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When we talk about the worst year in history, most youngsters point it towards 2020 which forced the whole civilization into self-imposed quarantines and killed over a million people worldwide. While people who have survived the grey and black of life might suggest that it could be 1349 when the black death wiped out half of the European population or it could be more recent like 1918 when the flu killed 50 million to 100 million people. But the year that could be described as the worst year to be alive, not just by us but also by several historians is 536. Medieval historian Michael McCormick and a group led by him to study by coinage system of the 7th century gave a once and for-all answer to our yearlong debate about the worst year in history.

So, what happened in 536 that it got the title for the worst year in history?

One of the biggest disasters in 536 was a mysterious fog that swept over Europe, the Middle East, and Asia forcing the entire population into darkness, and the years that followed faced some of the direst impacts. A Byzantine military advisor and historian Procopius noticed the extreme darkness while traveling with his king in Sicily in 536. He wrote, “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year”. It literally means that it was all dark outside day and night. And it’s not just Procopius’s accounts that pointed out the mysterious fog, but another Byzantine scribe called Michael the Syrian wrote, “The sun became dark, and its darkness lasted for 18 months.” Each day it shone for four hours with feeble light hitting the ground. The fright was such that people declared that the sun would never shine again to its full capacity. Guess the dialogue didn’t go that well with the sun as it seems to be taking its revenge in 2022!

worst year in history,536

Additionally, without adequate sunlight, the temperature fell below 1.5°C to 2.5°C initiating the coldest decade in our history that led to worldwide famine. Fruits did not ripen which led to massive starvation that quickly spread throughout the world. Researchers today have discovered the real culprit behind the mysterious metaphorical cloud encircling the earth. The recorded evidence of a massive volcano eruption was most likely the real culprit behind the dark fog that prohibited sunlight hitting the ground. That’s why the fruits didn’t ripen, and the crops were destroyed by not receiving sunlight for photosynthesis necessary for its survival and growth. 

In Ireland, people suffered from starvation that they named bread failure. With a yearlong sun-deprived atmosphere, almost all the crops withered triggering famine across every other region of the world. In China, the weather got even worst with snowfall in early August, and cities like Xinzhou noticed yellow dust falling off the sky which they call ‘Hui’. This deadly famine wiped off some 70-80% of China’s population. Researchers today indicate that major volcanic eruptions occurred in 536 by studying the ice of Iceland and Greenland. Two more eruptions followed quickly in 540 and 547 pushing people into the Dark Ages. And China’s yellow dust could be the fallout of the consequent volcanic eruptions.

As people were already starved and malnourished, things got only worst when the plague swept throughout the Byzantine Empire. Nobody was immune to this infestation as it quickly spread from the poor class to Imperial society. With the plague killing thousands of people each day, the city began to stink with piles of dead bodies lying throughout the empire. Thus, the emperor Justinian ordered for all the dead bodies to be removed from the city and thrown into the river only to resurface later. There wasn’t a lot of burial going on thus people were tossing dead bodies into rivers and seas. This plague that took the lives of one-half of the population of the Roman Empire, today is widely remembered as the Plague of Justinian.

worst year in history,536

As this wasn’t enough, followed by two Volcanic eruptions the world fell into the ‘Little Ice Age’ that cooled off the planet at least a decade. With no environment to grow food, many people perished from starvation or diseases that were abundant due to climate shifts. With these massive events happening back-to-back, most of the Roman population moved to Constantinople, probably hoping to re-establish the Justinian empire. But things didn’t go as planned as one of his generals Belisarius fought against it. An already famine-stricken population could not survive another disastrous event and as the battle started, one more plague called bubonic plague struck the Roman Port of Pelusium in 1541 only adding up the number of deaths. The Byzantine Empire lost about 35% to 55% of the population by 541.

And it wasn’t just Europe that suffered the consequences of 536, but the Moche civilization of Peru also suffered a great damage. The civilization famous for its advanced irrigation system survived mostly on fishing and metalwork. Agriculture was the backbone of their economy, but the weather conditions of the year destroyed their crops, some withered, and some were destroyed by over flooding. The water warmed due to the usually strong El Nino system, further killing the fishes. With nothing to feed, the population quickly began to decrease. And just like this, most populations of North America, Europe, Asia, and Middle East perished within a year!

So, we pretty much got the answer for the worst year in history. After hearing the tale of 536 would you dare to experience it again?

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