no means
to be believed. Neither the solidity nor the center of the earth permits it, nor is it confirmed by
any historical evidence, but it is the poets, in a kind of quasi-reasoning, who make such con-

6"... unam solummodo probare possunt habitatam, neque enim vel antipodarum ullatenus est fabulis accom-
odandus assensus, vel aliquis refert historicus vidisse vel audisse vel legisse se, qui meridianas in partes solem
transierunt hibernum ita ut eo post tergum relicto, transgressis Aethiopum fervoribus, temperatas ultra eos hinc
calore illinc rigore atque habitabiles mortalium repererint sedes. Denique solertissimus naturarum inquisitor
Plinius, qui non negat terram etsi sit figura pineae nucis, nihilominus undique incoli, vide quid de his scribens
zonis dicat: Circa, inquit, duae tantum inter exustam et rigentes temperantur, eaeque ipsae inter se non perviae
propter incendium sideris": Bede, De temporum ratione 34 (CCL 123B:390). The italics, which reflect the CCL
text, signify places where Bede is borrowing verbally from Pliny. Cf. Pliny, Naturalis historia 2.64.161, 2.68.172
(Pliny: Natural History [Loeb Classical Library], Vol. 1 [London: Heinemann; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ.
Press, 1938] [hereafter cited as LCL], pp. 296-297, 306-307). Unless otherwise noted, translations are my own.
Here I have borrowed from the LCL translation of the portions of Pliny quoted by Bede.
7Pliny, Nat. hist. 2.64.161 (LCL, p. 296): "Ingens hic pugna litterarum contraque volgi: circumfundi terrae
undique homines conversisque inter se pedibus stare, et cunctis similem esse caeli verticem, simili modo ex
quacumque parte mediam terram calcari, illo quaerente, cur non decident contra siti, tamquam non ratio praesto
sit ut nos non decidere mirentur illi."
8 For a different reading of Bede's text see Thomas R. Eckenrode, "The Growth of a Scientific Mind: Bede's
Early and Late Scientific Writings," Downside Review, 1976, 94:197-212, at pp. 206-207. According to Eck-
enrode, "Bede allows for the possibility of people living on the other side of the earth." By no means did he
collapse in front of authority such as Augustine's. "In effect, Bede was saying that since we cannot prove or
disprove the actual fact of people living on the other side of the earth, we ought to, at least, allow for the
possibility of such a phenomenon." See also Wesley M. Stevens, Bede's Scientific Achievement (Jarrow Lecture,
1985) [Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bealls, 1986], esp. p. 5 (with n. 11 on p. 23) and p. 8 (with n. 21 on p. 24). Stevens
understands Bede to be eliminating only Antipodae in the strict sense (inhabitants of the southwest quarter of
the globe), not other inhabitants of the southern hemisphere. Pointing to De temp. ratione 32, he argues that
Bede "thought of the globe as populated on all sides, and ... spoke of the sun passing over those who inhabit
the southern side of it." In the text cited above, however, Bede's main point is that only the northern temperate
zone can be proved to be inhabited. In De temp. ratione 32 it is to the inhabitants of northern and southern
regions that he refers, not northern and southern hemispheres. The specific examples he gives are from the
known, inhabited portion of the earth. See below, at notes 21 and 23.
9 "lam vero hi qui Antipodae dicuntur, eo quod contrarii esse vestigiis nostris putantur, ut quasi sub terris
positi adversa pedibus nostris calcent vestigia, nulla ratione credendum est, quia nec soliditas patitur, nec centrum
terrae; sed neque hoc ulla historiae cognitione firmatur, sed hoc poetae quasi ratiocinando coniectant": Isidore,
Etymologiae 9.2.133, ed. W. M. Lindsay, Isidori Hispalensis Episcopi Etymologiarum sive Originum libri XX,
2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1911), n.p. (subsequent quotations are from this edition). A new critical edition is
making its appearance in installments in the series "Auteurs latins du moyen age." Hence cf. Marc Reydellet, on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


Figure 1. Isidore of Seville and his sister Florentine, after MS Laon 10.413. Reproduced,
permission of the Institut d'Etudes Augustiniennes, from Jacques Fontaine, Isidore de Se
culture classique dans I'Espagne wisigothique, 3 vols. (Paris, 1959-1983).

Neither the solidity nor the center of the earth has anything to do with it, of cou
claim to the contrary results from his taking six words of Servius ("nec solid
nec centrum terrae") out of context, inserting them in the middle of an extend
from Augustine.10 Nevertheless, Isidore does make two major points that are bo
later in Bede's statement: historically, no one has ever offered any proof for t
of Antipodae; and one cannot assent to what is otherwise mere conjecture. Wh
borrowed from Isidore at this juncture is uncertain. Possibly he was inspired
Augustine. Of the three, Isidore alone claims that the Antipodae are an inven
If this were all Isidore had to say, one would conclude that essentially his view was the

ed. and trans., Isidore de Seville. Etymologies: Livre IX (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1984), p. 117. To date three
other volumes have appeared: book 2, ed. and trans. (into English) Peter K. Marshall (1983); book 12, ed. and
trans. Jacques Andr6 (1986); and book 17, ed. and trans. Jacques Andre (1981).
10 For the borrowing from Augustine see De civ. Dei 16.9 (CCL 48:510): "Quod vero et Antipodas esse
fabulantur, id est homines a contraria parte terrae, ubi sol oritur, quando occidit nobis, adversa pedibus nostris
calcare vestigia: nulla ratione credendum est. Neque hoc ulla historica cognitione didicisse se adfirmant, sed
quasi ratiocinando coniectant." For the borrowing from Servius see Georgius Thilo and Hermannus Hagen, eds.,
Servii grammatici quiferuntur in Vergilii carmina commentarii, 3 vols. (Leipzig, 1881-1902; rpt., Hildesheim:
Georg Olms, 1961), Vol. 2, p. 27, where Servius comments on Aeneid 6.127: "Lucretius ex maiore parte et alii
integre docent inferorum regna ne posse quidem esse: nam locum ipsorum quem possumus dicere, cum sub terris
esse dicantur antipodes? in media vero terra eos esse nec soliditas patitur, nec KvzIpov terrae." This borrowing
was first noticed by Giuseppe Boffito, "La leggenda degli antipodi," in Miscellanea di studi critici edita in onore
di Arturo Graf(Bergamo: Istituto Italiano d'Arti Grafiche, 1903), p. 592 n. 4. Reydellet misses Isidore's use of
Servius, arguing instead that the six words in question summarize "de faqon elliptique" Augustine's extended
argument: Reydellet, ed. and trans., Isidore de Seville, pp. 116-117 n. 165. on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


same as Augustine's and Bede's.'1 However, elsewhere in the same work Isidore adv
a different view, endorsing the idea, clearly rejected by both Augustine and Bede, o
inhabited southern hemisphere. One key text is a chapter entitled "On the Five Circ
the Heavens":

The zones of the heavens are five in number, and because of the distinctions among them,
certain parts, by virtue of their moderate temperature, are inhabited, while others, because of
the enormity of their cold or heat, are uninhabitable. They are called zones or circles because
they exist in the circumference of the sphere. The first circle is called apKTtKOu; because the
stars of the Bears [Arctorum] are seen to be included within it. The second circle is named
0eptv6O; TpOrtKi; because the sun, creating summer for the extremities of the North while in
this circle, does not go beyond it, but immediately returns. Hence it is called TpointK6. The
third circle is called fgptpiv6;, or equinoctial in Latin, because the sun produces the equinox
when it comes to this circle.... The fourth circle is called avTapKTtK6; because it is opposite
the circle we have named a'pK'tKov. The fifth circle is known as X8cticptivo; TpOntIKO-
wintry in Latin-because, when the sun arrives at this circle, it produces winter for those in
the North, and summer for those who dwell in regions of the South.12

According to the established view in ancient cosmology, the sphere of the universe can
be divided into five circles, five slices as it were that run at right angles to the axis
separating its poles. At the center of the universe is a spherical earth divided into five
terrestrial circles conceived in the same way: arctic and antarctic circles at the poles, a
torrid zone around the equator, and two temperate circles in between. The sun's proximity
to or distance from each celestial circle lends it a distinctive character that in turn deter-
mines the climate of its counterpart on earth. In the passage quoted above, Isidore's an-
nounced subject is the five celestial circles, although he confuses the issue in his first
sentence by shifting from heavenly to earthly without making the transition clear.13 There-
after, however, he consistently speaks of the zones or circles of the heavens, and for the
most part what he has to say is clearly and straightforwardly expressed. His comments-

