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Volcanoes, plague and famine: Welcome to 536, the “worst year to live”

We are only in February and already 2022 looks bad. A huge volcanic eruption off Tonga, the prospect of war with Russia, the ongoing pandemic (and its economic disruption). Welcome to the new year: as horrible as the old one. A story of bad times

I don’t write to shed light on the very real problems of our world, but rather to put them into perspective. 2020, 2021 and maybe now 2022, have all been bad.

But they were no worse than, say, 1347, when the Black Death began its long march across Eurasia. Or 1816, “the year without a summer”. Or 1914, when the assassination of an obscure Habsburg archduke precipitated not one but two global conflicts – one of which claimed millions of lives in the world’s most horrific genocide.

There have been many other bad years, and decades too. In the 1330s, famine set in and robbed China Yuan. In the 1590s, a similar famine devastated Europe, and the 1490s saw smallpox and influenza begin to make their way through the native populations of the Americas (reciprocally, syphilis did the same among the inhabitants of the Old World).

Life has often been “wicked, brutal, and short,” as the cynical political philosopher Thomas Hobbes observed in his Leviathan in 1651. And yet historians, even now, sometimes single out a particular year as worse than others. .

Yes, there may have been a time in historical memory when it truly was the worst time to be alive.

536: the worst year in history?

536 is the current consensus candidate for the worst year in human history. A volcanic eruption, or possibly more than one, somewhere in the northern hemisphere seems to have been the trigger.

Wherever it is, the eruption precipitated a decade-long “volcanic winter”, during which China suffered summer snowfalls and average temperatures in Europe fell 2.5°C. failed. People were starving. Then they took up arms against each other.

In 541, the bubonic plague arrived in Egypt and killed around a third of the population of the Byzantine Empire.

Even in faraway Peru, droughts have plagued the once-thriving Moche culture.

Increasing ocean ice cover (a feedback effect of volcanic winter) and a deep solar minimum (the regular period with the least solar activity in the Sun’s 11-year solar cycle) in the 600s ensured that global cooling has continued for more than a century.

Many societies living in 530 simply could not survive the upheavals of the decades that followed.

The new “science” of climate history

Historians are now particularly interested in topics like this because we can collaborate with scientists to reconstruct the past in new and surprising ways.

Only a fraction of what we know, or think we know, about what happened during those troubled times now comes from traditional written sources. We have some for 536: the Byzantine historian Procopius wrote that year that “a most dreadful omen has occurred”, and the Roman senator Cassiodorus noted in 538: […] the sun seems to have lost its usual light and appears a bluish color. We marvel to see no shadow of our bodies at noon and to feel the mighty vigor of its heat wasted in weakness.

Yet the real advances in the historical understanding of this “worst year ever” are emerging through the application of advanced techniques such as dendroclimatology and ice core analysis.

Dendroclimatologist Ulf Buntgen detected evidence of a cluster of volcanic eruptions, in 536, 540 and 547, in the growth patterns of tree rings. Similarly, the “ultra-precise” analysis of the ice of a Swiss glacier undertaken by archaeologist Michael McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski was key to understanding just how severe the climate change of 536 was.

Such analyzes are now considered important, even essential, resources in the historian’s methodological toolbox, especially for discussing periods without an abundance of surviving records.

Some historians—including Kyle Harper, Jared Diamond, and Geoffrey Parker—use developments in this growing field to construct comprehensive revisionist accounts of the rise and fall of particular societies. For them, the conditions on our planet are far more important to advancing our story than we ever imagined.

Facing adversity

But what was it like to experience a climatic event such as the one that began in 536? This is a question historians continue to ask as we sift through our sources.

Most who lived in 536 probably didn’t know they had it so bad. As historians, we are prone to rely too heavily on ill-laden anecdotal snippets like the quotes from Procopius and Cassiodorus.

Yet, like the proverbial frog in boiling water, the average person at the time may have only slowly realized how bleak the living conditions of their world were becoming. The worst time would actually not have been in 536 but sometime after – when the full effects of plagues and droughts, chills and famines really set in.

Miles Pattenden is Senior Researcher, Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry/Gender and Women’s History Research Centre, Australian Catholic University This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.