Buckwheat Porridge, Three Miles Thick

Paul Strohm

  • Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life by Herman Pleij, translated by Diane Webb
    Columbia, 544 pp, £23.50, June 2001, ISBN 0 231 11702 7

Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, having raised the siege of Belrepeire, finds its inhabitants gripped by famine. They have slack skin, ashen complexions and sunken bellies. Parzival knows what must be done to avoid the frenzied scenes which would otherwise ensue now food is again available: ‘Faultless Parzival proceeded as follows. He first shared out the victuals neatly himself … He did not wish them to gorge themselves on empty stomachs, so he gave them enough and no more, and they were pleased to follow his advice. He gave them some more in the evening, steady affable man that he was.’

Parzival offers a regulatory presence, a kind of superego, to a society which seems to have been even more unable than our own to maintain a coherent or consistent attitude towards the consumption of food. The premodern world had to reckon with both prevalent scarcity and erratic abundance in its food supply. Our problems concern distribution rather than production: famine can, and does, occur in the presence of plenty. Similar forces were, of course, at work in the Middle Ages: severe exactions were visited on peasants and tenants by a rapacious nobility. Nonetheless, scarcity was the main problem. Fernand Braudel, in Capitalism and Material Life, describes the Middle Ages as a period when ‘famine recurred so insistently for centuries on end that it became incorporated into man’s biological regime and was built into his daily life. A few overfed rich do not alter the rule. It could not have been otherwise. Cereal yields were poor; two consecutive bad harvests spelt disaster.’ Agriculture was so precarious partly because only one planted seed in five flourished; in winter the peasantry was often tempted to eat seed corn, thus delaying but at the same time guaranteeing catastrophe.

Even Wolfram (c.1170-c.1220) himself, who seems to have enjoyed secure employment as a knight in the service of a lord, wasn’t protected from hunger. With characteristic wryness, he notes that the conditions during the siege of Belrepeire are not unusual: in his own house he, like the mice, sometimes searches in vain for the tiniest scrap of food. Excepting the inhabitants of a few royal courts and well-endowed monasteries, no one in the Middle Ages was invulnerable to scarcity, and even for those lucky enough to live in such places, diet was seasonable, cyclical and variable.

No wonder that, when harvests were good, or stores became available, or a court or monastery had a temporary surplus, overeating was the result. Eating, and the fantasies surrounding food, tended constantly towards extremes of austerity and hyper-indulgence. The Church calendar acknowledged and to some extent regularised this situation, by organising the liturgical year around a cycle of fasts and feasts. Monasteries officially honoured the stringencies of the Benedictine rule, but at the same time their inhabitants consumed staggering amounts of meat, wine, butter and eggs. Large quantities of meat were served every day in special unofficial dining-rooms called ‘misericords’, fast-days notwithstanding. Noble feasts boasted mountains of slaughtered game among wine-spouting fountains, and cooked meats resewn in the animals’ own skin and fur or feathers; poetic sotises added charm to the consumption. Special feasts routinely equalled, or even exceeded, those Rabelais imagined in Grandgousier’s household; Pleij cites a menu of ‘nine thousand loaves of white bread, forty-eight hundred gourmet breads … sixteen hundred roast pigs, sixteen hundred pieces of roast veal, and sixteen hundred legs of mutton … six hundred partridges, fourteen hundred rabbits, four hundred herons, thirty-six peacocks, and six horses laden with confectionery.’ Little exaggeration is required to describe this as a bulimic society, one bent on extremes of self-abnegation and indulgence, which allowed scant opportunity for a dispassionate attitude towards food.

Medieval people don’t seem to have behaved as rationally as Parzifal did and the absence of any judicious decision-making about food consumption raises a number of questions to do with the concept of the medieval ‘self’. I see no reason to exempt medieval people from Freud’s idea of personality formation, which sees decisions about ingestion as fundamental to the non-neurotic personality: ‘Expressed in the language of the oldest – the oral – instinctual impulses, the judgment is: “I should like to eat this,” or “I should like to spit it out”; and, put more generally: “I should like to take this into myself and to keep that out.”’ This process superintends the development of a robust relationship between objective and subjective, and ultimately the capacity of judgment itself. The ability to make judicious decisions about what, or how much, to eat indicates a general capacity for orderly decision-making. Bad eating habits can indicate a more wide-ranging dissatisfaction with the world.

