We’re living in trying times, maybe you heard that somewhere? But there have definitely been worse times to be alive. In today’s video, we look back at some of the worst years in human history, including one year that historians seem to agree was the worst of them all.
Dear Advertising Industry,
It is April of 2022. The pandemic has been going on for two full years and yet I still continue to hear the terms “unprecedented times,” “trying times,” “new normal” in every commercial block of any television program or pre-roll ad. On behalf of, well, everyone, I am writing to humbly request that you please, for the love of God, stop.
We are all well aware of the clogged toilet this world has become and don’t need to be reminded of it or for our anxieties around said chunk-filled bowl to be weaponized against us in an attempt to take our dwindling reserves of money.
And at the very least, understanding that weaponizing our anxieties is in general the whole point of advertising, it would be preferable that you at least, you know, try to be original? Use a different phrase? Come at it a slightly different way?
Allow me to make some recommendations.
Instead of saying “unprecedented times,” perhaps something along the lines of, “post-decency years”
Instead of “trying times,” try “the excruciation hours.”
Instead of “the new normal” how about “the old abysmal”
These are options I just came up with. Surely if you put all your 20-something junior copywriters in a room with a bottle of whisky and a bag of edibles for a day they could come up with something that would really sing.
So with that, I look forward to hearing what you come up with. Good luck and happy flibbity-floobity. Ooh, I’m gonna keep that one.
Signed, the world.
The Times We Live In
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” wrote American Revolutionary Thomas Paine. Over a hundred years later, British statesman Joseph Chamberlain said no time he could remember had brought so many “new objects for anxiety.” Sound familiar?
These days, we’re reminded constantly that things are bad. We live in troubled times, unprecedented times. Times of the new normal.
And I’m not here to say we don’t have problems. We definitely do. But as Billy Joel said, we didn’t start the fire.
Yes, I just went from quoting Thomas Paine to Billy Joel. Don’t judge my journey.
Believe it or not, there have been worse times to be alive than any in recent memory. Today, I’d like to take a look at some years considered the Worst Ever by experts.
There is one that seems to be the agreed upon worst, and we’ll get to that later but first let’s start with some contenders.
Spoiler alert, pandemics are going to be a bit of a theme on this list
The Black Death began in the 14th Century, when a variety of bubonic plague swept through the Near East, North Africa, and Europe
Picture it: it’s Sicily, 1347. A fleet of trade ships docks at the port of Messina. Everybody in town comes running see what’s on the boat because… well they didn’t have internet back then, it was the thing to do.
But as they get to the dock, they find out the ships have a surprise waiting for them. And that surprise is that most of the soldiers were dead.
Of those who were still alive, most of them were sick, their bodies covered in sores, called buboes in Latin, thus the name of the plague.
Now they knew about the importance of quarantining in these situations, but before officials could get the ships quarantined, the plague leapt to the onlookers
Inside of a year, it was all over the continent
By the time it had runs its course, something like 200 million people had died
http://www.bestofsicily.com/mag/art213.htm — most ironic website name ever, based on this page
For scale, 200 million was 30 to 50 percent of the European population at the time
Like, Covid sucks, and we all know someone who has died or at least know someone close to someone who died, but imagine if half the people you know developed strange swellings, started bleeding and vomiting, and then just died within a day.
You’d be pretty freaked out, right?
Well, people in the 1300s were freaked out too. And when people freak out, they tend to gravitate toward their worst impulses. Like finding a group of people to blame.
Throughout the Black Plague, attacks were levied at Jewish towns and neighborhoods, killing thousands of Jewish people, it’s actually known as the Medieval Holocaust.
Funny how a disease that kills Christians and Muslims and Jews equally is somehow the Jews’ faulthttps://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2841&context=facpub
So yeah the Black Death was just about as horrible as you’ve heard. Probably worse. And it reshaped the world in some ways.
But the first outbreak can be traced to that fleet of ships, which is why 1347 is our first contender for Worst Year Ever.
1177 – Bronze Age Collapse
And speaking of ships, our next contender involves a group of people who… probably had ’em. They’re called the Sea Peoples.
The Sea Peoples are one of the biggest mysteries of all time, nobody seems to know where they came from but suddenly in the 13th century BCE, they appeared out of nowhere, attacking Egypt, Palestine, Cyprus, and the Hittites.
