Volcano blast led to thousands of deaths in London in 1258, archaeologists find

A report to be released tomorrow by the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) will reveal that a mass burial on the site of the Augustinian priory and hospital of St Mary Spital had thousands of victims from a famine that occurred in 1258. The famine was caused by a volcanic blast from the other side of the world, which sent vast amount of ash into the atmosphere and dropped world temperatures.

The report, A bioarchaeological study of medieval burials on the site of St Mary Spital: excavations at Spitalfields Market, London E1, 1991–2007, was written by a team lead by Don Walker, a human osteologist at Museum of London Archaeology.   It is based on excavations that took place between 1991 and 2007 by the Museum of London Archaeology, which uncovered over 10,500 human skeletons. The skeletons date from the 12th to the early 16th centuries, and includes a large number who were buried in a mass grave. It was previously believed that the remains came from a tragedy like the Black Death in 1348, but radiocarbon dating revealed they were buried in the 13th century.

Accounts from the period show that a serious climate  change took place in the first few months of 1258. The English chronicler Matthew Paris writes that “the north wind blew without intermission, a continued frost prevailed, accompanied by snow and such unendurable cold, that it bound up the face of the earth, sorely afflicted the poor, suspended all cultivation, and killed the young of the cattle to such an extent that it seemed as if a general plague was raging amongst the sheep and lambs.”

Paris adds that “an awful and intolerable pestilence attacked the people, especially those of the lower orders, and spread death among them in a most lamentable degree,” which lead to the deaths of 15000 Londoners and “many thousands” elsewhere in England.

It is unknown where the volcanic eruption took place, but Mexico, Ecuador and Indonesia are all considered possible locations. Such a blast would have sent volcanic ash into the atmosphere that could have reduced global temperatures up to 4 degrees C.  Testing of ice core samples from the Antarctic show that sulphate concentration was immense – up to eight times higher than Indonesia’s Krakatoa eruption of 1883, one of the largest eruptions known in history, which global climate problems for over five years.

Sources: Museum of London Archaeology, The Guardian, The Daily Mail

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