2016 is widely acknowledged as basically the worst year there’s ever been. Bowie died, Prince died, basically everybody died, while the UK, in its infinite wisdom, decided to vote to cut off its nose to spite its face, before the pièce de résistance, the United States, in its even-more-infinite wisdom, decided to elect a petulant orange manchild as president. It wasn’t, truth be told, a great one. In the words of our dear old Queen - and to utilise both Latin and French into this opening paragraph - it was something of an Annus horribilis.
But, according to historians, this was an absolute breeze of a year compared to the very worst one ever: 536 A.D.
A new paper published in the journal Antiquities, co-authored by Harvard History professor Michael McCormick, Nottingham University history professor Christopher Loveluck, and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine in Orono, studied ice samples in the Swiss Alps to uncover new information about a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland which occurred in that year.
It led to a huge cloud of black ash that blocked out the sun from Europe to Asia which resulted in the failure of crops, in turn causing a great famine. As well as eighteen months of darkness, this created a cold snap while, just for an extra kicker, an outbreak of bubonic plague spread through the Eastern Roman Empire six years later, meaning that it was an utterly hideous time to be alive.
McCormick told Science: “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year.”
The original eruption was followed by two more - in 540 and 547 - which compounded the misery, which led to an economic downturn that lasted for thirty years.
However, the eruption wasn’t all bad news. While conducting the study, researchers discovered lead pollutants in the ice - these would eventually helped the European economy to recover, around 100 years later, with the metal crucial in the production of silver. By this time, cloud had dispersed, light had returned and the plague had died down.
Mind you, we didn’t need scientific research to tell us that the Middle Ages were bad: just ask any self-respecting repressed peasant.