Some years ago Professor Mike Baillie brought out a book called ‘Exodus to Arthur: Catastrophic Encounters with Comets’ (Batsford, 1999). As Wikipedia says: “[it] relates the findings of his tree-ring studies to a series of global environmental traumas over the past 4400 years that may mark events such as the biblical Exodus, the disasters which befell Egypt, collapses of Chinese dynasties, and the onset of the European Dark Ages.” But he also relates it to Arthur and even the Grail. In his latest book, New Light on the Black Death: The Cosmic Connection (Tempus, 2006), he explains how the tree-ring and Greenland ice core evidence and descriptions in annals, myths and metaphors adduced in support of the global environmental downturn at AD 540, which included the Justinian plague, also applies to conditions extant at the time of the Black Death in AD 1348. He went a little far with his ‘Arthurian’ connections (IMHO) so I will just concentrate instead on these finding and how they might relate to the writing of the De Excidio Britanniae (DEB) by Gildas in the 6th century.
When I first heard of this, and this event’s dating, and that of when Gildas is thought to have written, it made me wonder why Gildas wouldn’t seize on such a event of Biblical proportions and use it in his writing? Did this mean he had to have written before, or well after this event? Or was this a case of him having waited 10 years before completing and ‘publishing’ his work, as he tells us in the DEB?
THE MAJOR EVENT
First, the event. To do the information justice, I would like to quote part of Professor Baillie’s paper on this ’540 event’, missing out the Arthurian and Grail stuff, to help clarify exactly what the issue is here. You can skip passed it if you wish. You can also download a PDF version of it at the following URL: http://www.celt.dias.ie/publications/tionol/baillie02.pdf
M G L Baillie School of Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen’s University, Belfast
I recognize that going into a field such as Celtic myth is much like going into a card game where all the other players are experts at the game. There is a good chance of the outsider, me, coming to grief. The only real defence I have for sitting down with the experts – the Celtic scholars – is the fact that I do have access to a body of precisely-dated information that never existed before; the results of several decades of tree-ring studies. This means that I come to the card game, not so much with an ace, but, at least, with a joker. I therefore feel confident that I can take at least one ‘trick’.
In the early-mid 1980s the tree-ring group in Belfast completed one of the worlds longest tree-ring chronologies (Pilcher et al 1984) (At that time there were only five really long regional chronologies in the world; three for oak, namely Ireland, North Germany and South Germany, and two for bristlecone pine from the western United States). Not long after the Irish chronology was completed back to 5289 BC it was discovered that if the chronology was interrogated for narrowest ring events (points in time where numbers of trees from different sites exhibited their narrowest growth rings at the same time) the dates 3195 BC, 2345 BC, 1628 BC, 1159 BC, 207 BC and AD 540 dropped out of the bog-oak chronology (Baillie and Munro 1988). The initial hypothesis was that these abrupt environmental downturns were due to the effects of explosive volcanic eruptions. This hypothesis held up fairly well until the early 1990s when it began to become clear that some of the events were complex and did not seem to conform to what one would expect from point events such as big volcanic eruptions.
Moreover, volcanologists repeatedly pointed out that the environmental effects of even a big volcano should be over in a few years because volcanoes inject material up into the atmosphere from whence it washes out in a relatively short time. So some of the tree-ring events which appeared to last for longer periods – five, ten even eighteen years – did seem to be out of step with conventional wisdom on volcanic effects (Pyle 1989). This was most apparent with the so-called AD 540 event that seemed to span 536-545. As interest developed in the environmental event, which must have been responsible for the narrow rings in the oaks, it became apparent that the event was not restricted to oaks; the rings for 536 and 541 were singled out by temperature sensitive pine chronologies from Northern Sweden and the Sierra Nevada as among the coldest in 1500 years (Baillie 1994). Subsequently the rings immediately around AD 540 indicated reduced growth in chronologies from Siberia through Europe, to North America, to Argentina. Thus dendrochronology hinted strongly at a global environmental downturn. Moreover, there appeared to be no equivalently severe and widespread event anywhere between 540 and the present. The happening at 540 therefore had to be highly unusual.
