When a nun faked her own death to escape the convent

Sixteen heavy tomes that document 425 years of official business by the archbishops of York are being thoroughly read, translated and indexed for the first time. From the 13th century through the 17th, the registers of the archbishops were carried around wherever they traveled and clerks recorded every act, letter and order in them. After the English Civil War, they were stored in London and ignored until the late 18th century when they were returned to the Diocesan Registry in York Minster.

They are now in the care of the University of York where researchers have been able to publish a few parts of them, but only sporadically and only in Latin. Thanks to an ambitious new project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, medieval historians from the University of York and The National Archives (UK) will transcribe and translate every word in every volume. The entries will be indexed and uploaded to an online database freely accessible to anyone who is interested.

Already fascinating stories are emerging from the records. The register from August 11th, 1318, records a monition, a formal admonishment from the archbishop, to one Joan of Leeds. Archbishop William Melton, future Lord Treasurer of England, warns said Joan, “lately nun of the house of St Clement by York, that she should return to her house” which she had departed in deliciously dramatic fashion.

Melton, writing to inform the Dean of Beverley about the “scandalous rumour” he had heard about the arrival of the Benedictine nun Joan, claimed that Joan had “impudently cast aside the propriety of religion and the modesty of her sex”, and “out of a malicious mind simulating a bodily illness, she pretended to be dead, not dreading for the health of her soul, and with the help of numerous of her accomplices, evildoers, with malice aforethought, 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”.

After faking her own death, he continued, “and, in a cunning, nefarious manner … 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, 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.”

There is no follow-up in the register as to whether Joan opted to return to her life of poverty and obedience or stuck with the carnal lust, but given all the Count of Monte Cristo shenanigans she had to go through to free herself of the former, I’d wager she went for the latter. I also can’t help but wonder whether all her sisthren really were deceived by whatever rudimentary dummy Joan could possibly have manufactured. Surely the ones who had direct contact with the non-body had to be willing conspirators.

The logs from Melton’s term as archbishop from his consecration in 1317 until his death in 1340 occupy an impressive five volumes, just shy of a third of the extant registers. He carried them with him as he went about the complex business of archbishopping, lord treasuring and tending to his enormous personal estates and riches. He played an important role in the wars of Scottish independence too, thanks to York’s strategic position on the northern border. In 1319, with England’s fighting men engaged in the Siege of Berwick, Melton mustered priests, clerics and civilians to fight Scottish men-at-arms at Myton on the river Swale. It was a slaughter, needless to say, with thousands of these amateurs either slain by professional fighters or drowned in the Swale. The archbishop barely fled with his life. Researchers hope to find out more about The White Battle, so named because of the high number of clergy, in the registers.

The records will be available via York’s Archbishops Registers Revealed, which currently provides free access to a database of 20,000 images of the registers from 1225 to 1650. So far more than 3700 entries have been indexed and are searchable by keyword, but there are no full transcripts or translations, just summaries. When the digitization project is complete, all of the registers, invaluable records of political, religious, military and family life in medieval York, will be fully searchable and readable for those of us who can barely make out the letters of British Church Latin of the Middle Ages, never mind read any of it.

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5 Comments »

2019-02-12 18:55:15

I suppose it depended on whether Joan’s father put her into a convent against her will – for example because he couldn’t feed another child or couldn’t pay for a husband for her.

 
Comment by dearieme
2019-02-12 19:04:59

“York’s strategic position on the northern border”: ahem!

“those of us who can barely make out the letters of British Church Latin of the Middle Ages”: I like the Latin inscriptions I’ve seen in ancient English churches. I find them easier to read than the Latin we studied at school. My explanation is that I suspect the churchmen thought in English and then translated into Latin. Therefore their Latin uses English word order, which very much simplifies the old “parse then construe” approach.

P.S. by the by, why have Americans taken to chattering about “parsing”
things when they obviously mean “construing”?

 
Comment by dearieme
2019-02-12 19:43:54

And another thing. “It was a slaughter, needless to say, with thousands of these amateurs either slain by professional fighters or drowned in the Swale.”

A one-sided fight, no doubt, of soldiers against a rabble. But “thousands”? In olden times everyone exaggerated numbers.

 
Comment by Melissa
2019-02-13 01:00:57

Hi, just wanted to jump in and say I really appreciate the effort you put into this blog. Always a great read!

Thank you :)

 
Comment by Maaiqe
2019-02-13 03:06:49

They may have had some pretty weird believes (such as believing in witches, devils, blemmyes and dog-headed people, to name a few) but it’s nice to know that in some ways, the medieval mind wasn’t so different from ours :-D

 
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