Not surprisingly, the Middle Ages had an extensive literature of bingeing and deprivation. Although Dreaming of Cockaigne considers a wide range of utopian and quasi-utopian fantasies, it is centred on three Middle Dutch texts of gastronomic hyper-abundance. Two (in verse) deal with the infamous land of Cockaigne, and one (in prose) with the closely related terrain of Luilekkerland (‘lazy-luscious-land’). All were written in the 15th and 16th centuries, but all relate to stories which had already been circulating by word of mouth for a long time. (The 12th-century Goliards mention a Cucania, and Ireland is the possible template for a 12th-13th century English cokaygne.) The Dutch versions, like most of the others, are endlessly and obsessively concerned with the fulfilment of appetitive desires: trouble-free and unmeasured gorging, often involving food which obligingly cooks and slices itself, leaps into pans and mouths, and flies towards or thrusts itself on the consumer.

These superficially trivial texts open up for investigation the relation between conditions of material scarcity, habits of thought and a variety of local and particular agitations concerning food. These are complicated issues, and their permutations seem sometimes to exceed the analytical possibilities allowed by Herman Pleij’s sunny determination to abide by Cockaigne’s claims of unlimited enjoyment. Pleij, who teaches history at the University of Amsterdam, is committed to the rediscovery of a non-pathological Middle Ages, hoping to replace what he dimly views as a modern preoccupation with ‘devils, heretics, lepers, vagabonds, plague victims, witches, the lot of women in general, and great hordes of the hungry’. (This prevalent and, in my view, productive tendency is characterised by Stephen Greenblatt’s assertion that ‘the normal is constructed on the shifting sands of the aberrant.’)

Pleij’s contention (which is perhaps more relevant to Holland than to other parts of medieval Europe) is that great quantities of meat were consumed by almost everybody and that actual hunger was much less important to the medieval populace than fear of hunger. Underpinning his argument is the belief that ‘in fact, famine in the Middle Ages was not that much of a problem.’ He claims that we misleadingly consider medieval famines in the light of our present-day experience of world famine, and that we are credulous in the face of the extreme ‘hunger tropes’ (cannibalism etc) employed by medieval chroniclers. Pleij’s insistence that medieval texts are something other than direct reflections of their surrounding society and his refusal to reduce them to sourcebooks of arresting details for narrative history are to be welcomed. Yet I cannot accept what amounts to a banishment of the experience of destitution and of the uncertainties arising from what he elsewhere concedes was a notoriously ‘fickle’ food supply. Neither, although I salute the cheerfulness which propels this ambitious study, am I ready to regard the textual experience of excess as unrelated to its dark cousins, abstinence, self-deprivation and want. The apparent dichotomy of carnival and Lent, excess and abstinence is, in reality, no dichotomy at all. Giddy and satisfying as medieval excesses seem to be, they are never free from these more troubled affiliations.

As visitors to Cockaigne, we are offered beautiful and available women, wages for spending time in bed and for belching and farting, as well as lots of time off and the like. But, as Pleij observes, many of these activities are really add-ons: ‘Cockaigne is first and foremost about eating.’ In all the versions, we encounter houses with rafters of grilled eel, roofs tiled with tarts, windows and doors of salmon, walls made of sausages, custard-pancake rain, geese and fish that roast and serve themselves, rivers of wine and beer, and other aggressively available comestibles.

