The 6th century boasted many exceptional events, people, and historical contributions. The exception, however, was one year that was particularly burdened with a level of tragedy and strife most historians say surpassed any other moment in history: 536 CE. This was the worst part of the Dark Ages.
Calling the medieval period the "Dark Ages" may seem to be a bit of an exaggeration to the period overall, but scientists and historians recently determined the worst time to be alive was, in fact, during one of these so-called dark years. Across the globe, from Europe to Asia to South America, civilization stalled as people dealt with hardships brought on by horrific natural events.
Plagues, famines, and natural disasters all contributed to the challenges of 536, as did messy political shifts and cultural upheavals. Living in medieval Europe was anything but easy, and the 6th century appeared exceptionally difficult to survive. Don't worry, though - about 100 years later everything recovered as best it could.
Byzantine historian Procopius served as a military advisor to Belisarius, one of the Byzantine Empire's most distinguished generals. Procopius accompanied Belisarius on his campaigns in Persia during the 520s and again in Sicily in 536. He wrote about a "portent" that took place that year:
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 it shed were not clear nor such as it is accustomed to shed. And from the time when this thing happened men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death.
Procopius wasn't the only source to mention the darkness of 536. Michael the Syrian, a Byzantine scribe, wrote about it as well:
The sun was eclipsed for 18 months. For three hours in the morning, it would give light, but a light that resembled neither day nor night.
Other sources from throughout the Mediterranean mention a cloud or dust veil that darkened the Earth for a year around 536. As experts looked back on the era, they discovered evidence of a massive volcanic eruption that possibly deposited ash across the globe. The fog proved disastrous for the people of Europe.
The effect of extended darkness on agriculture in 536 (and the following years) proved ruinous. Without the sun, crops wouldn't grow, the temperature of the Earth dropped by between 1.6° and 2.5° Celsius, and civilizations around the world struggled to produce enough food to survive. Michael the Syrian described the landscape:
During that year fruit did not reach the point of maturity, and all the land became as though transformed into something half alive, or like someone suffering from a long illness.
Crop scarcities extended from Ireland through Continental Europe, across Asia to China in the immediate aftermath of the volcanic eruption in 536. The event triggered cooler temperatures that lasted for decades.
The lingering cloud of dust was not the only issue that made 536 such a bad year. Procopius mentioned a pestilence that followed the darkness of 536, and Michael the Syrian wrote about the ruin that ran through the Byzantine Empire:
An unprecedented plague ensued which began in Constantinople where the first day 5,000 people [perished], the next day 10,000, the third 15,000, the fourth 18,000 - figures reported by the auditors that the emperor had placed at the gates of the city. They counted up to 300,000 people... and then left off counting.
No one was immune, as it "first attacked the poor class of the population, then the merchants and the nobility including the Imperial Palace." The symptoms "began with a [sore] that formed in the palm of the hand, and progressed until the afflicted one could not take a step. The legs swelled, then the buboes burst and pus came out."
The presence of the plague in Constantinople meant "the city began to stink [from the unburied] and so [they] were thrown into the sea, but the bodies kept resurfacing." The Emperor Justinian ordered [them] to be removed from the city, but "often the bearers themselves [were felled by disease] in the street. Furthermore, it even happened that someone would enter a deserted house and gather up its treasures to [take], but would end up [not making it out alive] at the door, on the way out."
Things became even worse in other parts of the empire, however:
The plague spread to Egypt where one city was wiped out [in this manner]: only seven men and a boy remained alive there. As they wandered around the city, suddenly the seven men [were felled] on the spot. Then the lad saw the angel of God in the guise of an old man. Seeing the child weeping, the angel removed him from the city and said: "Go now and weep not, for this punishment is the payment for heresy and sin."
What came to be called the Plague of Justinian took out millions of people in the Byzantine Empire between the early 540s and the mid-8th century.
Around 536, the climate in China underwent some odd changes of its own. The Nan Shi, a 6th-century chronicle, reported a yellow ash-like substance falling from the sky. The exact composition of the material remains unclear, but accounts describe it as dirt or dust that could be "scooped up in handfuls." The substance appeared three times during the late 530s.
The following year, Chinese chronicles indicated snow during the summer months. The Chronicles of the Southern Dynasties reported frost in mid-summer with snow in August, which ruined crops in Qingzhou and other provinces. The result was widespread famine that lasted for about two years and resulted in a loss of roughly 70-80% of the population.
Additional reports of frost and snow in Mesopotamia also turned up during the summer of 536, and the winter was "a severe one, so much so that from the large and [unwanted] quantity of snow, the birds perished."