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The Land of Cockaigne

Main image credit | The Yorck Project / Wikimedia Commons

There’s this place where fine booze fills the rivers, where sugar walls the houses, and where the young roam the land, frolicking, sleeping, and copulating a’ plenty.

And no, it is not the hell hole that is Savile Row’s Abercrombie and Fitch…

It is the medieval Land of Cockaigne.

Now, the origins of Cockaigne can be found in twelfth-century European texts on a representation of Muslim paradise where Christian men could exchange their virtuous values for a life of pleasure on earth (check out the writings of Petrus Alphonsi 1062 – 1140). This idea proved to be en trend, and eventually morphed into the ‘Land of Cockaigne’. As such it first appeared in a French poem of the thirteenth century, and subsequently in similar writings throughout the continent.

In the Middle Ages it was adopted by the less fortuitous members of society where it became thought of as a grand fantasy land representing hope and escapism for the ritually pillaged, impoverished, and debased. But as always, the powers that be marched in, took over, and watered Cockaigne with their moralising wee (bodily fluids will be something of a theme).

By the time of the sixteenth-century, when the theme was taken up with gusto in the visual arts, the idea of Cockaigne was used as a deterrent against excess (at least outwardly, as we shall see):

You can eat what you want, but, to indirectly quote Coach Carr, ‘you will get obese and die’.

You can shag who you want, but, to directly quote Coach Carr, ‘you will get pregnant and die’

(Alternatively, you will get syphilis which will also kill you. Albeit not before your nose falls of and you go full coco loco).

In the printed Cockaigne the sins are simultaneously celebrated and castigated. Or rather, seemingly castigated but still secretly celebrated and vice versa. As in pre-code Hollywood films, where silk rags ritually cover frou frous, and cadaverous gangsters lollop around swaddled, producers could do what they wanted, so long as a vague moralising memo was prit sticked (prit stuck?) on en fin:

(Aka: Don’t do drugs kids… Now let me spend the next hour telling you how fun they are. As said verbatim to a group of once fellow year 10s by a recovering heroin addict).

Figure 1: Image credit | National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

This tension between the celebration and the condemnation of earthly pleasures is shown in two prints by Nicolo Nelli, a Venetian printmaker working in the mid-sixteenth century. In one image Cockaigne is shown as a world on a page with all the fun stuff visible (fig. 1): Sausages grow on trees (pun intended), clothes spring out of the ground, and roast poultry rains from the sky.

BUT, there is a danger to such excess, as Nelli also subtly shows. The birds in the upper right hand corner, for example, the ones with the Basement Jaxx vibe, would have been understood to represent male entrapment through female seduction by their sixteenth-century viewers.

Yes, those wily women. Just waiting to clam shell shatter the patriarchy via their figurative and literal libidinous flaps.

Figure 2: Image credit | Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Not so subtly, in Venerable Idleness: The Queen of Cockaigne Nelli shows excess in its more gruesome light (fig. 2). Here, this utopian land’s ruler is rendered immobile and physically deformed through gluttony and slothfulness. She’s fed, fanned, and washed by a retinue of young ladies as she unceasingly eats and poops.

(In Nelli’s Cockaigne it turns out you can get podgy).

Now, while this print shows that it is very very bad to be lazy and greedy, and to have too much of a good thing, there is the added perk of the pretty ladies surrounding HRH, with their bouncing boobies and shapely thighs: They certainly take up much more of the picture plane than the excrementitious deposit dribbling into its little bowl.

See, all very mixed messages.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder also treated the subject at around this time, focusing similarly on the risky business of keen resting and keener eating (main image). Brueghel’s painting shows a sleeping soldier, peasant, and wealthy burgher surrounded by half consumed food and discarded reminders of ignored duties. An oft-included fourth social category, the noble, is represented by the goose. In addition to the general denunciation against excess represented here, the painting has been interpreted as a criticism against the laziness of the Netherlandish people, too content in their abundance and wealth to get shit done during a tumultuous period in the history of the Low Countries (Frank 1991, 312 – 317).  

***

The world of Cockaigne did not always remain contained within the printed page. Its traditional and well-established link with the carnival season meant that often its commonplace inversions and examples of abundance were enacted during festivities and festivals.

Sometimes people got a bit carried away:

In one instance, the poor of Naples were required to play the carnival game of ‘Cuccagna’ (the Italian for Cockayne), where different stages were set containing tables covered by lots of wine and food (Katritzky 1987, 244). The people (likely skinny and starving) were then let loose on this pretend palace of delights.

Things did not end well.

Lots of the ‘contestants’ got hurt. Some got killed.

Figure 3: Image credit | giochidelloca.it

From the sixteenth century on the Land of Cockaigne became a firm fixture in the European visual arts repertoire. Mostly, it remained within the world of prints, oftentimes sticking to the well-established composition set by Nelli. Similar later examples can frequently be found in the oeuvre of the Reimondini family; eighteenth-century publishers of popular subjects. Other versions of Cockaigne focused on its inhabitants, either depicted as isolated characters, or as multi-figure vignettes. One examples is a seventeenth-century print of a game board by Giuseppe Maria Mitelli where various people of various backgrounds are shown stuffing their faces (fig. 3).

The likely outcome of their gluttony is implied.

(No, I don’t know the rules of the game).

***

Although such images never really died out, there was a revived interest in the subject of Cockaigne in the latter part of the 1950s led by Italian folklorists, as well as film makers and writers of the time. For example, Luciano Salce’s 1962 film, La Cuccagna presented the subject as a not-too-flattering metaphor for Italy during the economic boom of the era.

Piero Manzoni (he of the poop in a can) notably adopted the theme of Cockaigne with gusto, partly influenced by Renaissance images of the subject and partly by a borderline obsession with local peasant culture. In his diaries he talks about his love of rural pastimes and country living, and in one entry he references seeing, and being inspired by, the ‘Cockaigne tree’ – a tree which was decorated with food and ‘stuff’, free for anyone who could reach its treats (Galimberti 2012, 91).

Figure 4: Image credit | karate.net

All this Cockaigne-esque Marie Antoinetting inspired Manzoni to make art, referencing or filled with food and animals. One such example is wonderfully entitled Second Hypothesis: The Birth of Cheese, while another, which forms part of his Achrome series, is made up of stuck-on bread loaves and kaolin (fig. 4).

At one point Manzoni’s interest in the subject, as well as in Italian rural culture, leads him to question whether he is a ‘refined gentleman’ or an ‘ambitious peasant’.

Baybz, if you gotta ask, you’re neither.

***

FURTHER READING

Frank, R. H. , ‘An Interpretation of Land of Cockaigne (1567) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder’, The Sixteenth Century Journal 22/2 (1991), pp. 299 – 329

Pleij, H., Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life (New York, 1997) Verberckmoes, J., Laughter, Jestbooks and Society in the Spanish Netherlands (London, 1997)

Verberckmoes, J., Laughter, Jestbooks and Society in the Spanish Netherlands (London, 1999)

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A Western Art History blog by someone who sometimes gets paid  to read and write about Western Art History. Mostly Old Masters. Mostly Italian. Hopefully accurate.

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