" Isidore also mentions Antipodeans at Etym. 11.3.24: "Antipodes in Libya plantas versas habent post crura
et octonos digitos in plantis." Although they come by their name naturally, these Antipodeans are a different
matter entirely, a monstrous race comparable to the Ethiopian Sciopodes, listed immediately before them, or to
the Scythian Hippodes that follow immediately after. Cf. Valerie I. J. Flint, "Monsters and the Antipodes in the
Early Middle Ages and Enlightenment," Viator, 1984, 15:65-80, at pp. 70-71. See also John B. Friedman, The
Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981).
12 "Zonae caeli quinque sunt, quarum distinctionibus quaedam partes temperie sua incoluntur, quaedam in-
manitate frigoris aut caloris inhabitabiles existunt. Quae ideo zonae vel circuli appellantur, eo quod in circum-
ductione sphaerae existunt. Quorum primus circulus ideo apKTIKcX; appellatur, eo quod intra eum Arctorum
signa inclusa prospiciuntur. Secundus circulus, Osptv6O qui Tpo7tiKco dicitur, quia in eo circulo sol Aquilonis
finibus aestatem faciens ultra eum circulum non transit, sed statim revertitur; et inde TpO7CtKO; appellatur. Tertius
circulis fit,eptv6;, qui a Latinis ideo aequinoctialis appellatur, eo quod sol, cum ad eum orbem pervenerit,
aequinoctium facit. ... Quartus autem circulus &vIapKTIKU; vocatus eo quod contrarius sit circulo, quem
apKTicKov nominamus. Quintus circulus %et?eptv6O; TpotKO6;, qui a Latinis hiemalis sive brumalis appellatur,
ideo quia sol cum ad eum circulum pervenerit, hiemem his, qui ad Aquilonem sunt, facit, et aestatem his, qui
in Austri partibus conmorantur": Isidore, Etym. 3.44. Cf. Hyginus, De astronomia 1.6.2-3, ed. Andrd Le Boeuffle
(Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1983) (hereafter cited as Hyginus, De astr., ed. Le Boeuffle), pp. 8-9, from which
much of this is derived verbatim. On Isidore's use of Hyginus see H. Le Bourdelles, L'Aratus Latinus: Etude
sur la culture et la langue latines dans le Nord de la France au VIIIe siecle (Lille: Univ. Lille III, Travaux et
Recherches, 1985), pp. 32-37.
13 Bede, following Isidore, is guilty of the same imprecision. See De natura rerum 9 (CCL 123A: 199): "Qu-
inque circulis mundus dividitur, quorum distinctionibus quaedam partes temperie sua incoluntur, quaedam in-
manitate frigoris aut caloris inhabitabiles existunt." Isidore returns to this subject in Etym. 13.6, and there the
problem does not arise: "De circulis caeli. Habitatio ista caeli circulorum distincta zonis quasdam partes temperie
sua incolere permisit, quasdam negavit enormitate frigoris aut caloris." The rest of this passage is virtually
identical with Etym. 3.44. on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


including the statement with which he closes-follow Hyginus quite closely. W

sun is in the fifth circle, he states, inhabitants of northerly climes endure w
those who dwell in the southern hemisphere enjoy summer. More is involved t
case of uncritical copying, the product of a moment's inattention. He repeat
several books later,14 although the tension with what he has to say elsewhere
podae is evident.
I will argue that the tension in Isidore's thought is a product of the ambival
confusion) that characterized his approach to the sphericity of the earth. This
on which scholarly opinion has been sharply divided. According to one school
Isidore clearly understood the heavens to be spherical but tended to view th
occupied its center as a disk. According to the contrary and, I think, now p
opinion, Isidore could not possibly have thought the earth to be flat. If he did,
Stevens, he stands as "a remarkable exception to the Hellenistic tradition, su
both Greek and Latin descriptive literature, which almost uniformly discussed
a globe and the heavens as a sphere."15 That the sphericity of the earth was c
lished in the ancient world is beyond dispute. Apparently unknown to the Bab
Egyptians, it was a discovery of Greek astronomy and was generally accepte
natural philosophers by the time of Aristotle. It was the received view of educ
as well, including Pliny the Elder.16 Among Christian thinkers, however, its
not quite so clear. It was not without significance that the ancient Hebrews, w
were reflected in Scripture, conceived the earth as a flat disk covered over by t
the heavens.


Lactantius, as we have seen, unambiguously rejected a spherical earth. So did Cosmas

Indicopleustes, who pictured the universe as a rectangular, boxlike structure whose shape
was duplicated by the Tabernacle. Of greater consequence is the fact that church fathers
withheld their endorsement.17 While clearly aware of the theory of the spherical earth in

14 Isidore, Etym. 13.6.6: "Quintus circulus X8ts8piv6b; TpOtKOc6, qui a Latinis hiemalis sive brumalis appel-
latur, ideo quia sol cum ad eum circulum pervenerit, hiemem his, qui ad Aquilonem sunt, facit, aestatem autem
his, qui Austri partibus commorantur." Cf. Hyginus, De astr. 1.6.3, ed. Le Boeuffle, p. 9, where he speaks of
the fifth circle: ". . . a nobis hiemalis, a nonnullis etiam brumalis appellatus, ideo quod sol cum ad eum circulum
pervenit, hiemem efficit his qui ad aquilonem spectant; aestatem autem his qui in austri partibus domicilia
15 Wesley M. Stevens, "The Figure of the Earth in Isidore's 'De natura rerum,' " Isis, 1980, 71:268-277, on
p. 273. For other expressions of this view see F. S. Betten, "The Knowledge of the Sphericity of the Earth during
the Earlier Middle Ages," Catholic Historical Review, 1923, 3:74-90, esp. p. 86; David Woodward, "Reality,
Symbolism, Time, and Space in Medieval World Maps," Annals of the Association of American Geographers,
1985, 75:510-521, at p. 518; and Woodward, "Medieval Mappaemundi," in The History of Cartography, Vol.
1: Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, ed. J. B. Harley and
Woodward (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 286-370, at p. 320. For the opinion that Isidore thought
of the earth as a disk see, e.g., Ernest Brehaut, An Encyclopedist of the Dark Age (New York: Columbia Univ.
Press, 1912), pp. 49-50, 147n; Vander Linden, "Virgile de Salzbourg" (cit. n. 1), pp. 177-178; John Kirtland
Wright, The Geographical Lore of the Time of the Crusades (New York: American Geographical Society, 1925),
p. 54; George H. T. Kimble, Geography in the Middle Ages (London: Methuen, 1938), p. 36; Thomas R. Eck-
enrode, "Venerable Bede as a Scientist," American Benedictine Review, 1971, 22:486-507, at pp. 489-490; and
Anna-Dorothee von den Brincken, "Die Kugelgestalt der Erde in der Kartographie des Mittelalters," Archivfiir
Kulturgeschichte, 1976, 58:77-95, at p. 81.
16 Otto Neugebauer, A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1975), pp.
575-577, esp. p. 576. On Pliny see note 21, below.
17 For Lactantius's views see above, at notes 2 and 3. See also Cosmas Indicopleustes, Top. Christ. 2.17, 2.24
(SC 141:320, 326-328), as well as the sketch at Top. Christ. 4.3 (SC 141:537). Cf. Wolska, Topographie on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


a spherical universe, Jerome does not commit himself. If anything, he seems inclined to a
more traditional view, although his few short remarks are insufficient to allow firm con-
clusions.18 As we have seen, Augustine also avoids any commitment to the spherical
universe postulated by ancient science. He clearly regards it as unproven, perhaps nothing
more than a human invention ("humanum est forte commentum"); and he thinks it scarcely
worth his attention.19 "Such subjects," he says, "are of no profit for those who seek beat-
itude, and, what is worse, they take up very precious time that ought to be given to what
is spiritually beneficial."20 Bede, however, followed Pliny and resolutely defended the
earth's sphericity from the earliest stages of his career. Hence in chapter 46 of his De
natura rerum, a chapter entitled "Terram globo similem," he states:

We refer to the sphere of the earth, not that it is perfectly spherical in shape, given the great
difference of mountains and plains, but that it would constitute a perfectly formed sphere if all
of the lines were enclosed in the circumference of its circuit. Hence it is that the stars of the
northern region are always visible to us, while southern ones never are. Conversely these
northern stars are never seen in southern regions, owing to the obstruction of the globe of the
earth. The country of the Troglodytes, and Egypt, which is adjacent to it, do not see the Great
and Little Bear, and Italy does not see Canopus.21

