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535 AD

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.

8 comments to 535 AD

  • Dale Amon

    A bit of quick googling plus a healthy dose of “things remembered” leads me to wonder if it is a bit over the top. I only come up with one reference to a major volcanic eruption, supposedly an earlier and larger Krakatoa explosion. My BS detectors got fired off by the text for the PBS show though because it talked about the largest known volcanic explosion, that of Krakatoa in the late 1883… which although absolutley huge, was barely a candle to the unmentioned Tambora explosion of 1815 that may have caused the 1816 “year without a summer.

    Historically there was also the explosion of Santorini in 1640BC which almost certainly damaged everyone in the vicinity and may have had a lot to do with the end of the Mycenean civilization.

    There are potentially far bigger ones in our future. There are at least two areas in the Western US which could go off in the next few centuries that would make even the aforementioned look like firecrackers. You see, Yellowstone isn’t a volcanic region… it is the volcano. Likewise there is a similar and a bit smaller region (if I remember correctly) in the California Mono Lake region.

    When Yellowstone next goes up, we get a large part of the US west under a few hundred feet of (or more) of ash and lava.

    It’s happened before, just not in recorded history.

    So I’d say the thesis is valid in the sense that big volcanoes could do considerable damage to human civilizations, but the evidence is a bit thin for anything quite large enough to do in the world in 535AD.

    I’d also be interested in hearing more, particularly form a Vulcanologist who might know exactly how big the 535AD blow up was… and if it is actually dated any where close to that date.

  • qsi

    Dale is referring to supervolcanoes, one of which could go off Any Day Now with pretty horrendous consequences.

    I am nowhere near a volcanologist, but some googling (the advantages of being an insomniac) pointed me to this list of eruptions in that part of the world. It does list an eruption in 540, but makes no specific claims about it. Elsewhere the Taupo eruption is described as the world’s biggest in recorded history. On the basis of this cursory tour of the web, I am skeptical that the 535 eruption was indeed as big as the book makes out, and even more skeptical that it was the transformational event that gave birth to the modern world.

  • I don’t think a volcano was really necessary, considering everything else that happened around that time. The Goths stood in relation to the Roman civilization as the early Romans did to the Greek; they were barbarous hicks, but they knew it and were trying to fix the situation. They could have continued classical civilization if the Empire hadn’t decided, “Hey, we’re the Roman Empire. We should rule Italy.” By the time the war was over there was nothing in Italy but ruins and the cultured elite were almost all dead. The war also opened up the way for the first outbreak of Bubonic Plague in the west, which did weaken the Eastern Empire. In fact, that was around the time they shifted from Eastern Roman to Byzantine.

  • Kevin Connors

    I’m with qsi. Keys seems to be giving supervolcano-like moment to the aftermath of a fairly routine eruption

  • Philip Chaston

    On the history of Britain, there are too few written sources to come to any conclusion about the condition of Britain in the first half of the sixth century. Gildas, the main source of this era, would just about say anything you wanted him to and the kingdoms he writes about were still as extant in 550 as they were in 540.

    I don’t recall anything about this in Bede.

  • Paul Marks

    It was not a “supervolcano” eruption – but there was a very big volcanic eruption at this time.

    Yes it did cause lots of climatic and other problems (including, indirectly, the great sickness that hit Justinian East Roman Empire – and the people who traded with it, such as the Romano British in what is now Western England).

  • Here’s a question that came to me: suppose we found out tomorrow we have 50 years before Yellowstone erupts. What do we do, other than get right with God?

  • Jim West

    I got to see the same TV doco in Australia (only last year) and found it interesting, but one part of a criticism you quote above that. “..Keys has a disturbing tendency to use words like “undoubtedly” and “certainly” when describing the ancient world…” definitely bugged me too. I don’t even trust our modern broadsheet newspapers (in Australia) to give as a better that 30% correspondence with objective truth!

    I can’t come down on one side or other (and frankly wouldn’t bother trying) of whether there is sufficient “historical” evidence in the form of written texts etc. to support the 535AD catastrophe theory. Furthermore, having a background in geology I believe that any geo. worth his salt wouldn’t actually waste their time at this point actually looking for the specific volcano that caused the alleged catastrophe (This part of the doco for me thus seemed a pretty pointless wild goose chase in that even if you find the volcano it doesn’t prove much vis a vis catastrophes).

    The way to answer the question about whether the worlds civilisations where placed under extraordinary stress lies in two fairly prosaic avenues of enquiry, both pursued but to an insufficient extent, in the doco.

    The first one is collection of further tree ring data from around the world (or maybe just further analysis of existing data) and assessing the growth conditions for 535, 536, 537AD in comparison to the average. If you find markedly and generally adverse growing conditions for trees around the world (or at least in the areas for which the “civilizations under stress” theory is being put forward), it can be assumed that the crops on which these civilizations are dependant would also be, on average, strongly adversely affected. Put simply, by what mechanism would all the oaks and pines be having an exceptionally bad time, but the barley, corn, and wheat thriving?

    To link the inferred crop stress fairly conclusively to the effects of an extraordinarily large volcanic eruption is then simply a matter of analysing bog, lacustrine, and other sedimentary deposits for extreme (averaged over all areas of concern) input of volcanic ash, backed up by analysis of glacial and ice sheet core data on atmospheric composition for the period.

    If you establish both physical conditions, basically anything that may be written in historical texts is a nice bonus to the theory, especially as far as the “human interest” angle goes, but pretty superfluous to knowing if there really was a catastrophe for civilization in general in 535AD. Firmly establishing both physical conditions (which is simply a matter of putting in sufficient effort) would also establish that there must have been.