Cover image for Dreaming of Cockaigne : medieval fantasies of the perfect life
Dreaming of Cockaigne : medieval fantasies of the perfect life
Pleij, Herman.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Dromen van Cocagne. English
Publication Information:
New York : Columbia University Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
ix, 533 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Added Author:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library CB353 .P5413 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Imagine a dreamland on earth where roasted pigs toddle about with knives in their backs to make carving easy; where grilled geese fly directly into one#65533;s open mouth; where cooked fish jump out of the water at one#65533;s feet. The weather is always temperate, the wine flows freely, sex is readily available, and all stay forever young. 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 to counter the suffering and frustration of daily existence and to quell anxieties over an ever-more-exclusive heavenly afterlife. Illustrated with extraordinary artwork from the Middle Ages, Herman Pleij#65533;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 point for an inspired sketch of the panorama of ideas, dreams, popular religion, and literary and artistic creation present in the late Middle Ages. What emerges is a finely differentiated picture of the era, formed and fitted with details from across Europe and from Asia and America, as well. Pleij draws upon his remarkable command of medieval European literature, art, history, and folklore to describe the fantasies that dominated stories of Cockaigne, and how they correlate with the central obsessions of medieval life. For instance, the almost grotesque focus on vast quantities of food -the very dwellings people envisaged in the mythic land were made of meat, fish, and pastry -illustrates how, in the Middle Ages, fears of hunger were dispelled by conjuring up images of food in mind-boggling quantity and variety. Fantasies of Cockaigne have also cast their shadow beyond the medieval period: Pleij notes their influence on such disparate figures as Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and even Laurel and Hardy. As a myth, Cockaigne allowed an escape from the harsh reality of mundane existence, and stories about it were often presented as ironic descriptions of journeys, satires, or pseudodidactic poems. As a shrewd explorer of the dreams of the Middle Ages, Pleij is by far the best guide to the effervescent world behind these texts. From the storybook therapy devised to cope with the adversity of daily life, Pleij has fashioned a rich portrait of an age.

Author Notes

Herman Pleij lectures on Dutch historical literature at the University of Amsterdam.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Like Atlantis and El Dorado, the land of Cockaigne was a fictional utopia, a place where idleness (money could be earned even while one slept) and gluttony (buildings and roads were made of food just waiting to be devoured) were the principal occupations. Grounded in peasant culture, Cockaigne was never taken seriously by medieval men and women but offered a way to cope with immediate concerns of famine and backbreaking work, as well as more monumental fears about heaven and the New World recently opened up by European adventurers. Over time, as control over the food supply increased and a more modern work ethic became established, these fears diminished, and stories about Cockaigne faded away. This work is a serious and even ponderous scholarly study based on two Dutch manuscripts that the author, a lecturer in Dutch historical literature at the University of Amsterdam, subjects to rigorous textual, paleographical and stylistic analysis before dealing with the importance of this fable for medieval men and women. He also examines medieval perceptions of original sin, paradise and the New World by looking at many examples of period art, including woodcuts, engravings and paintings. Despite such interesting points as that modern-day supermarkets' unlimited abundance and vacation packages promising paradise on earth have succeeded in making this mythical land a reality, Pleij's book will be of interest primarily to professionals in late medieval literature. Illus. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

A very useful study, published with high production values, this book is distinguished by the huge amount of information it contains, clear organization, accessibility (thanks to Webb's fine translation of Pleij's Dromen Van Cocagne, 1997), and the array of artwork included to illustrate the arguments. Starting from a consideration of Dutch versions of the ubiquitous "Land of Cockaigne" material, the book looks both backward to oral predecessors and forward to developments in 15th- and early-16th-century northwestern Europe. Pleij (Univ. of Amsterdam) organizes the study in eight parts: "The Forfeiture of Happiness: The Beginning," "Texts as Maps," "Eating to Forget," "Paradise Refurbished," "The Imagination Journeys Forth," "Heretical Excesses," "Learning as a Matter of Survival," and "Dreaming of Cockaigne: The End." Each section ranges from three to seven chapters; titles include "Gorging in Self-defense," "Lovely Places, Golden Ages," "Wonders of East and West," "Heresies of the Free Spirit," "Sex Adam-and-Eve Style," "The Name Cockaigne." Also included are appendixes of the Dutch texts, an extensive bibliography, and a useful index. A combination of cultural, social, and literary history, the book is an excellent example of the scholarly benefits of concentration on primary sources. All academic collections and large public libraries. R. A. Shoaf University of Florida

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Part 1 The Forfeiture of Happiness: The Beginning
1 Paradise Lost
2 Contours of a Book
3 The Power of Literature
Part 2 Texts as Maps
4 Rhyming Texts L and B, Prose Text G
5 The Two Rhyming Texts on the Land of Cockaigne
6 Recitation and Writing
7 Oral Structures in Writing
8 The Existing Potential
9 The Prose Text on Luilekkerland
Part 3 Eating to Forget
10 Eating Habits
11 Hunger and Scarcity
12 The Topos of Hunger
13 The Intoxicating Effect of Fasting
14 Gorging in Self-Defense
15 Food in Motion
16 Literary Refreshment
Part 4 Paradise Refurbished
17 The Land of Cockaigne as Paradise
18 Never Say Die
19 Heavenly Rewards
20 Other Paradises
21 Lovely Places, Golden Ages
22 Wonder Gardens and Pleasure Parks
23 Dreams of Immortality
Part 5 The Imagination Journeys Forth
24 Geographical Musings
25 Real Dreamworlds
26 Wonders of East and West
27 Fanciful Destinations
28 Virtual Dreamlands
Part 6 Heretical Excesses
29 The Thousand-Year Reign of Peace and Prosperity
30 Heresies of the Free Spirit
31 Sex Adam-and-Eve Style
32 Low-Country Heterodoxy
Part 7 Learning as a Matter of Survival
33 Didactic Differences
34 Topsy-Turvy Worlds
35 Hard Times
36 Moderation, Ambition, and Decorum
37 Lessons in Pragmatism
Part 8 Dreaming of Cockaigne: The End
38 The Name Cockaigne
39 A Depreciated Cultural Asset
40 From Countryside to Town
41 The Necessity of Fiction
1 Middle Dutch Rhyming Texts on Cockaigne
2 Dutch Prose Text of 1546 on Luilekkerland
3 Dutch Poems Appearing in English Translation

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