Other bad periods: Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive’

By Ann GibbonsNov. 15, 2018 , 2:00 PM

Ask medieval historian Michael McCormick what year was the worst to be alive, and he’s got an answer: “536.” Not 1349, when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe. Not 1918, when the flu killed 50 million to 100 million people, mostly young adults. But 536. In Europe, “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,” says McCormick, a historian and archaeologist who chairs the Harvard University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past.

A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness, day and night—for 18 months. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year,” wrote Byzantine historian Procopius. Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2300 years. Snow fell that summer in China; crops failed; people starved. The Irish chronicles record “a failure of bread from the years 536–539.” Then, in 541, bubonic plague struck the Roman port of Pelusium, in Egypt. What came to be called the Plague of Justinian spread rapidly, wiping out one-third to one-half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire and hastening its collapse, McCormick says.

Historians have long known that the middle of the sixth century was a dark hour in what used to be called the Dark Ages, but the source of the mysterious clouds has long been a puzzle. Now, an ultraprecise analysis of ice from a Swiss glacier by a team led by McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono has fingered a culprit. At a workshop at Harvard this week, the team reported that a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Iceland spewed ash across the Northern Hemisphere early in 536. Two other massive eruptions followed, in 540 and 547. The repeated blows, followed by plague, plunged Europe into economic stagnation that lasted until 640, when another signal in the ice—a spike in airborne lead—marks a resurgence of silver mining, as the team reports in Antiquity this week.


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To Kyle Harper, provost and a medieval and Roman historian at The University of Oklahoma in Norman, the detailed log of natural disasters and human pollution frozen into the ice “give us a new kind of record for understanding the concatenation of human and natural causes that led to the fall of the Roman Empire—and the earliest stirrings of this new medieval economy.”

Slivers from a Swiss ice core held chemical clues to natural and humanmade events. NICOLE SPAULDING/CCI FROM C. P. LOVELUCK ET AL., ANTIQUITY 10.15184, 4, 2018

Ever since tree ring studies in the 1990s suggested the summers around the year 540 were unusually cold, researchers have hunted for the cause. Three years ago polar ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica yielded a clue. When a volcano erupts, it spews sulfur, bismuth, and other substances high into the atmosphere, where they form an aerosol veil that reflects the sun’s light back into space, cooling the planet. By matching the ice record of these chemical traces with tree ring records of climate, a team led by Michael Sigl, now of the University of Bern, found that nearly every unusually cold summer over the past 2500 years was preceded by a volcanic eruption. A massive eruption—perhaps in North America, the team suggested—stood out in late 535 or early 536; another followed in 540. Sigl’s team concluded that the double blow explained the prolonged dark and cold.

Mayewski and his interdisciplinary team decided to look for the same eruptions in an ice core drilled in 2013 in the Colle Gnifetti Glacier in the Swiss Alps. The 72-meter-long core entombs more than 2000 years of fallout from volcanoes, Saharan dust storms, and human activities smack in the center of Europe. The team deciphered this record using a new ultra–high-resolution method, in which a laser carves 120-micron slivers of ice, representing just a few days or weeks of snowfall, along the length of the core. Each of the samples—some 50,000 from each meter of the core—is analyzed for about a dozen elements. The approach enabled the team to pinpoint storms, volcanic eruptions, and lead pollution down to the month or even less, going back 2000 years, says UM volcanologist Andrei Kurbatov.

