Catastrophe and Conspiracy: The evidence of the sixth century Byzantine sources for the AD 536 environmental event

Catastrophe and Conspiracy: The evidence of the sixth century Byzantine sources for the AD 536 environmental event

By Maria Kouroumali

Medieval Life, Vol. 16 (2001/2)

Snow in Istanbul - photo by yellow magpie / Flickr

Snow in Istanbul – photo by yellow magpie / Flickr

Introduction: I have followed the debate instigated by Edward James’ review of Catastrophe, the book by David Keys, in ML 12 and the subsequent articles on the subject with great interest. As a historian of the sixth century, it has been of the utmost importance for me to understand if there is indeed an issue to be addressed, as Mike Baillie asks in his book, Exodus to Arthur and in his article in ML 14, especially since he feels that this is an issue which historians have so far failed to address satisfactorily.

As a non-scientist, I am not in a position to determine the cause behind the environmental event of 536 AD, whether it was due to a massive volcanic eruption (Keys’ theory) or the result of the bombardment of the earth by cometary debris (Baillie’s view). However, I would agree that there was indeed a severe environmental event with global manifestations as can be seen from the tree-ring evidence. My main disagreement stems from Baillie’s insistence that ‘historians have completely missed the most serious environmental event of the last 1500 years’. Is this really the case?

As I already mentioned, the scientific evidence presented does point to a global climatic event which seems to have provided the necessary environmental conditions for one of the most well-known epidemics in Byzantine history, the outbreak of plague during the reign of the Emperor Justinian in 542 AD. Historians have not failed to concern themselves with the plague and its consequences, but I am sure that Baillie would agree that it is the responsibility of modern scientists to discover the scientific explanation behind the cause of similar events.

It is a pity that nowhere has Baillie seen appropriate to enlighten the reader why historians need pay more attention to this event than they already have. Although in the bibliography used for his book, he has cited works of secondary literature which certainly have considered the environmental event of 536 as the cause behind the plague1, he still berates historians for dismissing the evidence from the primary sources of the period. He is even more extreme in Appendix 4 of his book where he marshals together the evidence from the Byzantine sources. He insinuates that there might have been some kind of conspiracy or ‘tampering’ with the sources by the authorities of the time (namely, Justinian and the Church) to suppress information which could have been damaging to the theocratic sensibilities of the times. He arrives at this conclusion because of the fragmentary nature of the sources he chooses to favour for the chronological period under examination, i.e., 536 – 540 AD, and the paucity of evidence they provide for the environmental event.

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