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536: The Worst Year Ever

Understandably, a lot of people thought 2020 was the worst year to date. Global pandemic aside, there were devastating fires, a spike in racial tensions, worldwide political unrest, murder hornets and the worst celebrity cover version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” ever heard. While this will definitely count as one of the worst years in modern times, how does it stand up when compared to the rest of human history? 

You can probably think of a few examples of terrible years in the past. Surely the time periods covering both world wars would have multiple nominations. How about being alive when the Black Death was spreading itself across Africa and Eurasia in the 14th century? Pretty scary stuff. But according to medieval historian Michael McCormick, there is one bad year to rule them all. And that is 536.

It Was a Very Bad Year

Just to be clear, AD 536 was the kickoff to a very dark period lasting until around AD 542 so those few years are generally lumped together into one bad luck bundle. McCormick gave 536 the overall title as: “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year.”

So what was it that made AD 536 such a bad time to be alive? You may have heard of the slightly pejorative term “Dark Ages” to refer to a period in European history after the fall of the western Roman Empire when supposedly society seemed to regress a bit and no great works of science or art were produced. This is applied to the 5th and 6th centuries AD but there might be a far more literal explanation for the term. Starting in 536, much of the northern hemisphere was indeed dark, cast under a mysterious fog that hung around for 18 months. Now, thanks to glaciologists studying ice core samples from the Swiss Alps in 2013, we know the origins of this fog. Using a laser and cross-referencing with tree-ring databases, it’s possible to identify climate activity and events by the fallout trapped in the ice as accurately as to the month, up to 2000 years ago. These glaciologists confirmed that in 536, a massive volcanic eruption occurred somewhere in the world. Most agree that it was in Iceland although there is at least one vote for North America. Either way, it was a colossal event. If you remember the Icelandic eruption in 2010, while it was big news at the time, it was pretty minor as these things go. Nobody died and, while air travel was disrupted for a few days, things soon went back to normal. Now imagine a volcanic eruption so large mixed with just the right wind patterns that the ash cloud blankets much of the northern hemisphere, casting it into a dark gloom. And it lasts for a year and a half. Just think about the consequences for a second. Due to the enormous size of the eruption, there must have been a death toll directly related to it but it’s not really possible to work out what that would have been. So, number one, loss of life. Number two – the sun is blotted out so everyone had to live in a weird eclipse-like quasi-darkness. Roman politician Cassiodorus wrote “We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon” although presumably the novelty of this wore off as the months dragged on. If living in darkness is not depressing enough, we move on to the third consequence – not enough sunlight is getting through to crops meaning that harvests will fail and, as such a large area is affected, famine for millions will shortly follow. Written records from Ireland show “a failure of bread from the years 536–539.” That’s a long time with no bread.

The eruption seen from Þórolfsfell on the 10th of may.
Erruption ilustration. By David Karnå, is licensed under CC-BY

Number four – what else happens when the sun is trapped behind a thick cloud of ash and dust? The climate goes crazy. 536 was recorded as the coldest year for nearly 2 and a half millennia and started what became known as the “Late Antique Little Ice Age.” While this might be a fun-sounding name, it really was anything but. Average summer temperatures dropped by up to 2.5 degrees Centigrade (36.5 degrees Fahrenheit) across Europe, Africa and Asia, compounding the crop failures and leading to other weird weather anomalies. Snow was recorded as falling in China during the summer, ruining their harvest and leading to more people starving to death.  

A subsequent volcanic eruption in around AD 540 brought average temperatures down even further and led to agricultural chaos in South America which went through periods of three months of torrential rain followed by three months of drought. 

And remember, this is the 6th century. It was not possible to mobilise large-scale relief efforts or even to fully understand what was going on. Even if people did realise a volcano had erupted there wasn’t a way to predict where the ash clouds would go or how long they would last. It must have seemed like the end of the world.

If you’re thinking “ehh, that doesn’t sound so bad. 2020 still gets my vote”, just wait – it gets worse. In 541 our old friend the pandemic makes an appearance. Known as the plague of Justinian after the Byzantine emperor at the time, this early strain of bubonic plague ravaged the Meditarranean basin, Europe and the near east and while Justinian himself did also catch it, with the luck seemingly bestowed upon rich leaders, he ended up recovering. He was one of the fortunate ones. This was a nasty type of plague leading to fevers and large swellings on those affected and often causing delusions and nightmares. If you were lucky, it would kill you in a day or two. If you were unlucky, it could drag on for two weeks. As we know, plagues come and go in waves and can hang around for years. The spread of this one was exacerbated by wars, open trade routes, disease-carrying rats trying to get to warmer areas and large numbers of people in ill-health traveling around trying to escape the famine and misery of wherever they lived. Unfortunately, most other countries at the time were suffering from exactly the same problems. 

Results and Consequences

While it’s not possible to get an exact mortality rate for the plague, it’s safe to say that many people died. Contemporary accounts say as many as 10,000 people were dying a day in Constantinople, the epicentre of the plague, although modern historians have estimated the number down to a still horrifying 5,000 a day. Some historians even suggest that out of the estimated world population of 190 million at the time, up to 50% might have been killed by this plague and other concurrent diseases in the period from AD 541 to 549.

With famine, disease and climate chaos, it’s not really surprising that the economy was also in freefall. In Europe especially, it wouldn’t start to recover for almost a century. Evidence of this recovery was also found in the glacial ice samples as increases in atmospheric lead in AD 640 indicated the resurgence of silver mining in Europe.

San Vitale (Ravenna) - Mosaic of Iustinianus I
San Vitale (Ravenna) – Mosaic of Iustinianus I. By
Petar Milošević, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

You might have thought that with all the misery and death around that people might pull together and start trying to make the best of things. Well, some probably did but the aforementioned plague-survivor Emperor Justinian certainly didn’t go easy on those subjects he had left. Byzantine scholar Procopius complained “When pestilence swept through the whole known world and notably the Roman Empire, wiping out most of the farming community and of necessity leaving a trail of desolation in its wake, Justinian showed no mercy towards the ruined freeholders. Even then, he did not refrain from demanding the annual tax, not only the amount at which he assessed each individual, but also the amount for which his deceased neighbors were liable.” Taxing the dead? That’s a pretty low blow.

But Justinian needed to keep his coffers full for the Gothic war against the Ostrogoths in Italy which had started in 535 and would continue on for another 18 years. By the end of it, both sides were so depleted due to the resources used, the plague and just losses incurred by sieges and invasions in general that even the technically victorious Byzantine side was immediately left vulnerable to attacks by other enemies. Due to its huge loss of population and resources, the Byzantine empire saw its borders shrinking and this led to the eventual collapse of the eastern Roman empire.

Other areas were also affected by wars and political unrest. India’s Gupta empire which had covered a golden age of discovery, art and culture for the Indian subcontinent was also in sharp decline by 536. Increasing attacks by the Alchon Huns and a huge flood brought about the end of the empire in around AD 543.

It’s not an overstatement to say that the year 536 changed the world. A catastrophic natural disaster ending up leaving millions dead from starvation and the rest living in darkness. A deadly plague with little to no response from the people at the top left another huge dent in the world’s population. In the 21st century, we have more understanding and resources to aid recovery after natural disasters and we have the means to communicate quickly with the rest of the world. And while we’ve discovered that we’re still scarily unprepared for global health crises, at least we’re not also having to deal with a permanent eclipse situation.  Instead of thinking of the Dark Ages as a backwards time in history, maybe the people living in the 6th century should be given credit that they managed to recover at all.

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