On “the way of carnal lust”, Joan of Leeds, and the difficulty of clerical celibacy

Loves, you may have had the pleasure of being alerted, in the Guardian (which is a SWERF and TERF-ridden rag of a paper, but hey-ho), to the important findings of Professor Sarah Rees Jones and her team at the University of York’s extremely important discovery of the story of Sister Joan of Leeds.

Joan of Leeds, in an OG proof of the fact that you cannot defeat a bad bitch (you just cannot do that), in that in the year of our Lord 1318 got Archbishop William Melton of York’s attention to the point that our boy had to write out a note…

To warn Joan of Leeds, lately nun of the house of St Clement by York, that she should return to her house…

See, your man was straight up MAD 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…

register
The Archbishop of York’s register, where Joan’s case is recorded.

Why? Well, because she…

…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.

In other words, Joan was out to catch some D and she didn’t care if she had to fake her own death and make a dummy to replace her during burial so she could sneak out of her nunnery in order to do that.

Now, this story is notable in that Joan here was crafty AF. Making an actual model corpse in order to leave a nunnery? We stan. Having said, that, the heart of the story – a nun who wanted to get it and fled her nunnery in order to do so –  is not in and of itself that exceptional. In fact, the idea that medieval nuns were extremely horny was enough of a trope that it inspired what I am assuming is probably your fav medieval image – the penis tree loving nuns of Bibliothèque nationale de France manuscript MS Fr. 25526.

nuns penis tree
You know whomst the fuck it is.

Why were horny nuns such a stereotype of the medieval period? Well, firstly as everyone in the medieval period agreed, and as we’ve discussed before, women were by nature Very Horny. (Yes, that is a technical term.) That is why they were always running about, making dildos, cuckolding their husbands, and in general being sexually ungovernable.

Nuns, being women, were no exception to this rule. Their vow of chastity was meant to keep them off of the D and indoors where they couldn’t act like complete dick pigs, but so were women’s vows of fidelity during marriage and, well, you know how that tended to turn out.

In fact, keeping away from the dick trees of the world was probably more fraught for nuns than married women in that, in general, women joined holy orders at an earlier age than they got married in the medieval period. It might have been all fun and games to devote yourself to God at twelve, but that might feel pretty different when you hit twenty-two, if you feel me.

So say you wake up one day in a convent and you decide, “That is it. I have got to get it.” What are your options?

Well, first off if you are attracted to women you might choose to avail yourself of the fine amenities surrounding you – and many women did just that. We have scads of medieval love letters between nuns which can at times be heart-breaking as Hildegard of Bingen’s correspondence to Richardis sometimes was.

Other letters were just straight up sexy as well as sad, in the case of one nun’s letter to her sister in the convent of Tegernsee in Bavaria which reads…

It is you alone I have chosen for my heart …
I love you above all else,
You alone are my love and desire …
When I recall the kisses you gave me,
And how with tender words you caressed my little breasts,
I want to die
Because I cannot see you[1]

So yeah, nun on nun love was very much a thing if you didn’t feel like up and leaving the convent in order to get some.

Say, on the other hand, that you were unable to fancy your companion sisters due to the curse of straightness. Well, you might be prepared to go to further lengths. (Yes that was intentional. No I am not sorry.)

At times that wasn’t so hard. Some nuns were able to treat their convents more or less like a standard flat, go out to a dick appointment, and come back when they were done. This practice was common enough that it was a common lament of reform preachers. Hell my boy, Jan Milíč of Kroměříz, claimed that in fourteenth-century Prague nuns were straight up bringing men back to theirs for sexy time and that…

Virgins who should be dedicated to God .. in some areas of the monastery with blushes and signs lead their lovers – or rather their prostitutors – to the cells.[2]

Admittedly, Milíč was famously no fun at all whatsoever, and prone to hyperbole, so we have to take his complaints here with a grain of salt. However, he’s not entirely wrong and we do know that plenty of nuns had a dating life but went back home, one way or another, during the medieval period.

monk tower

Sometimes, however, one big night out wouldn’t do, and nuns like Joan would just run TF off. Eileen Power noted the case of three nuns in Northampton: Isabel Clouvill, Maud Titchmarsh, and Ermentrude Newark, who one day decided that the house of St Mary in the Meadows was no longer going to cut it, and went out together to get some serious sinning done. In order to compel them to return, the Bishop ordered that anywhere that received these three badasses was to be put under penance. Any villages that took them in were to be reported back to the Bishop and their aids and abettors were supposed to report to the cathedral and explain why they were a party to hoeing of this caliber. The nuns returned and were given penance, for a girl, no matter how thirsty, cannot live on D alone, and if no one is willing to sell you bread because they don’t want to get in trouble with the Bishop then you are kinda boned in not the good way.[3]

Other times, as in the case of Elizabeth Arundell who ran away from a house in London, the King could be compelled by the bishop to stage a woman hunt. Poor Elizabeth was out in the world dressed like a normal woman and trying to enjoy some top-drawer sinful living, when the actual fucking KING sent out a sergeant-at-arms, a chaplain, and two clerks to arrest her and bring her back to Jesus. I’m as mad as you are.[4]

nun cart
Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 264, detail of f. 22r. Romance of Alexander, 1338-1344.

