CCNet ESSAY: THE CATASTROPHIC YEARS AROUND 850 AD
By James T Palmer and Trevor Palmer <email@example.com>
Records from northern Europe between 830 and 875 AD describe a period of
political and environmental turmoil, accompanied by frequent sightings of
comets and other celestial phenomena. Although the evidence is insufficient
for definite conclusions to be drawn, it could, with good reason, be taken
to indicate that an encounter between the Earth and debris from a
disintegrating giant comet occurred at this time.
The central decades of the ninth century AD were turbulent ones in northern
Europe, with civil wars taking place between the sons of Louis the Pious,
who had succeeded his father, Charlemagne, as emperor of the Franks. These
disputes eventually led to the break-up of the Frankish empire. At the same
time, Vikings were invading coastal regions and raiding inland down the
Chronicles of the period inevitably presented a political bias to the events
taking place. So, whilst all Frankish sources, written by Christians,
condemned the activities of the heathen Vikings, their individual sympathies
were with different grandsons of Charlemagne, and their interpretations of
history differed accordingly. Thus, the Annals of St Bertin  from western
Frankia (essentially the region of Gaul, or modern France) presented an
account generally favourable to Charles the Bald, as did the Histories
written by Nithard , who was himself a grandson of Charlemagne through
his mother, Bertha. In contrast, the Annals of Fulda , from eastern
Frankia (mainly modern Germany) supported first Lothar and, later, Louis,
whereas the Annals of Xanten , written close to the present-day border
between Holland and Germany, remained loyal to Lothar.
Nevertheless, despite these differences, all told a consistent story of
environmental hardships, possibly associated with cosmic events. These could
have played a significant role in the events taking place, for desperate
circumstances can drive people to desperate acts.
Reports in ninth century documents of environmental crises
Extensive flooding, causing great damage, took place in 834 AD. This was
stated in both the Annals of St Bertin and the Annals of Xanten. Two years
later, as recorded in the latter source, strange rays of light appeared from
east to west in the night sky. For 837 AD and the transition to the
following year, the Annals of Xanten continued:
"A mighty whirlwind kept breaking out, and a comet was seen, sending
out a great tail to the east, which to human eyes looked as it was three
cubits long...The winter was wet and windy, and on 21 January thunder was
heard, just as on 18 February loud thunder could be heard. And the
excessive heat of the Sun scorched the Earth, and there were earthquakes in
some parts of the land, and fire in the shape of a dragon was seen in the
The Annals of Fulda confirmed the occurrence of an earthquake in January
838, going on to mention that tremors were experienced in Lorsch and the
region around Worms, Speyer and Ladenburg.
The winter of 838-839 was similarly a very hard one. At the end of December,
as recorded in the Annals of St Bertin, a great flood covered almost the
whole of Frisia, with 2,347 deaths being reported. Then, in February, "an
army of fiery red and other colours could often be seen in the sky, as well
as shooting stars trailing fiery tails". Consistent with that, the Annals of
Fulda, in the entry for 839 AD, described how "a comet appeared in the sign
of Aries and other portents were seen in the sky. For the clear sky turned
red at night and for several nights many small fireballs like stars were
seen shooting through the air". The Annals of Xanten also reported that
whirlwinds and flooding occurred in 839, and that rays of light were seen in
the night sky in both this and the following year. Again, Nithard in his
Histories, referred to an exceptional reddening in two parts of the sky in
March and April of 840 AD, these red patches eventually coming together to
give "the appearance of a clot of blood in the heavens directly overhead",
whilst the Annals of Xanten described the occurrence of strange rings of
light in the sky during daytime in the year 841.
Nithard reported that the summer of 841 AD was a very cold one, which
delayed the harvest. The Seine flooded in March of that year, with violent
tides occurring at the river mouth, and it flooded again in October, even
though there had been no rain in the region for two months. The following
December, according to both Nithard and the Annals of Fulda, a comet became
visible, passing across the constellations of Aquarius and Pisces before
disappearing in the vicinity of Andromeda. Around this time, a great deal of
snow fell, initiating another period of extremely cold weather.
