The Darkest Decade of the Dark Ages
After a few years of increasingly severe earthquakes and tidal waves as the land slowly bulged upward in a low dome, in early 535, a major eruption of Krakatoa in the Sundra Straits became a natural fireworks display of epic proportions. It was possibly one of the worst natural disasters in the geological prehistory of the entire planet. The magnificent spectacle released an incomprehensible amount of energy. First, the pressure of magma became so intense that a crack would have opened up. Then, a few days later, a massive earthquake let cold seawater rush into one of the magma chambers, creating a 30-mile-high red hot fountain of molten lava that violently spewed forth for about two days. In the process, a tower of ash pierced the stratosphere, and large chunks of molten rock rained down several miles from the epicenter, which was 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit. Deafening shockwaves traveling at 1,500 miles-per-hour went around the world and collided in South America, sending them back to Indonesia, with tremendous reverberation. Every combustible material in a ten-mile radius burst into flames when the energy supercompressed and then superheated the ambient air. Moreover, once the magma chamber became partially empty, the roof collapsed causing a five hundred foot drop as the landmass fell beneath the surface of the water producing a massive caldera. After that, the tragic tropic supervolcanic event filled the sky with noxious ash and dust that reached both ice caps, thereby causing a global catastrophe through ecological disruption.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, to make matters worse, there was also a volcanic eruption in Iceland in early 536 that further contributed to the overall air pollution around the world. As a consequence of these back-to-back natural disasters, ultrafine particles of volcanic debris blocked out the Sun, causing temperatures to drop, crops to fail, and people to die. What had happened was that, after the initial supervolcanic event in Indonesia, plumes of gas and steam moved laterally like a mega-mushroom cloud across the horizon. As it spread sideways at high altitude, the water vapor in the dust veil condensed into clouds of tiny ice crystals. These resulted in sunlight diffraction and global cooling. Furthermore, within hours of the initial eruption, part of the ash cloud directly above the volcano became too heavy and collapsed, falling down and spreading out in a 360-degree pyroclastic flow like a broiling tidal wave, more than 1,000 feet high, and spreading out forty miles in radius, destroying everything in its path. After that, much of the world went dark for more than a year, as volcanic winter began sweeping over Europe, parts of Asia, and more and more of the globe. Drought and famine gripped the land as microscopic particles of sulfur dioxide turned the sky endlessly gray, and strong equatorial winds blew ash all around the world producing an extensive dust veil. As a consequence of this, more than 1,000 miles from the epicenter ash and dust fell on forests and fields, while acid rain came down on different parts of the world.
Ultimately, the extreme weather events of 535 and 536 were the most severe and protracted short-term episodes of cooling in the Northern Hemisphere in nearly two millennia. As part of this, there was a massive drought in China that was so severe that hundreds of thousands of square miles of normally fertile and semifertile land became arid, kicking up countless dust storms as a result. Meanwhile, in the Southern Hemisphere, global cooling combined with El Niño storms producing devastating consequences for life on Earth. This was tremendously significant because without the Sun heating the oceans, less water evaporated so the atmosphere dried out considerably. More importantly, the very Sun itself seemed to have forsaken life on Earth. Apollo, Freya, Garuda, and all the other solar deities seemed to be ill or on the verge of death. Dim sunshine could only be seen for a few hours at midday, even in the summertime. Sulfur dioxide shrouded the sky. So, from 536 to 540 trees barely grew at all, as Gaia gasped for air and the biosphere grew weaker and weaker. Therefore, the years 535, 536, and 541 became three of the worst years to have ever lived. As part of this, in many parts of the world, grass wouldn’t grow properly. So, for instance, the Avars horses died off, because, unlike cows, they couldn’t digest rank vegetation. This meant that their cavalry was diminished, which caused them to be overthrown. As a result of this, the Turks were able to rise to prominence on the Mongolian steppes.
