Monday, 21 January 2008

Cockaigne and other medieval dreams (seminar 3)

Today we took a slightly lighter approach skimming over a few texts a couple of millennia apart, focussing on some concepts which might have influenced More and indeed, later utopian imagination about the ‘limits of the possible’, the nature of the good life and how to get there.

Eden and the Golden Age. Rob started us off with a concise summary of the characteristics – abundance of food, lack of law, set in the past and beyond known natural boundaries. Rebecca noted the differences (the more modest abundance of Genesis) and that Genesis provides a ‘history’ of how mankind moved from past to the present. Phil joined in with Ovid’s account of metamorphosis – we discussed the contrasting historical agency of man and god(s). In the Biblical Eden the acquisition of wisdom was associated with the fall from grace and punished by a life of pain and hard work (symbolised by the necessity of tilling the earth). Of the other creation stories in Genesis – we also touched on the story of the flood for its utopian potential – Noah as a ‘manwithgod’ making the world anew (‘go forth and multiply’) – see Norman Cohn for the development and influence of this myth in western thought.

We skipped a millennium or so to the land of the Cockaigne and discussed its potential as a na├»ve and nostalgic dream of an age of abundance against its more likely role as a satire of lust and greed. Everybody chipped in with ideas – on the nature and purpose of satire, on who was being satirised (the Benedictines, everyman, the audience, Christianity itself- SamW.), on whether it was fun. We touched on the historical context – a time (‘14th-century crisis: a period of rapid and substantial climate change’)- when food and its supply was a particularly politicised issue and so the idea of ‘greed/lust’.

Cockaigne was an appropriate moment for a long coffee break.

We returned to the prologue of Piers Plowman – the similarity to Cockaigne and the differences. Here food was not the issue so much as money and pride (cf More and Utopia). We noticed the contrast with Genesis – work (ploughing) now not the punishment for sin but the path to salvation (think about More's attitude to work?). Stephen made a good point about the different necessity of work which I will let him explain. We noticed Langland’s strategic move from economics into politics – and that his explicitly radical treatment of law and kingship was further distanced from the real by the use of fantastical cats and rats (did kings govern in accordance with natural law – again cf More)? We noted Helen Phillips’ argument about the particular characteristics of later medieval dream poetry providing a space for a virtually-real critique of a virtually-real contemporary society. We discussed the dream as a licensing genre – a framework for narrative but also a space for achieving an altered state, mystical truth and special authority. Dreaming is a device that many later utopian writers will use. We did not make it to Shakespeare.

Some discussion of the problematic relationship between a dreaming mysticism and material wealth in lay society – the a developing preference among some elites for the devotio moderna (the ‘modern devotion’ for achieving disciplined perfection as an individual lay person living in the world). The story about More choosing the world (getting married, having children) above the cloister just before writing Utopia.

We had left little time for travel and fantasy. We looked briefly at the Hereford mappa mundi – at the mapping of Paradise – its location just within the most remote boundaries of the kingdom of earth and linked by a bridge to the last judgement/second coming.This suggests the potential dis/recovery of Eden? Other examples of such popular non-Augustinian imaginations can be found in the myth of Prester John, and in the accounts by early ‘discoverers’ of the edenic potential of the new world (Columbus)). We did not get as far as Montaigne’s cannibals. What is the significance of this desire for paradise within the limits of Christian Europeans’ discoverable world? What about monsters? If paradise is the place we came from - what has it to do with the place we are going to? Is paradise utopian at all?

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