Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life

Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life

Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life

Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life


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.


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, game, fowl, or pastry, for another feature of Cockaigne was its edible architecture. the weather was stable and mild—it was always spring—and there was the added bonus of a whole range of amenities: communal possessions, lots of holidays, no arguing or animosity, free sex with ever-willing partners, a fountain of youth, beautiful clothes for everyone, and the possibility of earning money while one slept.

By the Middle Ages no one any longer believed in such a place, yet the stories about it continued to circulate around Europe for centuries. Apparendy it was vitally important to be able to fantasize about a place where everyday worries did not exist and overcompensation was offered in the form of dreams of the ideal life. the stories about Cockaigne even competed with one another for the greatest entertainment value, incorporating contrasts—as absurd as they were grotesque—to combat the fear, sometimes driven to frantic heights, that this already wretched earthly existence would suddenly take a turn for the worse. These images thus linked the seriousness of the daily fight for survival with the humor of hyperbole to produce hilarious topsy-turvy worlds that proved to have didactic functions as well, supplying directives concerning desirable social behavior and the attainment of self-knowledge, as well as encouraging reflection on the nature of earthly existence.

No two stories of Cockaigne are alike, however; each varies according to time, place, and milieu. Things are further complicated by the problem of sources, for tales of the Land of Cockaigne belong preeminendy to an oral tra-

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