The idea of a medieval nun actually faking her own death to more fully enjoy the pleasures of life may sound like something that belongs in a gripping Dickens novel, but in this case is something which actually happened, according to 14th-century documents which archivists at the University of York recently discovered.
As Huffington Post has reported, the 14th-century nun known as Joan of Leeds was able to successfully convince people that she was dead – at least for a little while – by forging a dummy “in the likeness of her body” so that she could dramatically escape convent life on one wild and windy night.
But unfortunately for this medieval nun, her treachery was eventually detected, as archivist and historian Sarah Rees Jones discovered.
According to Live Science, a letter was found in the registers which was written by the formidable Archbishop William Melton in 1318, in which the “scandalous rumor” surrounding Joan’s escape was brought to the attention of the Dean of Beverley, who was in charge of much of convent life around Yorkshire.
As Archbishop Melton penned in his letter, not only was the soul of the ex-nun Joan in very real danger, but also the souls of all of those in the collective convent which she had fought so very hard to escape from.
“She now wanders at large to the notorious peril to her soul and to the scandal of all of her order.”
— Live Science (@LiveScience) February 14, 2019
Archbishop Melton also described in vivid detail how the medieval nun had “impudently cast aside the propriety of religion,” even going so far as to fake her own death in an act that was both “cunning” and “nefarious.”
“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.”
While investigating how Joan of Leeds was able to fake her own death so well, Rees Jones suggested that the 14th-century nun most likely resorted to creating a body double, which she may have done by leaving a shroud in her bed filled with dirt to give the impression of a placidly sleeping nun.
It is very likely that many other women during this time would have also felt the same stifling need to escape their confined lives, especially as for upper-class women of the medieval era there were generally only a couple of paths that one was able to take in life, with one being an arranged marriage and the other a sheltered convent life.
With this fate hanging over them, it is certainly understandable that women like Joan would go to such great lengths to escape from the imprisonment which they ultimately found themselves in, even if it meant faking their own death.
Whether the medieval nun Joan of Leeds was ever captured and returned to the convent she escaped from is unknown and will most likely remain a mystery for all time, and the University of York has placed the documents she is named in onto a group of online registers which will be available to the public for the next 33 months.