One of the topics that captured my imagination when I started studying the Middle Ages was penitential literature. Penitentials were early medieval guidelines on the appropriate punishments for various sins. That makes them an essential source for understanding medieval values, like which crimes were considered truly terrible and which were treated more leniently. They’re also a wonderful guide to the little details of daily life that don’t make it into chronicles or more high-minded texts: penitentials are one of our only sources for what we’d call folk magic. Since love potions, curses, and weather dances were all forbidden practices, penitentials had to include descriptions alongside the proper punishments.
The descriptions range, by modern standards, from the unsurprising to the bizarre. Want to know how your year will go? Bake a loaf of bread on the Kalends [1st] of January and watch how it rises. Need to hurt someone? Tie a knot in a dead man’s belt. Want to kill your husband? Cover yourself in honey, roll around nude in a pile of grain, bake it into flour, and have him eat the bread baked from it.
And it’s this sort of thing (roll around nude in grain? really?) that also makes it hard to judge how much the penitentials tell us about what was really happening. Penitentials were compiled by priests, not by peasants, and certainly not by magicians. Some penitentials certainly included sins and punishments solely because they had been in previous texts, not because the writer actually knew of anyone practicing them. So do the books describe actual practices, or just what the writers imagined people were doing? Unless we start finding bodies with knots in their belts, we’ll probably never know.