This is the Story of Cockaigne, a Pleasure Filled Imaginary Country Created for Miserable Serfs

This is the Story of Cockaigne, a Pleasure Filled Imaginary Country Created for Miserable Serfs

Natasha sheldon - June 16, 2018

The fourteenth century was a dark time in European history. It was a time of war and discord, where the papacy and the French Crown were in bitter dispute. In 1337, the Hundred Year’s War between France and England began. It was also the century of the Black Death, where one in three people died. This disease and discord ripped apart medieval society- and the peasantry bore the brunt. So it is no wonder that people began to dream of a better place, somewhere that was the antithesis of their everyday world. However, this was no Christian heaven, but a more earthly paradise where life was comfortable, food a delight, and the social order turned upside down. Its name was the land of Cockaigne.

In Cockaigne, the harshness of medieval life did not exist. Not only was food plentiful, but it was also the stuff that dreams were made of, where even the houses were built of the ‘little cakes’ that gave this mythical paradise its name. In Cockaigne, there was no backbreaking labor, and the only effort and violence were in the punishment of those who on the top of the social pile in the real world. Cockaigne was a peasant’s Utopia. However, its roots went deeper than the Middle Ages- and it is a concept that continued to survive in one form or another until the present day.

This is the Story of Cockaigne, a Pleasure Filled Imaginary Country Created for Miserable Serfs
Map of Cockaigne or Utopia/Schlaraffenlandes by Matthaus Seutter, c 1730. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.


Life in the Land of Cockaigne

“Far out to sea and west of Spain, There is a country named Cockaygne. No place on earth compares to this, for sheer delightfulness and bliss.” So begins one of the earliest accounts of the Land of Cockaigne, a thirteenth-century manuscript thought to have been copied by an Irish Franciscan monk, Friar Michael of Kildare. The Kildare manuscript is now in the British Museum. However, in 1790, a thirteenth-century poem of Cockaigne, of French origin was replicated in “Specimens of Early English Poets” written by George Ellis. It is these poems that are our sources for life in the land of Cockaigne.

In Cockaigne, the trees and flowers were bright in color, and the weather was always mild and pleasant. There were none of the depressing downpours that often blighted real rural life! In this respect, Cockaigne sounded like heaven. However, its other delights were of a much more earthly nature. “There are rivers great and fine, Of oil and milk, honey and wine; Water’s uses there are few—For washing in, and for the view” stated the Kildare version. Ellis’s French poem describes how “the houses were made of barley sugar and cakes, the streets were paved with pastry. ” These buildings could also be savory: “Pies and pasties” filled “rich fillings, fish, and meat.”

Everything in Cockaigne was free, which was just as well as there was no unpleasant employment to earn money for such luxuries. Indeed, there was little need for shops as it seemed ready prepared food was freely available to whoever wanted it. The sky rained cheese and “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.” Eating was not the only carnal appetite that could be readily satisfied. Both poems make it clear that in Cockaigne, sex was freely available- anytime, any place- and with as many partners as you chose.

This is the Story of Cockaigne, a Pleasure Filled Imaginary Country Created for Miserable Serfs
Das Schlauraffenlandt, illustration by Erhard Schön, 1530, showing the walking food, houses of cake and fountains of wine. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Cockaigne was a place without want, hardship or rejection. “There are no quarrels and no strife, There is no death, but always life; Food and clothing are never short, You’ll never hear a sharp retort,” promised the Kildare poem. The poem also made it clear it was only a place a peasant could enter. “The man who hopes to share its bliss, For seven years—be sure of this—, Must wade through pigshit to his chin, The pleasures of Cockaygne to win. Gentlemen well bred and kind, May you not leave the world behind, till you take on this enterprise, and serve the penance for the prize. “

This image of Cockaigne was the antithesis of every peasant or serfs life which was why it was so popular. However, Cockaigne did not just deliver otherwise unattainable treats and bar the better off; it was also a place where the social restrictions placed upon the peasantry were thrown off. In Cockaigne, the lower orders castigated their masters with beatings for laxity-not the other way round. It was a fantasy to suit the times- yet Cockaigne’s origins lie in much earlier ages.

This is the Story of Cockaigne, a Pleasure Filled Imaginary Country Created for Miserable Serfs
Image from Lucien’s “True History” illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. Google Images.

The Origins of Cockaigne

The name ‘Cockaigne’ essentially means ‘land of plenty.’ The word has its roots in the Latin ‘cucaniensis’, and in turn passed into Middle English as ‘Cokaygne’ middle french as“cocaigne’ and Middle Germankokenje – all of which are names for small cakes. Across Europe, the Cockaigne had other variations. In Italy,”, it was “Paese della Cuccag,” while in Belgium it was “Luilekkerland.” To the Germans, it was Schlaraffenland while in Spain it was País de Cucaña– the fool’s paradise. All, however, continued to encompass the idea of a land of leisure and plenty.

