February 13, 2019
14th century nun faked death to pursue “carnal lust”
by Alex Primiani
If there’s one thing kids are desperate to get rid of, it’s their virginity. But one person from the middle ages just might’ve outdone every sex-obsessed teen on whichever Netflix show you’re currently bing-watching: the 14th century nun Joan of Leeds who, according to Allison Flood at the Guardian, faked her own death “in order to escape her convent and pursue…’the way of carnal lust.'”
Documented in the margins of a dense (and densely detailed) registry outlining the day-to-day business of the archbishops of York from the 1300s, historians at the University of York discovered notes written in Latin by the archbishop William Melton who expounded on Joan’s wicked ways.
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.”
Many of these registries of the time were left untranslated from Latin. While Flood doesn’t elucidate why, the volumes might’ve been untouched since the English Civil War in the 17th century, when they were sent out of York and stored in London.
Now, with almost one million pounds in funding, the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York, alongside the National Archives, are working to translate the volumes and make them available online.
Alex Primiani is the associate director of publicity at Melville House.