A premonitory cloud of black ash blocks the sun from Europe to Asia, an outbreak of bubonic plague coincides with a cold and penetrating twinge. Crops fail and hunger, darkness and misery abound.
All these conditions were generalized throughout the northern hemisphere in the year 536 A.D.
The year was a turning point in an era of unprecedented devastation. It was so bad that researchers now label that year as the worst moment to be alive in the history of mankind. Or as Harvard History professor Michael McCormick told Science: "It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year."
While the origins of the black and ashen cloud were previously a mystery, a new article published in the journal Antiquities indicates that a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland caused 18 months of darkness. Two more eruptions in the years 540 and 547 would aggravate the cloud.
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The ash blocked the sun, marking the beginning of cold temperatures that ruined crops, which caused starvation. Adding to the gloom, an outbreak of bubonic plague spread throughout the Eastern Roman Empire in 542 AD. C., killed the masses and gave way to an economic recession that lasted 30 years.
The study, written in collaboration with McCormick, Nottingham University history professor Christopher Loveluck and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of the University of Maine at Orono, measured ice samples in the Swiss Alps in search of evidence of pollutants and atmospheric changes that could potentially shed light on the origins of the dark cloud.
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While conducting the study, the researchers discovered lead contaminants in the ice, created by the surge of volcanic activity.
Ironically, historians believe that these pollutants caused the reactivation of the European economy, taking it out of the deep and depressing chasm some 100 years later.
Lead was crucial in the production of silver, which eventually caused an economic resurgence when the sky cleared and the pestilence vanished. As Loveluck told CNN: "There is evidence of a total economic transformation between 640 and 660," with information from Popular Mechanics.