Darkest hours and then a dawn

A high-resolution ice core record combined with historical texts chronicles the impact of natural disasters on European society.530530550640650660540540550560570580590600610620630640650660536Icelandic volcano erupts, dimming the sun for 18months, records say. Summer temperatures drop by1.5°C to 2.5°C.536–545Coldest decade on record in 2000 years. Crops failin Ireland, Scandinavia, Mesopotamia, and China.540–541Second volcanic eruption. Summer temperaturesdrop again by 1.4°C–2.7°C in Europe.541–543The “Justinian” bubonic plague spreads through theMediterranean, killing 35%–55% of the populationand speeding the collapse of the eastern RomanEmpire.640After declining in the mid-500s, a surge in atmo-spheric lead signals an increase in silver miningbecause of economic recovery.660A second lead peak reflects silver mining, proba-bly at Melle, France, tied to a switch from gold tosilver for coins and the beginnings of the medievaleconomy.(GRAPHIC) A. CUADRA/SCIENCE; (DATA) C. P. LOVELUCK ET AL.ANTIQUITY 2018; M. SIGL ET AL., NATURE 2015; M. MCCORMICK

In ice from the spring of 536, UM graduate student Laura Hartman found two microscopic particles of volcanic glass. By bombarding the shards with x-rays to determine their chemical fingerprint, she and Kurbatov found that they closely matched glass particles found earlier in lakes and peat bogs in Europe and in a Greenland ice core. Those particles in turn resembled volcanic rocks from Iceland. The chemical similarities convince geoscientist David Lowe of The University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, who says the particles in the Swiss ice core likely came from the same Icelandic volcano. But Sigl says more evidence is needed to convince him that the eruption was in Iceland rather than North America.

Either way, the winds and weather systems in 536 must have been just right to guide the eruption plume southeast across Europe and, later, into Asia, casting a chilly pall as the volcanic fog “rolled through,” Kurbatov says. The next step is to try to find more particles from this volcano in lakes in Europe and Iceland, in order to confirm its location in Iceland and tease out why it was so devastating.

A century later, after several more eruptions, the ice record signals better news: the lead spike in 640. Silver was smelted from lead ore, so the lead is a sign that the precious metal was in demand in an economy rebounding from the blow a century before, says archaeologist Christopher Loveluck of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. A second lead peak, in 660, marks a major infusion of silver into the emergent medieval economy. It suggests gold had become scarce as trade increased, forcing a shift to silver as the monetary standard, Loveluck and his colleagues write in Antiquity. “It shows the rise of the merchant class for the first time,” he says.

Still later, the ice is a window into another dark period. Lead vanished from the air during the Black Death from 1349 to 1353, revealing an economy that had again ground to a halt. “We’ve entered a new era with this ability to integrate ultra–high-resolution environmental records with similarly high resolution historical records,” Loveluck says. “It’s a real game changer.”Posted in: 


UK ‘has particularly extreme form of capitalism’

By Simon JackBusiness editor

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City of London skyline

The UK has one of the most extreme forms of capitalism in the world and we urgently need to rethink the role of business in society. That’s according to Prof Colin Mayer, author of a new report on the future of the corporation for the British Academy.

Prof Mayer says that global crises such as the environment and growing inequality are forcing a reassessment of what business is for.

“The corporation has failed to deliver benefit beyond shareholders, to its stakeholders and its wider community,” he said.

“At the moment, how we conceptualise business is, it’s there to make money. But instead, we should think about it as an incredibly powerful tool for solving our problems in the world.”

He said the ownership structure of companies had made the UK one of the worst examples of responsible capitalism.

“The UK has a particularly extreme form of capitalism and ownership,” he said.

“Most ownership in the UK is in the hands of a large number of institutional investors, none of which have a significant controlling shareholding in our largest companies. That is quite unlike virtually any other country in the world, including the United States.”

This heavily dispersed form of ownership means none of the owners is providing a genuinely long-term perspective on how to achieve goals while also making money.

Business shake-up

Established in 1902, the British Academy is the UK’s national academy for the humanities and the social sciences. In Principles for Purposeful Business, it proposes a new formula for corporate purpose: “to profitably solve problems of people and planet, and not profit from causing problems.”

The Academy’s report comes a week after the Labour Party manifesto proposed the biggest shake-up of how business is owned and run in decades . It included the nationalisation of water, rail, energy, mail, broadband and the forced transfer of company shares to employees.

Prof Mayer agreed that the Labour manifesto was bold in its ambition, but said it was too traditional and old-fashioned in its way of achieving its aims.