As related in Nithard's Histories, an earthquake shook most of France in the
autumn of 842 AD. The following winter was particularly cold and lengthy,
causing damage to "agriculture, livestock and bees", and resulting in
widespread disease amongst the human population. Nithard contrasted the
terrible conditions with what seemed like the golden age of Charlemagne, and
drew a moral conclusion, writing:
"In the times of Charles the Great of good memory, who died almost
thirty years ago, peace and concord ruled everywhere because our
people were treading the one proper way, the way of the common
welfare, and thus the way of God. But now since each goes his separate way,
dissension and struggle abound. Once there was abundance and happiness
everywhere, now everywhere there is want and sadness. Once even the
elements smiled on everything and now they threaten, as Scripture which
was left to us as the gift of God, testifies: And the world will wage war
against the mad."
After snow fell on a night when there was an eclipse of the moon in March
843, Nithard brought his Histories to a despairing end, concluding that,
with "rapine and wrongs of all sort" rampant on all sides, the "unseasonable
weather killed the last hope of any good to come". Two years later, Nithard
died in battle, after spending the intervening period as lay abbot of the
monastery at St Riquier in northern France. However, the various Frankish
annals continued to describe the tribulations of the people.
In 843 AD, the Annals of St Bertin recorded that, whether because of wars or
the environmental conditions, or both, the people living in parts of Gaul
were forced to eat earth mixed with a little flour in order to satisfy their
hunger. According to these same annals, the winter of 844-845 was a very
severe one, and a terrible famine consumed the western region of Gaul, with
many thousands dying.
To the east, the Annals of Xanten recorded that there were two earthquakes
in the Worms region in 845 AD, after which there was an outbreak of plague.
Four years later, as related in the Annals of St Bertin, violent earthquakes
also occurred in Gaul.
The Annals of Xanten reported that there were winter floods and ferocious
electrical storms in the winter of 849-850, followed by a scorchingly hot
summer. According to the Annals of Fulda, there was famine in Germany in 850
AD, particularly in the Rhine regions, whilst the Annals of Xanten told of
excessive heat and general famine in 852 AD, and of famine in Saxony in the
As reported in the Annals of Fulda, there were 20 earth tremors in the Mainz
region during 855 AD. The weather was unusually changeable with whirlwinds
and hailstorms appearing without warning. Many buildings were struck by
lightning, including the church of St Kilian the Martyr in Würzburg in June.
A month later, those walls which had escaped being burnt by lightning
collapsed during a violent, sudden storm. A flurry of shooting stars in
August of that year was described by the Annals of St Bertin, and a shower
of fireballs during the following October by the Annals of Fulda.
According to the Annals of St Bertin, the winter of 855-856 was excessively
cold and dry, and a pestilence carried off a sizeable proportion of the
population. In the following winter, the Annals of Xanten reported a plague
characterised by swollen abscesses, rotting flesh and loss of limbs.
Destructive electrical storms also occurred at that time, as described in
both the Annals of Fulda and the Annals of St Bertin.
All three annals reported that there were violent earthquakes in Mainz and
neighbouring regions in 858 and 859 AD. According to the Annals of St
Bertin, these were accompanied by a great pestilence, and there were floods
at Liège in May 858. The same work went on to describe how, for three months
in the autumn of 859 AD,
"armies were seen in the sky at night: a brightness like that of
daylight shone out unbroken from the east right to the north and bloody
columns came streaming out from it."
The three annals continued to present a consistent account, reporting that
the winter of 859-860 was very severe, and that it lasted longer than usual.
According to the Annals of Fulda, blood-red snow fell in many places, and
the Adriatic region was so cold that merchants were able to cross the sea
and visit Venice by horse and cart. When winter was finally coming to a
close, the Annals of St Bertin described how part of the moon was obscured
one night in a strange fashion. Then, just a few days later, something
similar happened to the Sun.