In the end, however, the experience of food in Cockaigne seems somehow less than enjoyable. I, at any rate, detect signs of trouble in Paradise. One problem is the tedium of uneventful repetition: Pleij reminds us that, according to Augustine’s calculations, Adam and Eve lasted only six hours in Paradise. Other and more serious indications of disgust or aversion lurk within these texts. To be sure, in Cockaigne and its derivative Luilekkerland, ‘mobile food’ and ‘effortless eating’ and ‘edible architecture’ prevail (I use Pleij’s appealing phrases, or those of his translator, Diane Webb). Yet they prevail in oddly unattractive forms. Cockaigne, for example, can be entered only by means of a staggering act of ingestion: ‘the entrance to this land is formed by a very high and very wide mountain of buckwheat porridge, all of three miles thick, which visitors must eat their way through.’ Rather than finny companions, the fish in the streams are already broiled. Pigs ‘walk around in the fields already roasted, with a knife stuck in the back. If one feels like taking a bite, one can straightaway slice off a piece of meat and stick the knife back in again.’ I feel uneasy about such self-sacrificing food. Moreover, one source of this abundance turns out to be faecal: ‘the donkeys shit nothing but sweet figs, the dogs nutmeg, and the cows and oxen green pancakes.’ Readers must make up their own minds about the gustatory attractions of a green pancake, shat from a cow.

What of this alimentary self, which gains admission to its desires by eating its way through a three-mile mountain of buckwheat oats? Figuratively, and psychoanalytically, this porridge-gorger may be said to have eaten or imbibed the world. As Bakhtin observes in his study of Rabelais: ‘The encounter of man with the world, which takes place inside the open, biting, rending, chewing mouth, is one of the most … important objects of human thought and imagery. Here man tastes the world, introduces it into his body, makes it part of himself.’ But the alimentary self has no choice in the matter; confronted with a mountain of food, its only option is rather joylessly to ‘fall to’. Freud’s vital and self-maintaining dialectic of inclusion and exclusion is replaced by a fantasy of self-obliteration. The menace of Cockaigne – and its opposite, a land of penance/abstinence – is that of powerlessness, the alienation of decision-making capacities from the hapless subject: everything, or nothing, is to be ‘taken in’ or ‘spat out’. Moving beyond self-maintenance into an abolition of self, such fantasies have less to do with repletion or fulfilment than with monomaniacal repetition; less with the pleasure principle than with the darker satisfactions of the death drive.

In their extreme ambivalence, the Cockaigne texts therefore enact an impasse – sublime (but self-obliterating) pleasure v. pinched (but no less self-obliterating) denial. Pleij is, conceptually speaking, less than comfortable with this stand-off. He notes that Luilekkerland possesses an excellent climate and ample sweetmeats, appealing to all, but also views it as a haven for losers and layabouts, and thus a fitting object of satire. His conclusion is that ‘two essentially opposite applications collide here in what is, to my way of thinking, a rather unacceptable way,’ although he allows that it might have been different for medieval readers, who had a higher capacity for ‘serious teachings couched in humorous terms’.

A rather dutiful attempt then follows to stabilise the sense of these texts, bringing out their irony, satire, didacticism and pedagogical intent, in other words separating their serious ‘inside’ from their unserious ‘outside’. Such ideas are, however, present within the tradition itself. The Luilekkerland text, for example, appends a sober, corrective verse tag to its speculative over-indulgences:

From the pen of old folk this tale has sprung,

To serve now as a lesson to the young …

To Cockaigne these youths must now be


Till their excessive energies are spent,

And they acquire a taste for honest work,

For in their sloth a host of vices lurk.

This addendum certainly provides the text with a moral purpose, but at some cost to its actual excitements. Despite this tag, one could argue that these stories make the point that there is no core, no possible distinction between outside and inside, periphery and centre, hull and kernel. What if their essential experience, and even their popularity and communicative value, rests precisely in the extremity of their ambivalence about the subject they have taken in hand?

Pleij concludes his study with an odd, and rather disappointing, suggestion: ‘This is why it was so easy to deliver oneself up to Cockaigne: it didn’t really mean anything.’ I can agree with this remark only if it’s recast in an expanded version which would argue that Cockaigne has no single, or vested, meaning, and that its precincts offer an arena of seeming inconsequence, and therefore lessened risk, in which different meanings can be explored. It is through ambivalence that these texts seek or engage the world; they do not keep to a secure satiric vantage point, but discuss a wide range of contemporary topics on which no final view is possible – especially those subjects in which attraction and aggression vie for the upper hand.

One interesting example, which plays only a small part in this study, is the Middle English Cockaigne poem of c.1300, which features an island to the west of Spain, with all the material comforts found in Paradise. On the island there is an abbey, adorned with the most precious jewels, and, as we have come to expect, there is plenty of food freely available:

The geese roasted on the spit

Fly to that abbey, God knows,

Crying: ‘Geese, all hot! All hot!’