It was quickly ascertained that other scientists had noted happenings in AD 536. There were descriptions by several Mediterranean writers of a dim-sun event in 536-7 which volcanologists Stothers and Rampino (1983) had ascribed to a major volcanic eruption. For China, Weisburd (1985) had pointed out the catastrophic cold and famines in 536 and the following two years. Interestingly no one had ever previously noticed anything untoward at 540-1-2. So, by the early 1990s a combination of historical sources and dendrochronology hinted at a two-stage environmental event; could it have been a doublet – namely two large volcanic eruptions happening about four years apart with perhaps a re-enforcing effect? However, one had to ask, if that had been the case why was there no reference to the second dust veil, why were the records so quiet on what happened in the early 540s? It was also noted that the plague of Justinian, which seems to have originated in about 540, broke out with a vengeance in 542. Could there be some link between the environmental happenings around 540 and the outbreak of this severe plague?
In order to preserve the (then) current paradigm, various scenarios were envisaged wherein more than one large volcano had erupted in a short space of time, or that there existed a class of volcanoes that were more environmentally effective than those we have witnessed in recent centuries. However, by 1993, revelations about the dating of layers of volcanic acid in the Greenland ice in the vicinity of the AD 540 event – or rather the revelation that there were no acid layers dating to the years around AD 540 – meant that the volcano hypothesis was starting to look thin. This combination of factors allowed a new paradigm to be contemplated – was it possible that the serious global environmental event around AD 540 was not due to a volcano or volcanoes, but rather was due to the next most likely cause of a global environmental event i.e. some loading of the atmosphere from space? In 1994 the first tentative hint of this paradigm shift was published in the journal The Holocene (Baillie 1994). Within a short time it was discovered that three British astrophysicists had published a prior hypothesis, back in 1990 (Bailey, Clube and Napier 1990), in which they had proposed that the period between AD 400-600 had been a period of risk of bombardment by comet debris. It may interest readers to see exactly what the astrophysicists said. They were reviewing the hazard represented by the earth running into swarms of comet debris. They said,
“Overall, it seems likely that during a period of a few thousand years, there is the expectation of an impact, possibly occurring as part of a swarm of material, sufficiently powerful to plunge us into a Dark Age.”
They went on to say,
“The occurrence of Tunguska-like swarms in recorded history is therefore expected. Thus we expect a Dark Age within the last two thousand years.”
They then suggested that the incidence of meteor showers represented the best guide to when such bombardments might have taken place and they singled out two periods namely AD 400-600 and AD 800-1000. Thus these workers provided target date ranges for a hazard from space and our AD 540 event fell neatly into one of them. From a scientific viewpoint this juxtaposition of a prior hypothesis and a contemplated new paradigm has a chilling resonance.” In 1994 the scientific community witnessed the impact of some twenty fragments of the broken up comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 ploughing into the giant planet Jupiter with devastating effect. For those not familiar with those events back in July 1994, some of the impacts were in the 10 million megaton to 100 million megaton range – such impacts are now generally known as dinosaur killers, i e they were of the same magnitude as the impact some 65 million years ago that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs after a successful evolutionary run of about 150 million years.
The dendrochronolgy for Britain, Ireland and other European and Scandinavian countries, as well as other reports from around the world, and the sulphur spike in the ice core, show something major happened, which seems to point to a volcanic event rather than cosmic … unless they got both. The two year duration the ice cores show ties in with what John of Ephesus reports in 535:
“The sun was dark and its darkness lasted for eighteen months; each day it shone for about four hours; and still this light was only a feeble shadow [...] the fruits did not ripen and the wine tasted like sour grapes.”
