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Nun on the Run – research project reveals extraordinary life of medieval nun

Finding a good 'angle' to promote your project in the media can be tough. But when a team of historians at the University of York found evidence that a nun in the 14th century faked her own death in order to escape her convent and pursue “the way of carnal lust”, the journalists came running, according to principal investigator Professor Sarah Rees Jones.

Professor Rees Jones has received almost £1 million from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to fund the translation and online publication of the registers of the archbishops of York, 1304-1405, working in partnership with the National Archives.

The project began on 1 February 2019 and will run for 33 months.

“We obviously wanted to launch the project with a good story about how absolutely fascinating these resources are and how they are going to be made available for everyone through the curation of this project,” says Professor Rees Jones.

“Most of the archives still remain to be uncovered as the project has only just begun. So, we sat down to think through what we did know and see if we could come up with a story that would really catch the attention of the media.

“The nun story had come up before, for example in the scoping work for the research bid, it had also been briefly noted in some earlier publications and an edition of the original text published in Latin. I, myself, had first come across it when I was a PhD student working on the history of a local nunnery.

“It seemed too good a story not to use!”

Luckily, the project officer Gary Brannan, also works as the access and outreach archivist at the University of York. “So, not only does he know the records but he has spent a lot of time doing media work and was well attuned to what might go down well,” says Professor Rees Jones. Our Co-I, Dr Paul Dryburgh of The National Archives, created an accessible new translation of the text.

“We had also written various press statements about the project as a whole that we had agreed with our partner organisations,” says Professor Rees Jones.

The team went to their university press office well before the project began and presented them with the story and the related press statements.

The press officer then crafted it all into an engaging story for the media and contacted the press.

Initially, the story was picked up by the local media. But then the University of York press office sent the story to a contact at The Church Times, who ran a slightly longer, more in depth article.

“Then The Guardian picked it up from there – and everyone else seems to have taken from them,” says Professor Rees Jones.

In the following 24 hours there was contact from many Radio Stations, including BBC Radio 5, BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Radio Ulster. Gary and Paul and I also did interviews with broadcasters in Eire, Canada and Australia. At one time the team was simultaneously live on air in two different hemispheres.

“I did interview after interview, I was reeling,” says Professor Jones. “I had never done anything like this before.

“The journalists mostly asked similar questions: they wanted to know all about her life, what it was like being a nun.

“I always tried to get in something about the project, but I'm not sure I was always successful! And there were surprises, like being told I was being interviewed by one person and then going on air to find there were two or three.

“The last and best interview was with Radio 4, by then I was more comfortable and knew what to expect."

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