Dreaming of Cockaigne

Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life

Herman Pleij
TRANSLATED BY DIANE WEBB
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 544
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/plei11702
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  • Book Info
    Dreaming of Cockaigne
    Book Description:

    Imagine a dreamland where roasted pigs wander about with knives in their backs to make carving easy, where grilled geese fly directly into one's mouth, where cooked fish jump out of the water and land at one's feet. The weather is always mild, the wine flows freely, sex is readily available, and all people enjoy eternal youth.

    Such is Cockaigne. Portrayed in legend, oral history, and art, this imaginary land became the most pervasive collective dream of medieval times-an earthly paradise that served to counter the suffering and frustration of daily existence and to allay anxieties about an increasingly elusive heavenly paradise.

    Illustrated with extraordinary artwork from the Middle Ages, Herman Pleij's Dreaming of Cockaigne is a spirited account of this lost paradise and the world that brought it to life. Pleij takes three important texts as his starting points for an inspired of the panorama of ideas, dreams, popular religion, and literary and artistic creation present in the late Middle Ages. What emerges is a well-defined picture of the era, furnished with a wealth of detail from all of Europe, as well as Asia and America.

    Pleij draws upon his thorough knowledge of medieval European literature, art, history, and folklore to describe the fantasies that fed the tales of Cockaigne and their connections to the central obsessions of medieval life.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52921-1
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Part 1. The Forfeiture of Happiness:: The Beginning
    • 1 Paradise Lost
      (pp. 3-12)

      Everyone living at the end of the Middle Ages had heard of Cockaigne at one time or another. It was a country, tucked away in some remote corner of the globe, where ideal living conditions prevailed: ideal, that is, according to late-medieval notions, and perhaps not even those of everyone living at the time. Work was forbidden, for one thing, and food and drink appeared spontaneously in the form of grilled fish, roast geese, and rivers of wine. One only had to open one’s mouth, and all that delicious food practically jumped inside. One could even reside in meat, fish,...

    • 2 Contours of a Book
      (pp. 13-27)

      In the middle ages one of the most popular escape routes from earthly suffering led directly to the Land of Cockaigne, where, to begin with, one was immediately supplied with all one’s basic needs. Paradise was shut tight, but Cockaigne was open to everyone, and all the known Cockaigne texts leave no room for doubt: work and exertion of any kind were absolutely forbidden there (Middle Dutch texts even claim this was the will of God). Food appeared from nowhere and in unimaginable quantities. The most beautiful clothes, including shoes and stockings, lay on everyone’s doorstep, ready to wear. All...

    • 3 The Power of Literature
      (pp. 28-30)

      This book is about the status and significance of two Middle Dutch rhyming texts on Cocagne—the Land of Cockaigne—preserved in two manuscripts, one dating from the second half of the fifteenth century and the other from the early sixteenth century. A somewhat less important role is played by a later prose text concerning what is nowadays called Luilekkerland that is included in a printed anthology dating from 1600, though it was probably already available in 1546. These Dutch texts are enmeshed in a web of writings going back to antiquity that have been recorded in other languages as...

  5. Part 2. Texts as Maps
    • 4 Rhyming Texts L and B, Prose Text G
      (pp. 33-44)

      This is about the wonderful Land of Cockaigne

      Of livelihoods there are plenty, it seems,

      The world knows many and various means

      Of keeping body and soul together. Stay

      And hear what I have to say!

      A country I lately chanced to see

      ’Twas very strange, unknown to me.

      Now listen, for ’tis wondrous true

      What God commands those people to do:

      To come and abide in that blessed land,

      Where toil and trouble are ever banned!

      They take this to heart, indeed they ought.

      Has anyone seen a better spot

      Than this Land of Cockaigne?

      Half is better than...

    • 5 The Two Rhyming Texts on the Land of Cockaigne
      (pp. 45-54)

      The oldest known text in Dutch treating only the Land of Cockaigne (referred to from now on as text L) is to be found in manuscript Add. 10286, preserved in the British Library in London. In this manuscript collection in folio format, containing eight texts of varying length and content (one of them is in Latin), the Cockaigne text occurs on the recto and verso of folio 135, with the following heading: “Dit is van dat edele lant van cockaengen” (This is about the wonderful Land of Cockaigne).