Although sexual pleasure is secondary in the Dutch Cockaigne texts, here the monks enjoy plenty of it. The abbot gathers the monks to their prayers by seizing a nun-maiden, upending her, and beating the ‘taburs’ of her buttocks with his hand. The monks join in, and ‘thakketh al hir white toute’. More high jinks follow. This unwarranted upending of women wasn’t universally approved – a not dissimilar strip-search by a poll-tax collector was cited by contemporaries as one of the causes of the Peasants’ Revolt. Perhaps these different attitudes reflect the mixed Goliardic impulse described by Bakhtin, in which the central figure of the monk ‘sharply contradicts the aesthetic ideal that he serves … but … also expresses the positive, “shrove” principles of food, drink, procreative force and merriment.’ This ambivalence is heightened by the likelihood that the author was himself in clerical orders, simultaneously daydreaming of libidinal gratification with comely young monks and nuns, and – as a monastic or mendicant satirist – wishing for increased austerity within the Cistercian order. The author’s solution is to hedge this Cockaigne by prohibition: the island exists, but you have to wade through seven years’ worth of chin-high swine shit to get there.

Another intriguing aspect of these texts, of which Pleij is well aware, is the attitude of the writers towards heretical movements in the late medieval Low Countries. Noting that some texts describe Cockaigne as the land of the Holy Ghost, he skilfully explores the connections between this assertion and the chiliastic movements of the time, which looked to the advent of Paradise on earth prior to Judgment Day, under the Holy Ghost’s presiding spirit. In keeping with his general practice, Pleij attributes a secure satiric viewpoint to these texts, arguing that the stories of Cockaigne mocked, ‘with the stroke of a pen, all those dreams of a thousand-year reign and a blissful state of sinlessness in which anything goes … taking a firm stand against any form of total immorality.’ Well, perhaps. But the vantage point of these writings is surely not so fixed. The Heresy of the Free Spirit and other heresies based on millennial prophecy had a popular following in the southern Netherlands and the lower Rhine valley during the Middle Ages. Millennial heresy, with its promise of social regeneration at the end of time, was a matter about which the authors and audiences of these texts would have been less than fully resolved.

Pleij is undoubtedly right when he finds these texts to be non-utopian – they lacked a revolutionary objective and offered no blueprint for the future. To this extent, he agrees with those who have criticised Bakhtin for seeing transformative potential in the Rabelasian themes of carnival and the grotesque popular body. As these critics have observed, ‘carnival’ has no inherently revolutionary meaning, and as often as not serves ultimately to affirm the status quo. But medieval utopias are, in fact, hard to come by – the more so because of the Church’s institutional and theological monopoly of constructive thinking about teleology and the end of time. And in this depleted imaginative situation, we cannot afford to ignore even near-dystopias such as Cockaigne without some assessment of their potential for constructive imaginative engagement with the world.

Cockaigne does at least exist somewhere in the world. The Middle English text places it west of Spain (and thus in the opposite direction to Paradise), and, in a parody of fanciful travel literature, Luilekkerland lies open to discovery ‘catercorner to this region and close by the gallows, three miles travelling through long nights’. Like the kingdom of Prester John, the Wonders of the East, and the lands of Mandeville’s travels, Cockaigne exists as a proposed counterpart to the world of mundane reality.

Compared with most medieval thinking about the ‘Golden Age’, which was safely confined to the past and provided only elliptical standards for comparison, Cockaigne is out in the world somewhere, obtrusive and fully ‘embodied’. Its satisfaction of bodily demands does not always lead to pleasure or contentment. It is advanced only within a miasma of playful distortions, disclaimers and downright disavowals. Nevertheless, I cannot agree with Pleij’s attempt to gather all this attitudinal turbulence together and write it off as ‘satire’. Like their opposite numbers, the anorexic saints, the stuffed and sated denizens of Cockaigne harbour a quarrel with the status quo. It all goes back to Freud’s point about ingestion: these particular hunger artists use their bodies to refuse conventional norms and processes. However loutishly, they enact a stubborn attachment to a world different from the one they know, and a mind-set just prior to the utopian.