A.D. 536, Climate Change and the Early Vikings
By Eric Schumacher
There has been plenty of research and writing about the Viking Age, when it began and why it began. In this post, I wanted to take a step farther back, to what may have led to the Viking Age, and just pose some questions to think about.
The story begins in the summer of A.D. 536. In that year, a volcano erupted, leading Byzantine historian Procopius to write: “The sun gave forth its light without brightness, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear. And from the time when this thing happened men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death.”
Then, in 539 or 540, another volcano erupted. It spewed 10 percent more aerosols into the atmosphere than the eruption in Tambora in 1815, which caused the infamous “year without a summer”. You can read more about these events here and here. It is believed that there may have been a third eruption. Regardless of the number, those eruptions led to a long cold spell that coincided with a period of widespread social turmoil across Eurasia that included the plague sweeping across Eastern Europe, Chinese dynasties changing, the Slavs expanding across Europe, and the transformation of the eastern Roman empire into the Byzantine empire. The cold period, which saw temperatures drop in some cases 4 °C, lasted until around A.D. 660.
So my main questions are: what effects might these events have had on the peoples living in the far north, where populations were scraping a living in the cold, and now colder, climate? Could these events have marked the dawn of the Viking Age?
Research shows that during this period in Scandinavia, there were considerable changes in settlement patterns, most likely due to poor weather and crop failure, but quite possibly also related to warring over diminished resources. Archaeologist Neil Price stated in a story written for National Geographic that, “In the nearly three centuries before the raids on foreign shores began around A.D. 750, Scandinavia was wracked by turmoil. More than three dozen petty kingdoms arose during this period, throwing up chains of hill forts and vying for power and territory. In the midst of these troubled times, catastrophe struck. A vast cloud of dust…darkened the sun…In Sweden’s Uppland region,…, nearly 75 percent of villages were abandoned, as residents succumbed to starvation and fighting. When summer, at last, returned to the north…, Scandinavian society assumed a new, more truculent form. Leaders surrounded themselves with heavily armed warbands and began seizing and defending abandoned territory.” In short, the long cold period could have led to a more warlike people and a more warlike society.
Simulated summertime (June-August) average temperature changes in 536 CE due to the stratospheric aerosol cloud resulting from an unknown volcanic eruption reconstructed here based on contemporary written records and ice core sulfate measurements. The simulated temperature changes, ranging from 1-3 ° C over Europe, show good agreement with estimates from two tree-ring temperature reconstructions based on trees in Northern Scandinavia.
Credit: Matt Toohey, GEOMAR
The cold period may have also formed some of Viking mythology, such as the story of Ragnarok. Ragnarok begins with Fimbulwinter, or three successive winters and no summers. There is then a giant war that leads to the death of the gods. And when they die, the sun turns black, steam rises, flames touch the heavens, etc. Sounds a lot like A.D. 536.
The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea,
The hot stars down from heaven are whirled;
Fierce grows the steam and the life-feeding flame,
Till fire leaps high about heaven itself.
During this cold, warlike period, new technologies begin to emerge. Ships were being perfected, and tar began being produced on an industrial scale. Add to that the sail, which began to appear around the end of the 7th century (curiously, at almost the same time as the first large tar pits that have been discovered), and you have the means to travel, trade and raid. With their shipbuilding skills, Scandinavians could now travel to far-flung places such as Ribe in Denmark, where researchers have discovered the remnants of long-distance trade from as early as A.D. 725. Around A.D. 750, Scandinavians established a trading center in Staraja Ladoga in the lands of the Baltic Finns.
An increase in trade would have also led to a newfound profession: piracy. The sagas tell us of sea kings fighting each other and harrying in other lands before the official Viking Age began. Evidence of this was found in 2008 at a construction site on the Estonian island of Saaremaa. There, workers uncovered the remains of two Viking ships near Salme, and multiple warriors who apparently died in battle sometime around A.D. 750.
Much of these connections point to a Viking Age that began long before Vikings appeared at Lindisfarne. Though many questions still remain, these clues suggest that the dawn of the Vikings can be found in the cold, dark days of the 6th century, when the volcanoes erupted and the sun turned black.
I am curious to hear what you think. Please leave any thoughts you have below.
Thanks for reading!
Eric Schumacher was born in Los Angeles in 1968 and currently resides in Santa Barbara, CA with his wife, two children, and dog. He is the author of three historical fiction novels set in the Viking Age: God’s Hammer, Raven’s Feast, and War King. All tell the story of the first Christian king of Viking Norway, Hakon Haraldsson, and his struggles to gain and hold the High Seat of his realm. For more information on Mr. Schumacher or to read more of his blog posts about the Viking Age, please visit is website.
Hakon's Saga Book Series
By Eric Schumacher