Monday, November 28, 2011

The Land of Cockaigne

We visited the Met on Saturday, and wandered through the exhibition Infinite Jest. It is about the development of satire, and it features a range of 17th and 18th century cartoons, including Gilray.

One of cartoons referred to the old medieval idea of Cockaigne, which got me thinking. It was a medieval peasant's idea of utopia. Food rained from the sky and authority was reversed. Abbots were whipped by monks, and lords insulted by peasants.                          

These ancient yearnings are interesting. How far does a modern supermarket satisfy that ancient dream? It is filled with kinds of food in vast plenitude which peasants could not even have imagined, let alone daydreamed about. 

After several days of Thanksgiving overindulgence, we have probably eaten better than the average king in the twelfth century, who had expensive spices to conceal rotting meat.. 

I read Fernand Braudel's book Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structure of Everyday Life (Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century) a few years ago, and I was struck by how thin and bare medieval existence could be. People were cold in the winter, very cold. Firewood was in short supply, and out of reach of much of the peasantry for long periods on France.  Famine was frequent. 

One thing I've talked a lot about in this blog is the fact that we have achieved satisfaction of physical and survival needs. People in developed countries do not yearn for hams to fall from the sky, nor shiver in the cold as medieval peasants did. 

And although there is still plenty of authority, little of it bears down quite as hard as serfdom.  Yesterday's "famous-for-being-famous" celebrity gets more public attention than most minor lords ever did. 

We live in a post-Cockaigne world. 

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