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Charity On The Fringes Of The Medieval World

Charity On The Fringes Of The Medieval World: Skriðuklaustur, A Late Medieval Priory-Hospital In Eastern Iceland

By Catharine M. Wood

Master’s Thesis, University of Iceland, 2013

Excavation site of Skiðklaustur in Iceland from the fifteenth century. Photo by Christian Bickel

Abstract: This is a study on the space and place of medieval monastic charity as represented by the infirmary that was in operation at Skriðuklaustur, a late medieval Augustinian monastery (1493- 1554), located in eastern Iceland. In approaching the analysis on the space and place of care, the first step is to understand what was meant by medieval monastic hospitality and charity and the factors that differentiated between the two practices. This distinction between hospitality and charity as practiced by religious groups is important to understand because it dictated not only the form of interaction but also the location of interaction. Therefore, the second step in this study is identifying these places of care and how they were physically demarcated according to religious practice. This will be conducted by analyzing the location and architectural layout of monastic infirmaries and hospitals. Other material considerations in the practice of care include the artifacts associated with the medical profession as well as information from burials at monasteries and hospitals where the age, gender and types of pathological conditions that have been identified from the skeletal assemblage may reveal evidence of the practices and level of care administered at these infirmaries. The final step is the combination of the archaeological evidence and historical documentation that will be used to develop a context in which to understand how the social mechanisms of monasticism were used in the creation of space and place in the practice of charity towards secular society. This social aspect of monasticism played an integral role in developing and maintaining the monastic identity and it is through this understanding that the practice of charity may be recognized at the late medieval monastery, Skriðuklaustur.

During the eleventh century the people of Iceland converted to Christianity and subsequently there were nine monasteries and two convents in operation at one time or another during the medieval period, starting from the High Middle Ages with Baer monastery (1033- 1049) and closing out the Late Middle Ages with Skriðuklaustur (1493-1554).

Skriðuklaustur was founded by Bishop Stefán Jónsson at a time when the age of the Catholic institution was coming to a close with the impending Lutheran Reformation and the subsequent dissolution of monasteries in the mid-sixteenth century. Therefore, as a consequence of its late foundation, Skriðuklaustur had a brief tenure, in comparison to most monasteries, of approximately 60 years. The monastery is known not only for its late foundation but also for its operation of an infirmary which based upon archaeological evidence of its cemetery included, among the interred brethren and founding family members, young women and children which may indicate that the infirmary at Skriðuklaustur catered to the wider secular community (Kristjánsdóttir 2010a). These findings from the archaeological investigations have brought up three main issues regarding the practice and identity of medieval monasticism in Iceland that bear significance for understanding Skriðuklaustur.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Iceland

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