During the early 14th century, becoming a nun was a successful path for women as young as 14. Many believed that nunnery was forced upon young girls by their religious parents. One of them was Joan of Leeds who became a nun at St. Clement’s Nunnery in Yorke. She sacrificed her freedoms and lived in a convent, though she didn’t want to. But Joan was different from the rest. She was eager to regain her freedom.
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Recently, archivists at the University of York are translating and digitizing 16 registers of York’s archbishops, which were used to document current events between 1304 and 1305 when they found Joan’s fascinating story. The surfaced evidence detailed how she used a dummy “in the likeness of her body” to fake her own death. She then placed it among real corpses before running away. In a record book dated 1318, Archbishop of York William Melton wrote: “She now wanders at large to the notorious peril to her soul and the scandal of all of her order.”
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According to All That’s Interesting, a site for curious people who want to know more about what they see on the news or read in history books, changing one’s mind about life in a nunnery was considered a tactless act. This was due to the gravity of not only breaking religious commitments but also the limited agency women experienced in medieval times. Thus, York’s religious leaders were highly displeased with Joan’s actions.
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The records explained that Joan “impudently cast aside the propriety of religion and the modesty of her sex” by faking her death “in a cunning, nefarious manner” through stimulating “a body illness.” “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,” Melton wrote.
However, Melton discovered what she did and commanded a subordinate to retrieve her. It’s not sure if they ever located her.