How a 14th-Century Nun Faked Her Own Death

The note scribbled by William Melton of Joan's rouse and escape.

In the 14th century, York was the most important city in England, next to London. This northern hotspot was a center for international trade, particularly in the wool industry. Around the city, it wasn’t hard to find clothing merchants, butchers, artisans, and tanners selling their goods. This period in the city’s history is often described as the “Golden Age of York.” Yes, York was indeed a bustling hub of medieval city life—a life perhaps too tempting for a young nun.

While scouring through a selection of registers from 1304 to 1405, a team of researchers at the University of York found a small note written in the margins of one of the manuscripts. The Latin letters were penned by Archbishop William Melton, alerting the Dean of Beverly that a nun by the name of Joan of Leeds had faked her own death and escaped the house of St. Clement.

“Melton described it as a ‘scandalous rumor’—and I cannot do better than that. In a semi-literate society, rumor and reputation were very important,” says Sarah Rees Jones, a professor and principal investigator on…

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

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Sasha Harriet

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