Bede may not entirely have understood the Natural History at this juncture. Pliny cer-
tainly explains more clearly than Bede does the circumstances under which the earth may
be regarded as a perfect sphere. Rather than all the lines being enclosed in the circumfer-
ence of its circuit, as Bede would have it, Pliny speaks of the ends of all the lines, by
which he seems to mean imaginary lines that could be drawn from the center of the earth
to the tops of the highest peaks on its surface.22 However, Bede's principal point is clear
nonetheless, and it is one to which he returns in De temporum ratione, where it is treated

chretienne (cit. n. 4), pp. 118-120. On the church fathers see Karl Holzhey, "Das Bild der Erde bei den Kir-
chenvatern," in Festgabe Alois Knopfler (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herdersche Verlagshandlung, 1917), pp. 177-
187. Holzhey is clearly mistaken, however, in concluding (p. 187) that the sphericity of the earth had to be
rediscovered anew at the end of the Middle Ages.
18 See Jerome, In Isaiam 11 (CCL 73:463-464), where Jerome comments on Isaiah 40:22: "Qui sedet super
gyrum terrae, Et habitatores eius sunt quasi locustae." He states: "Ex quo nunnulli quasi punctum et globum
eam esse contendunt, et habitatores illius quasi locustas. Si enim in toto orbe consideremus varias nationes, et
ab oceano usque ad oceanum, id est, ab Indico mari usque ad Britannicum, et ab Atlantico usque ad Septentrionis
rigorem, in quo congelascunt aquae, et succina pulchra concrescunt, omne in medio hominum genus quasi
locustas habitare cernimus. Quid igitur superbit terra et cinis? quia caelum, immo ut scripturarum utar auctoritate,
caeli extenduntur quasi camera." Shortly thereafter (CCL 73:464) he refers to the proponents of a spherical
heavens ("qui ... in similitudinem sphaerae caelum esse contendunt"), without, however, endorsing their view.
Cf. Ambrose, Hexameron 1.6.21 (CSEL 32.1:17).
19 For Augustine's views see above, at note 5; and Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram 2.9 (CSEL 28.1:46-47,
on p. 47).
20 "Multi enim multum disputant de his rebus, quas maiore prudentia nostri auctores omiserunt ad beatam
vitam non profuturas discentibus et occupantes, quod peius est, multum pretiosa et rebus salubribus inpendenda
temporum spatia. quid enim ad me pertinet, utrum caelum sicut sphaera undique concludat terram in media
mundi mole libratam, an eam ex una parte desuper velut discus operiat?" Augustine, De Gen. ad lit. 2.9 (CSEL
28.1:45-46), trans. John Hammond Taylor (Ancient Christian Writers, 41) (New York: Newman, 1982), p. 59.
21 "Orbem terrae dicimus, non quod absoluti orbis sit forma, in tanta montium camporumque disparilitate, sed
cuius amplexus si cuncta linearum comprehendantur ambitu, figuram absoluti orbis efficiat. Inde enim fit ut
septentrionalis plagae sidera nobis semper appareant, meridianae numquam; rursusque haec illis non cernantur,
obstante globo terrarum. Septentriones non cernit Troglodytice et confinis Aegyptus nec Canopum Italia": Bede,
De nat. rerum 46 (CCL 123A:228-229). Cf. Pliny, Nat. hist. 2.64.160, 2.71.177-178 (LCL, pp. 294-295, 310-
311, from which I have borrowed for the translation).
22 Pliny, Nat. hist. 2.64.160 (LCL, p. 294): ". . . sed cuius amplexus, si capita cunctarum liniarum conprehen-
dantur ambitu, figuram absoluti orbis efficiat." Cf. p. 295n. on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


at length. In chapter 31, again following Pliny, he points out that the length
cast at midday on the day of the equinox varies with latitude, as does the du
longest day of the year. In chapter 32 he states the reason-the earth's sphe
takes considerable pains not to be misunderstood: "It is not without reason
Sacred Scripture and in general usage it is referred to as the orb of the earth
fact an orb, positioned in the center of the entire universe, and its roundnes
one dimensional, like that of a shield, but is rather like that of a ball, which
roundness whichever way it is turned."23
Bede goes on to explain once again that it is the earth's spherical shape th
for the fact that certain stars visible in Britain are not visible in Egypt, and
is also responsible for variations by latitude and by season in the length of
people living on the same longitude, Bede explains, witness the sun reac
midday, at the same time. However, it does not rise and set at the same time
In the winter, when its orbit takes it over the southern hemisphere, the sun
and sets later for those who live at southerly latitudes than it does for us in
the summer the opposite is true, and we are the ones for whom it rises ear
later. We have shorter days than they do in the winter, but longer ones in t
Hence in chapter 31 Bede quotes Solinus to the effect that on the remote nor
of Thule there is no night at all at the summer solstice, and no day at all a
solstice.24 It was a passage clearly known to Isidore as well. Symptomatic of th
between Bede and Isidore, however, is the manner in which Isidore misunderstands it.
Thule, Isidore says, is named after the sun, which achieves the summer solstice in the
northerly latitudes that it inhabits. Beyond it there is no day.25
If Bede's views are clear, Isidore's are another matter entirely, although the evidence
that he, too, recognized the earth's sphericity is strong. He manifestly understood the
spherical shape of the heavens. It is from their roundness, he tells us, that they are referred
to as a sphere, just like the balls with which infants play. He goes on immediately to say
that, according to the philosophers, the universe is convex in shape and is equal in all its
parts, with the earth balanced at its very center.26 The sphericity of the universe is evident,

23 "Neque enim frustra et in scripturae divinae et in communium literarum paginis orbis terrae vocatur. Est
enim re vera orbis idem in medio totius mundi positus, non in latitudinis solum giro quasi instar scuti rotundus
sed instar potius pilae undique versum aequali rotunditate persimilis": Bede, De temp. ratione 32 (CCL
123B:380). Cf. Eckenrode, "Growth of a Scientific Mind" (cit. n. 8), p. 205; he regards this as "the first time in
medieval Christianity that the round earth belief is clearly supported. Ambrose, Augustine, Basil, Cassiodorus,
Boethius, Isidore of Seville and other early medieval Christian thinkers either did not hold to this position or
were purposely vague about it. Therefore, because of Bede's leadership, the round earth concept was resurrected
in the Christian West."
24 Bede, De temp. ratione 31 (CCL 123B:379): "Sed notandum quod haec de Thyle aliter scribit Solinus:
Thyle, inquit, ultima, in qua aestivo soistitio, sole de Cancri sidere faciente transitum, nox nulla; brumali solstitio
perinde nullus dies." The italics signify Bede's verbal borrowings from Solinus. Cf. Solinus, Collectanea rerum
memorabilium 22.9, ed. Theodor Mommsen (Berlin: Weidmann, 1895), pp. 101-102: "Multae et aliae circa
Brittaniam insulae, e quibus Thyle ultima, in qua aestivo solstitio sole de cancri sidere faciente transitum nox
nulla: brumali solstitio perinde nullus dies. Ultra Thylen accipimus pigrum et concretum mare."
25 Isidore, Etym. 14.6.4: "Thyle ultima insula Oceani inter septentrionalem et occidentalem plagam ultra Brit-
taniam, a sole nomen habens, quia in ea aestivum solstitium sol facit, et nullus ultra eam dies est. Unde et pigrum
et concretum est eius mare." See Fabio Gasti, "I Collectanea di Solino come fonte del libro XI delle Etymologiae
di Isidoro," Athenaeum, N.S., 1988, 66:121-129. As the title indicates, Gasti limits himself to an analysis of
Isidore's use of Solinus in book 11 of the Etymologies ("De homine et portentis"). He notes changes in Solinus's
wording that were required to adapt it to Isidore's different context. He notes as well a willingness on Isidore's
part to amend his source to suit his own purposes, frequently to simplify. Most interestingly, however, he also
notes one or two occasions on which Isidore simply gets it wrong. See esp. pp. 126-127.
26 Isidore, Etym. 13.5.2: "Sphaera caeli dicta eo quod species eius in rotundum formata est. Sed et quidquid
tale est, a volubilitate sphaera a Graecis dicitur, sicut [et] pilae quibus ludunt infantes. Nam philosophi dicunt on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


and indeed that of the earth seems to be implied. Isidore describes it as being not only at
the center of the cosmos but surrounded by it on all sides at an equal distance.27 When he
passes on to a direct consideration of the earth itself, the point seems to be reinforced. At
the outset of chapter 48 of De natura rerum, which is entitled "De partibus terrae," he
says: "The earth, as Hyginus states, is situated in the middle of the universe. Equidistant
from all its parts, it occupies the center. The ocean, spread out by the limit of the circum-
ference of the sphere, bathes virtually the entire globe. Hence the setting stars are thought
to fall into it." A comparable passage in the Etymologies occurs at book 14.1, which is
entitled "De terra." Its subject is clearly the earth, the description of which strongly implies
a sphere.28
Both of these passages are immediately followed by others that, on first glance at least,
convey a very different impression. In the Etymologies, the passage in question is book
14.2, entitled "De orbe," which reads as follows:

It is in virtue of its circular form that we speak of the orbis terrae, because it is like a wheel;
hence the name for a small wheel is orbiculus. The ocean, flowing around the land, encircles
its limits on all sides. It is divided into three parts, of which the first is called Asia, the second
Europe, and the third Africa. The ancients did not divide these three parts equally, for Asia
reaches from the south through the east to the north, Europe from the north to the west, and
Africa from the west to the south. Hence two of these parts, Europe and Africa, manifestly
occupy half of the circle [orbem dimidium], while the other half is occupied by Asia alone. But
the former have been made into two parts because the great sea enters in between them from
the ocean and keeps them separate. Wherefore, if you divide the orbis terrae into two parts,
eastern and western, Asia will be in the one, Europe and Africa in the other.29

