The lovely word ‘serendipity’ means finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it.This article pulls together the posts I made in August about an eruption near Medina in 1256 and the unexpected way I came across it.
On 5th August at 01.05 Jack brought our attention to an article in the Guardian which KarenZ posted for us. This stated that Bill McGuire had proposed that the deaths of 15000 people in London in the year 1258 could be traced to the eruption of an unknown volcano. (See below for links to the articles we discussed.)
This event has been discussed before in volcano blogs as the year shows a huge SO2 spike. While we were discussing the event and where the supposed volcano could be, I set about doing what I was told to do in all my history classes and went back to the primary sources.
I soon discovered that there may be another reason for the deaths of so many people. In the ‘Chronicles of the Mayors and Sheriffs of London: 1188-1274’ near the end of the doings of the year (1258) it states:
“In this year, there was a failure of the crops; upon which failure, a famine ensued, to such a degree that the people from the villages resorted to the City for food; and there, upon the famine waxing still greater, many thousand persons perished; many more too would have died of hunger, had not corn just then arrived from Almaine [Germany].
”This shows that the people thought London was a safe place to go. It also shows that Germany was not affected. It should also be remembered that Simon de Montfort and the King were at one another’s throats so there was a lot of social unrest and disruption which, as we know from the famines in Africa, add to the problems of poor harvests. There was no mention of weird weather for this year in this chronicle.
The chronicle that was quoted by Bill McGuire is by Matthew Paris. It’s full title is ‘Matthew Paris’s English History: From the year 1235 to 1273, Volume III’ (link below). Paris was a monk/cleric at St Alban’s Abbey, near London, in the 13th century. His chronicle is used as a source for the period as he wrote about everything that came his way. This includes many references to strange weather events, gossip and travellers’ tales, as well as political commentary on the king, his barons and so on.
I waded through the whole of Matthew Paris for the years 1257 and 1258 and found it hard going. I should mention that his chronicle begins in 1236 where there is mention of such a deluge of rain never seen before followed by constant drought and unendurable heat for 4 months. The following year saw violent storms, seas rising for 2 days [storm surge?] and storms washing away whole cities. By Whitsuntide hail the size of apples was falling – you get the picture of his weather reporting.
Coming to the years 1256 – 1258 he writes that the civil war had continued and the Welsh had laid waste to areas of England. Richard, Earl of Cornwall, had gone off in a vain attempt to become king of Germany and taken vast resources with him. The crops of 1256 failed because of incessant rain. The beginning of 1257 saw more bad weather – from February to May England was so disturbed by wind and rain that it resembled a muddy marsh. The farmers had to re-sow their crops. The famine had begun.
Then we get the report of the north wind blowing at the beginning of the year – April, May and June (Years officially started in April in those days) and the famine really kicks in until help comes from Earl Richard in Germany. No mention of ash or haze for either year.
From reading this account I believe the famine was caused by a combination of ill-governance, civil war and three years of very bad weather.
Matthew Paris would not have let something like ash falling out of the sky get by him without a mention – not a single thunderstorm occurred without it being mentioned for all the other years! My reading of the Chronicle showed that Matthew Paris was a pretty good reporter. Re-reading the Current Archaeology article and the MOLA press release (links below) it looks like they made a pretty big jump from identifying the victims of a recognised famine which took about 3 years to build up (as do modern famines) to saying that these people were dying as a result of an eruption. People started to suffer in 1256, before the eruption, and I think an eruption in 1258 would probably only cause famine in 1259. As we in Britain know from this year there can be unseasonal deluges for months on end without an eruption. England.
The serendipity occurred while I was reading the report of 1257. Here there is an account by a traveller from Acre reporting that the temple in Mecca had been destroyed by 3 blasts of unnatural lightening and the fire then ran underground and consumed the city from below. He also heard of rivers of fire running uphill and people being consumed by it. Was this a report of a garbled story of an eruption in the Arabian Peninsula in 1256? Not necessarily at Mecca but somewhere in that area?
It is worth quoting in full, but first I would remind readers that the person telling the story could not have seen the events he describes as he is a Christian and thus not able to visit the Holy Sites of Mecca and Medina. Matthew Paris himself would never have seen a volcano. As clerics they would have viewed all such natural events as the work of God. Despite all this I think it might be a fairly accurate account.
“Of a dreadful fire, which consumed the temple of Mahomet: At this time  a venerable man, a master of the brethren of St. Thomas’s Church at Acre, who brought news to the abbot and monks [of St Alban’s, England] which he stated to be true. [Paris discusses church business and says the traveller has come via Rome]. He also stated that a sort of infernal lightning, which, however, descended from the skies, had suddenly set fire to and destroyed the temple of Mahomet, together with his statue, that again a second explosion, similar to the first, had reduced the said temple to small bits; and that a third had, as was believed, thrust the ruins into an abyss in the earth. After this, he said, this fire, which burned with a most devouring heat, though it did not give a bright light, crept along under the earth, like the fire of hell, consuming even rocks in its way, and could not even yet be extinguished. And thus the whole city of Mecca, and the country in its vicinity, were consumed with inextinguishable fire.
