Cockaigne: Land of Medieval Dreams

Have you ever wondered what your ideal world might look like? At a recent trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts I had a chance to glimpse into a few medieval artists’ fantasies, as they portrayed the Land of Cockaigne.

According to Merriam-Webster,

“The term “Cockaigne” comes from the Middle French phrase pais de cocaigne, which literally means “the land of plenty.” The word was first popularized in a 13th-century French poem that is known in English as “The Land of Cockaigne.” According to an early English translation of the work, in Cockaigne “the houses were made of barley sugar cakes, the streets were paved with pastry, and the shops supplied goods for nothing.” Some have theorized that cocaigne derives from an earlier word related to “cake” or “cook,” but its early history remains obscure.”

In some ways, Cockaigne reminds me of the folk song “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” in which a hobo sings of a land full of lemonade springs and hens that lay soft boiled eggs (or, depending on your version, “little streams of alcohol. . .trickling down the rocks!”) The medieval versions of Cockaigne were fascinating as they gave glimpses into what at least some people, in that time and place, longed for.

In this version, diamonds and pearls rain down at the top left, while below there is a lake full of meatballs and salami and plains growing marzipan and candies. At the top right, rain is of a different sort: all manner of cooked poultry rains from the sky. There are horses for the taking, cows that bear calves every month, a lake that serves up cooked fish, and a prison (large building at the bottom) for those who prefer to work! In Cockaigne, laziness and happiness are the goals. Needless to say, the fountain is full of wine.

Just the idea of viewing the dreams of people nearly 1000 years ago is fascinating, but it would be even more interesting to talk to students about what aspects of 13th century life might make this image seem so ideal. Might what is seen as ideal change over time? It would be interesting to imagine what people in different times and places might create as their fantasy spaces. What might early settlers in the Western U.S. have imagined as their ideal land? How might that have compared to the ideal land of the indigenous peoples there? Or the ideal of someone during another era? Why might some of this imagery be so similar to “Big Rock Candy Mountain?” One word of caution: before you set students loose to investigate images of Cockaigne, beware that–not surprisingly–some portrayals include sexual as well culinary excesses, so not all images will be appropriate for younger researchers.

Still, it could be interesting to have students create their own Cockaignes, and then consider what a future historian might hypothesize about our lives from their creations. It could provide a good exercise in inductive reasoning as well as a lesson on the limits of historical conclusions.

What might you place in your Cockaigne? I think I need to spend some time day dreaming. . . .

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