      There are one hundred lines of verse in total, arranged in two...

    • 6 Recitation and Writing
      (pp. 55-61)

      Comparison of the two Cockaigne texts reveals both similarities and differences that are quite striking. Approximately seventy lines correspond either exactly or quite closely, which means that well over two-thirds of text L also occurs in text B and that more than half of B is also to be found in L. But where do the huge differences come from? The lines of verse that vary do not in fact represent substantial variations; rather, they constitute completely new or different text. This makes it nearly impossible to assume the written transmission of a lost original (text X), via various routes,...

    • 7 Oral Structures in Writing
      (pp. 62-72)

      The origins of Middle Dutch texts L and B are revealed in many features typical of the oral tradition. For more than twenty lines at the beginning the two Middle Dutch texts run nearly parallel, which is not at all unusual for texts stemming from the oral tradition. The introduction to a story (“Once upon a time”) and the first statement of its narrative elements quickly provide the formulaic foothold on which a story as such is presented. The order of later lines and formulaic elements is less important than the more significant and sensitive opening lines. After these, memorized...

    • 8 The Existing Potential
      (pp. 73-76)

      There is no reason to doubt the existence in the Netherlands of storytellers, both professionals and dilettantes, who worked in the way just described. Whether in someone’s employ or as itinerant, freelance entertainers, they traveled from here to there, visiting royal courts, abbeys, and towns, making spontaneous appearances wherever there was something to celebrate. The accounts preserved by courts and municipal treasurers provide extensive information concerning their names, behavior, and remuneration. Their status could vary considerably: Master Willem van Hildegaersberch, for example, some of whose work is known, was a respected storyteller and a welcome guest in the better circles....

    • 9 The Prose Text on Luilekkerland
      (pp. 77-86)

      Probably as early as 1546, but certainly in 1600, a Dutch text was published about a Cockaignesque country belonging to a completely different tradition. This was the prose text Van ’t Luye-lecker-landt (subsequently referred to as text G), which was part of the popular and frequently reprinted volume Veelderhande geneuchlycke dichten, tafelspelen ende refereynen (Various agreeable poems, plays, and refrains). A copy of the first edition printed in 1600 is preserved in the library at the University of Ghent.

      Most of the texts in this collection are certainly older, sometimes much older, and a few of them are known from...

  6. Part 3. Eating to Forget
    • 10 Eating Habits
      (pp. 89-99)

      Cockaigne is first and foremost about eating, and in Luilekkerland things are not much different. In all three texts, 35 to 40 percent of the lines have to do with spectacularly displayed or magically mobile food. Only prose text G adds a new theme: descriptions as detailed as they are sarcastic of what one can earn with displays of extreme rudeness, failure at sports, and base behavior in general. This theme is largely missing from rhyming texts L and B, in which food occupies an even more prominent place. Text G, on the other hand, carries the eating theme to...

    • 11 Hunger and Scarcity
      (pp. 100-106)

      It Seems natural to link these obsessive fantasies first of all to a periodic or perhaps even a permanent need to compensate for shortages of food, whether real or imagined. Such compensation took the form of escape into a dreamworld furnished with an abundance of everything lacking—or feared to be imminently lacking—in real life, this deficiency being experienced as a threat to survival. Such dreamlands also functioned as an outlet, enabling the constant worry caused by food shortages, real or otherwise, to vent itself in suggestions of abundance as bizarre as they were ridiculous.

      These assumptions presuppose the...

    • 12 The Topos of Hunger
      (pp. 107-117)

      All these material and spiritual factors, which kindled and shaped ideas and experiences—or merely the threat—of scarcity created an immense fear of hunger that dominated the lives of a great many people. Cockaigne and Luilekkerland must be viewed first and foremost against this backdrop. It was liberating to imagine a situation in which such cares were totally absent. That famine was not actually such a threat made little difference. According to the chronicle by Galbert of Bruges mentioned in the last chapter, hunger was not really such a problem in the years 1124–1125; chaos nonetheless ensued, caused...