This concept of a ‘land of plenty’ predates the Middle Ages. Besides the obvious similarities between the Christian heaven and the Garden of Eden, Cockaigne was a concept that drew heavily on earlier classical traditions. Lucian’s True History, which dates from the second century AD, gives an idea of where the concept of Cockaigne originates. In his account, Lucian describes his voyage to several mysterious islands, which were forty days beyond the pillars of Hercules. Each isle contained elements which eerily reminiscent of Cockaigne regarding unlimited food and drink, leisure and uncensored promiscuity.

The first island featured a great river of wine, whose source was “mighty great vine trees of infinite number. ” The roots of these trees distilled the wine that flowed down the river. Further along on their journey, the sailors encounter another island made of a whole cheese afloat in a sea of milk. They then journey to a strange land whose crops bore whole loaves of bread instead of the grain to make them and more rivers of wine, and this time milk. It was in this land that the sailors feasted in woods of unnatural beauty, garlanded with flowers of the perfect color and scent in the company of unlimited sexual partners of both sexes.

This is the Story of Cockaigne, a Pleasure Filled Imaginary Country Created for Miserable Serfs
Sailor’s in the “True History” drinking from the river of wine. Google Images

So how did Lucian’s True History become a medieval peasant’s paradise? The survival of one of the Cockaigne poems in the Kildare book offers a clue. The book was designed for a traveling friar. Friars by their very nature were not cloistered but lived a life on the road, preaching to the poor and mainly dependent on the charity of those they encountered. The book then was an easily portable pocketbook containing all the Friar’s sermons.

However, as well as containing instructional readings for a Christian life, the book also included entertaining tales to capture the attention of the friar’s audience- especially essential during the dark days of the fourteenth century. Lucian’s tale, translated from the Latin was woven into an English poetic rendering of a peasant’s paradise, where they and they alone could enjoy all they missed out on in life. For the fourteenth century peasant, this was more comforting than a vague notion of heaven. Cockaigne also made a better story- and certainly would have earned the friar a better reception form his audience! It was also a story that had staying power beyond the Middle Ages.

This is the Story of Cockaigne, a Pleasure Filled Imaginary Country Created for Miserable Serfs
Postcard of the fairytale ‘Land of Plenty’ c. 1934 by Oscar Herrfurth. Wikimedia Commons. Google Images.

The Survival of Cockaigne

The concept of Cockaigne survived in the popular mind, morphing and changing in much the way that the medieval Cockaigne morphed out of the classical tales of Lucian. However, by the fifteenth century, the mythical land had changed from being a metaphor from a peasant’s paradise to a symbol of sloth and greed. Pictures such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘The Land of Cockaigne” used Cockaigne as the setting for commentaries of the evils of their times. However, Cockaigne also survived in other, less negative ways.

Cockaigne may have been a mythical place. However, its name formed the inspiration for the names of at least two real villages places in Holland. The Dutch villages of Kockengen and Koekange were both named after the mythical land, possibly because of the fruitfulness of the area and the high standard of living of its people.

Somewhat erroneously, Cockaigne also somehow became linked to London sometime during the 1820’s. This mistake probably came about because of the similarity between the names ‘Cockaigne’ and ‘Cockney’- despite both having different etymological roots. In 1901, the composer Edward Elgar continued the association when he entitled the overture of one of his musical suite “Cockaigne.”The suite was designed to evoke the spirit of the people of London as “cheerful.. stout and steaky…honest, healthy, humorous and strong, but not vulgar.”

This is the Story of Cockaigne, a Pleasure Filled Imaginary Country Created for Miserable Serfs
Postcard of an idealized Cockaigne by Oskar Herrfurth. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

However, beyond pictures, music, and names, Cockaigne has also survived in other stories. The Brother’s Grimm preserved the essence of the tale of Cockaigne as a fairytale, Das Märchen vom Schlaraffenland(The Tale About the Land of Cockaigne). However, the Grimm’s Cockaigne is not a place of wish fulfillment. Its rivers may well have flowed with honey, and lime trees presented hot cakes instead of fruit, but these would be wonders are presented alongside events such as mice consecrating bishops and goats heating an oven. They are not simply far fetched. They are impossible. They show Schlaraffenland to be a land of lies.

However, by the early twentieth century, the postcards of German artist Oskar Herrfurth once again showed Cockaigne to be a land of wonders. “In the beautiful land of milk and honey, the birds fly roasted in the air, even directly into their mouths when they open it. The trees carry sausages and ham, the shrubs crispy rolls, the cheese grows like stones. Suckling pigs roast around and even carry knives and forks on their backs. Milk and honey are flowing in the brooks, and a real slacker just needs a bast!” reads the translation on one of the cards. This idea of a land of plenty and wonder survives in other stories such as Charlie and the Chocolate factory and the land of toys in Pinocchio, proving that Cockaigne is not just a land for miserable serfs after all.


Where Do we get this Stuff? Here are our Sources?

Cockaigne, Wikipedia

Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable Sixteenth Edition, Revised by Adrian Room, Cassell, 2001

Brewer’s Dictionary of Names, People & Places & Things, Adrian Room, Helicon

The Land of Cokaygne, The Medival Forum

Lucian’s True History, trans. Francis Hicks, A H Bullen: London, 1894

The Story of Schlauraffen Land, Jacob Ludwig Grimm and Wilhelm Carl Grimm, Grimm’s fairy Tales, 1812