The Poisoned Arrows of Amor: cases of syphilis from 16th-century Iceland
Scandinavian Journal of History, 36:4, 406-418 (2011)
While syphilis spread rapidly in Europe during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, scholars have doubted that the disease reached Iceland at that time. Still, discoveries of nine cases of venereal and congenital syphilis during a recent excavation on a monastic site, Skriðuklaustur (1496–1554) in East Iceland, indicate that the disease became an epidemic there, as it did worldwide. These findings may also be regarded as an important source of information on the contacts and communications of a country, which is commonly regarded as having been socially isolated from the outer world, with its neighbouring countries during the medieval times.
Nine cases of both venereal and congenital syphilis, caused by bacteria of the genus Treponema, have been identified in an assemblage of 198 skeletons exhumed at the monastic site Skriðuklaustur in East Iceland, dating from the period 1496–1554. Before these identifications were made, the disease was not thought, with any certainty, to have reached Iceland until modern times, while it became an epidemic during the late 15th and early 16th centuries worldwide. The findings at Skriðuklaustur may be interpreted as an indication of a syphilis outbreak in Iceland at the same time as it spread rapidly in its neighbouring countries. Moreover, it even supports recent theories that Iceland was not as socially isolated from the rest of Western Europe during the Middle Ages, as has been claimed earlier.