And whoever they were, according to archaeologists, they helped trigger the collapse of the Bronze Age in 1177 B. C.
I say “helped” because they were far from the only problem. In fact, they were probably the result of other problems.
Like a lengthy drought in the decade before the Sea People’s invasions, that drove them to raid other countries for resources.
And a famine that had already raged across the empires the Sea Peoples attacked, which made them especially vulnerable.
The tomb of Pharoah Ramses III records a devastating battle with the Sea Peoples. Egypt won, but went into decline soon after.
But the Hittites got it worst of all. Its capital city was destroyed and they basically ceased to exist as a people.
Another Sea Peoples victim was the Canaanite city-state of Megiddo
There are ruins on the Mound of Megiddo from that conflict, though it’s not alone, there were a lot of battles fought over Megiddo over the years, which by the way, is where “Armageddon” comes from.
Are you Armageddon it?
Ultimately it was a perfect storm of disasters and conquest that destroyed multiple economic systems all at once. Civilization was set back hundreds of years and some empires were lost forever.
All this tumult started circa 1177 B. C. which is why it’s a contender for Worst Year Ever.
1816 – The Year Without A Summer
I’ve mentioned the Year Without A Summer in past videos, mostly in just a, “huh, isn’t that an interesting nugget of information” kind of thing.
Turns out it was a pretty traumatic event.
The previous year, 1815, saw possibly the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history at Mount Tambora, in Indonesia
It ejected 180 billion cubic meters of material and may have killed as many as 90,000 locals. But the problems were just getting started
There was so much ash from Tambora, and other, knock-on eruptions, that temperatures around the world plummeted.
The next summer was so cold, people actually froze to death in snowstorms – and I’m not talking about in some distant part of the north; this was continental America.
This snow and frost damaged crops and triggered famines across Europe and China.
This destabilized society and riots broke out in England that became known as the Bread or Blood riots.
In India, colder temperatures flipped nature on her head and caused a drought in their monsoon season and flooded during their usual dry season.
And this affected way more than crops, it actually had the weird effect of causing a local strain of cholera to mutate to adapt to the flipped weather. This mutation was able to bypass human immunity and caused one of the largest cholera pandemics of all time. It eventually killed 2 million people.
All of that is a lot of damage from one volcanic eruption. But that’s how insane the Mount Tambora eruption was.
And that’s why 1816 is a contender for the Worst Year Ever
1914 – Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand
So far on this list, disease and disaster have played the largest role in making years the worst. 1914 is a little different.
What made it terrible was politics. And war. Which is like spicy politics.
The first half of the year was pretty calm, as things go.
The biggest story of the first six months was the accidental sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland.
Which everyone seems to have forgotten about, but 1012 people died, it’s the 7th deadliest shipwreck in history.
But yeah, that was the good part of 1914.
Because in June of 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated. His wife, Maria, was also killed, by the way, that’s another piece of news that often gets forgotten
He was assassinated by a terrorist – or freedom fighter, depending on who you listen to – with the goal of uniting the citizens of Serbia against the Austro-Hungarian Empire
Austria-Hungary had conquered part of Serbia in previous years so this was something that had be boiling up for a while but this assassination is what sent both countries into war.
Both called on their allies to help out, and within a few months, the world was neck deep in what we now call the First World War.
Over the next four years, from 1914-18, about 20 million people were killed. Up to half of them were civilians
Tens of millions more were displaced and scattered throughout Europe, which helped spread illnesses.
It’s estimated the pre-Columbian population may have been as high as 112 million, so we may be talking about 100 million deaths. It’s just staggering.
One particular wave of influenza became especially virulent and spread around the entire world, infecting half a billion people, and eventually killing 50 million people.
This was of course the Spanish flu, which by the way didn’t begin in Spain, but all the other countries had sort-of censored reporting about it except Spain. So since they were the ones that were talking about it, it kinda got stuck on them.https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html
Now most of the suffering in all this occurred in the years that followed 1914, but it did all start from events that happened in 1914.
Which is why 1914 is definitely a top contender for Worst Year Ever
1492 – American Epidemics
Yeah, we’re going there.
For 400 years, the year 1492 has been celebrated in American culture as the year America was discovered. (a beat) There is a contingent of people on this continent that see it differently.
We’ve all heard what a monster Christopher Columbus was but the biggest effect his “discovery” had was completely unintentional.
