According to the editors of a compilation of source documents about Columbus which I’m reading for class right now, the myth that people prior to Columbus did not know the earth was round was started by Washington Irving (1783-1859), who wanted to spice up his biography of Columbus and so invented the myth. Actually, say the editors, most people since Antiquity had known the earth was round, yet, how many of us grew up hearing that the dumb superstition of the flat earth was only disproven by rational men when “In the year of 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”?
Later in the book, a primary source witness of Columbus’ third voyage to the Americas reports that Columbus himself began to doubt the pretty much universal belief that the earth is round. Columbus instead believed the earth to be pear-shaped, and that at its top was the earthly paradise just below Heaven. Says the primary source, “It is certainly not surprising, considering that the world of the Indies had been so hidden and its discovery so recent, as well as the new things that he was seeing, that the admiral imagined so many different and new things and produced fantasies and a new theory.” Huh.