A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
The bubonic plague ravaged the world for centuries, killing up to 200 million people.
While the world continues to suffer from the onslaught of COVID-19, its toll has yet to approach the grim statistics of history's deadliest pandemic–the Black Death. Also called the Black Plague, this terrible illness afflicted Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s, with new outbreaks over several centuries. It killed about a third of the European population when it began–nearly 20 million people. Over a few years, the total for the extremely contagious plague is estimated to have reached as high as 200 million victims globally.
The bubonic plague first came to Europe in 1347, aboard 12 trading ships from the Black Sea that docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. Most of the sailors on those ships were either dead or terribly ill, covered in black boils full of blood and pus. By the time the authorities tried to send these ships away, it was too late and the plague started spreading. This was due, in particular, to the fact that the disease did not only transmit through air but also through the bites of infected fleas and rats. These were plentiful in Europe of the time, and a real mainstay aboard ships, which carried the plague from port to port. The illness also spread to livestock like cows and sheep and even chicken.
People praying for relief from the bubonic plague, circa 1350. Original Artwork: Designed by E Corbould, lithograph by F Howard.
Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The disease likely originated in Asia over 2,000 years ago. This ancient pestilence decimated the world on different occasions but none as bad as when it hit in the Middle Ages.
Caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the plague resulted in terrifying symptoms. As reported by the History Channel, the Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio described the afflictions that came with the plague in no uncertain terms: "In men and women alike, at the beginning of the malady, certain swellings, either on the groin or under the armpits…waxed to the bigness of a common apple, others to the size of an egg, some more and some less, and these the vulgar named plague-boils."
Ambulance men of Florence, Italy, carrying a patient on a stretcher whilst wearing masks to ward off the plague.
Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Attacking the lymphatic system, the plague also brought with it fever, vomiting, diarrhea, body aches, and pains. Unfortunately, available medieval treatments like bloodletting certainly weren't too pleasant and did little to stem the tide of the Black Death. Neither did the belief of many that the plague was a punishment from God. This resulted in the purging of "heretics" like the massacres of thousands of Jews in 1348 and 1349 and a whole class of self-flagellating people who went from town to town beating themselves in penance.
What finally ended the Black Death? It went away for periods of time but would come back for a new round during several centuries like its resurgence in London in 1665-1666, when it killed about 100,000 – a quarter of the city's population. The eventual weakening of the pandemic was likely due to the practice of quarantining infected people that originated in Venice in the 15th century and is with us to this day. Improved sanitation, personal hygiene, and medical practices also played a role in ultimately slowing the plague's terror march. Still, annually there are about 1,000 to 3,000 cases of the plague even in the modern world.