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2020 worst year ever? Historians say not

1348, peak of the Black Death, was world’s “most stressful year”, say international historians; 2020 ranks sixth



The year now almost ended may have been the most traumatic that most of us can remember but it is not the most stressful year ever, according to an international panel of historians asked to judge the matter.


That title belongs to 1348, the peak year of the Black Death, which killed an estimated third of the population across Europe and the Middle-East.


It was deemed the most stressful year in world history by 28 historians consulted by Bloom, the self-therapy app that uses personalized video sessions to help users cope with stress, anxiety and depression.


“2020 has been the perfect storm of stress”, says Dr Seth Gillihan, clinical psychologist, best-selling author and Bloom’s Head of Therapy.


“It’s brought disease, death, lockdowns, job losses, business closures and financial stress, plus culture wars and bitter political divisions. The only small consolation might be that now we have better tools than we used to for dealing with it.”


The historians consulted for Bloom’s study were from universities including Oxford and Cambridge, Stanford, Cornell and Chicago, plus some independent historical authors.


They picked history’s most stressful year from a list of 10 candidates, which included the option of selecting this year, 2020, which one historian did.


“The devastation wrought by the Black Death in 1348 was so absolute that it was hard to choose any other year as the worst in world history”, says Philip Parker, historian and author of books including World History: from The Ancient World to the Information Age, as well as being a contributor to the book, History Year by Year.


As in 2020, the cause in 1348 was a pandemic – the worst in human history, estimated by some historians to have killed up to 200 million.


Bloom commissioned Parker to draw up a list of 10 candidates for the title of “most stressful year” in world history from the dawn of recorded history.


The earliest year in Parker’s list was 1177 BC – the year of the Late Bronze Age Collapse, when a wave of nomad invasions devastated the major cultures of the Near East, heralding an age of chaos.


The most recent year was 2020, when the world has fought the global pandemic of Covid-19 and suffered over a million deaths, combined with huge economic and social disruption.


Participating historians were asked to pick the one year that, in their opinion, was “likely to have been the toughest, most difficult and stressful individual year for those who lived through it?”


1348 topped both vote by a wide margin.


Other years judged by at least some historians to have been the most stressful in world history were:


• 1944 – The Holocaust at its height; Europe engulfed in war

• 1816 – “The Year Without A Summer”: A huge volcanic eruption in Indonesia blocks out the sun, causing devastating crop failures in Europe, China, North America – millions starve

• 1644 – The Thirty Years’ War rages in Europe; the Ming Dynasty collapses in China

• 2020 – The world battles the global pandemic of Covid-19; over a million die, amid economic and social upheaval.



Worst year in American history


In a separate question, about just American history, 1862 was judged the most stressful year in specifically American history, since the time of the first European settlers.


“That was the darkest year in the Civil War, when it was clear that the price had already been high but the Union might still break apart permanently”, says Philip Parker. It also included battles such as Antietam, the bloodiest single day in US military history, which took a terrible toll on both sides.


Its nearest rivals for the title of America’s most stressful year were 1929, when the Wall Street Stock Market crash sparked the start of the Great Depression; and 1838, when the still new United States started pushing many Cherokees out from their lands in mid-winter on the murderous trek known as the “Trail of Tears”.


Most Stressful Year in WORLD History


1348 topped the rankings by a wide margin but at least one historian chose each of the following, ranked in order:


1. 1348 – Peak year of the Black Death, which kills a third of the population across Europe and the Middle East – up to 200 million by some estimates.

2. 1944 – The Holocaust at its height; Europe engulfed in war.

3. 1816 – “The Year Without A Summer”: A huge volcanic eruption in Indonesia blocks out the sun, causing devastating crop failures in Europe, China, North America – millions starve.

4. 1644 – The Thirty Years’ War rages in Europe; the Ming Dynasty collapses in China.

5. 410 – The sack of Rome by barbarians; chroniclers believe the end of the world has come.

6. 2020 – The world battles the global pandemic of Covid-19; over a million die.


•••


Other candidates for the worst year ever which did not receive a single vote were:

• 1177 BC – The Late Bronze Age Collapse ushers in an age of chaos.

• 410 – The Sack of Rome by the Goths. Chroniclers believe the end of the world has come.

• 1258 The Mongol Sack of Baghdad ends the Arab caliphate; others fear no end to the Mongol reign of terror.

• 2001 9/11 attacks on the US mainland kill over 3,000; America declares a “war on terror”