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Bad habit: historians find record of nun who faked her own death to pursue 'way of carnal lust'

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Archivist Gary Brannan and Professor Sarah Rees Jones look at the register
Archivist Gary Brannan and Professor Sarah Rees Jones look at the register -
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Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York
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Historians at the University of York have uncovered the tale of a 14th-century nun who escaped from her convent by faking her own death to follow “the way of carnal lust”.

A letter hidden away in medieval register created by the Archbishops of York between 1304 and 1405 contained a warning about the nun, identified only as ‘Joan of Leeds', saying she must “return to her house” after she ran away.

The letter was written by Archbishop William Melton to the Dean of Beverly in around 1318 demanding the return of the errant nun who had “impudently cast aside the propriety of religion and the modesty of her sex” and “perverted her path of life arrogantly to the way of carnal lust and away from poverty and obedience”.

Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York
The medieval archive which contains the story of 'Joan of Leeds'Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York

He said he had heard a “scandalous rumour” that Joan was living in the Beverley area, nearly modern-day Hull, having faked her own death to escape her convent.

The letter said Joan had “out of a malicious mind simulating a bodily illness” made a dummy “in the likeness of her body” which was later given a full burial on sacred grounds.

The note was found by researchers at the University of York last week at the start of their three year project to digitise the records of the Archbishops of York - who at the time were responsible for religious life in the north of England.

The archive, which contains 16 large registers with thousands of documents, is largely administrative but it contains snapshots of what life was like for the thousands people living in religious houses across the north of England in the Middle Ages.

The leader of the project, Professor Sarah Rees-Jones, said they had found other accounts of misdeeds during the period such as a priest who had had an affair with another man’s wife but she said Joan’s story was almost unique in the level of “vivid detail” it recounts and the “ingenuity” of her escape.

She said they do not know what happened to Joan but her escape was unlikely to have been an isolated incident.

Professor Rees-Jones said: “As far as we can tell it happened throughout the Middle Ages but only have records from around the 14th century”.

There did seem to have been a spike at the beginning of the century but historians were not entirely sure why, she added.

She said it was still relatively rare but common enough that the idea of a lascivious nun became a running joke in the period.

Archivist Gary Brannan added that although it is unlikely there will be any more information about Joan in the archive it is “not impossible” as they are just at the start of the project.

The project, called the 'Northern Way’, is supposed to look at the political influence of the Archbishops of York during the 14th century but Brannan said the story of Joan of Leeds is an “indication of the things to come out of the project” as the archive records “human lives”.