Reports of floods, plagues and other catastrophic events continued
throughout the following decade and into the 870s. For example, in 869 AD,
the Annals of Xanten recorded:
"In the middle of February peals of thunder were heard from the dark
waters in the clouds in the air, and on 15 February, that is the holy
night of Septuagesima, a comet was seen in the north-west, followed
immediately by very strong winds and an enormous deluge of water, in
which very many were caught unawares and perished. An then in the summer a
very severe famine ensued in many provinces, but above all in Burgundy
and Gaul, in which a large number of people suffered an untimely death,
so that some people are said to have eaten human corpses, while others
are supposed to have lived off dogmeat."
These annals came to an end in the year 873 AD, with the words, "And from 1
November right up until Sexagesima [the Sunday after Septuagesima, falling
two weeks before Lent] snow covered the whole surface of the earth, and the
Lord constantly distressed his people with various plagues, visiting their
transgressions upon them with the rod, and their sins upon them with the
whip". Conditions had clearly not become any easier since the distraught
Nithard found himself unable to carry on writing about the problems facing
the people thirty years earlier.
Of course, it goes without saying that that the details given by these
sources are too imprecise, and probably too unreliable in some aspects, for
any definite conclusions to be drawn about an underlying mechanism for the
natural catastrophes described. After all, floods, earthquakes, temperature
fluctuations and famine can have a variety of causes, and the appearance of
comets in the sky at the present time does not usually lead to any adverse
effects on Earth. Nevertheless, the repeated occurrence of these and other
features over a few decades suggest the possibility of some sort of
association between them. The evidence, taken as a whole, is consistent, if
no more, with an episode of what Duncan Steel has termed "coherent
catastrophism", an encounter between the Earth and the disintegrating
remnants of a giant comet . The possible consequences of such an event
were pointed out by Victor Clube and Bill Napier in their books, The Cosmic
Serpent and The Cosmic Winter [6,7]. Dust from the comet might cause reduced
atmospheric transmission of solar radiation, and hence lower temperatures on
Earth; the passage of solid material through the atmosphere would produce
lights in the sky and other celestial phenomena, whilst the actual
penetration of large pieces of debris to the surface of the Earth could
result in floods (if striking an expanse of water), earthquakes (if
impacting on land) and climatic disturbances (whatever the location of
impact) . These various crises might easily lead in turn to the
occurrence of famine and disease. Such a mechanism provides a plausible
explanation for the phenomena observed and the hardships experienced during
these extraordinary years.
1. The Annals of St Bertin (translated and annotated by J.L.Nelson),
Manchester University Press, 1991.
2. Nithard's Histories, in Carolingian Chronicles (translated by
B.W.Scholz), University of Michigan Press, 1972.
3. The Annals of Fulda (translated and annotated by T.Reuter), Manchester
University Press, 1991.
4. The Annals of Xanten (translated by S.Coupland), from a forthcoming
volume about sources for the reign of Charles the Bald, to be
published by Manchester University Press.
5. D.Steel, Rogue Asteroids and Doomsday Comets, Wiley, New York, 1995.
6. V.Clube and B.Napier, The Cosmic Serpent, Faber and Faber, London, 1982.
7. V.Clube and B.Napier, The Cosmic Winter, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1990.
8. W.M.Napier, Cometary catastrophes, cosmic dust and ecological disasters
in historical times - the astronomical framework, in B.J.Peiser, T.Palmer
and M.E.Bailey (eds.), Natural Catastrophes During Bronze Age
Civilisations, Archaeopress, Oxford, 1998, 21-32.
James Palmer obtained a first class honours degree in history from Sheffield
University and an MPhil with distinction from Cambridge University. He is
currently researching for a PhD in medieval history at Sheffield University.
His father, Trevor Palmer, obtained an honours degree in biochemistry from
Cambridge University and a PhD from the Institute of Child Health,
University of London. He is now Professor of Life Sciences and Senior Dean
at Nottingham Trent University.
Copyright 2000, James Palmer and Trevor Palmer
CCCMENU CCC for 2000