It’s a serious claim to make, the worst year to be alive. There’s been some pretty bad years. Yet, Harvard University historians have determined that year 536 was the worst it’s ever been, with cataclysms so serious and world-changing it sent all of Europe into what was later called the dark ages. Although the term “dark ages” is not used officially to describe the early middle ages anymore, it’s an incredibly fitting term for the hundred year period which began in 536, considering that it all started with a mysterious “fog” that plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into complete darkness for 18 months.
According to New Scientist, the cause of this fog has been a mystery for historians and archaeologists until now. By examining ice cores, blocks of ice from permanently frozen glaciers that keep a historical record of particulates in the air, Medieval historian Michael McCormick, chair of the Harvard University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past, and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine have identified the catalyst for the 18-month-long night: a big ol’ volcano. The eruption of a massive volcano in Iceland spewed volcanic ash into the atmosphere so thick that it completely blotted out the sun, caused catastrophic crop failure, and dropped the global temperature to its record low in 2,300 years. And that was just the beginning.
Byzantine historian Procopius wrote at the time:
“For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year.”
Really old writing always sounds unduly severe, but in this case it’s warranted. In 536, after daylight itself was dead, temperatures fell 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius globally. The Irish chronicles recorded a complete failure of bread from 536 to 539. That summer, it snowed in China.
It didn’t get any better for a very long time either. Two more eruptions followed in 540 and 547. During that time, in 541, the bubonic plague hit Roman-controlled Egypt and quickly burned its way across the eastern Roman Empire, killing between one third and one half of the population and quickening the empire’s collapse.
The repeated battering by forces outside our control hastened the crumbling of the already-pretty-sickly empires of antiquity and essentially shut down the economy of Europe, paving the way for the period of regal kings, magical princesses, and gallant knights. Just kidding, it was brutal and bloody war, plague, tyranny, and feudalism that followed.
Even that nightmare took a long time to start after the sun killing volcano. According to McCormick and Mayewski, the ice cores showed that Europe didn’t dig itself out of stagnation until over a century later. Lead particulates found in the ice core beginning in the year 640 signals the beginning of silver mining, which due to the lack of gold, had become the standard currency.
Honestly, all of those years sound pretty horrible. I guess it’s the complete lack of sun and the knowledge of imminent starvation that really pushes 536 over the top. Just remember this next time you crack your phone or your car battery dies: at least some angry Viking volcano hasn’t stolen the sun. Yet.