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This nun faked her own death to pursue a life of ‘carnal lust’

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Sarah Shaffi
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Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act.

And you thought Sister Act sounded unrealistic…

If you sign up to be a nun, you know what you’re signing up for: a life pledged to poverty, chastity and obedience.

But one nun in 14th century Britain found convent life so boring that she faked her own death to run away and live a life of “carnal lust”.

Medieval researchers at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York discovered the story of Benedictine nun Joan in registers that recorded the business of the Archbishops of York.

The entry in Archbishop Melton's register which details the story of Joan of Leeds. Image: Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York

The page in Archbishop Melton’s register that tells the story of Joan of Leeds

Joan of Leeds made her audacious escape from St Clement’s Priory in York in 1318. 

In a marginal note in one of the registers, Archbishop Melton writes that Joan, “having impudently cast aside the propriety of religion and the modesty of her sex”, pretended to have an illness and faked her death.

The note continues that Joan then “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”.

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Upon running away, Joan turned her back on religion, and “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”.

But Joan’s fun was to be short lived – the note from Archbishop Melton reveals she was ordered back to the convent: “To warn Joan of Leeds, lately nun of the house of St Clement by York, that she should return to her house.”

Gary Brannan, archivist, and Professor Sarah Rees Jones examine one of the registers recording the business of the archbishops of York between 1304 and 1405. Image: Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York

Gary Brannan, archivist, and Professor Sarah Rees Jones examine one of the registers recording the business of the archbishops of York between 1304 and 1405

The adventures Joan had during her time away from the convent remain a mystery, but judging by her cunning escape plan, it’s clear she was a woman who knew what she wanted. 

Images: Getty / Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York

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