    • 13 The Intoxicating Effect of Fasting
      (pp. 118-127)

      As long as an intense fear of hunger persisted, there was a great need for comfort and moral support. Simply eating one’s fill could not alleviate the fear, for it had nothing to do with palpable hunger but rather with the increasingly irrational and therefore unfathomable fear of famine. Daydreaming about a journey to the Land of Cockaigne or Luilekkerland was not the only answer, of course. A great many remedies were devised, so many, in fact, that they testify to the extent to which the fear of hunger kept all levels of society in thrall.

      Oddly enough, simply not...

    • 14 Gorging in Self-Defense
      (pp. 128-136)

      In contrast to the strategy of not eating, with its accompanying dream trips, a more earthly variety of resistance consisted in gorging while the supplies lasted. Both tactics could dispel vague fears of hunger or at least banish them temporarily. “When the belly is full, the head is happy” are the words of a proverb, various versions of which graced the pages of many a manuscript. Belly worship apparently took on such extravagant proportions that the church was forced to launch an antigluttony offensive. Jan de Weert, the physician and moralist—an especially happy combination in this context—declared that...

    • 15 Food in Motion
      (pp. 137-146)

      The main cause of excitement at these banquets was not the amount of food consumed. The most important aspect was the artful arrangement of all those delicacies, some of which were geared to take part in animated spectacles. Whole battles, abductions, sieges, hunting parties, and shipwrecks were portrayed in, through, between, and with the help of food. A special form of table humor consisted in rendering the ingredients unrecognizable, masking tastes, and molding meat to look like fish, fish like fowl, and fowl like meat. Surprise courses and disguised dishes were among the high points of aristocratic dining pleasure. What...

    • 16 Literary Refreshment
      (pp. 147-162)

      One can also indulge one’s uncertainties and fears on parchment and paper. In such examples, anger and fear, self-mockery and irony are alternately highlighted and often found in one and the same text. There is more than just humor in these writings, however, no matter how much their oftrepeated utterances have degenerated into tasteless and vulgar jokes.

      The texts are quite frequently connected with the standard repertoire of public celebrations, led, of course, by Carnival. This connection is suggested by all the crazy enumerations of humorously distorted dishes, which are twice as funny when proclaimed at the top of one’s...

  7. Part 4. Paradise Refurbished
    • 17 The Land of Cockaigne as Paradise
      (pp. 165-181)

      The land of cockaigne is a paradise on earth. Just as the true earthly paradise, it can be found in a specific place; according to texts L and B, it is even accessible, though with difficulty. This, however, points up an important difference from the earthly paradise, which was utterly inaccessible. The impenetrable walls surrounding the earthly paradise had only one gate of entry, and that was guarded by an angel with a flaming sword. Some even thought a whole curtain of fire hung in front of the entrance. The Land of Cockaigne, on the other hand, was open to...

    • 18 Never Say Die
      (pp. 182-190)

      In text L there is yet another river, unhesitatingly called “a Jordan,” that offers rejuvenation, “for when its waters touch their tongue, old folk all start turning young.” This means that in Cockaigne, just as in paradise, immortality is the rule, and aging is simply an ailment that can be cured. In essence this puts Cockaigne on a par with the Holy Land, for both have a miraculous river at their disposal.

      As far as the real Jordan was concerned, there was no doubt as to its miraculous nature. Saint John Chrysostom, a Christian of late antiquity, had already noted...

    • 19 Heavenly Rewards
      (pp. 191-206)

      Heaven held the future. In theory it was accessible to everyone, though unfortunately only after death. One could, however, take heart from the central message of Christianity, which said that life did not truly begin until then. The main thing—and this was no small matter—was to take care not to forfeit the right to everlasting bliss during one’s brief stay on earth. Even if one managed to arrive safely at death’s door, there was still a long wait until the resurrection and the Last Judgment, and only after that would it finally be possible to sample the delights...

    • 20 Other Paradises
      (pp. 207-215)

      Every culture has its own paradise that was forfeited through an act of naive pride. As early as the turn of the seventh century b.c., the Greek epic poet Hesiod told of a significant incident that caused humankind to forfeit its place in the ideal world, since which time Zeus has kept the secret of this beautiful life hidden. His wrath was caused by Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to give to humankind. Zeus’s punishment for this act of pride was to degrade life on earth to a sorrowful existence, filled with worry and pain. Before this time...

