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The Past

A historian identifies the worst year in human history

A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.

Credit: Pieter Bruegel the Elder. (Museo del Prado).

The Triumph of Death. 1562.

Key Takeaways
  • 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, reportsScience, 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.



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