It all started with a volcanic eruption that blanketed Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia in an 18-month long stretch of daytime darkness.
If you ask anyone today when is the worst year to be alive, most, if not all, would quickly say it’s 2020. After all, the COVID-19 pandemic first exploded during this time and changed our lives in unimaginable ways.
But historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick thinks differently. According to him, 536 AD takes the cake in being the worst year to be alive. You can’t be blamed for being puzzled by this. If not 2020, why not 1918? It was the last year of World War I and the time that the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people worldwide. By all accounts, it was indeed a horrendous year.
Then there’s also 1349 when the Black Death killed up to 20 million people and practically half of Europe. There are also the years leading up to World War II, those were terrible too. So why 536?
McCormick, who is a Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, said that 536 was “the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history.” Earlier that year, there was a volcanic eruption in Iceland, which was established by a study conducted by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski about a Swiss glacier.
The eruption spewed ash that likely resulted in a fog that blanketed Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia in an 18-month long stretch of daytime darkness.
“For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year,” wrote Byzantine historian Procopius. Roman politician Cassiodorus said that the sun had a “bluish” color, that the moon had no shine, and that the “seasons seem to be all jumbled up together.” He added that during that time, people had no shadows of their bodies at noon.
A period of coldness followed those days of darkness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. It was the start of the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, which led to the destruction of crops worldwide and resulted in mass hunger.
The bubonic plague came in 541, which further added to the world’s misery. It was called the Plague of Justinian and it spread from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt.
Up to one-half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire died, which lead to its eventual downfall.
Massive volcanic eruption also happened between 540 and 547 and combined with the devastation brought on by the plague plus other cataclysms, it caused an economic downturn in Europe for nearly all of the next century.
But since you weren’t around to experience all these, you may still insist that for you, 2020 is still the worst. No one can argue with that, since the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
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