    • 21 Lovely Places, Golden Ages
      (pp. 216-229)

      All these paradisiacal pleasure grounds belong to the tradition of the locus amoenus, or “lovely place,” that was a fixed topos of antique literature, usually used to glorify rural life or to portray the nostalgia of a lost Arcadia. The “loveliness” is concentrated in a garden or orchard, one of the oldest examples being the garden of Alcinous, the father of Nausicaa, in The Odyssey. His garden consists of “a large orchard of four acres, where trees hang their greenery on high, the pear and the pomegranate, the apple with its glossy burden, the sweet fig and the luxuriant olive....

    • 22 Wonder Gardens and Pleasure Parks
      (pp. 230-235)

      Paradise could also be imitated. To start with, the model architecture of the heavenly Jerusalem was also to be found in churches and cathedrals, and occasionally cities were even built with the same ideal proportions and resplendence. In the twelfth century the abbot Philip van Harvengt compared his Paris with Jerusalem, where theological scholarship was thought to have flourished. The clergy flocked there in great numbers “so that they would presently outnumber the many laymen who inhabited the city…. Fortunate indeed is the city where so many eminent teachers live and where theological scholarship is of such a high standard...

    • 23 Dreams of Immortality
      (pp. 236-242)

      Paradise was not really lost. After purification in purgatory it could be found again in the heavenly Jerusalem. Even the earthly paradise was not necessarily so inaccessible as many people maintained. Surely Alexander the Great had not lied to us; many seemingly reliable accounts reported that he had been in paradise. Moreover, paradise had proved not to be empty, as Enoch and Elijah had been waiting there for the end of time. Seth, Adam’s son, had also been permitted a glimpse of paradise, when his dying father had sent him there to fetch a healing oil. The angel guarding the...

  8. Part 5. The Imagination Journeys Forth
    • 24 Geographical Musings
      (pp. 245-254)

      The land of cockaigne is presented as a concrete place situated somewhere on earth. Texts L and B both begin with a first-person narrator who announces that he has just been to a country previously unknown to him. This land was full of wonders that he was apparently able to see and experience himself. It is precisely this reference to “wonders” that establishes a connection between Cockaigne and the well-known mirabilia of the Orient, which were common knowledge already in classical antiquity, undergoing continual enlargement and elaboration as they made the rounds of a broad lay public until late in...

    • 25 Real Dreamworlds
      (pp. 255-262)

      The dreamworlds and idyllic places occurring in travelers’ tales are more or less distinguishable from other dreamlands in that they may be pinned down to an earthly time and place. They were discovered by someone who then reported the discovery to the Western world, paving the way for others to seek out the described location. The ideal places and golden ages mentioned earlier in this book are in any case less tangible, not to be visited without difficulty (or perhaps not at all) and very far removed in time.

      Nevertheless, journeys were regularly made to the earthly paradise, even after...

    • 26 Wonders of East and West
      (pp. 263-280)

      The geography of the fulfilled promise, however, took a long time to manifest itself. The first world traveler to cause a furor in the Middle Ages was none other than Alexander the Great, who was shamelessly accepted as the perfect embodiment of what modern times would later prefer to cover up: discoverer and conqueror, the latter interpreted in the Middle Ages as vital to the necessary task of converting the heathens, which for Alexander simply meant civilizing them. Through his eyes we see the wonders of the East, which gave rise throughout the Middle Ages to more and more elaborate...

    • 27 Fanciful Destinations
      (pp. 281-288)

      Once or twice the idea has suggested itself that Cockaigne and Luilekkerland are actually poking fun at the torrent of medieval accounts of paradises, golden ages, and travels to parts unknown. The parallels are sometimes so striking that it seems certain these texts were also meant to be interpreted as parodies. One thing remains indisputable: neither medieval Cockaigne nor sixteenth-century Luilekkerland claim to have anything at all to do with reality. This is in stark contrast to the vehement assertion of reality voiced by all the other texts, which in itself was enough to invite the invention of mocking imitations....