caelum in sphaerae figuram undique esse convexum, omnibus partibus aequalem, concludentem terram in media
mundi mole libratam." For a discussion of the sources on which Isidore draws in this text see Jacques Fontaine,
Isidore de Seville et la culture classique dans l'Espagne wisigothique, 3 vols. (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes,
1959-1983), Vol. 2, pp. 475-476. The first sentence is based on Hyginus, De astr. 1.1.2, ed. Le Boeuffle, p. 6:
"Sphaera est species quaedam in rotundo conformata, omnibus ex partibus aequalis apparens." The third sentence,
where Isidore purports to be offering the opinions of the philosophers, combines two fragments of Augustine
with a possible reminiscence of Hyginus. Cf. Augustine, De Gen. ad lit. 2.9 (CSEL 28.1:47): "caelum sphaerae
figura undique esse convexum"; ibid. (CSEL 28.1:45): "caelum ... concludat terram in media mundi mole
libratam"; and Hyginus, De astr. 1.8.1, ed. Le Boeuffle, p. 12, where he speaks of the earth "mundi media regione
conlocata, omnibus partibus aequali dissidens intervallo." The second sentence is drawn from a gloss of Placidus
on sphaera, which helps clarify its meaning. See Glossaria Latina, Vol. 4, ed. J. W. Pirie and W. M. Lindsay
(Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1930), p. 34: "Sphaera est rotunditas mundi volubilis et quidquid tale est ad volubi-
litatem; dicunt etiam sphaeras ex capillis et pellibus factas, quibus ludunt infantes."
27 Isidore, Etym. 3.32.1: "Sphaera caeli est species quaedam in rotundo formata, cuius centrum terra est ex
omnibus partibus aequaliter conclusa." Cf. Isidore, De natura rerum 12.4, in Isidore de S6ville, Traite de la
nature, ed. Jacques Fontaine (Bordeaux: Feret, 1960) (hereafter cited as Isidore, De nat. rerum, ed. Fontaine),
pp. 218-220.
28 "Terra, ut testatur Hyginus, mundi media regione conlocata, omnibus partibus aequali dissidens intervallo,
centron obtinet. Oceanus autem regione circumductionis sphaerae profusus, prope totius orbis adluit fines. Itaque
et signa occidentia in eum cadere existimantur": Isidore, De nat. rerum 48.1, ed. Fontaine, p. 325. On Hyginus
see note 26 above. See also Isidore, Etym. 14.1.1: "Terra est in media mundi regione posita, omnibus partibus
caeli in modum centri aequali intervallo consistens."
29 "Orbis a rotunditate circuli dictus, quia sicut rota est; unde brevis etiam rotella orbiculus appellatur. Undique
enim Oceanus circumfluens eius in circulo ambit fines. Divisus est autem trifarie: e quibus una pars Asia, altera
Europa, tertia Africa nuncupatur. Quas tres partes orbis veteres non aequaliter diviserunt. Nam Asia a meridie
per orientem usque ad septentrionem pervenit; Europa vero a septentrione usque ad occidentem; atque inde
Africa ab occidente usque ad meridiem. Unde evidenter orbem dimidium duae tenent, Europa et Africa, alium
vero dimidium sola Asia; sed ideo istae duae partes factae sunt, quia inter utramque ab Oceano mare Magnum
ingreditur, quod eas intersecat. Quapropter si in duae partes orientis et occidentis orbem dividas, Asia erit in
una, in altera vero Europa et Africa": Isidore, Etym. 14.2; cf. the translation of Brehaut, Encyclopedist of the
Dark Age (cit. n. 15), p. 244. Cf. Isidore, De nat. rerum 48.2-3, ed. Fontaine, pp. 325-327. on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


Stevens claims that Isidore' s language here implies sphericity. On this view, i
to think that the terms juxtaposed at the beginning of the first sentence-orbi
circulus-refer only to a two-dimensional circularity. "The concept of spher
argues, "is not merely implied but is taught overtly in this language." What
imply, however, is simply circularity of some form, not necessarily spherici
it has sometimes been questioned, Isidore appears to know the difference, a
actually says is that the earth is shaped like a wheel.30
From the nature of his subsequent remarks, however, it seems doubtful that
he means. Isidore goes on to describe the earth in considerable geographical
individual chapters devoted to each of the three continents. He completes his
Africa, moving from east to west and finishing with Ethiopia, which he tell
for its unrelenting heat. He then states, somewhat surprisingly, that across
in the heart of the south there is a fourth part of the orbis terrae that is inacce
of the heat of the sun. It is here, he says, that the mythical Antipodes are sai
Paradoxically, the Antipodeans here lose their most distinctive feature. Rathe
planted opposite us on the other side of the earth, they are conceived as dwell
rest of humanity, on a flat, disk-shaped earth, although in an inaccessibly re
it. It is a statement that is difficult to take at face value.32 I would suggest th
make it only because it is the standard cartographic projection of the known s
earth that he has in mind, rather than the earth itself. In Etymologies 14.1, whi
"De terra," Isidore's subject is the earth per se. The same is true at De natura
quoted above. In Etymologies 14.2, however, and similarly in De natura reru
we have a change in subject. The transition is not clearly marked in either te
mologies 14.2 provides at least a hint in the chapter title: "De orbe." It sign
follows concerns not the earth itself but the normal early medieval represent
in form, of its inhabited surface.33

30 Stevens, "Figure of the Earth" (cit. n. 15), p. 274. According to Kimble, "it is fairly clear th
a circle meant very much the same thing to Isidore": Kimble, Geography in the Middle Ages (ci
See also Marina Smyth, "Isidore of Seville and Early Irish Cosmography," Cambridge Medieva
Winter 1987, 14:69-102, at p. 84. Smyth refers to "the ambiguity of all terms associated with rou
of this period [the seventh century], in particular in Hiberno-Latin texts." However, see Isidore
3.12.3: "circulus est figura plana, quae vocatur circumducta; cuius in medio punctus est, quo cun
quod centrum geometriae vocant, Latini punctum circuli nuncupant.... Sphaera est figura in rotu
partibus cunctis aequalis." The image of the wheel is inspired by Augustine, on whom Isido
dependent. Cf. Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 76.20 (CCL 39:1064): "Orbis terrarum est rota
orbis terrarum, merito et orbis dicitur; unde brevis etiam rotella, orbiculus appellatur." Here A
menting on Psalm 76:19: "Vox tonitrui tui in rota. Iliuxerunt coruscationes tuae orbi terrae." On
see Cassiodorus, Expositio in Psalmum 76.19 (CCL 98:707): "Sive magis in rota, orbem terraru
accipere, qui in speciem rotae absoluta rotunditate concluditur" (italics supplied by the editor of
31 Isidore, Etym. 14.3 ("De Asia"), 14.4 ("De Europa"), 14.5 ("De Libya"). On the heat of Ethi
14.5.14: "est enim ibi iugis aestus; nam quidquid eius est, sub meridiano cardine est." On the
Etym. 14.5.17: "Extra tres autem partes orbis quarta pars trans Oceanum interior est in meridie,
incognita nobis est; in cuius finibus Antipodes fabulose inhabitare produntur."
32 However, Wright argues that "during the Middle Ages ... true antipodes became confused w
or austral, continent, belief in which did not necessitate belief in a spherical world": Wright, G
(cit. n. 15), p. 385 n. 58. He points to this passage as an example.
33 Cf. Isidore, De nat. rerum 48.1-2, ed. Fontaine, p. 325; and Hyginus, De astr. 1.8.1, ed. L
12-13. Isidore follows Hyginus closely, omitting, however, a sentence at the transition from 48
own text. This sentence makes it clear that, from that point on, what is at issue is the inhabite
northern hemisphere. Hyginus's text, with the portions borrowed by Isidore italicized, reads as
mundi media regione conlocata, omnibus partibus aequali dissidens intervallo, centrum obtine
mediam dividit axis in dimensione totius terrae. Oceanus autem, [e] regione circumductionis sph
prope totius orbis adluitfines; itaque et signa occidentia in eum decidere existimantur. Sic igitur et
poterimus explanare: nam quaecumque regio est quae inter arcticum et aestivum finem conlocata on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


Figure 2. Rota terrarum.

The circle that Isidore invites us to consider is the rota terrarum that Gustavus Becker
prints as an appendix to chapter 48 of his edition of De natura rerum (see Figure 2).34
Although Jacques Fontaine omits it in his edition, the earliest manuscript evidence suggests
that it can probably be attributed to Isidore himself.35 It is an early example of what would

trifariam, e quibus una pars Europa, altera Asia, tertia Africa vocatur. Europam igitur ab Africa dividit mare
ab extremis Oceanifinibus et Herculis columnis. Asiam autem et Libyam cum Aegypto disterminat os Nilifluminis,
quod Canopicum appellatur. Asiam ab Europa Tanais dividit, bifariam se coniciens in paludem quae Maeotis
appellatur." At this point Isidore continues: "Asia autem, ut ait beatissimus Augustinus, a meridie per orientem
usque ad septentrionem pervenit...." From here to the end of De nat. rerum 48 he draws on Augustine, De civ.
Dei 16.17 (CCL 48:521); and with the exception of the last sentence, which is drawn from Ambrose, the text
largely parallels Etym. 14.2.2-3, quoted above at note 29.
34 Gustavus Becker, ed., Isidori Hispalensis De natura rerum liber (Berlin: Weidmann, 1857), p. 80.
35 See Traitd de la nature, ed. Fontaine (cit. n. 27), pp. 19-37, where Fontaine provides descriptions of the
oldest extant MSS of De natura rerum. He argues that chapter 48, the last chapter of the work, first appeared in
the second recension (p. 83). Hence, of the sixteen MSS in question (one of which contains two different texts
of De natura rerum), only seven include it. In one of the seven-E = Cambrai, Bibliotheque Municipale, MS
937 (836)-the original chapter 48 was subsequently lost, and then replaced, in Carolingian minuscule of the
ninth or tenth century, on fol. Iv. Fontaine does not mention its including the rota terrarum. Of the other six,
however, four do include it. The MSS in question are: H = Biblioteca del Real Monasterio del Escorial, MS
R.II.18, in seventh-century uncial; V = Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, MS lat. 10.616, a late eighth-century MS
from Verona; F = Basel, Offentliche Bibliothek der Universitit, MS F.III.15a, a late eighth-century MS in
Anglo-Saxon minuscule, probably from Fulda; and B = Besan9on, Bibliotheque Municipale, MS 184, an early
ninth-century MS in Carolingian minuscule, possibly from the abbey of Murbach. The two MSS that do not
include the rota are both special cases. They are: A = Basel, Offentliche Bibliothek der Stadt, MS F.III.15f,
which lacks all of Isidore's rotae; and S = St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 238, which lacks the last two of the
other rotae. Cf. Stevens, "Figure of the Earth" (cit. n. 15), p. 273, who claims of the rota terrarum that "no
completed second or third version manuscript exists without it." on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


