A Medieval Nun Wanted to Escape Her Convent—so She Faked Her Death

This story and others have come to light during a project to translate and digitize a series of texts about archbishops in York, England

Gary Brannan, archivist, and Professor Sarah Rees Jones examine one of the archbishops' registers. University of York

At the University of York in England, a project is underway to translate and digitize registers that recorded the business of York’s archbishops between the years 1304 and 1405. While this may not sound like the most tantalizing of material, historians and archivists who have been poring through the texts have unearthed a host of wild stories chronicled within the registers—including the incredible tale of a nun who faked her death so she could escape a convent.

As Alison Flood reports for the Guardian, a note in one of the volumes describes the misdeeds of one Joan of Leeds, “lately nun of the house of St. Clement by York.”

The note, dated 1318, was written by the archbishop William Melton to the dean of the nearby town of Beverley. Melton had heard a “scandalous rumor” that the runaway nun had escaped there—and he wanted her to be sent back.

Joan didn’t simply slip away from the convent; she faked an illness and, when she made her escape, left behind a dummy that the other sisters seem to have mistaken for her dead body. “[O]ut 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,” Melton writes. He also opines that with this behavior, Joan had “impudently cast aside the propriety of religion and the modesty of her sex.”

Whether Joan was ultimately marched back to York is, at least at the present, lost to time; the registers don’t record the rest of her story. More generally speaking, Sarah Rees Jones, a medieval historian at the University of York and principal investigator on the indexing project, tells Paul Wilkinson of the Church Times that stories of runaway nuns weren’t altogether unusual during the medieval period. “Women often entered convents in adolescence,” she said, “and such changes of heart about their vocation were not uncommon.” Joan was not the first sister to make a mad dash from St. Clement even—some years before that incident, another of the convent’s nuns escaped to unite with her lover in the town of Darlington.

The 16 volumes of the archbishops’ registers once accompanied the religious authority on his travels, carried by the officials who supported him. Sections of some of the registers have been previously published, but for the most part they were not translated from Latin. The University of York’s “Northern Way” initiative seeks to open the texts up to a wider audience by translating them, indexing them and making them available for free online. During this process, researchers are hoping to learn more about the people who lived in York during the 14th century—both the archbishops and ordinary citizens.

Joan of Leeds is just one among many intriguing characters who crops up in the registers. William Melton, the archbishop who called for her return, for instance, has his own interesting story. York was an important frontier during the battles for Scottish independence, and when Scots attempted to invade, Melton led an army of priests and citizens in an effort to repel them. Alas, the battle did not go well for Melton and his ragtag troops.

“Their lack of military training resulted in a reported 4,000 men dying on the battlefield and a further 1,000 are believed to have drowned in the River Swale trying to escape,” Rees Jones says.

York’s archbishops were also on the frontier of another devastating event in European history. The registers cover the period of the Black Death in England—a dangerous time for the clergy, who were tasked with visiting the sick and administering last rites. So many priests died that there was a paucity of religious figures who could deliver sermons in Latin. As a result, “English had to be adopted as the new status quo,” Rees Jones says.

“The registers may shed new light on what it was like to live through this period,” she adds, “and will perhaps give us a sense of how the Church reasserted its authority after such catastrophic events.”

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