We have reports from Constantinople (John of Lydus) Mesopotamia (John of Ephuesus) and Carthage (Prokopius) of crop failure and famine as well as “failure of bread” in Ireland and famine in China, Japan and Korea; all in 536/7 (China had snow in July and August ). There’s also the entry in the Annales Cambriae (A.C.) of plague in Britain and Ireland, and plague very often leads to famine, or comes after it. Severe drought shows up in ice caps of the Andes in southern Peru roughly between 540 and 560, and droughts lead to famine. This doesn’t include the tree ring data from the USA and Chile. The trees aren’t growing because of cold and drought, which must have effected crops too. This was, indeed, worldwide. (Source: ‘The great Maya droughts: water, life, and death’ by Richardson Benedic p229)
What has been observed (by Benedic) is that the latitudes around North Africa had the dark skies for 18 months and those further north, on a latitude with Rome, for 14 months. One might take from this that northern Europe may have experienced the ‘dry fog’ for 12 months or less.
WE’RE DOOMED! DOOMED!
As you may know, in many cultures, including European ones, the sight of a comet was the foreteller of the death of a king, as well as a whole host of nasty things. It wasn’t a good heavenly object to behold, so I can’t see how it would be associated with the Grail, as Ballie suggests! They still believed this in 1066 and children in Martin Luther’s day sang a song about it. (David Talbot THE GREAT COMET AND THE DEATH OF KINGS, 1997). Geoffrey of Monmouth, of course, tells us of one before the death of Ambrosius Aurelianus (Aurelius Ambrosius) and the naming of Uther after it. It would be amazing if this, in some way, did relate to Halley’s Comet in July 451 … but I somehow doubt it.
Mary Proctor notes:
“The comet of A.D. 451 or A.D. 453 announced the death of Attila, and the comet of A.D. 455 that of the Emperor Valentinian. So widely spread was the belief in the connection between the death of the great and those menacing signs in the heavens that the chroniclers of old appear to have recorded comets which were never seen, such as the comet of A.D. 814, which was supposed to have presaged the death of Charlemagne.”
Whoever reigned in Britain in the 6th Century would have got rather worried in 530 when Halley’s Comet passed by again, observed by the Chinese that year. So, even if Gildas would pass up on mentioning darkening skies would he pass up on such a portent of doom? If this is the case, does this push his writing and Badon even earlier? (More on this below).
The A.C. doesn’t mention the 530 arrival but does mention Halley’s Comet when it passed in 676:
“A star of marvellous brightness was seen shining throughout the whole world.”
Though, interestingly, it does not mention its appearance in 760, 837 or 912, closer to when it was compiled. It doesn’t appear that the Irish Annals mention a comet, that I can see, but they do talk about the “failure of bread” in 536 and call 913 (the year after Halley’s) a “Dark and rainy year“. But it could have just been, well, dark and rainy. However, Annals of Ulster also has as its final entry for AD 912: “A dark and rainy year. A comet appeared.”
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles for 678 (which is most likely 676) says …
“This year appeared the comet-star in August, and shone every morning, during three months, like a sunbeam.”
… and for 730:
“This year appeared the comet-star, and St. Egbert died in Iona. This year also died the etheling Oswald; and Osric was slain, who was eleven winters king of Northumberland; to whichkingdom Ceolwulf succeeded, and held it eight years [...] Archbishop Bertwald died this year on the ides of January.”
This, for them, probably proved the point about what comets foretold.
Of course, Baille isn’t the only one to have theories on a comet (or its debris) being the possible cause of the ’540 event’. The undergraduates Emma Rigby and Mel Symonds under the supervision of Dr Ward-Thompson at Cardiff University believe a much smaller comet could have exploded in the atmosphere, generating the dust veil or ‘dry fog’. Dr. Ward-Thompson says: “The surprising result of these calculations is just how small a comet fragment we have estimated was needed to cause the observed effects.” However, that sulphur spike, although comparatively small, does point to a volcanic event and it may only be small because of the meteorological conditions at the time.