develop into the standard medieval T-O map: a simple circle divided horizontall
hemispheres, the upper one representing Asia, the lower one, in turn divided
two, depicting Europe on the left and Africa on the right. In more or less deve
the same map is frequently found in Isidorian manuscripts of the eighth to th
century. It is a picture of the inhabited world whose origins can be traced b
archaic Greeks. However, this specific arrangement of the continents was fir
clearly by Augustine, whose classic formulation Isidore transcribes almost ve
both in the Etymologies and De natura rerum.36 Although it is little more than
diagram that Isidore describes, Isidore's endorsement ensured that it would p
basis for the later development of more detailed forms. Indeed, Richard Uhden
that one such map can be traced back to Isidore himself. It is included in a ma
the Etymologies (MS Vat. Lat. 6018, fols. 63v-64r) that can be dated at 77
conclusion, which has not been uniformly endorsed, is that it is a copy of an
crafted by Isidore on the basis of a late Roman exemplar.37
The map that Uhden discusses portrays Europe, Asia, and Africa as a circle su
by an oval-shaped ocean that extends further to the east and west than to the
south. Judging from the direction of most of the writing on the map, it is to
toward the north. This is a curious feature that, along with its oval shape, serve
guish it from the rota terrarum in Figure 2. Perhaps, however, both idiosyncr
be attributed to the copyist and to the format of the codex, for an Isidorian co
clear. Three quarters of the place-names are taken from the corresponding geo
sections of the Etymologies. Of those that remain, most derive from Orosius.
also depicts the continents and the ocean that surrounds them as they are de
Isidore. Of particular interest is a long, thin island in the southwest portion o
that is intended to represent Isidore's mysterious fourth continent.38
Is it possible that this island's elongated shape is meant to depict distortion c
the curvature of the earth? I think not.39 This is a subject about which neither th

36 See Anna-Dorothee von den Brincken, "Weltbild der lateinischen Universalhistoriker und -ka
in Popoli e paesi nella cultura altomedievale (Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sul
dioevo, 29) (Spoleto, 1983), Vol. 1, pp. 337-408, at pp. 392-393. The text in question is Augustine, D
16.17 (CCL 48:521). See note 33, above. On the ancient background see James S. Romm, The Edg
Earth in Ancient Thought (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 9-44. For a list of
containing maps of this form see Marcel Destombes, Mappemondes, A.D. 1200-1500 (Monumenta C
Vetustioris Aevi, 1) (Amsterdam: Israel, 1964), pp. 29-34. In MSS of De natura rerum, such maps ar
found at chapter 48; in MSS of the Etymologies, they are found at book 14.
37 Richard Uhden, "Die Weltkarte des Isidorus von Sevilla," Mnemosyne, 3rd Ser., 1935-1936,
p. 22. Von den Brincken endorses Uhden; see "Weltbild der lateinischen Universalhistoriker," pp. 3
Anna-Dorothee von den Brincken, Fines Terrae: Die Enden der Erde und der vierte Kontinent auf
lichen Weltkarten (Hannover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1992), pp. 49-50. Rolf Baumgarten, "Th
Orientation of Ireland in Isidore and Orosius," Peritia, 1984, 3:189-203, at p. 192, remains unc
Glorie provides a critical edition: Mappa Mundi (e codice Vat. Lat. 6018) (CCL 175:455-466). On
of such maps see G. Men6ndez-Pidal, "Mozarabes y Asturianos en la cultura de la alta edad med
especial con la historia de los conocimientos geograficos," Bolet(n de la Real Academia de la H
134:137-291, esp. pp. 168-193. Men6ndez-Pidal argues for the development of maps that were m
complete out of an original Isidorian archetype of the simple T-O variety.
38 In Glorie's edition (CCL 175:463) the inscription (which I have reproduced exactly) reads: "inso
(ard)ori solis, iiii(ta) par[te]s mundi." Cf. Isidore, Etym. 14.5.17: ... orbis quarta pars ... qua
incognita nobis est."
39 For the suggestion that the island owes its shape to the curvature of the earth see Wesley
"Scientific Instruction in Early Insular Schools," in Insular Latin Studies: Papers on Latin Texts an
of the British Isles, 550-1066, ed. Michael W. Herren (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval St
pp. 83-102, at pp. 100-101; and von den Brincken, Fines Terrae (cit. n. 37), pp. 50-51. Presumab
position was a critical factor in determining its shape. The same could be said of Britain and
incorrectly labeled), large islands appearing at the edge of the document. Fitting them in would h on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


the more primitive rota terrarum that preceded it has anything to say. To Stevens, Isidore
rota represents a sphere; to others, it represents a disk. Indeed, it has often been though
of medieval T-O maps in general that they were consistent only with a flat earth, eve
though their popularity apparently never completely destroyed awareness of the earth's
sphericity.40 The point that needs to be realized, however, is that the circular shape of th
T-O map was simply a product of convention. It was probably the circle of the horizon
that first suggested it, a fact that would also help to account for its enduring popularity.4
However, it was only one option. It no more offered a view on the supposed shape of th
earth than did the rectangular configuration that came to characterize maps in the Beat
tradition. Both were simply traditional ways of representing the earth's inhabited surfac
Neither was intended to be read literally. Hence they were able easily to coexist in the
same manuscript without apparent conflict.42
If caution is required in assessing the significance of Isidore's rota terrarum, the same
can be said of some other instances of Isidorian language that might, at first glance at least,
be thought to imply a disk-shaped earth. At one point, for example, he speaks of the su
being closer to the earth in the wintertime, when it follows its southern course, and high
in the summer, when it follows a northern path, which is precisely how things appear t
inhabitants of the northern hemisphere. However, this was an ancient and well-establishe
belief that apparently did not carry the implications that a modem reader is tempted to s
in it. Its endorsement by Hyginus, among others, indicates that it could be combined wit
a clear conviction of the earth's sphericity.43 On more than one occasion Isidore speaks of

giving each of them a somewhat elongated form. With one possible exception, it is difficult to see anything th
could pass for a distortion depicting curvature in any of the other islands on the map, although they are all
smaller and presumably not as distant from central regions. The exception is the large, elongated island-
identified as "Pars bestiarum/insola Laperbana"-that represents Taprobana (modem-day Sri Lanka). Judging
from the text of the Etymologies, however, this island really was long and thin, at least as Isidore understood it.
The ratio of its length to its width was 90:1. See Isidore, Etym. 14.6.12: "Taprobane insula Indiae subiacens ad
Eurum, ex qua Oceanus Indicus incipit, patens in longitudine octingentis septuaginta quinque milibus passuum,
in latitudine sescenta viginti quinque milia stadiorum." Isidore's principal source at this point was Solinus, who
gives a rather different picture. Cf. Solinus, Collect. 53.2, ed. Mommsen (cit. n. 24), p. 196: "patet in longitudinem
stadiorum septem milia, in latitudinem quinque milia." Philipp argues that Isidore's text has been corrupted by
a gloss that erred when translating Solinus's stades into paces; see Hans Philipp, Die historisch-geographischen
Quellen in den etymologiae des Isidorus von Sevilla, 2 vols. (Berlin: Weidmann, 1912-1913), Vol. 2, pp. 135-
40 For the view that Isidore's rota represents a sphere see, e.g., Stevens, "Figure of the Earth" (cit. n. 15), p.
277; Brehaut, Encyclopedist of the Dark Age (cit. n. 15), p. 53n, holds that it represents a disk. For the view that
T-O maps implied a flat earth see, e.g., von den Brincken, "Kugelgestalt der Erde" (cit. n. 15); and Destombes,
Mappemondes (cit. n. 36), pp. 1-23. In her recent work von den Brincken seems to take a different view: von
den Brincken, Fines Terrae, pp. 3-4.
41 On the circular T-O map as conventional see Woodward, "Reality, Symbolism, Time, and Space" (cit. n.
15), esp. pp. 513, 517-518; and Pascal Amaud, "Plurima orbis imago: Lectures conventionnelles des cartes au
moyen age," Mddidvales, 1990, 18:33-51, esp. p. 45 (circle of the horizon). Some confirmation comes from
Cassiodorus, Expos. in Ps. 95.13 (CCL 98:869). Cassiodorus explains why Scripture, when speaking of the earth,
refers to the orbis terrae, or to the orbis terrarum: "Formam terrae ideo scriptura orbem vocat, eo quod respi-
cientibus extremitatem eius circulus semper appareat, quem circulum Graeci 6opiovra vocant."
42 For an example from an Isidorian manuscript see Destombes, Mappemondes (cit. n. 36), plate B.IIb, an
illustration of Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, MS lat. 10293, fol. 139. It shows two figures: on the left a rota that
depicts the continents as they appear in the rota terrarum mentioned above; on the right a square in which the
continents are represented by triangular sections. The central circle of the figure on the left is surrounded by
several rings representing, first, the ocean, and then probably the orbits of the planets. In the squared figure on
the right the names of the three continents (Asia, Africa, and Europe) are replaced by those of the three sons of
Noah (Shem, Ham, and Japheth), with whom they came to be identified. Men6ndez-Pidal, "Mozarabes y Astu-
rianos" (cit. n. 37), p. 173, refers to a similar squared representation of the earth in a tenth-century Isidorian
manuscript in the Bibliotheque Nationale: MS "Latin S-G, no 538."
43 Isidore, Etym. 3.51.2: "Quando autem per meridiem currit, vicinior terrae est; quando vero iuxta septentri- on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


