In the late 6th century, around the time of a council of bishops at Mâcon in 585, a rumor spread in medieval France that a natural disaster had struck two inhabited islands, causing irrecoverable damage. Gossip claimed that the twin islands had been engulfed by mysterious fire and ash, after which the sea rushed in to swallow the scorched land. The predominant tale in circulation at that time was that the fire came from the sky (possibly a meteor impact), but volcanic activity could also plausibly cause such an explosion of fire and ash, blasting out enough land to let the water rush in. Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), who was always on the lookout for the latest gossip or news of his day, included the tale of the destruction of these two islands in his book, The History of the Franks:
“This same year two islands in the sea were consumed by fire which fell from the sky. They burned for seven whole days, so that they were completely destroyed, together with the inhabitants and their flocks. Those who sought refuge in the sea and hurled themselves headlong into the deep died an even worse death in the water into which they had thrown themselves, while those on land who did not die immediately were consumed by fire. All were reduced to ash and the sea covered everything” (History of the Franks, 8.24).
Unfortunately, Gregory provided little identifying information for this and many other stories in his book. No sources were named; no geographical information was divulged besides that the landmasses were islands in an unnamed sea. Similarly, nothing was told of any rescue missions sent to search the flooded islands for possible survivors, or from which port city those rescuers would have been launched on their journey to the disaster zone. The only other information provided by Gregory of Tours about the mysterious destroyed islands besides the quote above, was a statement that bad omens had been seen in the sky during the days preceding the disaster.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Vesuvius Erupting at Night by William Marlow (1740–1813), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.