Volcano killed thousands of British people in the 13th century

In the 1990s, archaeologists found a mass grave in London, filled with more than 10,000 skeletons. There have been plenty of things over the centuries that could wipe out tons of Londoners en-masse—the Black Death, famine, fires, you name it. But this grave has turned out to be filled with victims of a far more unlikely natural disaster. Scientists now think those people were killed by a volcano.

Not a volcano in England, of course. But a massive eruption thousands of miles away.

Scientific evidence – including radiocarbon dating of the bones and geological data from across the globe – shows for the first time that mass fatalities in the 13th century were caused by one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the past 10,000 years.

Such was the size of the eruption that its sulphurous gases would have released a stratospheric aerosol veil or dry fog that blocked out sunlight, altered atmospheric circulation patterns and cooled the Earth's surface. It caused crops to wither, bringing famine, pestilence and death.

Mass deaths required capacious burial pits, as recorded in contemporary accounts. In 1258, a monk reported: "The north wind prevailed for several months… scarcely a small rare flower or shooting germ appeared, whence the hope of harvest was uncertain... Innumerable multitudes of poor people died, and their bodies were found lying all about swollen from want… Nor did those who had homes dare to harbour the sick and dying, for fear of infection… The pestilence was immense – insufferable; it attacked the poor particularly. In London alone 15,000 of the poor perished; in England and elsewhere thousands died."

The really interesting bit: Nobody is sure yet where that volcanic eruption actually happened.

Read the rest of the story in The Guardian

Via Cort Sims

Image: Eruption, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from tjt195's photostream



  1. The best candidate is Rinjani in Indonesia which is known to have had a massive (VEI 7+) eruption between 1210 and 1260CE. Although Mexico’s El Chichon (which erupted violently in 1982 and is known to produce high sulfur magmas) and Quilotoa have also been suspected. The volcano has to be in a low latitude since it affected both hemispheres and the eruption would have had to have been massive to put enough sulfur into the atmosphere to leave a fingerprint in sediments and ice cores.

    This isn’t the first time a massive volcanic eruption has been linked to mass casualties in Britain. There’s good evidence from burial records and from contemporary diarists that the summer of 1783 saw thousands of otherwise healthy people drop dead across England, followed by a bitterly cold winter which killed thousands more. In that case the cause was the enormous fissure eruption of Lakagigur in SE Iceland that not only killed a quarter of all Icelanders, but may have gone on to kill millions across the northern hemisphere through a combination of inhaling sulfuric acid, drought and cold.

    1. Unfortunately Mother Nature packs some really heavy guns.

      Hmm… but she would make an excellent action star for the next summer block buster. “Mother Nature is back, and she is mad! This summer… the summer is canceled!”

  2. The link “Read the rest of the story in The Telegraph” actually leads to The Guardian.

  3. This sort of begs the obvious question of why a disaster of that magnitude never found its way into the historical record.   Nobody thought the death of thousands worth recording?

    1. Er, I’m pretty sure that there is a monk, quoted above, who wrote about it, and thus entered it into the historical record.

      We might not hear about it often because, well, first most of us don’t read accounts by 13th-century English monks that much, and second it would appear that having to bury 10k dead Londoners wasn’t a particularly unusual occurrence back then.

  4. “Such was the size of the eruption that its sulphurous gases would have released a stratospheric aerosol veil or dry fog that blocked out sunlight”


    Mother F-ing Nature kicks our asses again.

  5. Learning that ash actually clouded out the Sun lends added poetry to the phrase, “The Dark Ages.”

  6. Really? What about elsewhere in Europe?
    My knowledge is 20 years out of date (and limited and decrepit) but what I can dredge up tonight about europopulation developments in the 13th century is that things were going so well that people malthus’d it up for the early 14th-c. Little Ice Age capped by the 1348 population reduction of the Black Death.
    Economic history (Wirtschaftsgeschichte) explored for example how well 13th-c. continental harvests went, until population increased and land not previously tilled was tilled. Dendochronology was cited as support for this well being.

    1. Exactly what I was wondering, does the rest of Europe have any documentation of an event like this? 
      If not, then I say it was dragons, just like someone upthread suggested! 

Comments are closed.