the sun being above the earth, super terras, by day, and beneath the earth, sub
night.44 However, elsewhere he explains that, used in the plural (terrae), the w
to the three continents, which occupy only one quadrant of the globe. It is whe
in the singular (terra) that it refers to the entire earth.45 Unfortunately, he ca
of the sun being beneath the earth, sub terra, by night, a statement that, in the
own comments about usage, might be thought to have worrisome implications
in the same passage Isidore uses clearly poetic language, speaking of the sun ex
itself in the ocean.46 The state of the text is also such that one cannot have a g
confidence about the presence or absence of a single "s."47
Somewhat disconcerting is the claim that night results when the sun drop
screen of mountains, a statement that makes sense only on the kinds of premis
by Cosmas Indicopleustes.48 However, Isidore does not develop the idea, and o
assured by other casual comments that seem to presuppose a spherical earth.49
significant is what is found in the tenth chapter of De natura rerum, entitled
circulis mundi." There Isidore provides a figure apparently entitled rota circulor
although in fact its purpose is to illustrate the relationships of the earth's f
zones. Fontaine has reproduced the version of the figure that appears in one eig
manuscript, probably from Salzburg: Miinchen, Bayerische Staatsbiblioth
14300.50 It appears here, in simplified form, as Figure 3. The wording that iden
of the circles has been moved to the bottom of the page, keyed to numbers sho
relative positions. On the basis of Isidore's own comments, east and west have
marked, and a line has been added showing the direction of the sun's motion.
the central features of Isidore's figure remain intact (in fact, they are brought
relief), and they are difficult to reconcile with a spherically shaped earth. Isid
tration depicts five circles arranged horizontally on a plane surface.

onem, sublimis attollitur." Cf. Isidore, De nat. rerum 17.2, ed. Fontaine, p. 235; and Hyginus, De a
ed. Le Boeuffle, pp. 9-10. Sams6 points to a source for this belief about the sun in Ptolemy's th
eccentric orbit; see Julio Sams6, "Astron6mica Isidoriana," Faventia, 1979, 1:167-174, at p. 169.
on Isidore, however, could only have been indirect. His words are derived not from astronomical
from Saint Jerome. See Fontaine, Isidore de Seville (cit. n. 26), Vol. 2, p. 495 n. 2, Vol. 3, p. 110
44 See, e.g., Isidore, Etym. 3.51.1: "Sol oriens diem facit, occidens noctem inducit; nam dies
terras, nox est sol sub terras"; and Etym. 5.31.3: "Noctem autem fieri, aut quia longo itinere lassat
ad ultimum caeli spatium pervenit, elanguescit ac tabefactus efflat suos ignes; aut quia eadem vi sub
qua super terras pertulit lumen, et sic umbra terrae noctem facit."
45 See Isidore, Etym. 14.1.1: "Terra est in media mundi regione posita, omnibus partibus caeli in m
aequali intervallo consistens; quae singulari numero totum orbem significat, plurali vero singul
Etym. 14.2.2 the tres partes orbis are identified as Asia, Africa, and Europe.
46 Isidore, Etym. 3.52: "Sol oriens per meridiem iter habet. Qui postquam ad occasum venerit
tinxerit, per incognitas sub terra vias vadit et rursus ad orientem recurrit."
47 Cf. Isidore, Etym. 5.30.1, where we have mixed usage: "Dies est praesentia solis, sive sol supra
nox sol sub terris. Ut enim dies aut nox sit, causa est aut supra terram sol, aut sub terris."
48 Isidore, De nat. rerum 28.2, ed. Fontaine, p. 279: "Ergo sicut in die cum a parte solis aliquod c
vel arboris occurrit, ex ea parte qua lumen repercutitur umbra subsistit, sic, cum recedente die sol
pervenerit ubi occidere dicitur, ibi montium magnitudine a nobis separatur, sicque terrae obiectu a
parte obumbratur aer, adeo ut noctem nobis faciat haec ipsa umbra terrarum." Cf. Cosmas Indicop
Christ. 2.33-34 (SC 141:338-340).
49 See Isidore, Etym. 14.9.11, where he comments on the location of Hell: "Sicut autem cor animalis in medio
est, ita et inferus in medio terrae esse perhibetur. Unde et in Evangelio legimus (Matth. 12, 40): 'In corde
terrae.' " Isidore's source here is Jerome, In Ionam 2.4 (CCL 76:396). See also Etym. 18.3.4, where Isidore
explains the symbolism of the globe that was placed on Roman imperial standards: "Pilam in signo constituisse
fertur Augustus, propter nationes sibi in cuncto orbe subiectas, ut maius figuram orbis ostenderet."
50 Traite de la nature, ed. Fontaine (cit. n. 27), figure 3, p. 210 bis. On the names of Isidore's various rotae
see Fontaine's table of contents, p. xiii. For another version of this particular rota see von den Brincken, Fines
Terrae (cit. n. 37), figure 12, which reproduces the relevant folio of Koln, Dombibliothek, MS 83". on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


/ < - 2 lc< } ^\\ direction of

the sun's

( human

1) Primus circulus arcticos frigore inhabitabilis.

2) Secundus circulus therinos temperatus habitabilis.
3) Medius circulus isemerinos torridus inhabitabilis.
4) Quartus circulus xeimerinos temperatus habitabilis.
5) Quintus circulus antarcticos frigidus inhabitabilis.

Figure 3. Rota circulorum mundi.

It is more than a little puzzling that Isidore should furnish such an illustration in a
chapter devoted to the five circles of the heavens. It is certainly these circles, the five
celestial circles, that he has in mind at the outset:

In their definition of the cosmos, the philosophers say that there are five circles, called by the
Greeks parallelois, that is, zones, among which the orb of the earth is divided. Virgil presents
them in the Georgics, saying: "Five zones occupy the heavens." But let us imagine them to be
like our right hand, so that the thumb is the circle called arcticos, uninhabitable because of the
cold; the second finger the circle called therinos, temperate and habitable; the middle one the
circle called isemerinos, torrid and uninhabitable; the fourth the circle called xeimerinos, tem-
perate and habitable; and the little finger the circle called antarcticos, cold and uninhabitable.51

In his first sentence Isidore is clearly referring to the five heavenly circles that appear in
the chapter title, explaining that they determine the properties of their five terrestrial coun-
terparts. In the second sentence the circles of which Virgil speaks are still the circles located

51 "In definitione autem mundi circulos aiunt philosophi quinque, quos Graeci parallelois, id est zonas vocant,
in quibus dividitur orbis terrae. Has Virgilius in Georgicis ostendit, dicens: 'Quinque tenent caelum zonae.' Sed
fingamus eas in modum dexterae nostrae, ut pollex sit circulus arcticos, frigore inhabitabilis; secundus circulus
therinos, temperatus habitabilis; medius circulus isemerinos, torridus inhabitabilis; quartus circulus xeimerinos,
temperatus habitabilis; minimus circulus antarcticos, frigidus inhabitabilis": Isidore, De nat. rerum 10.1, ed.
Fontaine, p. 209. on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


in the heavens. In the third sentence, however, Isidore switches suddenly a

warning to earthly circles. These are the circles that, in imagery also employe
are likened to the fingers of the hand, for only these can be habitable or unin
It is undoubtedly because the heavenly circles determine the earthly ones t
mind moves so readily from the one to the other. Indeed, because of the close
between the two, possibly he is still thinking of heavenly circles, but identify
terms of the properties they produce in their earthly cognates.
The uncertainty noted here characterizes the following paragraph as well. Is
by introducing Latin names for these circles, presumably the earthly circles at t
although the point is not at all clear. He quotes four lines from Varro in w
himself shifts suddenly and unexpectedly from a celestial focus to a terrestria
of this seems well calculated to confuse more than enlighten, it also requires u
the import of the central illustration of the chapter. Could Isidore have intended
the earth surrounded by the five celestial circles that determine its climate? Is i
with the rota planetarum introduced in chapter 23? There we find a human he
view, and with "TERRA" inscribed on the forehead-enclosed in a small circle; it is
surrounded by concentric circles representing the orbits of the planets. Here we have
another human head enclosed in a small circle, but in profile and without markings; and
the other circles that surround it are arranged like the petals of a flower.54 The answer, it
would seem, is no. The way that the circles in the illustration in chapter 10 are defined-
as habitable and uninhabitable-suggests terrestrial circles, an impression that is reinforced
by the following comment:

It is for this reason that the equinoctial circle is uninhabitable. The sun, following its course in
the middle of the heavens, produces extreme heat in these regions, so that neither do crops
grow there because of the parched earth, nor are men permitted to dwell there because of the
excessive temperatures. On the other hand, the northern and southern circles, which are joined
together, are uninhabited because of their distance from the course of the sun, and they are
consumed by the extreme cold of the heavenly zone and the icy blasts of the winds. However,
the solstitial circle, which is located in the east between the northern and equatorial circles, or
the other one, which is placed in the west between the equatorial and southern circles-these
are temperate in climate because they draw cold from one circle and heat from another. Virgil
says of them: "Between the two zones at the extremes and the one in the middle, two regions
have been granted to weak mortals by the gift of the gods." But those who dwell close to the
equatorial circle, the Ethiopians, are burnt up by the extreme heat.55

52 Probus introduces the analogy in his commentary on Georgics 1.233, although it is the palm of the left hand
that he uses. See Probi qui dicitur in Vergilii Bucolica et Georgica commentarius, in Servii grammatici qui
feruntur in Vergilii carmina commentarii, ed. Thilo and Hagen (cit. n. 10), Vol. 3, fasc. 2, pp. 321-390, on pp.
362-363: "In quinque zonas mundum esse divisum accipimus, quas secundum clima nostri orbis sic deforma-
bimus, ut laevam manum contra ora nostra ponamus atque, ubi est pollex, ibi sit zona, quae appellatur graece
apKtlKi." Von den Brincken argues that Isidore conceives of the hand as grasping an imaginary sphere; von
den Brincken, Fines Terrae (cit. n. 37), p. 48.
53 Isidore, De nat. rerum 10.2, ed. Fontaine, pp. 209-211: "Horum primus septentrionalis est, secundus solis-
titialis, tertius aequinoctialis, quartus hiemalis, quintus australis, de quibus Varro ita dicit: 'At quinque aetherius
zonis adcingitur orbis/Ac vastant imas hiemes mediamue calores:/Sic terrae extremas inter mediamque coluntur/
Quas solis valido numquam vis auferat igne.' "
54 For the rota planetarum see figure 6, p. 260 bis, to which Isidore refers at De nat. rerum 23.4, ed. Fontaine,
p. 261. Fontaine's manuscript descriptions (pp. 19-37) indicate some variation in the appearance of these two
rotae in the oldest manuscripts. It seems clear, however, that in each case a human head was a feature of the
original design. Of the seventeen MSS that Fontaine describes, one omits the rota circulorum mundi entirely;
two others omit its central figure; and a fourth replaces the figure with a rosette. Two MSS omit the rota
planetarum; three omit its central figure; and a sixth replaces the central figure with a cross.
55 "Sed ideo aequinoctialis circulus inhabitabilis est, quia sol per medium caelum currens nimium his locis
facit fervorem, ita ut nec fruges ibi nascantur propter exustam terram, nec homines propter nimium ardorem on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


Isidore's reference to arctic and antarctic circles being joined together-"septentrionalis

et australis circuli sibi coniuncti"-makes it clear that he is commenting on the figure. It
is clear as well that the circles in question are terrestrial circles and that they owe their
distinguishing features to their relative positions in the figure. In other words, because the
sun moves from east to west in the manner that Isidore's comments suggest, the equinoctial
or equatorial circle (number 3 in the figure) is clearly the hottest, the arctic and antarctic
circles (numbers 1 and 5) are clearly the coldest, and only the two temperate circles in
between are habitable. The figure, therefore, cannot be interpreted as a representation of
the universe, with the earth at its center. It is a representation of a flat earth with five zones
arrayed as on a disk.56
Is it to be taken literally? From the nature of Isidore's comments, one is tempted to
think so.57 Taking his orientation from the placement of the arctic circle, he provides
markers for east and west and says that the northern temperate region is in the east, that
the southern temperate zone is in the west, and that the arctic and antarctic zones are linked
together. The manifest absurdities that result, however, give one pause. Surely Isidore
knows that the arctic and antarctic circles, one in the extreme north and the other in the
extreme south, cannot really be conjoined. Surely he also realizes that the northern and
southern temperate zones cannot coherently be separated on an east-west axis. Possibly,
then, as with most of the other rotae in De natura rerum, what is at issue is simply a
schematic diagram, one modeled on the fingers analogy introduced earlier in the chapter.
Possibly it is no more than a teaching device intended to illustrate only some of the
relationships involved, its peculiar inadequacies resulting from the difficulties involved in
projecting a sphere on a two-dimensional plane surface.58 On this view, Isidore' s comments
would be understood as functioning within the logic of the diagram. There, but not in
reality, the arctic and antarctic circles are joined. There, but not in the real world, the
northern temperate zone is in the east and the southern one is in the west.
Stevens points to the evidence of the Epistula Sisebuti to confirm the fact that, however
disconcerting this illustration may be, Isidore's belief in the sphericity of the earth cannot
seriously be challenged. If it was accepted by the student, he argues, it must have been
endorsed by the master.59 Regrettably, however, we have no assurance that student and

habitare permittantur. At contra septentrionalis et australis circuli sibi coniuncti idcirco non habitantur quia a
cursu solis longe positi sunt, nimioque caeli rigore ventorumque gelidis flatibus contabescunt. Solistitialis vero
circulus, qui in oriente inter septentrionalem et aestivum est conlocatus, vel iste qui in occidente inter aestivum
et australem positus est, ideo temperati sunt eo quod ex uno circulo rigorem, ex altero calorem habeant. De
quibus Virgilius: 'Has inter mediamque duae mortalibus aegris/Munere concessae divum.' Sed qui proximi sunt
aestivo circulo, ipsi sunt Aethiopes nimio calore perusti": Isidore, De nat. rerum 10. 3-4, ed. Fontaine, pp. 211-
213. Cf. Hyginus, De astr. 1.8.2-3, ed. Le Boeuffle, pp. 13-14, from which many words and phrases are drawn.
56 This is confirmed by Fontaine's comment on p. 210 bis: "Inscriptiones extra circulum positas neglexi, quibus
auctor regiones caeli quattuor ad figuram inepte conceptam accommodare frustra contendit."
57 See Brehaut, Encyclopedist of the Dark Age (cit. n. 15), pp. 53-54; Wright, Geographical Lore (cit. n. 15),
pp. 54, 384 n. 50; and Kimble, Geography in the Middle Ages (cit. n. 15), p. 36. Woodward maintains that, in
his reading of Hyginus, Isidore "seems to have confused the Greek zonal concept ... and misunderstood its
main point: that the lines separating the zones were only circles when they were drawn on a globe": Woodward,
"Reality, Symbolism, Time, and Space" (cit. n. 15), p. 518. Surprisingly, however, he concludes that "this could
hardly be taken as evidence of Isidore's belief in a flat earth." What is at issue, he maintains, is simply Isidore's
"inability to grasp the geometry inherent in the Greek climate concept." Cf. Woodward, "Medieval Mappae-
mundi" (cit. n. 15), p. 320.
58 See Fontaine, Isidore de Sdville (cit. n. 26), Vol. 2, pp. 488-489, 490 (where Fontaine discusses the obscu-
rities in Isidore's definition of the zodiac).
59 Stevens, "Figure of the Earth" (cit. n. 15), pp. 273-274. When describing how the earth, positioned between
sun and moon, produces an eclipse by casting the latter in the shade, Sisebut speaks of the umbra rotae (Epistula
Sisebuti, line 27, in Traite de la nature, ed. Fontaine [cit. n. 27], p. 331). Slightly further on, however, he speaks on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


master shared the same view.60 We are left with the texts themselves, which un
provide no other relevant evidence to help us decide which reading of Isidor
juncture is correct. It is difficult to believe that someone who had read Hygin
him as much as Isidore did could have missed the earth's sphericity.61 Howeve
clear evidence of at least one other occasion on which Isidore did indeed think in terms
of a disk-shaped earth.
In the sixteenth chapter of De natura rerum, a chapter entitled "De quantitate solis et
lunae," Isidore appeals to the authority of Saint Ambrose:

Rursus in eodem opere doctor idem ita testatur: solis radius nulli propior, nulli longinquior est.
Similiter et lunae globus aequalis est omnibus. Similis sol est et Indis et Brittanis; eodem
momento ab utrisque videtur cum oritur, nec cum vergit in occasu minor apparet Orientalibus,
nec Occidentalibus, cum oritur, inferior quam Orientalibus extimatur. Quantum distat, inquit,
oriens ab occasu! Tantum haec sibi invicem distant. Sed sol a nullo distat, nulli praesentior
nullique remotior est.
Neque moveat quemquam quod tamquam cubitalis in orbe suo videtur cum oritur; sed con-
siderare oportet quantum intersit spatii inter solem et terram, quod aspectus nostri infirmitas et
quaedam aegritudo vix valet intendere. Hunc autem ampliorem aliquot partibus quam terram
esse sapientes describunt.62

