Whoever thinks history is boring obviously hasn’t read stories like these! It’s too bad we don’t know how things turned out for the wayward nun, but maybe this little glimpse into the past could inspire some writer out there to tell their own version of who she was, why she left, and how she lived out the rest of her days. Melton’s perspective is interesting too, especially since he has quite a story all his own. Is he a villain in this real life drama, or is he correct in his assessment of her character? I guess we’ll never know for sure…
Archive shows medieval nun faked her own death to escape convent
Archbishop’s register reveals how Joan of Leeds crafted a dummy of her body that was buried, while she pursued ‘the way of carnal lust’.
A team of medieval historians working in the archives at the University of York has found evidence that a nun in the 14th century faked her own death and crafted a dummy “in the likeness of her body” in order to escape her convent and pursue – in the words of the archbishop of the time – “the way of carnal lust”.
A marginal note written in Latin and buried deep within one of the 16 heavy registers used by to record the business of the archbishops of York between 1304 and 1405 first alerted archivists to the adventures of the runaway nun. “To warn Joan of Leeds, lately nun of the house of St Clement by York, that she should return to her house,” runs the note written by archbishop William Melton and dated to 1318.
Melton, writing to inform the Dean of Beverley about the “scandalous rumour” he had heard about the arrival of the Benedictine nun Joan, claimed that Joan had “impudently cast aside the propriety of religion and the modesty of her sex”, and “out of a malicious mind simulating a bodily illness, she pretended to be dead, not dreading for the health of her soul, and with the help of numerous of her accomplices, evildoers, with malice aforethought, crafted a dummy in the likeness of her body in order to mislead the devoted faithful and she had no shame in procuring its burial in a sacred space amongst the religious of that place”.
After faking her own death, he continued, “and, in a cunning, nefarious manner … having turned her back on decency and the good of religion, seduced by indecency, she involved herself irreverently and perverted her path of life arrogantly to the way of carnal lust and away from poverty and obedience, and, having broken her vows and discarded the religious habit, she now wanders at large to the notorious peril to her soul and to the scandal of all of her order.”
Professor Sarah Rees Jones, principal investigator on the project, said the story of Joan’s escape, which she and her team discovered last week, was “extraordinary – like a Monty Python sketch”.
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