    • 28 Virtual Dreamlands
      (pp. 289-298)

      The liberating mockery of dreamlands, which the increasing influx of travel stories had made more tangible and easier to localize, experienced a heyday with the appearance of several printed texts in French starting in 1500. This was done by making use of the Cockaigne material, so that these texts even seem to sneer at the various versions of Cockaigne and Luilekkerland, though this is difficult to prove, as the material, borrowed to achieve other aims, may have been contaminated in the process. Things are complicated by the fact that Cockaigne itself, still very much alive in the collective imagination of...

  9. Part 6. Heretical Excesses
    • 29 The Thousand-Year Reign of Peace and Prosperity
      (pp. 301-310)

      Both cockaigne texts contain several rather direct references to the creative and inspiring work of God and the Holy Ghost. This immediately places the world of Cockaigne in a paradisiacal perspective, because God has ordered its inhabitants to do the opposite of what he commanded Adam and Eve to do. The inhabitants of Cockaigne are not permitted to expend any energy whatever on work, though this is the very opposite of the punishment meted out to humankind after the Fall.

      Shouldn’t this be interpreted as blasphemy? And doesn’t the whole text exude what for many must have been reprehensible hedonism?...

    • 30 Heresies of the Free Spirit
      (pp. 311-317)

      In the late Middle Ages these solidly founded and passionately pursued expectations of salvation on earth assumed the form of what is broadly referred to as the heresy of the Free Spirit. This conviction—perhaps better referred to as a mentality—may be seen as a democratized mysticism that got out of hand. This spiritual exercise essentially aimed at personal communion with the divine, whereby the traditional means offered by the church played a subordinate role or even none at all.

      The adherents of the so-called Free Spirit movement fervently believed in the possibility of attaining a state of perfection....

    • 31 Sex Adam-and-Eve Style
      (pp. 318-324)

      Perfect people do exist on earth: in theory anyone can attain a state of perfect sinlessness, and many have already done so. It is important to realize that in the Middle Ages this fact was accepted with the same unshakable belief with which we nowadays maintain that such convictions are merely a conceit. The whole story bears a close resemblance to the persecution of witches, an undertaking that took on a systematic character late in the fifteenth century. Evidence was sought to confirm what one already believed, and witches were a reality for a broad section of society, including men...

    • 32 Low-Country Heterodoxy
      (pp. 325-334)

      In the terms of the Brabant mystic Jan van Ruusbroec, the inhabitants of Cockaigne are perfect heretics, people who act purely on instinct, satisfying their every desire and doing whatever nature dictates. In no way do listeners and readers of the Cockaigne texts or the work of Ruusbroec find themselves in disparate worlds. Everyone knew Cockaigne, while Ruusbroec’s ideas were circulated in lay sermons and catechism, as well as in the simple books intended as an aid to private devotion that were so popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

      Heretical ideas and Cockaigne also share a use of the...

  10. Part 7. Learning as a Matter of Survival
    • 33 Didactic Differences
      (pp. 337-351)

      As i have shown, the Middle Dutch texts on Cockaigne and the prose text on Luilekkerland also had moralizing intentions. This tendency is self-evident in texts B and G, especially as the texts themselves explicitly reveal their intentions. The closing passage of text B urges one to betake oneself to Cockaigne posthaste, though this recommendation is not aimed at everyone. The only people who need follow this advice are those with an aversion to work, who like to horse around and squander their money. People not fitting this description are barred entrance, for otherwise Cockaigne would suffer from overcrowding. It...

    • 34 Topsy-Turvy Worlds
      (pp. 352-364)

      Contrasting the world God intended in His Creation with the hard reality of the existing world, ruled by the devil and his cohorts, is one of the chief stylistic principles informing medieval literature and art. The model for these contrasts between heavenly ideal and earthly reality was supplied by Augustine. Juxtaposing the civitas terrena (earthly state) with the civitas dei (divine state), he argued that the blissfulness of everlasting life could only be proven through the saddening portrayal of the depravation of earthly life. God had known that evil would emerge in the world: it was part of his design,...

    • 35 Hard Times
      (pp. 365-371)

      If their explication and place within the didactic framework of the upside-down world have already made clear to what extent Cockaigne and Luilekkerland may serve as educational institutions, then such purposes must also be inferable from particulars in the texts themselves. What do these texts actually teach us, and how do the attractions of these dreamlands serve to draw our attention to these teachings?

