Disasters

What Was the Worst Year to Be Alive?

Does it ever seem like things are worse than they've ever been? There's certainly a lot of bad news these days, but believe us — things have been worse. In 1918, an influenza pandemic killed more than 50 million people. In 1349, the Black Plague wiped out half of the population of Europe. But even those banner years for death and destruction were nothing compared to the very worst year on record.

Related: The Bubonic Plague

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year

Let's say you get a time machine that will take you to a random year in human history, and you only get to put one year on the no-go list. We're going to suggest that you veto the year 536 C.E. That was the year a mysterious fog engulfed Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, resulting in 18 months of darkness. Temperatures dropped by as much as 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit), and mid-summer snow fell in China.

As you might expect, the years that immediately followed weren't the most pleasant, either. The decade to follow was the coldest of the past 2,300 years. Irish records indicate that the country had to weather a bread famine that lasted from the year 536 to 539. And in 541, the illness now called the Justinianic Plague broke out in the eastern Roman Empire, eventually killing some 100 million people — one in every five — and signaling the end of an era. But of all those disastrous events, the strangest (and likely cause of the calamities to follow) is that continent-spanning cloud and the year-and-a-half of night that it brought with it. And no one knew where it came from — until now.

Scientists have long suspected that the culprit behind the cloud and the subsequent drop in global temperatures was a massive volcanic explosion. One study published in 2015 all but confirmed this hypothesis by examining the chemical composition of tree rings that grew during the period, which suggested that the volcano in question likely erupted in North America. Now, a team of historians, archaeologists, and climate scientists have released a new examination of ice cores found in the Swiss Alps. Thanks to the new, ultra-precise readings of the ice and the tiny slivers of volcanic glass within them, this report has been able to create a much more exact match to known volcanoes in the world. The real source? Iceland. What's more, they were able to confidently state that the same volcanic system erupted two more times in quick succession, in 540 and 547. The events were so devastating that Europe would need about a century to recover.

Bouncing Back

This newer study wasn't concentrated solely on what brought humanity low. It also wanted to track its economic recovery. The ice cores from the year 640 display a sudden spike in airborne lead, which would have been launched into the atmosphere as a side effect of silver mining and smelting. Another spike in lead arrived 20 years later, in 660, as medieval economies began transitioning from a gold- to a silver-based economy. It was the beginning of the rise of the medieval merchant class and a sign that even the darkest times don't last forever.

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The era commonly known as the "Dark Ages" was neither as simple nor as backward as we tend to think. Discover what it was all about in "The Inheritance of Rome" by Chris Wickham (free when you sign up for Audible for the first time). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas January 18, 2019

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