Skriðuklaustur monastery: Medical Centre of Medieval East Iceland?

Skriðuklaustur monastery: Medical Centre of Medieval East Iceland?

By Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir

Acta Archaeologica, Vol. 79 (2008)

 Excavation site of Skiðuklaustur in Iceland from the fifteenth century.  Photo by Christian Bickel / Wikimedia Commons
Excavation site of Skiðuklaustur in Iceland from the fifteenth century. Photo by Christian Bickel / Wikimedia Commons

Introduction: Skriðuklaustur monastery was the youngest of nine cloisters operated in Iceland during the Catholic period of the Middle Ages. The first one was founded at Þingeyrar in 1133 and the last one three and a half centuries later in 1493 at Skriðuklaustur. The monastic institutions were seven in number, four in the bishopric at Skálholt and three in the bishopric at Hólar. There were two nunneries, one in each bishopric. Icelandic cloisters were all either Augustinian or Benedictine, and Skriðuklaustur monastery is commonly thought to have belonged to the Augustinian order. Other religious orders were not represented in Iceland during the Catholic period. All of Iceland’s nine Medieval cloisters were dissolved during the Lutheran Reformation.

Despite the fact that the cloisters in Iceland were equally divided between the two bishoprics, Hólar and Skálholt, their geographical distribution within the country was rather unequal. One monastery, Helgafellsklaustur, was located in West Iceland. There were three monasteries and one nunnery in North Iceland: Þingeyraklaustur, Reynistaðaklaustur (nunnery), Möðruvallaklaustur and Munkaþverárklaustur. Two monasteries and one nunnery were located in South Iceland: Viðeyjarklaustur, Þykkvabæjarklaustur and Kirkjubæjarklaustur (nunnery). There was neither a monastery nor a nunnery in the West Fjords. East Iceland was without cloisters as well until the last phase of the Catholic period, when Skriðuklaustur monastery was founded during the reign of Bishop Stefán Jónsson.

medieval-mag-40The excavation of the ruins of Skriðuklaustur monastery began in 2002. Before archaeological investigation commenced, it was not known exactly where on the farm Skriða the buildings of the monastery had stood. Though no ruins were visible on the surface, oral sources and various written documents about monastic activities at Skriðuklaustur dispelled all doubt about their existence. Despite its short tenure, the monastery acquired a large amount of land, and its library seems to have been comparable to that of other Icelandic cloisters. It was known that a children’s school was operated there, as well as an outer school; i.e., schola exterior. Furthermore, it is known that the cloister was dedicated to God the Father, the Virgin Mary, and the holy blood of Jesus Christ, in accordance with a legend about the founding of the Skriðuklaustur monastery in the fifteenth century. Skriðuklaustur is Iceland’s only example of a cloister so dedicated.

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