536: The Worst Year in History

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Podcast Transcript

There have been many really bad years in world history. There have been World Wars, the Black Death, and horrific natural disasters, all of which have made for very bad years. 

However, many historians have come to the conclusion that the worst year in the history of humanity was a year that in and of itself was pretty bad but also ushered in a decade of bad years. 

Moreover, it wasn’t bad for a single region or even continent, it was bad for everyone on the planet.

Learn more about the year 536 and why it very well might have been the worst year in history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Trying to pick a single year in world history which is the worst is a very difficult and subjective task. 

There have been massive wars throughout world history, pandemics that have killed millions, and earthquakes which have killed hundreds of thousands in a matter of minutes. 

Nazi Germany systematically took the lives of over 11 million people. 

The Ukrainian Holodomor took the lives of 5 million people in a famine. The Great Chinese Famine from 1959 to 1961 might have killed as many as 50 million people. 

The 1556 Shaanxi Earthquake in China killed an estimated 800,000 people in a single day. 

On the evening of March 9-10, 1945, the firebombing of Tokyo may have killed over 100,000 people in a single evening. 

The Spanish Flu of 1918 might have killed as many as 50 million people. 

In 1221, legend says that Ghengis Khan might have killed over a million people in the span of an hour when he sacked the Persian city of Nishapur.

I could keep listing all of the horrible things which have happened in world history, and it would be a long list. 

However, as bad as all of those things were, they were usually localized events or took place over an extended period of time. 

Most of the world didn’t see fighting in either of the two world wars. The worst years of the Black Death were concentrated in Europe. 

Earthquakes and other natural disasters usually only affect a limited area, as do famines. 

So trying to establish a “worst” year is a pretty tall order. 

In light of all the terrible things which have happened, what makes the year 536 stand out? 

There were ancient writers who spoke about the events of 536, but for centuries, most historians thought that they were either exaggerating or telling outright fables. 

However, recent research has begun to corroborate exactly what happened, confirming the reports of ancient writers. 

One of the surviving accounts of what happened in 536 comes from a Roman Senator by the name of Cassiodorus. Here is an extended passage from one of his letters:

‘Since the world is not governed by chance, but by a Divine Ruler who does not change His purposes at random, men are alarmed, and naturally alarmed, at the extraordinary signs in the heavens, and ask with anxious hearts what events these may portend. The Sun, the first of the stars, seems to have lost its wonted light, and appears of a bluish color. We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon, to feel the mighty vigor of his heat wasted into feebleness, and the phenomena which accompany a transitory eclipse prolonged through a whole year.

‘The Moon, too, even when her orb is full, is empty of her natural splendor. Strange has been the course of the year thus far. We have had a winter without storms, a spring without mildness, and a summer without heat. Whence can we look for harvest, since the months which should have been maturing the corn have been chilled by Boreas? How can the blade open if rain, the mother of all fertility, is denied to it? These two influences, prolonged frost and unseasonable drought must be adverse to all things that grow. The seasons seem to be all jumbled up together, and the fruits, which were wont to be formed by gentle showers, cannot be looked for from the parched earth. 

….This often happens in cloudy weather for a time; it is only its extraordinary prolongation that has produced these disastrous effects, causing the reaper to fear a new frost in harvest, making the apples to harden when they should grow ripe, souring the old age of the grape-cluster.

Cassiodorus was describing the world when there was the sun had been blocked. Both light and heat were diminished. Without light and heat, crops cannot grow. Without crops, people starve. 

There isn’t a whole lot of written material from this period, but what does exist tends to corroborate Cassiodorus. 

What happened in 536 appears to have been a truly global catastrophe. 

Several Irish Annals, which were chronicles of events on the island written by monks, report famines that occurred in 536. 

Reports from China told of frost and snow appearing in the middle of August. 

Michael the Syrian wrote a history of the region which spoke of the sunlight barely shining for a year and a half.

Drought and famine affected the Moche civilization in Peru. 

In Scandinavia, things were so bad that the nobility threw gold into lakes in an attempt to appease the gods. 

All of the evidence points to a dramatic, global event known as a volcanic winter. 