“Of a burning river: He also gave an account of a large devouring river, which contrary to the nature of water, not being content with its own bounds, followed a strange course, and made its way up lofty mountains, taking by surprise those who had fled to their tops for refuge, and destroying them with its inflamed torrent, as though they were burnt with fire. Thus those who had escaped from the sulphurous fire below were swallowed up by this burning river.”
I believe that this account by Matthew Paris is an attempt to describe a fissure eruption and a lava flow with possibly the fire coming from the skies being the explosive eruption.
After I posted this account KarenZ posted a link to GVP report of an eruption at Rahat, Harrat, Saudi Arabia in 1256. This was a Fissure eruption some 20km SE of Medina. A regional fissure eruption, explosive eruption and lava flow are recorded. The eruption lasted from 5 June – 27 July 1256 (link below). What was interesting about this GVP report is that the exact dates for the Medina eruption were given which implied that there is a written account somewhere else. There would be a huge number of Arab scholars in the area of Medina/Mecca and if any Holy places were damaged they would write about it. It is even possible that our traveller from Acre saw a written account of the eruption. The Crusader wars were at their height and the Christians might have employed spies – or questioned anyone arriving from the east.
I then turned to Sir Richard Francis Burton who travelled to Medina in the middle of the 19th century. First he says that the he travelled over the large bed of lava (which is visible on Google maps) described as “volcanic, abounding in basalts and scoriae, more or less porous.” He made diligent enquiries about active volcanoes in the area and heard of none.
In a two-page footnote he talks about the 1256 eruption. A chronicle called the “Jazb al Kulub” describes what happened in the year A.H. 654 (our 1256). I paraphrase as follows: Firstly terrible earthquakes accompanied by a thundering noise, shook the town: 14 – 18 each night. This was followed by a fire bursting out in the direction of Al-Hijaz (eastward from Medina), “it resembled a vast city with a turreted and battlemented fort”, “it roared, burned and melted like a sea everything that came in its way. Presently red and bluish streams, bursting from it, ran close to Al Madinah; and at the same time, the city was fanned by a cooling zephyr from the same direction.” An eye-witness called Al-Kistlani says that “The brilliant light of the volcano made the face of the country as bright as day”, “The interior of the Harim was as if the sun shone upon is, so that men worked and required nought of the sun and moon (the latter of which was also eclipsed?).” [That question mark is Burton’s]. The light was bright enough to be seen at Mecca. Historians say the stream was from 14 to 16 miles long and 4 miles wide with a depth of 9ft. It flowed like a torrent with the waves of a sea. The rocks it melted “stood up as a wall” and kept the Bedouin out (a good thing from the citizens point of view). Another historian, Jamal Matari, says that the flames destroyed the stones but spared the trees, men sent by the governor to inspect the fire felt no heat, the feathers of an arrow shot into it were burned while the shaft remained whole. This is because of the sanctity of the trees in the area. However, another historian, Al-Kistlani, asserts that the fire was so vehement that no one could approach within 2 arrowflights. The citizens, even women and children, engaged in ceaseless prayer and the lava field turned northward. The current ran for three whole months. In the same year occurred the burning of the Prophet’s Mosque and the inundation of Baghdad by the Tigris. The following year the Tartars appeared from the east.
All this is from Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah & Meccah by Captain Sir Richard F. Burton, Memorial Edition, Volume II pp60-61. Here is the link provided by Carl: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/4658
It seems that the account made by the traveller to St. Albans conflated the two events: the volcanic eruption at Medina and the fire at Mecca.
So, from a search for a report of the possible effects in London of an unknown volcanic eruption in 1258 we found a remarkable description of an eruption in the Arabian Peninsula in 1256. True serendipity! I wonder what else is out there?
Erik Klemetti’s article:
GVP report of eruption in Herat, 1256:
Volume III of Matthew Paris’ Chronicle:
Luckily the information on the eruption is in the same year as the information on climate – but bear in mind that I did not find a single year that some climatic catastrophe did not happen! Page 231 is where the eruption is mentioned. I believe there are more modern translations (the original is in Latin) but they are not online. The climate stuff is in between all the letters between clerics, kings, chat about the church, endless rants about the useless King etc. No doubt climatologists have made use of his records – it seems that on the whole the British climate was just as changeable and weird then as it is now!
Sherine France gave us the following links (in French) to the Arab sources:
Sahmudi extracts seen through the prism of religious are also very instructive but they are in French