“Gah!” That was how I first articulated my enraged reaction to the headline Medieval scandal uncovered in Oxford: ‘Sex-crazed’ nun buried in bizarre position. The story speculates that the skeleton could be one of the ‘lewd’ nuns involved in a ‘sex scandal’ that supposedly ‘shut down’ Littlemore Priory.
It’s not just the problem of calling a nun who has sex ‘sex-crazed’ (sure enough, there was no suggestion that any of the men involved – some of whom were priests – were also ‘sex-crazed’), the ‘reporting’ that goes along with this lip-lickingly salacious headline is not only unfair and misleading, it leaves out all the stuff that’s actually really interesting! Yes, there was sex in a place where there was supposed to be no sex, but let’s re-tell the story from the beginning and see if you agree that it is way more interesting than that.
What we’re talking about here is the archaeological discovery of the remains of a medieval woman who was buried facedown in the cemetery of Littlemore Priory, a nunnery founded in 1110 and dissolved in 1525. Ok, so far it seems I’m making the story boring, but trust me, it’s not.
So facedown burials are typically taken as a sign that the person was regarded as some sort of criminal, witch, sinner or outcast. Cardinal Wolsey accused the nuns here of sinful and immoral behaviour when he closed the priory down, and speculatively, had one of the nuns in question died and been buried facedown as punishment, this skeleton could very well have been one of them.
[Read more: Why was this 13 year-old girl buried facedown?]
Littlemore Priory did indeed already have something of a reputation by this point. The last prioress, Katherine Wells was deposed in 1518 after a number of reported misdeeds, including giving birth to an illegitimate child fathered by a priest from Kent, and stealing things from the monastery — pots, pens and candlesticks — to provide a dowry for her baby daughter. It seems she was probably reinstated later in the year, as there is no record of a new prioress.
According to a report from Edmund Horde, commissary of the bishop who visited in 1517 and 1518, it wasn’t just Katherine. There were reports that another nun had an illegitimate child by a married man of Oxford, and that the prioress complained that one of the nuns “played and romped” with boys in the cloister and refused to be corrected.
Katherine’s attempts to correct the nun had been severe enough – the nun was put into stocks and beaten “with fists and feet.” But apparently, three other nuns broke down the door, burnt the stocks and broke a window to escape to friends where they remained for two or three weeks.
As Paul Murray, who led the excavation by John Moore Heritage Services, explains in Discovery:
The bishop’s reports are certainly tainted to at least some degree and were used to justify Cardinal Wolsey’s desire to dissolve the nunnery and use its revenues to fund Cardinal’s College, now Christ Church, traditionally considered one of Oxford’s most aristocratic colleges.
Now isn’t that interesting?
So, yes, the nuns may have not been behaving as they were expected to, but it’s possible that reports of their behaviour were exaggerated to justify a story, just like this headline which, by the way, also obscures everything else that went on at the priory.
Excavations also turned up burials of two children who suffered from developmental dysplasia of the hip – a debilitating illness that would have reduced length of the leg and a severe limp – and a leprosy sufferer. Other unusual burials included a stillborn baby in a well-made casket.
“They were not just nuns” said Murray, “but business women, educators, care givers and mothers. They coped as best they could with the trials of daily life, and maybe even found time to enjoy it too”.
DigVentures crowdfunds archaeological projects that everyone can be part of, in the UK and overseas. With help from people all over the world, we investigate the past and publish our discoveries online for free. Become a DigVentures Subscriber and be part of great archaeology - all year round!Subscribe