The Catastrophic Events of 536 That Made It The Worst Year In History

History is filled with years of turmoil, disaster, and upheaval, but one year stands out: 536 AD. Often cited by historians and scientists as the worst year to be alive, this period in history was marked by a series of catastrophic events that profoundly impacted the entire world.

From mysterious climatic phenomena to widespread famine and devastating plagues, 536 AD was a year that reshaped human history.

A Sunless, Starless Sky

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The year 536 wasn’t just bad but a period of darkness and despair. During his travels in Sicily, Byzantine historian Procopius observed a sun that had lost its brightness, resembling a dim moon for an entire year. This observation was not an isolated one.

Michael the Syrian described a sun that barely illuminated the sky for about four hours daily, casting a perpetual twilight over the Earth. This phenomenon was not just a typical cloudy day but a year-long global gloom.

A Chilling Effect on Agriculture

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The lack of sunlight in 536 had a devastating impact on global agriculture. The absence of adequate sunlight led to widespread crop failures, causing severe famines across various regions. In Ireland, this period was called the “Bread Failure,” reflecting the dire situation.

The temperature dropped by 1.6 to 2.5 degrees Celsius, initiating a chilling period that lasted for decades. This was not just a single season of poor harvests but a catastrophic event for food production worldwide.

Climate Catastrophes & Volcanic Eruptions

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The cause of this global darkness? A massive volcanic eruption, as evidenced by ice core samples from Iceland and Greenland.

Research has revealed that a volcanic eruption in Iceland in early 536 spread ash across the Northern Hemisphere, creating a fog that blocked the sun, drastically dropping temperatures and leading to crop failures. This literal Dark Age was when people couldn’t see their shadows at noon, and the sun appeared constantly in eclipse.1

The Late Antique Little Ice Age, as it came to be known, resulted from volcanic ash blocking out the sun, leading to significantly colder summers in Europe and Asia, with China even reporting summer snow. This prolonged period of cold and starvation caused economic stagnation and intensified the suffering of people across the Northern Hemisphere.

Plagues & Pestilence

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If famine and darkness weren’t enough, 536 also brought many diseases. The Justinian Plague, named after the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, was particularly brutal.2

Originating in China and northeast India, the plague was transmitted to Constantinople through black rats on grain ships, wreaking havoc across the empire. Procopius vividly described the symptoms: delusions, nightmares, fevers, and swollen, pus-filled buboes in the groin, armpits, and behind the ears.

The plague, primarily bubonic, decimated nearly half of Europe’s population. It persisted for over two centuries, with the last outbreak reported in 750 CE. This period was marked by social upheaval, economic stagnation, and a significant population decline, profoundly impacting European history.

The Impact on Empires

The Byzantine Empire, under Emperor Justinian, was particularly hard hit. Efforts to reclaim the glory of the Roman Empire were thwarted not just by military setbacks but by the sheer scale of the disaster. The empire lost 35% to 55% of its population to the plague and famine. This was a blow from which it never fully recovered, altering the course of history.

Global Suffering

The misery of 536 wasn’t confined to Europe. In Peru, the Moche civilization faced its own set of challenges. An intense El Niño event disrupted their fishing and agriculture, leading to economic and social upheaval. It was a year that proved disastrous globally, affecting societies and civilizations far and wide.

The year 536 stands out in history as a testament to human resilience in the face of unimaginable hardships. It’s a year that makes our current challenges seem less daunting and a reminder of the ever-present potential for global upheaval.

So, next time you think you’re having the worst year ever, remember 536 – a year that truly deserves its infamous title.

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