For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year.
-- Procopius of Caesarea, moaning about the sixth century
Some people suggest that 2020 was one of the worst years in history. Maybe.
Medieval historian Michael McCormick, the founding chair of Harvard's Initiative for the Science of the Human Past, makes a compelling case for the year 536 A.D. as history's worst.
People who pay attention to such matters have long known about a mysterious dense fog that settled across Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia that year, blotting out the sun for 18 months. What they didn't know until a couple of years ago was what caused the phenomenon.
In 2018, researchers led by McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine determined that a volcanic eruption in Iceland was the culprit.
Global temperatures dropped in some places by an average of nearly five degrees Fahrenheit. (That might not sound like much, but it snowed in some areas in the summer of 536). Famine was rampant as crops failed across that part of the world. That led to economic disaster and mass starvation.
There was a smaller eruption in 540. And in 541, what came to be known as the Plague of Justinian, the first pandemic, bubonic plague, broke out in the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt. We don't know how many people died in that pandemic, which you could argue lasted for about 200 years, but alarmist Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea claimed it was killing more than 10,000 people a day in Constantinople. Conservatively, it likely wiped out at least a third of the population of the eastern Roman Empire.
Procopius also reported there was no room to bury the dead, and that bodies were often left stacked in the streets. Funeral rites were suspended; the stench of death was everywhere. In his "Secret History," Procopius cut Eastern Roman emperor Justinian I--who branded himself "Justinian the Great" and (probably) promised to make the Holy Roman Empire great again--absolutely no slack:
"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."
Mitch McConnell doesn't seem so bad now, does he? At least he's not making you pay your dead neighbor's tax bill. Yet.
Anyway, now you know why they call the sixth century the Dark Ages. In addition to being no fun, and everybody being ignorant, smelly and probably contagious, it was literally dark. (There was another sun-blotting volcanic eruption that came along around 547.)
Other years were also probably worse than 2020.
Remember 1968? It was a bad year for the U.S., what with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and the riots and the war. The My Lai massacre took place in 1968. It felt like the country was flying apart. As politically polarized as we are now, 1968 felt worse.
Internationally, the Hong Kong flu pandemic killed as many as 4 million people worldwide. There was the ongoing Cultural Revolution in China, a leftist student revolt in France that nearly brought down the government, student unrest in Yugoslavia, the Warsaw Pact invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia, the "Regime of the Colonels" in Greece (the juntas began in 1967, but calendars are artificial constructs), and Israel's retaliatory strike on Lebanon after the El Al Flight 253 airliner attack (despite the Lebanese government's apparently having had no part in the attack on the Boeing 707).
And 1919 was bad too. It's been suggested that western civilization tried to commit suicide with the Great War that lasted from July 28, 1914, to Nov. 11, 1918. Future historians will eventually conflate the two global conflicts, and the period from 1914 to 1945 will be considered another kind of Dark Age.
The Black Death years from from 1349 to 1353 were pretty bad. Half the population of Europe (as many as 200 million people) died.
In 1520, Spanish conquistadors introduced smallpox, measles and other viruses to New World inhabitants who had no immunity, resulting in the death of at least 80 percent of indigenous people (between 25 and 55 million).
London had it tough in 1665, when the last major epidemic of bubonic plague (so far) flared up and killed about a quarter of its population. (About 100,000.) If the plague didn't get you, living in the city was miserable, with cobblestone streets slick with animal dung and garbage, the worst of which was raked into foul mounds outside the city walls. The stench was so bad that everyone went around masked by handkerchiefs or with a pocket full of posies they could hold up to their noses.
The sky was black in London too, not from volcanic ash but from smoke produced by coal-burning houses, soap factories, breweries and iron smelters. (Fast forward to 1952 and the Great London Smog, which killed between 4,000 and 6,000 people and seriously affected the health of more than 25,000; it took the fourth episode of the first season of Netflix's "The Crown"--which isn't a documentary but is nevertheless educational--for me to learn about it.)
The 20th century wasn't a particularly good time to be a Russian, what with the millions of famine deaths and gulags and nuclear accidents, some of which we probably don't know about.
Maybe the worst time of all for the earth was the period of heavy bombardment about four billion years ago, shortly after our solar system formed. All the newborn planets had yet to gel and settle into what would become their orbits; space was filled with meteors and comets and hunks of debris hurtling everywhere and smacking into other celestial bodies. (That's how the moon got so jacked up. The earth did too; luckily we had an atmosphere that allowed us to recover cosmetically.)
I understand if none of this makes you feel any better about the just-lapsed year. But 2020 could have been worse. Dr. Fauci says we'll probably be back to normal by the fall.
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