Meanwhile, Homo sapiens were confronted by yet another disaster, when the climate catastrophe led to a widespread bacterial infection. It was quite literally a pestilential period that plagued people with a planetary pandemic. This was a dreadful time to live, when the average life expectancy was only about thirty years of age, so people’s health was very poor. What’s more, the infamous Yersinia pestis was to blame for the first time in recorded history. This was important because, in a significantly cooler climate, temperature directly affects how the bacteria form in the guts of fleas. So, the dramatic decrease in temperatures around the world became crucial. That is to say, during the Late Antique Little Ice Age, Africa became ground zero for a world-changing event. As part of this, the reservoirs for the disease were mice and gerbils, who soon passed it on to Rattus rattus. Tragically, within a matter of hours of black rats becoming carriers of the deadly disease, humans began to contract the “Plague” with a capital “P”. Their lymph nodes swelled up into painful pustules, and many suffered through a day of fever and a week of delirium, as well as having to experience those excruciating bubonic sores. In the end, the Plague afflicted the Mediterranean Basin, Europe, and the near East, severely affecting both the Sasanian Empire and the Roman Empire, as time went on.
The origin of the outbreak occurred when Lake Victoria was affected by global cooling and became a fertile breeding ground for the transmissible bacillus that’s responsible for the dreaded disease. At a certain point, the fleas became so infected that they couldn’t digest blood properly and they developed insatiable appetites for the vital fluid. This caused fleas to jump from immune rodents to susceptible humans in a futile attempt to alleviate their overwhelming hunger pangs. Thus, medieval European and Mediterranean greed for African elephant ivory brought the deadly disease all around the world by way of the Silk Road. Simply put, every year the merchants imported up to fifty tons of ivory out of what is now Kenya and Tanzania. All the while, the hellish smell of the recent eruptions lingered in the air and was then added to by an insufferable miasma that just kept hanging in the air, making it nearly inescapable. In this way, the Roman Empire quickly infected the Persian Empire, and so on and so forth. People simply brought the Plague with them up the Nile River from the Port of Pelusium to the Port of Alexandria and out into the Meditteranean Sea. As a consequence of this, Slavic invaders crossed over the Danube River and were able to exert a considerable amount of pressure on the Romans, who had experienced a massive decline in tax revenues based on worker strikes, as did many of the imperial civilizations at that pivotal time.
In fact, the rise and fall of numerous kingdoms and empires happened at the nexus of antiquity and modernity, in the mid-sixth-century. As part of this, the infection that came in the wake of the eruption was absolutely revolutionary, for better or worse, depending on the adaptability of a given society. In line with this, in the year 541, during the Gothic War, the so-called “Plague of Justinian” began claiming lives by the millions. Moreover, since St. Sebastian was regarded as having a special supernatural ability to protect someone from a plague, spiritual devotion to him greatly increased at that time. So, as a consequence of the widespread infection, by 542, in Constantinople, the capital city of the Byzantine Empire, there were up to 10,000 deaths each and every day. In just that one city alone, there were more than 175,000 deaths in the summer of 542, and things were just getting started. That is to say that the contagion continued to spread around the Mediterranean Sea until 544, the precise end of what I have dubbed the darkest decade in the Dark Ages. So, throughout the latter half of that period, putrid bodies filled cemeteries, towers, mass graves, and even the sea, but they still just kept piling up and washing ashore. This all worked to drastically alter the course of human evolution, as population levels were substantially reduced, thereby producing vast tracts of abandoned farmland as more and more communities were destroyed, from one continent to the next.
In the end, what this means to humanity and society is that the high energy eruption of the sixth-century Krakatau supervolcano gave way to climatic chaos and planetary pandemonium, changing both history and geography in the process. With that in mind, to sum it all up in just a few sentences, the spring of 535 never came, or 536, or 537. It was as though people were living through Fimbulwinter. So, maybe the Norse myth actually harkens back to that moment. Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough on its own, during that critical watershed event, a widespread infection took the lives of those who managed to survive from starvation. It’s also important to understand that, as was to be expected back then, it was widely believed that the Plague was the result of divine wrath. So, people quickly lost faith in their priests, having already lost faith in their politicians, from Constantinople to Teotihuacan. Still, people prayed for an end to what they saw as “The End”, of everything or at least everyone. In the Near and Middle East, there was famine followed by flooding, while the Far East suffered through a severe drought, punctuated by a series of hail storms in 537. In essence, everywhere that anyone turned the zeitgeist was utterly apocalyptic in the late 530s and early 540s. With that being said, for all the reasons I mentioned, and all the ones I didn’t, the period from 535 to 544 was arguably the darkest decade of the Dark Ages, if not of all time. In my humble opinion, it was probably the worst era ever.