Being a nun and living in a convent is one that requires extreme commitment, particularly in the 14th century. For Joan of Leeds, a rather rebellious English nun at St. Clement’s Nunnery in York, a change in pursuits required extreme measures. In other words, the escape.
Recently, the research project “The Northern Way” has been launched, a digital archive of the archbishops of York between 1304 and 1405, which allows historians to discover some fascinating stories, among which Joan’s fascinating backstory.
What they found was a tale of intrigue and admirable cunning, because Joan faked her own death by creating a dummy “in the likeness of her body” and placing it among actual corpses before running away.
It was 1318 when she escaped from the convent of St. Clemens, in York.
Changing one’s mind about life in a nunnery was a terrible faux pas at the time, due to both the gravity of the religious commitments being broken, as well as the limited agency women experienced in medieval times. Of course, York’s religious leaders were highly displeased at her actions.
“She now wanders at large to the notorious peril to her soul and to the scandal of all of her order,” wrote Archbishop of York William Melton in a letter dated 1318.
From the surfaced evidence alone, detailing Joan using a dummy, burying it in a place that would strongly point to her being dead, escaping the convent’s strictures was clearly a fact that outweighed any potential consequences or retribution.
A note in the register explained that she “impudently cast aside the propriety of religion and the modesty of her sex by faking her death in a cunning, nefarious manner which had her simulate a body illness where she pretended to be dead, before placing her makeshift lookalike in a sacred place among real, dead members of her religious order“.
The archbishop of York’s register detailing Joan’s daring escapade.
After successfully fooling her Benedictine sisters into burying the dummy, Joan fled St. Clements and traveled around 30 miles to reach the town of Beverley. When Archbishop Melton discovered what she had done, he commanded a subordinate to retrieve her.
“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,” he wrote.
Archbishop Melton then ordered Giovanna to return to the convent, but there is no evidence that the religious or state authority managed to capture her.
Archbishop Melton then ordered Giovanna to return to the convent, but there is no evidence that the religious or state authority managed to capture her. In addition, It’s entirely unclear if Melton’s church officials ever located Joan, if she was to create a new life for herself, or whether she even returned to the convent on her own volition.
In the early 14th century, vowing to become a nun was a viable path for women as young as 14. While this wasn’t officially forced upon women, the commonly voluntary life choice was, admittedly, bestowed upon young girls and monks by ardent religious parents quite often.
Whether this was Joan’s story, a young girl who never wanted to become a nun, will possibly never be known.
The medieval registers of the city of York include many other significant episodes for scholars of history of the time. A year after Giovanna’s escape, in 1319, Archbishop Berton organized and led an army, including priests, to help defend the city of York from a Scottish invasion.
Professor Sarah Rees Jones of the University of York and lead archivist of the digitizing project explains how “the archbishops of York in the fourteenth century had incredibly varied roles. On the one hand, they carried out diplomatic work in Europe and Rome and joined some of the great personalities of the Middle Ages. However, they were engaged to resolve disputes among ordinary people, inspecting convents and monasteries and correcting rebel monks and nuns. This is why these registers provide such a rich account of people from fourteenth-century life during a fascinating and extremely turbulent period“.