As It Happens

How a nun faked her death and escaped a convent in 1318 to pursue 'carnal lust'

Medieval researchers uncover the story of Joan of Leeds, a 14th century English nun, who took off from her convent by faking her own death — body double and all — to pursue, as the archbishop put it, "the way of carnal lust."

The 'ingenious' scheme by Joan of Leeds uncovered in 14th-century British archives

Researchers say they found a letter that details how a 14th century nun escaped her convent by faking her own death. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


A letter unearthed by British researchers tells the tale of Joan of Leeds, a 14th century nun who faked her own death and made a daring escape from a convent — supposedly to "pursue the way of carnal lust." 

Sarah Rees Jones, director of the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York, uncovered a 1318 letter written by Archbishop William Melton that describes Joan of Leeds' flight from her sisterhood in great detail.

"There's definitely a film or a novel or something to be made out of this story," Rees Jones told As It Happens host Carol Off.

According to the letter, the nun faked an illness and pretended to be dead. She had what is described as "numerous accomplices and evil-doers" to pull off the operation, Rees Jones explained.

It's also very ingenious, isn't it? It makes her, in some ways, a very appealing character.- Sarah Rees Jones, University of York

"She had crafted a dummy in the likeness of her own body," she said. "And then had no shame in procuring or getting it to be buried in a sacred space — that must be the cemetery of the convent, I think."

'We don't have her side of the story'

Her motivations for leaving her sisterhood are a bit murky, but the letter implies it was to pursue a sexual relationship.

At one point, the archbishop writes that Joan of Leeds, "impudently cast aside the propriety of religion and the modesty of her sex" so that she could "pursue the way of carnal lust." 

"[The letter] simply wants to paint a picture in which she has wickedly — as a sinful nun abandoning her vocation — has run away from the religious life," Rees Jones said. 

"Almost certainly her motivation was more complicated than that, but we don't have her side of the story."

Sarah Rees Jones on the right, with her colleague Gary Brannan, looking at one of the registers of archbishop William Melton. (University of York)

Stories of escape are common, Rees Jones says, and many nuns and monks left their vocations in order to get married.

Some found the religious life "dull and monotonous," she explained, while others wanted to pursue a secular life to break their vow of celibacy or vow of poverty.

But it's the elaborate way Joan of Lees went about her exit and the detailed account of the escape that makes this case so interesting for Rees Jones. 

"It shows how serious the matter was for her that it wasn't enough to run away. She had to actually try and trick people into believing that she had died," Rees Jones said. 

"But it's also very ingenious, isn't it? It makes her, in some ways, a very appealing character."

Like something out of Chaucer 

The research is part of a larger project that was funded by the National Arts and Humanities Research Council that will make a large archive of 14th-century material publicly available online.

Ree Jones said hopes this story will attract more interest in the project.

"You can imagine it being a comedy sketch that even contemporaries at the time, someone like Chaucer writing not long afterwards, could have, you know, make quite a lot of fun out of this story," Rees Jones said.

"I even wonder if the reason for the detail being recorded in this letter, when it wasn't strictly necessary to the legal purpose of the letter, was because people found it extraordinary and even entertaining."

Rees Jones suspects there are other stories like Joan of Leeds to uncover and she is keen to share them online.

"I think it's when you put them all together that you get a kind of more rounded picture of the choices facing young women at the time."

Written by John McGill, Sarah-Joyce Battersby. Interview produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby​.


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