Manuscript Reveals How Medieval Nun, Joan of Leeds, Faked Her Own Death to Escape the Convent

“The time­worn image of clois­tered nuns as escapists, spurned lovers or naïve waifs has lit­tle basis in real­i­ty today,” wrote Julia Lieblich in a 1983 New York Times arti­cle, “The Clois­tered Life.” “It takes more than a botched-up love affair to lure edu­cat­ed women in their 20’s and 30’s to the clois­ter in the 1980’s.”

The devo­tion that drew women to clois­tered life in the fast-paced 80s, or today, also drew women in the mid­dle ages. But in those days, an edu­ca­tion was much hard­er to come by. Many women became nuns because no oth­er oppor­tu­ni­ties were avail­able. “Con­vent offer­ings,” Eudie Pak explains at, “includ­ed read­ing and writ­ing in Latin, arith­metic, gram­mar, music, morals, rhetoric, geom­e­try and astron­o­my.” Oth­er pur­suits includ­ed “spin­ning, weav­ing and embroi­dery,” par­tic­u­lar­ly among more afflu­ent nuns.

Those “from less­er means were expect­ed to do more ardu­ous labor as part of their reli­gious life.” Who knows what kinds of hard­ships 14th cen­tu­ry Bene­dic­tine Eng­lish nun Joan of Leeds endured while at St. Clement pri­o­ry in York? The tedi­um alone may have dri­ven her over the edge. Nor do we know why she first entered the convent—whether dri­ven by faith, a desire for self-improve­ment, a “botched-up love affair,” or a less-than-vol­un­tary com­mit­ment.

We know almost noth­ing of Joan’s life, except that at some time in 1318, she faked her death, left behind a fake body to bury, and escaped the con­vent to pur­sue what William Melton, then Arch­bish­op of York, called “the way of car­nal lust.” Joan’s sis­ters aid­ed in her great escape, as the arch­bish­op wrote in a let­ter: “numer­ous of her accom­plices, evil­do­ers, with mal­ice afore­thought, craft­ed a dum­my in the like­ness of her body in order to mis­lead the devot­ed faith­ful.”

The episode—or what we know of it from Melton’s register—struck Uni­ver­si­ty of York pro­fes­sor Sarah Rees Jones as “extraordinary—like a Mon­ty Python sketch.” Joan’s sto­ry has become a high­light of The North­ern Way, a project that “seeks to assess and ana­lyze the polit­i­cal roles of the Arch­bish­ops of York over the peri­od 1306–1406.” A num­ber of records from the peri­od have been dig­i­tized, includ­ing William Melton’s reg­istry, in which Joan’s escape appears (see the page of scrib­al notes above).

One of the arch­bish­op’s roles involved inter­ced­ing in such cas­es of run­away monks and nuns. “Unfor­tu­nate­ly,” Rees Jones remarks, “we don’t know the out­come of the case” of Joan. Often, as one might expect, escapes like hers—though few as picaresque—had to do with “not want­i­ng to be celi­bate…. Many of the peo­ple would have been com­mit­ted to a reli­gious house when they were in their teens, and then they didn’t all take to the reli­gious life.”

The arch­bish­op put mat­ters rather less char­i­ta­bly: “Hav­ing turned her back on decen­cy and the good of reli­gion,” he writes, “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.”

Or, as we might say today, she was ready to embark on a new life path. So des­per­ate­ly ready, it seems, that we might only hope Joan of Leeds remained “at large” and found hap­pi­ness else­where. Learn more about The North­ern Way project here.

via The Guardian/Medieval­ist

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Expe­ri­ence the Mys­ti­cal Music of Hilde­gard Von Bin­gen: The First Known Com­pos­er in His­to­ry (1098 – 1179)

800 Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Are Now Online: Browse & Down­load Them Cour­tesy of the British Library and Bib­lio­thèque Nationale de France

Why Knights Fought Snails in Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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  • Ren'e Fedyna says:

    One of the rea­sons I love his­to­ry is that I learn, whether fact or spec­u­la­tion, ker­nels of infor­ma­tion the peak my inter­est and make me won­der about what real­ly hap­pened. As in the book I just read titled “Pope Joan.” The only female pope, who, despite some evi­dence, the church fails to acknowl­edge. Thank you for the inter­est­ing arti­cle.

  • Matthew B Ransom says:

    It’s pos­si­ble that nun Joan of Leeds, born about 1295, is none oth­er than Joan Raw­son — wife (legal or not) of Ralph Raw­son, Bish­op of Bath and Wells (born 1309), moth­er of Robert (?) Raw­son I.

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