Because while yes, millions of natives were killed in war or enslaved, these are a drop in the bucket compared to the deaths caused by foreign diseases
The indigenous peoples of North and South America had been separated from the rest of the world for tens of thousands of years and had never been exposed to things like smallpox, influenza, or our old friend the bubonic plague.
These and many other diseases killed countless millions of people. Various studies have put the population decline between 50 and 95%.
It’s estimated the pre-Columbian population may have been as high as 112 million, so we may be talking about 100 million deaths. It’s just staggering.
The only disease that we think went the other direction was syphilis, which sucks, but didn’t exactly have the same impact. In fact, Europe’s population increased by 25% in the 100 years following Columbus.
And supporting that growth required resources. Which the “New World” was ripe with. And thus began the violent conquest of North America in earnest, which drove families, tribes, nations, and cultures to the brink of extinction.
So no. They don’t celebrate Columbus Day.
And it’s why I think 1492 should be a contender for Worst Year Ever.
But still there is one year that many scholars say is worse than all of these. A year that’s worse than the years that started the Black Death, the Bronze Age Collapse, an Endless Winter, a Global War, and the near-Genocide of Indigenous Americans
I’ll start with an appeal to authority. The theory I’m about to explain is not mine
The Case for 536
Medieval scholar Michael McCormick put forth the theory that the worst year of all time was 536 AD. And much like 1816, the culprit was a massive volcanic eruption.
Actually possibly two volcanoes according to ice samples and tree ring data, it’s thought that there may have been one in El Salador and one in Iceland.
Regardless, clouds blanketed the Sun from Europe to Asia, and global temperatures fell. And they stayed down.
Just as in 1816, there were summer snowstorms, crop failure, and widespread famine, we have actual records of people starving in Ireland and China.
All this hunger weakened the population and caused outbreaks of disease, one of which would go on and become the first true global pandemic.
The Plague of Justinian
This became known as the Plague of Justinian and it did the most damage around the Mediterranean and Middle East, just destroying the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires.
It featured all the plague hits – buboes, vomiting, and swift death, and it wiped out 40-60% of the population.
It became known as the Plague of Justinian because Justinian was a Byzantine emperor at the time and while this was going on, he insisted on having a big old war.
He was trying to reunite the Western and Eastern arms of the Roman Empire, and he was brutal about it. According to the court historian, Justinian demanded plague survivors pay the taxes of their deceased neighbors to pay for his wars.
So, Famine, Plague, War… We’re running out of horsemen here.
But it wasn’t just a Mediterranean problem, archaeological evidence shows there were floods in Peru around 540
It’s not known if the volcanic eruption had anything to do with it, but it led to the large scale migration of the ancient Moche civilization, who abandoned their cities and disappeared.
Back in Europe, the economy collapsed for more than 100 years.
They actually know this because silver mining leaves traces in the atmosphere and ice core samples show a huge gap in the century following 536.
Is it Really the Very Worst?
So, to review, 536 was a Year Without a Summer that kicked off a period of starvation, plague, war, climate change, and economic upheaval. In other words, “Trying times”
What was it like to actually live through the worst year ever?
As humans, with a limited life span, we have a hard time seeing the historical context of the times we live in. For the most part, we just keep our heads down and try to make it another day.
But labels like “worst” and “best” depend on historical context. After all, one bad year might spark a century of innovation.
The Personal Touch
But between the plague, famines, and floods, there’s a high probability that one of those would have personally affected you in the period kicked off by 536.
And this is at all levels of society. I mentioned Emperor Justinian’s court historian earlier – he lost a wife, kids, and grandkids to the plague
But he had no idea what was going on in South America. Didn’t even know it existed.
Worst Years Today
Whereas today we know all the problems happening all around the world all the time. On top of the plague and now war.
I don’t know I think there’s an argument to be made that our communication infrastructure could be causing us to feel more anxiety, confusion, and panic than at early times in history.
So in that sense… Maybe we actually are living through some of the Worst Years Ever
But of course that same communication technology is making us more able to find solutions to these problems and innovate and adapt. Maybe that will be our legacy.
Look, the last few years have been…not great. But when we look back in the decades to follow, when our descendants look back in the coming centuries, with some historical context, maybe it won’t all be bad.
Maybe it’ll be seen as the catalyst for a period of radical advancement that set the world on a whole new course.
What that course turns out to be is up to us.