These examples put Joan of Leeds and her massive and incredible scam into perspective. You couldn’t just run away from a nunnery, get yourself a new set of clothes and proceed to harvest D. The entire countryside might be looking for you. Better, then, to fake your death and really commit to that sinful life.

None of this is to say that nuns in particular were prone to ditching their vows of celibacy and getting some. Monks and priests were just as equally at it on a regular basis. My personal favourite sinful religious dude remains Ludwig Coiata the priest from the parish of St. John on the Rocks [Jan Podskalí], In Prague. My man was living with…

…sometimes four, sometimes six, sometimes eight [sex workers], to whom there [was] communal access of men, all of which neighbours and people passing by stumble[d] upon and [were] scandalized by.

Attempting to do something about it, the locals called up the constabulary, but it did no good. Ludwig just dipped out the house and…

…had twice fled naked from the judges through the New Town of Prague…[5]

….as a result. What a legend.

Why bring men into it? Well, then as now, the idea that men might be out getting some when they said they wouldn’t was seen as remarkable. My boy Father Ludwig there? Never even had a recorded punishment for running a brothel and streaking around Prague at night. Elizabeth Arundell, on the other hand, runs away and a whole-ass kingdom-wide fugitive hunt is called. This is what we call a double standard.

My point is that women are always held to a higher standard and seen as being subject to the condemnation of their community at large to a much greater extent. Society as a whole is called in to regulate the behaviour of women even now. Think about the “training” that hotel employees and Uber drivers are currently receiving to flag up women drinking alone or simply being insufficiently deferential and feminine as trafficked women. That is very much the contemporary counterpart to the whole-scale searches for run away nuns, who should be locked away praying for their souls. At the heart of both issues is the idea that women can’t really be allowed out in the world and in charge of their sexuality Not without some men stepping in to show them how they should lady the right way, goddamn it. Men breaking sexual taboos, on the other hand, are largely seen as their own problem. Any scandal they may be responsible is theirs alone, rather than an issue for an entire community.

Joan of Leeds, then, is a consummate bad bitch and we should celebrate her commitment to getting to a D appointment on time. Having said that, while we’re thinking about what she had to do in order to secure her own sexual freedom, we might want to contemplate the way that we treat women in charge of their own sexuality now as well. Please don’t make me build a false corpse.


 

[1] See Peter Dronke, Medieval Latin and the Ride of European Love-Lyric (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 482.
[2] Milíč, ‘Ad Papam Urbanum V’, The Message for the Last Days: Three Essays from the Year 1367, eds. Milan Opočenský and Jana Opočenská (Geneva: World Alliance of Reformed Churches, 1998), p. 26.
[3] Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries: C. 1275-1535(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) pp. 441-442.
[4] Ibid., p. 442.
[5] Ivan Hlaváček and Zdeňka Hledíková (eds.), Protocollum visitationis archidiaconatus Pragensisannis 1379–1382 per Paulum de Janowicz archidiaconum Pragensem factae (Prague: Akademia, 1973), pp. 48-49.


For more on women and sex in the medieval period, see:

On dildos and pennance
On No Nut November
On cuckolding – a thing
On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’
These hoes ain’t loyal: on prostitutes and bad bitches in medieval and hiphop culture
On Courtly Love, sexual coercion, and killing your idols
On Incels and courtly love
The history of penis in vagina as default sex at BISH
Sex and the (medieval city): social hygene and sex in the medieval urban landscape
On women and desire
On power and the entitlement to lower-status women’s bodies, or, the thing that IS medieval about Trump

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, Kendrick Lamar enthusiast.

4 thoughts on “On “the way of carnal lust”, Joan of Leeds, and the difficulty of clerical celibacy”

  1. I always enjoy the footnotes. Talking trash is easy (for some), but documented argument takes a degree os skill, if not actual training. Your parents must be proud to know they raised a professional smartass.

    Like

  2. My God! Do I blame her? Absolutely not! Priests were illegally married! That girls deserved some D! I applaud her crafting skills and why isn’t she getting a biopic? I’d watch the bejezus out of that film!

    Like

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