Whatever it was, it may not have even caused the other disasters. They could have just been totally unfortunate to experience a cosmic/volcanic event followed by plague in 537 (if it was the plague) and extremely dry years that caused the stunted tree growth and crop failure. Either way, I believe a series of events such as these – comet in the skies, darkening sun followed by plague – in the space of 7 years would be seized upon by Gildas. IF he did write almost 44 after Badon around 530, or before – a contentious point – then this would take Badon back to 486,or before. I realise this would make Gildas extremely old when he died.
FAMINE OR FEAST
I recently read some very interesting sections from ‘Famine and Pestilence in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire: A Systematic Survey of Subsistence Crises and Epidemics‘ by Dionysios Ch Stathakopoulos, which may be very pertinent to this debate. This is from p25:
“The visitation of the pandemic certainly raised the number of the recorded epidemics in the sixth century and at the same time also the consciousness and the interest of the contemporary writers in such matters. Another possible cause for this interest was eschatological. According to the three prevailing world eras the completion of the year 6000 from the creation of the world fell between 492 and 508. This was the year which Christians held as the advent of Judgement Day. According to the synoptical Apocalypse (Matt 24, Luke 21, Mark 13), the end of days would be preceded by wars, famines, pestilences and earthquakes. Therefore it’s not surprising to see the authors of the sixth century develop a particular interest in recording such natural catastrophes.”
Interesting that Gildas didn’t mention this in the DEB, but maybe he didn’t need to. Other 6th century writers don’t mention it either. Could it have inspired him though? He does write about the Last Days in a fragment of a letter attributed to him. Here’s an extract:
“Excessively evil times shall come, and men shall be lovers of self, covetous, boastful, haughty, railers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, impure, without natural affection, without peace, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, holding the good in hate, traitors, headstrong, puffed up, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.”
I wonder if the Christians of Britain thought God had changed His mind about Judgement Day until Halley’s Comet reappeared in 535 followed by all these other events, including the continuation of the Anglo-Saxon expansion? Could the Britons indeed have dubbed this heavenly body the Uter Pen Drac? (Sorry, don’t know what came over me, went off into Baillie land there!). There are also two more sections of Mr Stathakopoulo’s work worth quoting, which have a bearing on this discusion. This from p52:
“In order to do justice to the complexity of past subsistence crises it is important to adopt multilateral causation models. It is essential to distance ourselves from pure determinism, ascribing crises merely to natural causes and at the same time not revert to the opposite model according to which these events occur solely as a result of political and economic structures. It was not distribution or availability of food that created food crises, but rather a combination of both.”
This from p55:
“The emerging trend [from his survey] shows a clear predominance of drought-induced subsistence crises in rural and mixed environments and at the time an equally evident preponderance of siege-induced famines in urban centres. Famine caused by warfare have a strong presence both in rural and mixed settings, whereas in urban situations famine and shortages tend to develop when the transportation of grain is disrupted.”
One thing’s for sure; these events can’t be used as a reason why the Britons suffered more than the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, allowing them to take over southeastern Britain. It would have affected everyone. What it may have caused is social stress, leading to more raids and civil war. It is interesting, however, that the ‘Saxon Advent’ possibly occurred in the 450s and they started to rise again from the 540s and 550s. Coincidence? May be. This doesn’t mean the Justinian Plague didn’t hit western Britain more than the east. It very well could have, considering its links with the Mediterranean.
Getting back to Gildas: I suppose the alternative could be that he did write later, say between 544 and 547 (if the death Maelgwn entry is correct) and those events had passed and weren’t in the forefront of his mind. However, if he wrote 44 years after 493 (for example) this would be just when things were nasty, but he never mentioned them. Why might that be? I don’t have an answer, but it’s all very interesting, never-the-less.
Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your thoughts and comments,
OTHER LINKS TO CHECK OUT:
Plague and the Origin of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms
Volcanic Eruptions and European History
Halley’s Comet – Part 1 (Intro and Early Records)