Why the year 536 was “the worst year ever”

When asked what year was the worst year ever, historian Michael McCormick from Harvard University says “the year 536”. Not the year 1349 in which the Black Death cut off half of the European population. Or the year 1918 in which 50 to 100 million – especially young – people succumbed to the flu. No, it is 536. From that year on, the earth was shrouded in darkness day and night, attributing McCormick and his team to volcanic eruptions.

The year 536 marked “the beginning of one of the worst periods to live. Perhaps even the worst year,” says Michael McCormick, archaeologist. And head of the Harvard University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past.

For eighteen months, Europe, the Middle East and large parts of Asia were shrouded in darkness day and night. The Byzantine historian Procopius who lived in that period wrote about it: “The sun shone light all year round without brightness, just like the moon”. That also had an effect on the temperatures. In the summer of 536 it was one and a half to two and a half degrees Celsius colder. It was the coldest decade of the past 2300 years. There was a lot of snow during that period, the harvest failed and people died of hunger. In Irish chronicles, it says that between 535 and 539 there was no bread.

A few years later, in 541, the bubonic plague broke out in the eastern Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt. The outbreak was also called the plague of Justinian, the Eastern Roman emperor at that time. The disease spread quickly and killed one third to half of the population of the Eastern Roman Empire. Which has precipitated the collapse of the Empire, McCormick said.

Volcanic eruptions

It is not new that the middle of the sixth century was a dark time in these “Dark Ages” but there was a lot of uncertainty about the cause of the darkness. Now a study by a Swiss glacier led by McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the University of Maine shines light: a large-scale volcanic eruption in Iceland at the beginning of 536 caused the air in the northern hemisphere to cloud through the ashes. Because the sunlight reflected on the particles of the axles it became significantly colder on earth. Shortly afterwards, in 540 and 547, two more massive eruptions followed.

This volcanic activity, with its effects on nature in combination with the plague, stagnated the European economy to 640. In that year, a peak in lead concentration in the ice was observed, which would point to the revival of silver mining. Silver is extracted from lead ore and the increased presence of lead in the ice points to the growing role of the precious metal in society and thus a flourishing trade.

Science Magazine
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