Come on! For historians, the worst year in history is not this (nor 2020)

Gianluca Riccio


worst year

2020 was undoubtedly the worst year in the lives of many. But was it the absolute worst? A historian has evaluated carefully and found worse.

2020, I say with sufficient certainty, has been nothing but the worst year in the lives of many people around the world.

A violent pandemic, dangerous political instability, meteorological catastrophes and a profound change in lifestyle that a part of us has never experienced or imagined.

But was it the worst year ever?

No. You didn't even get close. After careful analysis, the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick says that "worst year to live in" ever was 536 AD. C.

Why was 536 the worst year in known human history?

One would certainly think that the 1918, the last year of the First World War when the Spanish flu killed up to 100 million people worldwide, was a terrible year by all accounts. Also the 1349 could be put in this hit parade: it's the one in which the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with an estimated 20 million deaths.

Most WWII years could probably claim the title of “worst year” as well, but 536, friends, 536 is an outlier.

For starters, a nice eruption

worst year

Secondo McCormick, professor of medieval history at Harvard University, 536 was the worst year, and the precursor to one of the worst periods in human history. It was characterized by a volcanic eruption that occurred earlier in the year in Iceland, as established by a study on a Swiss glacier conducted by McCormick himself and the glaciologist Paul mayewski of the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.

The ash spewed from the volcano was likely at the origin of the climatic anomalies that led to a fog capable of obscuring daylight for 18 months across Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia.

The Byzantine historian Procopius wrote that “the sun emitted its light without splendor, like the moon, throughout the year.” He also said that it seemed 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 shine, and “the seasons seem to be all mixed up together.” What is even more disturbing, he described: “We are amazed that we do not see the shadows of our bodies at midday.”

(So ​​as not to miss anything, there is also one of the “minor” events this year a Tsunami…in Lake Geneva! In this regard there is a small reconstruction with beautiful illustrations by Cecilia Bozzoli)

It continues with a famine…

The dark days in the worst year also brought a cold spell, with summer temperatures dropping by a range of 1,5°C to 2,5°C. This began the coldest decade in 2300 years, it reports Science, leading to crop devastation and worldwide starvation.

… And the fall of an empire

In 541, the bubonic plague greatly increased the misery of the world. Spread from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called plague of Justinian it caused the death of almost half the population of the Eastern Roman Empire. Which, in turn, hastened its collapse, McCormick writes.

In summary: from 536 between environmental cataclysms, massive volcanic eruptions (also in 540 and 547) and the devastation caused by the plague, Europe ended up in an economic recession for almost the entire following century. Until 640, when silver mining gave it some oxygen.

Worst year and worst time in history?

Of course, the worst year and worst time in history may depend on who you were and where you lived.

For Native Americans the worst year could be 1520 when smallpox, brought by the Spaniards, killed millions of natives. In 1600, up to 90% of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.

Like all things, the macabre title of “worst year ever” comes down to historical perspective.

I know it doesn't console you, but let me tell you: some have gotten even worse.