In previous episodes, I discussed an event known as the Little Ice Age and the summer of 1816, which was known as the Year Without A Summer.  

The volcanic winter of 536 was something else entirely. The Little Ice Age was mostly confined to the Northern Hemisphere. The event of 536 was a truly global event. Moreover, it was a much more severe drop in temperatures as well as a reduction in sunlight than either the Little Ice Age or the summer of 1816. 

The Earth was basically blanketed in a cloud of ash, which may have lasted for 18 months.  The reduction of temperature would have been approximately 2.5 celsius, making it the coldest year in at least the last 2,500 years, possibly since the end of the last ice age. 

It has only been in the last few decades that researchers have found hard evidence to support what happened. 

Dendochronologists have found that the rings of oak trees in Ireland during the period showed almost no signs of growth. 

Ice core samples in Antarctica showed evidence of elevated levels of sulfates, which are an indication of an acidic dust in the atmosphere. 

Ice core samples from glaciers in Switzerland found microscopic volcanic glass beads, which were deposited in the year 536. 

The same ice cores show a dramatic reduction in atmospheric lead levels, indicating that mining activities suddenly ground to a halt.

So, if this was the result of a volcanic eruption, where did the eruption occur? 

There have been several theories put forward as to which volcano erupted, but as of today, there isn’t any conclusive evidence. 

Proposed volcanoes include the Rabaul volcano in Papua New Guinea, Krakatoa in Indonesia, Ilopango in El Salvador, something in North America, and also possibly something in Iceland

It is also entirely possible that the cause of the severe blockage of the sun was the result of more than one major volcanic eruption, the effects of which compounded each other. 

The impact of the volcanic winter of 536 is hard to calculate, again, because there are so few surviving first-hand accounts available, but it had to have been a catastrophic famine of global proportions.

As bad as the year 536 was, it was actually just the beginning of a horrible decade. 

There was likely another major eruption in 540 and in 547. This period became known as the Late Antique Little Ice Age. 

This period, which may have lasted for a full century, saw several major changes take place around the world. 

In 541, the world’s first true pandemic, the Plague of Justinian, hit the world around the Mediterranean.  I’ve covered this in a previous episode, but many think that the famine which took place just before this may have contributed to the spread of the disease as food had to be shipped from more distant lands. 

The Norse apocalyptic tale of Ragnarök may have been written in response to this period. 

A group known as the Avars went into decline in Eastern Europe, as did many other groups known to the Romans as barbaric peoples. This marked  the end of the great Migration Period in Europe after the end of the Western Roman Empire. 

The Gupta Empire in India collapsed

The Sasanian Empire centered in modern-day Iran ended.

The Mongols and other Turkic peoples from the Asian steps began mass migrations to the west.

The great city of ??Teotihuacan in Mexico fell. 

The Byzantine Empire began its slow decline, which would take a millennium to complete.

Western Europe entered a period that became known as the Dark Ages. 

In the ashes of this era, Islam rose and became a potent force over much of the world. 

All of these events, which I’ve listed, were associated with major wars.

This was the biggest change in the global political order in over 1,700 years since the Bronze Age Collapse. 

The reason why 536 was so bad was due to the global nature of the event. The sun was blocked out, which affected everyone and everything on the planet. 

While other climatic events have happened in human history, there hasn’t been anything quite like the events of 536.  An event that made it perhaps the worst year in human history.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Domino Table Artover on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Best podcast you’ll find of Everything Everywhere!

I enjoy numerous podcasts of many themes but always reach a saturation point where I have to move on. That’s where Gary’s ‘Everything Everywhere’ is unique and in a league by itself.

The concise discussions on intriguing subjects never cease to hold my interest. I just finished listening to the entire library of episodes and had to start over, this podcast is like a certain potato chip, nobody can have just one, even the encore episodes are captivating.

Thanks, Domino! First, let me congratulate you on your membership in the completionist club. You can leave your name on the roll of honor in the Facebook group if you haven’t already done that.

I also agree that the show is a bit like a potato chip in that you can’t just stop with one. However, it is also sort of like a Doritio. Listen to all you want, I’ll make more. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.