In the early 14th century, a nun named Joan of Leeds faked her own death with a “dummy” and a bogus burial. Scholars in the United Kingdom recently reexamined and translated a salty letter the Archbishop of York wrote about the escapade. Several centuries later, it remains the only known record of Joan’s gutsy escape from the house of St. Clement by York.
The 1318 letter from the archbishop, William Melton, is a little vague about exactly how this all went down. He writes: “with the help of numerous of her accomplices, evildoers, with malice aforethought, [Joan of Leeds] 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.”
The letter doesn’t describe what Joan’s “dummy” looked like or was made of. Sarah Rees Jones, a history professor at the University of York, speculates she may have filled a shroud with dirt or sand and arranged for its burial.
The archbishop sent his letter to a religious leader in the town of Beverley because of a rumor that Joan was spotted there. He demanded she return to her religious house, bemoaning that “she now wanders at large to the notorious peril to her soul and to the scandal of all of her order.” Though the archbishop didn’t know why Joan ran away, he had no problem editorializing: “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.”
Runaway nuns were rare, but not unheard of at a time when girls became nuns as early as age 13. Both religious devotion and practical considerations likely motivated girls to choose this path. Women had trouble finding other work to support themselves and faced difficulty finding a husband if they didn’t have a good dowry.
“Surviving could be hard, and I think one benefit that being in a religious house always offered was that you had bed and board,” Rees Jones says.
“From archaeology, we can tell that people living in religious houses, even quite small ones like the one that Joan of Leeds lived in, had probably on average a better standard of life than the ordinary run-of-the-mill people outside of the religious life,” she continues. The high rate at which women died in childbirth was also a factor in why nuns might typically live a little longer than the average woman, she says.
“Sometimes even wealthier families might want at least one of their daughters to become religious for the religious benefit—so she could pray for the family, but also as an alternative to finding her a husband and providing her with a dowry,” Rees Jones says.
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But cloistered life wasn’t for everyone, and some nuns rebelled. (The Decameron, a 14th-century collection of stories by Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, includes a tale about frisky nuns that later inspired the 2017 comedy The Little Hours.)
Unfortunately, we don’t know what Joan’s background was, why she became a nun or why she ran away. We don’t even know her age, which could be anywhere from early teens to mid-30s.
“I’ve always imagined her as being at the younger end of that spectrum,” Rees Jones says, “just because of other similar stories where we known that women abscond, even from the same religious house, in order to get married. It suggests that maybe they’re in their later teens, early twenties.”
The archbishop’s letter about Joan was translated from the original Latin by Paul Dryburgh, a principal record specialist with the U.K.’s National Archives, for a project with the University of York’s Borthwick Institute for Archives. The project involves combing through the registers of the 14th-century Archbishops of York and posting them online. Gary Brannan, the access archivist at the institute, says the project will likely reveal more individual people like Joan whose stories don’t appear anywhere else.
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Rees Jones is the project’s principal investigator, and she’s particularly interested in discovering the political roles that archbishops played in the 14th century. For example, the last archbishop in the project’s purview, Richard le Scrope, was executed in 1405 for rebelling against King Henry IV. She says we still don’t really know what Richard’s motivations were, and hopes the project will shed some light on this.
And because one of the archbishops’ duties was “disciplining the religious who had lapsed,” Rees Jones says “there are a huge number of stories of this sort” that the project will probably uncover.