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Belief in a flat Earth is found in mankind's oldest writings. In early Mesopotamian thought, the world was portrayed as a flat disk floating in the ocean. This was a common belief until the Classical Greeks began to discuss the Earth's shape about the 4th century BC.
The large-scale shape of the Earth is only relevant when considering large distances. Consequently, in antiquity only sailors, astronomers, philosophers, and theologians would have been concerned about the Earth's large-scale shape.
Portuguese exploration of Africa and Asia, Columbus' voyage to the Americas (1492) and finally Ferdinand Magellan's circumnavigation of the earth (1519-21) provided the final, practical proofs for the global shape of the earth.
During the 19th century, the Romantic conception of a European "Dark Age" gave much more prominence to the Flat Earth model than it ever possessed historically.
The widely circulated woodcut of a man poking his head through the firmament of a flat Earth to view the mechanics of the spheres, executed in the style of the 16th century cannot be traced to an earlier source than Camille Flammarion's L'Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888, p. 163). The woodcut illustrates the statement in the text that a medieval missionary claimed that "he reached the horizon where the Earth and the heavens met", an anecdote that may be traced back to Voltaire, but not to any known medieval source. In its original form, the woodcut included a decorative border that places it in the 19th century; in later publications, some claiming that the woodcut dated from the 16th century, the border was removed. According to anecdotal evidence Flammarion had commissioned the woodcut himself; certainly no source of the image earlier than Flammarion's book is known.
An early mention in literature was Ludvig Holberg's comedy Erasmus Montanus (1723). Erasmus Montanus meets considerable opposition when he claims the Earth is round, since all the peasants hold it to be flat. He is not allowed to marry his fiancée until he cries "The earth is flat as a pancake". In Rudyard Kipling's The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat, the protagonists spread the rumor that a Parish Council meeting had voted in favor of a flat Earth.
Fantasy fiction is particularly rich in references to the flat Earth. In C. S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader the fictional world of Narnia is "round like a table" (i.e., flat), not "round like a ball", and the characters sail toward the edge of this world. Terry Pratchett's Strata and Discworld novels (1983 onwards) are set on a flat, disc-shaped world resting on the backs of four huge elephants which are in turn standing on the back of an enormous turtle.