The Actual Worst Year Ever
As far as crap years go, 2020 is probably not as bad as the year an asteroid hit the earth and killed all of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, but it's definitely up there.
As far as the worst year in human history? 2020 still ain't it. In fact, it doesn't even medal. The experts have weighed in and decided that the gold for Worst Year Ever be awarded to 536 AD when God apparently just gave up and said, "Eh, screw it." According to medieval historian Michael McCormick, "It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive." Now to make ourselves feel a little bit better about the steaming pile of trash we're currently living in, let's learn about an even bigger steaming pile of trash.
The 'Dark' Ages Get A Whole New Meaning
Some time in early 536 AD, something funky was going on. A mysterious fog had rolled in through Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, covering the sky and even dimming the sun. The fog lasted for 18 months, and no one could really tell the difference between night and day. Byzantine Greek scholar Procopius wrote about it (probably in the dark):
"And it came about during this year that a most dread portent took place, for the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams that it shed were not clear nor such as it is accustomed to shed."
In layman's terms, the people of 536 AD were straight up not having a good time, and nobody could see shit. Scientists at the University of Maine studied ice core samples (which act as a backlog of climate records) from a Swiss glacier and ultimately found that this mysterious "fog" was really a plume of ash from a massive volcanic eruption in early 536 AD that the wind pushed from Europe all the way into Asia. There's a pretty broad consensus that there were one or two additional massive eruptions around 540 and 547 AD, respectively, but scientists are still arguing about some details, like where in the world they happened.
McCormick believes there were two volcanic eruptions in total, the first occurring sometime in 535 or 536 AD in the Northern Hemisphere, and the second in 539 or 540 AD in the tropics. The first was probably in Iceland, according to McCormick, and the second in Ilopango, El Salvador (now a caldera). But in the second school of thought, David Keys, a writer on historical climate change, thinks the culprit was probably a 535 AD eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia, which would've been the biggest volcanic eruption in the last 1,500 years.
The Littlest Ice Age
As if being in the dark for a year and a half straight wasn't bad enough already, the volcanic particles blocking out the sun led to a 35.6 F (2 C) degree drop in temperature, making for the coldest decade in 2,300 years. This period became known as the "Late Antique Little Ice Age," which honestly sounds a little too cutesy considering the frigid tea bagging that was to follow. Snow fell in China in the summer, and there were crop failures across Europe and Asia that led to widespread famine (the Irish Annals, for example, reported an absence of bread from 536 through 539 AD). Originally, researchers thought that the ice age only lasted a couple of years, but, surprise, its effects were felt for more than a century, leading to even more crap getting flung at humanity, including (spoiler alert): plagues, more famine, political unrest, and total collapse of empires.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, the drop in global temperatures may have actually aided in crop fertility, leading to further expansion beyond the Arabian Peninsula during the Arab conquests, so at least someone wasn't having a horrible time.
The Pestilence Strikes
The Justinian Plague was aptly named after Justinian I, emperor of Byzantium, who was kind of an asshole and a total failson. For a minute there, the Byzantine Empire was the greatest superpower of its time, but overall, Justinian's career is known for drawn-out fighting with the Sasanian Empire, complete incompetence at handling a pandemic, and failed attempts to regain former Roman provinces that had been taken over by invaders.
Justinian took the throne after his uncle Justin I's death in 527 AD, as his newly inherited troops fought the Persians on the Euphrates river. The death of King Kavad I led to an agreement in 532 AD between the two empires called the Treaty of Eternal Peace that, in a nutshell, benefited only the Byzantines and completely screwed the Sasanians over. In a positively shocking turn of events, the Treaty of
Eternal Eight Years Peace didn't last as fighting broke out again in 540 AD. However, this time, Justinian screwed himself over when he completely neglected his armies in the eastern part of his empire, leaving the regions vulnerable to invasion by the Sasanians.
