it was the worst of times.”
Thus the opening line of Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” a historical novel set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. The novel tells the story of the French Doctor Manette, his 18-year-long imprisonment in the Bastille in Paris and his release to live in London with his daughter Lucie, whom he had never met. The story is set against the conditions that led up to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.
What were the worst times to be alive? Interesting thought really, depending on when you live, where you lived and who you were.
I, for example am a man of the second half of the 20th century, lucky enough to be born in America. While the century was rife with war I was lucky enough not to have seen any of it directly. While there was a great depression and economic privation for a portion of it, I missed it all. I never knew hunger or want. I live during a period of great discovery and advances in medicine which changed the world and kept me alive. A couple of centuries ago I would have died at age 24 from appendicitis.
Defining the worst time to live by time, circumstances and place only defines “worst time” for the individual. Being a German draftee at Stalingrad on Christmas Eve of 1942 would be pretty bad. Or being confined in the Lodz ghetto. Or being a Ukrainian farmer during Stalin’s collectivization.
Looking backward can also play tricks. Was there any difference in the life of a European peasant who lived in 1350 vs. 1250? I think there was, at least intuitively, but I can’t imagine how. On the other hand I can easily see the differences between lives lived in 1970 vs. those lived in 1870.
Was there a worst time do be alive no matter what your circumstance or where, for the most part, you lived?
Well there was 1918. Sure the war was over but it was followed by the “Spanish” flu – don’t ask me why the Spanish got the blame. This particular strain of influenza killed between 50-100 million, people; mostly young adults.
Millions who survived the war were struck down by the disease.
The gymnasium at Iowa State University turned into a hospital for student and staff victims of influenza – 1918
In the fall of 1918 the Great War in Europe was winding down and peace was on the horizon. Deep within the trenches men lived through some of the most brutal conditions of life, which it seemed could not be any worse. Then, in pockets across the globe, something erupted that seemed as benign as the common cold. The influenza of that season, however, was far more than a cold. In the two years that this scourge ravaged the earth, a fifth of the world’s population was infected. The flu was most deadly for people ages 20 to 40. This pattern of deaths was unusual as influenza is usually a killer of the elderly and young children. It infected 28% of all Americans .
Of the U.S. soldiers who died in Europe, half of them fell to the influenza virus and not to the enemy . An estimated 43,000 servicemen mobilized for WWI died of influenza; 1918 would go down as an unforgettable year of suffering and death and yet of peace. As noted in the Journal of the American Medical Association final edition of 1918:
“The 1918 has gone: a year momentous as the termination of the most cruel war in the annals of the human race; a year which marked, the end at least for a time, of man’s destruction of man; unfortunately a year in which developed a most fatal infectious disease causing the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings. Medical science for four and one-half years devoted itself to putting men on the firing line and keeping them there. Now it must turn with its whole might to combating the greatest enemy of all–infectious disease,” (12/28/1918).
Being a young adult during the flu epidemic was a pretty bad time
Being alive during the Black Death was far worse. The Black Death is estimated to have killed 30–60% of Europe’s total population. In total, the plague may have reduced the world population from an estimated 450 million down to 350–375 million in the 14th century. It took 200 years for the world population to recover to its previous level.
Contemporary accounts of the plague are often varied or imprecise. The most commonly noted symptom was the appearance of buboes (or gavocciolos) in the groin, the neck and armpits, which oozed pus and bled when opened. This was followed by acute fever and vomiting of blood. Most victims died two to seven days after initial infection. Freckle-like spots and rashes, which could have been caused by flea-bites, were identified as another potential sign of the plague.
Danse Macabre – an Italian fresco of the time.
“And in many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And there were also those so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the streets of the city..” – Agnolo di Tura
The trend of recent research is pointing to a figure more like 45–50% of the European population dying during a four-year period. There is a fair amount of geographic variation. In Mediterranean Europe, areas such as Italy, the south of France and Spain, where plague ran for about four years consecutively, it was probably closer to 75–80% of the population. In Germany and England it was probably closer to 20% though some 60% of Londoners died..
Pretty bad time to be alive, particularly in southern Europe. It made no difference your circumstance, whether rich or poor, man or woman, royal or peasant.
Was there an absolute worst time to be alive, to be a human?
Well some historians and scientists point not to 1349 but to……..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.
Why you ask?
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 plummeted, 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.”
Iceland under a volcanic cloud. Picture it world wide for 18 months.
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 has fingered a culprit. At a workshop at Harvard it was 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 totally darkening the skies.
“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.”
So there you are, living in Europe or the Middle East in the late 530s and the sun has ceased to shine. The crops won’t grow, it is cold in summer and you and your family are starving. And of course, you have no idea why.
Must be God’s work.
And then, on top of t all , in 541, 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 political and economic collapse. It would be more than a century until silver mining commenced again, indicating an economic recovery.
What happens to men during times like these?
The mechanism of infection and transmission of diseases was not understood in these early centuries; many people believed the epidemic was a punishment by God for their sins. This belief led to the idea that the cure to the disease was to win God’s forgiveness.
It was the same for the darkness; there was no explanation in the mid 6th century for why the sun had ceased to shine.
Renewed religious fervor and fanaticism bloomed in the wake of these catastrophies. Some Europeans targeted “various groups such as Jews, friars, foreigners, beggars, pilgrims, lepers, and Romani, thinking that they were to blame for the crisis. Lepers, and other individuals with skin diseases such as acne or psoriasis, were singled out and exterminated throughout Europe. Jewish communities were wiped out in Western and Eastern Europe as Jews migrated to Poland where they received a warm welcome from Casimir the Great.”
So when you think your times are pretty bad, remember that “pretty bad” is all relative.