      First of all, take idleness, a feature that completely dominates both Cockaigne and Luilekkerland. It is not necessary to expend any energy whatever to obtain the most delicious food. That this is the cornerstone of the...

    • 36 Moderation, Ambition, and Decorum
      (pp. 372-383)

      The recommendation to exercise moderation in eating and drinking appeared to be gaining acceptance in both courtly and middle-class milieus, even if many people did not actually practice what they preached. At any rate, moderation in eating—with respect to both the amount of food consumed and the number of meals per day—is a fixed theme in the confession manuals that warn against the sin of gluttony (gula). When the Cockaigne material was finally recorded at the end of the Middle Ages, the texts automatically conjured up an upside-down world that showed how one was not supposed to behave,...

    • 37 Lessons in Pragmatism
      (pp. 384-388)

      In the sixth century Boethius described a golden age of the greatest soberness. According to the Middle Dutch translation made around a thousand years later, in 1485, hunger at that time was stilled with fruit and thirst quenched with spring water. Trade was unknown, for the earth offered more than enough for survival. The discovery of gold and precious stones, however, meant the birth of greed, and the world had been burdened with sin ever since.

      These lines by Boethius were elaborately discussed by the translator, who compared the ideal situation obtaining during the golden age with the boundless greed...

  11. Part 8. Dreaming of Cockaigne:: The End
    • 38 The Name Cockaigne
      (pp. 391-402)

      Attempts to discover the derivation of the name of Cockaigne have not been lacking, though no satisfactory answer has yet been found to explain the origins of the French-sounding word Cocagne. There is, however, much profit to be gained from examining the muddle of proposed explanations, for many of the solutions put forward undoubtedly reveal what contemporaries experienced upon hearing the name Cocagne. The fact is that the word conjured up—in the various languages in which it occurred—a wealth of associations with the attractions and lessons that Cockaigne had on offer. This perhaps explains the highly exportable nature...

    • 39 A Depreciated Cultural Asset
      (pp. 403-412)

      Why must we pay so much attention to what is at first glance such instantly recognizable and easily understood humor? Indeed, there’s no need to: this seems to have been the answer given by Dutch literary historiographers from the very beginning. The Cockaigne and Luilekkerland texts were simply not allowed to compete for their attention, as witnessed by the interest shown in them, which—then as now—is practically negligible.

      This neglect has been due only in part to these texts’ supposed lack of aesthetic merit, a nineteenth-century notion that has retroactively caused much damage to medieval literary stockpiles, giving...

    • 40 From Countryside to Town
      (pp. 413-422)

      To what extent are the Cockaigne texts and the prose text on Luilekkerland actually the product of simple folk and their traditions? The concepts of folksy, common, and popular have all been used in conjunction with these texts to designate the anonymous masses. These masses may also include members of the clergy, lay brothers and sisters, and members of the minor orders, none of whom has a name outside his or her immediate surroundings. Above all, however, the masses consist of laypeople who never rose above the level of peasant or artisan, their anonymity remaining absolute owing to their lack...

    • 41 The Necessity of Fiction
      (pp. 423-428)

      Medieval rural culture were not only in search of compensation; they also sought weapons for use in acts of physical and spiritual resistance. If hunger was the scourge of God, the umpteenth punishment for breaking His commandments, then stuffing oneself silly testified to rebelliousness, as did fantasies of such behavior. “Take what you can get, for tomorrow you may die.” This attitude, already detectable in the Germanic culture of the early Middle Ages, was expressed in a proverb recorded in 1550: “He stuffs himself as though he’ll hang tomorrow.” And this decisiveness was in keeping with gorging as an expression...

  12. Appendixes
    • APPENDIX 1 Middle Dutch Rhyming Texts on Cockaigne
      (pp. 431-437)
    • APPENDIX 2 Dutch Prose Text of 1546 on Luilekkerland
      (pp. 438-442)
    • APPENDIX 3 Dutch Poems Appearing in English Translation
      (pp. 443-450)
  13. Sources
    (pp. 451-488)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 489-514)
  15. Index
    (pp. 515-540)