Isidore's opening thought seems to be premised on the notion of a spherical earth. "Again
in the same work," he tells us, "the same doctor speaks as follows: the sun's rays are
equally distant from all people. Similarly the sphere of the moon is equal for everyone."
Strictly speaking, the sun is not the same distance from everyone. However, only on the
assumption that the earth is a sphere would one ever be tempted to say so. Furthermore,
the basis for the observation seems clear. Over the course of a day, as the sun passes
overhead, both east and west are brought equally under its rays.
With his second sentence, however, the premises of Isidore's thought begin to shift, the
implications becoming clear shortly thereafter: "The sun is similar," he continues, "for the
inhabitants of both India and Britain. It is seen by both at the same moment when it arises.
It does not appear smaller to easterners when it sets, nor, when it rises, does it seem smaller
to people in the west than to people in the east. 'How far the East is from the West!' says
[the Psalmist]. So far are these two distant from one another. But the sun is distant from

of the earth as a globus. Moreover, the process he describes also implies a spherical earth. See lines 35-41 (p.
333), where, referring to the sun, which he has just described as being much larger than the earth, he says: "Hic
ingens utcumque libet, cum desuper ignes/Sparserit obliquo vel cum radiaverit axe,/In terram radii franguntur;
cetera solis/Lumina, qua maior iaculis radiantibus exit/Nil obstante globo, tendunt per inania vasta/Donec pyr-
amidis peragat victa umbra cacumen." Sisebut speaks of the sun, whether it is directly overhead or at an oblique
angle, striking the earth and creating a pyramidal shadow. What he really means is a cone, but his definition of
a pyramid may have been no more precise than Isidore's. (Cf. Isidore, Etym. 3.12.6: "Pyramis est figura, quae
in modum ignis ab amplo in acumen consurgit.") By not stating anything to the contrary, he also implies that
the shape of the shadow does not change, which could not be the case with an earth fixed at the center of the
universe unless it were a sphere.
60 On one issue we know that they held very different views. According to the Epistula Sisebuti, the stars
possess their own source of light. See Epistula Sisebuti, lines 45-52, in Traite de la nature, ed. Fontaine, pp.
333-335, where Sisebut explains why of the heavenly bodies only the moon suffers eclipse: "Cur autem sola
spolietur lumine luna,/Nil vero mirum est: quippe illam lucis egentem/Lux aliena fovet.... ./At chorus astrorum
reliquus non tangitur umbris,/Et proprium cunctis iubar est nec sole rubescunt,/Sed sudum radiis astralibus inpete
celso/Porro ultra solem rapitur cum vertice caeli." Isidore, however, consistently maintains a different position.
Cf. Isidore, De nat. rerum 24.1, ed. Fontaine, p. 261; and Isidore, Etym. 3.61: "Stellas non habere proprium
lumen, sed a sole inluminari dicuntur, sicut et luna."
61 See note 55, above.
62 Isidore, De nat. rerum 16.1-2, ed. Fontaine, p. 231. on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


no one, to no one more present, to no one more remote." Here the sun appears the same
to all because of its great size, not because it is shining on a spherically shaped earth.
Indeed, the operating assumption is that the earth is quite flat. Only on that basis could
the sun rise at the same time in east and west alike. Because of the earth's flatness, the
rising sun really is closer to the inhabitants of eastern regions, as the setting sun is to those
in the west. If it looks the same nonetheless, the explanation is to be found in its magnitude,
which nullifies the effect of relatively small differences in distance. In the last two sen-
tences, therefore, Isidore explains why, if it really is of great size, the sun appears to be
small. The reason is the gulf that separates it from the earth: "It should not concern anyone
that the disk of the sun seems about a cubit in size when it is rising. One ought to consider
the great distance between the sun and the earth, which the weakness and, as it were,
malady of our gaze can scarcely apprehend. The wise describe the sun as being somewhat
greater in size than the earth."63
Although the implications of Isidore's statements have been noted before,64 the scholarly
judgment on them has not been completely uniform. In Stevens's view, Isidore is not
saying that everyone, whether in the eastern or in the western hemisphere, sees the sun
rise at the same time, but rather that, at the same time in its rising, it displays the same
features to everyone.65 With some plausibility, such a view could be attributed to Ambrose,
on whom Isidore was dependent at this point. His language is different enough to allow
for the possibility: "similis sol et Indis et Brittanis eodem momento videtur, cum oritur,
nec cum mergitur in occasum, minor adparet orientalibus quam occidentalibus nec occi-
dentalibus, cum oritur, inferior quam orientalibus aestimatur." The passage in which this
occurs is a paean to the two great luminaries of the heavens. They shine without distinction
on everyone and appear to be of the same size for all people. "A similar sun," says
Ambrose, "appears at the same moment when it arises to the people of both India and
Britain. When it sets, it does not appear smaller to those in the east than to those in the
west. When it rises, it does not seem smaller to people in the west than to people in the
east."66 Possibly what Ambrose means is that, geography notwithstanding, the sun, both
in its rising and in its setting, is of uniform appearance to all inhabitants of the globe.
Wherever you are, the sun's size is the same when it rises; wherever you are, the sun has
a uniform size when it sets. However, his last two sentences raise significant doubts. Why
would the rising sun ever appear larger to people in the east, and why would the setting
sun ever seem larger to people in the west, unless easterners and westerners really were
at the edges of the world? The same question can be asked of Isidore, who offers no
adequate response.
It is surprising that Bede, who knew all about the sphericity of the earth, could make

63 Cf. Isidore, Etym. 3.47: "De magnitudine solis. Magnitudo solis fortior terrae est, unde et eodem momento,
quum oritur, et orienti simul et occidenti, aequaliter apparet. Quod vero tamquam cubitalis nobis videtur, con-
siderare oportet quantum sol distat a terris, quae longitudo facit ut parvus videatur a nobis." Brehaut, Encyclo-
pedist of the Dark Age (cit. n. 15), p. 147, translates as follows: "The size of the sun is greater than that of the
earth and so from the moment when it rises it appears equally to east and west at the same time. And as to its
appearing to us about a cubit in width, it is necessary to reflect how far the sun is from the earth, which distance
causes it to seem small to us." In a note he observes: "This passage indicates Isidore's belief in a flat earth." Cf.
Wright, Geographical Lore (cit. n. 15), p. 54.
64 Among recent commentators see, e.g., Sams6, "Astron6mica Isidoriana" (cit. n. 43), pp. 167-168; Ecken-
rode, "Bede as a Scientist" (cit. n. 15), pp. 489-490; and Eckenrode, "Growth of a Scientific Mind" (cit. n. 8),
pp. 208-209.
65 Stevens, "Figure of the Earth" (cit. n. 15), p. 273. Cf. Woodward, "Medieval Mappaemundi" (cit. n. 15),
p. 320.
66 Ambrose, Hexameron 4.6.25-26 (CSEL 32.1:132-133); cf. the translation of John J. Savage (Fathers of the
Church, 42) (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1961), pp. 149-150. on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50


the same mistake.67 His reliance on Isidore at this juncture evidently led him as
is a mere slip in Bede's case, however, is to be distinguished from a more fun
confusion in Isidore' s, for there were times when Isidore evidently thought that
was at the eastern edge of the world.68 His grasp on the spherical nature of th
tenuous at best, a fact that increases the likelihood that De natura rerum 10-with its
problematic rota circulorum mundi-is another occasion on which it eludes him. If so, it
helps to account for one other striking feature of the text: the fact that in this passage
Isidore speaks once again of both northern and southern temperate zones as being inhab-
ited, this time quoting both Varro and Virgil to that effect.69 How is this to be reconciled
with his unequivocal denial elsewhere of the existence of Antipodae? Reconciliation is
impossible if the operating premise is that the earth is a sphere. However, if the earth is a
disk, with both temperate zones on the top side, the Antipodeans, as Lactantius evidently
thought, would have to be on the underside, a manifestly ridiculous notion. It is a view of
the world that Isidore, one suspects, has not entirely escaped.

67 See Bede, De temp. ratione 19 (CCL 123A:210-211): "Solis ignem dicunt aqua nutriri, multoque hunc luna
ampliorem, lunam vero terra esse maiorem. Unde et cunctis unius magnitudinis apparet. Quod enim nobis quasi
cubitalis videtur nimiae celsitudinis distantia facit-alioquin maior Indis oriens et Britannis appareret occidens."
68 See Isidore, Etym. 14.3.1, where he states that Asia's eastern boundary is the sunrise: "Haec in tertia orbis
parte disposita, ab oriente ortu solis, a meridie Oceano, ab occiduo nostro mare finitur, a septentrione Maeotide
lacu et Tanai fluvio terminatur."
69 See above, at notes 53 and 55. on Wed, 21 Sep 2016 05:34:50 UTC