Unilever office
Image captionMarmite-maker Unilever has long been admired for its approach to its societal impact

“It’s very much focused on one particular means of delivery, that is through the state,” he said.

“Now, the state has an important part to play. But we should think about the state in a more imaginative way, as to how it can promote successful business, how it can reform the nature of business in society. That’s what we’re really looking for.”

One thing on which he did agree with the Labour Party was the need to rewrite the Companies Act to specifically enshrine directors’ duties to other stakeholders in law. Currently, the Act says that other stakeholders interests are subordinate to shareholders.

Where he doesn’t agree is in the demonisation of billionaires: “It’s not obscene to make a lot of money in the process of creating real solutions to the problems of the world.”

But he hoped that such wealth would be recycled through foundations, for example, which could be the kind of long-term owners needed for the next generation of problem-solving companies.

Profit motive

Not everyone agrees, of course, that the pursuit of profit, within the confines of the law and social norms, is bad. Matthew Lesh, from the Adam Smith Institute, says we should be cautious before we dismantle a mechanism that has produced innovation and a rise in absolute living standards.

“The profit motive has raised literally billions of people out of poverty by encouraging innovation and ensuring our finite resources are used exceedingly productively,” he said.

“Mandating alternative purposes for business raises more issues than it solves. It removes the essential accountability between shareholders, whose investments are at risk, and corporate executives.”

Some of these are age-old arguments between the Left and Right, but there is plenty of evidence that something fundamental is changing deep in the heart of capitalist economies.

A Mars bar
Image captionThe Mars corporation, which has sales of $35bn, says it wants to let people know about its values

Since 1978, the American Business Roundtable of top chief executives has periodically issued Principles of Corporate Governance. For the last 40 years, all of them have reiterated the orthodoxy that corporations exist principally to serve shareholders. Until now.

In August it issued a new Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, signed by 181 chief executives who committed to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.

Even the famously private family that owns Mars has recently popped its head over the parapet to talk openly about the way it runs the chocolate-to-pet-food giant with annual sales of $35bn.

‘Whatever it takes’

Mars chairman Stephen Badger admits things are different now.

“We’ve never felt the need to be public but times have changed,” he said.

“The talent [employees] really want to know what the company they work for, stands for.

“Equally important is that the magnitude of the challenges facing the world – climate change, poverty, biodiversity loss – these are issues that we care deeply about.

“We’ve got less than 10 years to get this right – incremental change is not enough. We are prepared to spend serious money on this and if that means lower profits, so be it. Whatever it takes to get the job done,”

The challenge to companies is threefold. Staff who want to believe in the company they work for, consumers who may boycott the products of companies that don’t get it and, of course, politicians who may legislate, tax or nationalise them out of existence.

Do the right thing?

But we should be cautious about announcing the death of shareholder power.

Unilever – the Anglo-Dutch makers of Marmite, PG Tips and 400 other consumer brands – has long been admired for its enlightened approach to its societal impact. In 2017, it received a surprise takeover bid from Kraft Heinz.

Its response was to accelerate the sale of some businesses, increase its dividend, cut costs by 12%, raise the amount of debt in the company and give a further €5bn to shareholders through share buybacks. Steps the then chief executive, Paul Polman, now says he would rather not have taken.

“Feel free to be responsible – but don’t be complacent about the interests of your owners” was the clear message and lesson learned.

Alan Jope, the current Unilever chief executive, told the BBC that its focus on doing right by society and the environment was not out of fear of nationalisation, taxation or regulation, but out of fear that its products would be shunned by a new generation of consumers unless they got this stuff right.

Is that doing the right thing for the wrong reason? Not really. Does it matter if it is? Probably not.

Unilever’s Mr Jope did have a supportive message for the Labour Party. When asked if he supported company law changes to discourage firms from placing shareholders above others, he gave a clipped and clear response: “Yep.”

One thing is certain. No matter who wins the UK election, you can expect to hear the word “purpose” a lot in the next few years.