In 541 AD, five or so years after the first volcanic eruption and the beginning of the ice age, the Big Bad Plague came a-knockin' on Europe's door, and things got much, much worse for ol' Justinian. The Justinian Plague was the first-ever recorded case of bubonic plague and a cousin to the infamous Black Death of the 14th century. It ultimately played a big part in the collapse of Justinian's empire because all of his subjects were ... you know, dead.
The experts aren't exactly sure where the plague began, but it's thought it may have spread via trade routes originating in India or China. Widespread famine from crop failures gave way to compromised immune systems -- the perfect condition for a deadly disease to fester. Additionally, rats carrying plague-ridden fleas started migrating toward warmer climates during the ice age.
The bubonic plague, caused by the bacterium yersinia pestis, created an infection in the body resulting in painful, swollen buboes under the armpits, throat, and groin that would turn black and fill up with fluid, probably Mountain Dew or melted licorice or something, who knows. It was so fatal that a healthy person could catch it and be dead two to three days later. So many people died that city officials quit counting after they hit a quarter of a million bodies. (In Roman numerals, 250,000 is written as "CCL," which actually stands for "couldn't care less.") Our boy Procopius wrote that nearly 10,000 people were dying every day, but modern research has suggested numbers closer to 5,000 per day, an indication that Procopius may have been a bit of a drama queen and that the whole thing wasn't really that big of a deal.
In total, 30 to 50 million people were dead by the end of it, and bad times were had by all. Those who were indeed lucky enough to survive the plague then had to deal with Justinian's negligent bullshit. Justinian, who had started a host of grandiose projects when he inherited the throne, was salty about the number of his workers and soldiers who were croaking by the thousands every day. So he did what any caring leader would do in such a dire situation: he raised taxes ... even for dead people.
Procopius was pissed off and wrote about it in his diary:
"When pestilence swept through the whole known world and notably the Roman Empire, wiping out most of the farming community and of necessity leaving a trail of desolation in its wake, Justinian showed no mercy towards the ruined freeholders. Even then, he did not refrain from demanding the annual tax, not only the amount at which he assessed each individual, but also the amount for which his deceased neighbors were liable."
But in perhaps the greatest show of schadenfreude ever, Justinian himself ended up catching the plague (hence the name). But much to the chagrin of his fed-up subjects, he survived because nothing bad ever happens to bad people. One can only hope that contracting a deadly disease and having it named after him was enough to make him see the error in his ways, but probably not.
Unfortunately, humanity just couldn't catch a break, and the horrors of the year 536 AD lingered on for-freaking-ever, ultimately reshaping human history as we know it. Not only did the Late Antique Little Ice Age create the perfect conditions for a pandemic, but it also lasted for about a hundred years more, giving way to a crapload of social and political unrest all across Eurasia. Europe experienced an economic downturn that lasted for a century, and the plague stuck around for another two centuries. Thanks, Justinian.
Honorable Mentions for Worst Year Ever
536 AD may have been one terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year for literally everyone alive (except the Middle East), but we think the following shitty years deserve some recognition as well.
-In 1992, NBC canceled The Golden Girls.
-In 1918, World War I was in full swing, and so was the Spanish Flu that infected 500 million people and killed between 50 and 100 million worldwide by 1919.
-In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and he also helped bring disease and slavery to the New World and facilitated the death of 90% of the Native population of the Americas.
In 1348, the Black Death killed 60% of those infected and one-third of Europe's entire population. (Fun fact: An infected person could go to sleep feeling healthy and be dead by the next morning.)
536 AD was so bad that its repercussions plagued (pun intended) the entire world for centuries after. So the next time you're in the mood to gripe about how bad 2020 is, thank your lucky stars that you weren't around to witness the horrors of the Dark Ages. But hey, 2020 ain't over yet.
Michelle Ranken is a crazy cat lady, minus the cats. Follow her on Twitter @RussianSpyGirl_
Top image: Solarseven, Yurli Zymovin/Shutterstock