Every so often I rearrange my books to make them take up less space in my home than they actually do take up, and during my latest rearrangement I came across a book called Catastrophe by David Keys. The central claim of this book is that in the year 535 AD there was a truly enormous volcanic eruption in South East Asia, filling the sky with dirt so dense that the sun was hardly visible for several years, unleashing plague, famine and the fall (and rise) of empires all over the world.
I remember being quite severely convinced. Now that I am a blogger I am able to ask the big wide world: Was I right to be impressed by this book? Did this really happen? And whether it did or not, what do the official, academic historians think about all this? David Keys’ book is not academic; it is midddlebrow at best. He’s a journalist, and I first heard about his notions by watching a TV show on Channel 4 a few years ago, and we all know that TV and truth don’t always go together. Did TV get it right this time?
To put my question another way, which of these two reviews of Catastophe is correct? This one?:
That the Earth suffered catastrophic weather conditions starting around 535AD and lasting for many years thereafter, is becoming a scientifically accepted “fact.” As explained in “Catastrophe: a Quest for the Origins of the Modern World,” these conditions weakened the Eastern Roman Empire; created horrendous living conditions in the western part of Great Britain that were remembered and later incorporated into the Arthurian legend; contributed through drought in the America’s to the fall of the Teotihuacan civilization in Mexico; and through flooding to the collapse of a major center of civilization in Yemen.
Almost wherever in the world that there was significant use of writing in the 6th century AD, from Constantinople to China, references to this catastrophe have shown up in contemporary documents. Many such documents are cited in this book. In the 20th century, the occurrence of the catastrophe and its worldwide impact has been confirmed by the analysis of ice-cores from Greenland and Antarctica and by the study of annual growth rings in wood from across the world that can be safely dated to the 6th century.
Or this one?:
I enjoyed reading Catastrophe, but I took it with a large grain of salt. …
First, Keys covers a great deal of ground for someone who is described on the book jacket as an “archaeology correspondent” for The Independent, a London daily paper. He makes a number of important judgments about ancient Chinese, Indonesian, American, British, European and Middle Eastern sources, as well as about geology, meteorology and even physics. His book suggests that he consulted specialists before drawing his conclusions, but I can’t avoid the impression that some of his claims might be hotly disputed by experts in the relevant field. In short, it’s a little hard for the lay person to judge whether Keys has the qualifications needed to make the judgments upon which his arguments ultimately depend.
Second, Keys has a disturbing tendency to use words like “undoubtedly” and “certainly” when describing the ancient world. I’ve read a great deal of history, and I have learned that nothing is ever really “certain” or “undoubted,” especially if we’re talking about events that happened 1500 years ago. Rather, such words often reflect an author’s uncouncious effort to shore up a weak argument.
Finally, Keys gets a little swept away by his thesis, constantly re-asserting that whatever happened in 535 caused (however indirectly) the birth of the modern world. …
You’ll probably enjoy Catastrophe, but don’t be surprised if the experts (for whatever they’re worth) roll their eyes when they read and write about this book.
The relationship between amateurs and professionals interests me a lot, and of course amateurs have been trading blows with pros long before the Internet came along and made this an order of magnitude easier. There have been a string of amateur best sellers challenging official scientific explanations. But, they have been extremely variable in quality.
The thing that populariser and journalists (such as David Keys) are well placed to do, unlike the typical scientist who is an extreme specialist, is to gather evidence from a wide range of fields and pull it all together into a single hypothesis, often of a kind which does indeed challenge many scientific orthodoxies. I’m tempted at once to launch into a rhapsody concerning the particular contribution of amateurs to the advance of knowledge.
But first things first. Is this particular piece of amateurism (a) right or wrong, and (b) how is it regarded by serious, professional historians?
Is 535 now an official history date, of the sort I might have memorised at school (but did not) alongside 1066 (Battle of Hastings), 1215 (Magna Carta), 1688 (Glorious Revolution) and 1815 (Battle of Waterloo)? Or is it still just a date like any other?
I await any comments anyone can supply with interest.