Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Indexes, lice, and the land of Cockaigne

I'm in New York for work this week, so there won't be much posting. But while flipping through the index of Emily Cockayne's Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770 (2006), I found something I thought you might enjoy:
lice
on an apprentice 76
in beds 58
figs blamed for 94
head 60, 66, 67
houses infested with 155
millers prone to 61
spreading typhus 212

Doesn't an index entry like that more or less guarantee a good book?

Emily Cockayne would seem to have the right name for someone writing about filth; by some accounts, the mythical medieval utopia of Cockaigne was only reached by fording a river of dung--up to one's nose--that took seven years to cross (though some other versions of the legend opt for eating challenges instead, such as a ten-thousand-foot-high pudding or a mountain of cheese).

Oh, but it'll all be worth it once you get there, you poor, lice-ridden late-medieval apprentice! Cockaigne is an earthly paradise, its pleasures--unlike the vaguely boring perfection of Eden--earthy and explicit. Here is how Pieter Brueghel the Elder imagined it in his 1567 painting The Land of Cockaigne:



In various versions of the story, after crossing the river of shit, travelers are rewarded with rivers of oil, honey, milk, and wine. Pigs in Cockaigne have knives in their backs for easy cutting, the owls lay fur coats, and grilled geese fly into people's mouths. On top of that, everyone in Cockaigne is forbidden to work--presumably even the lice. If this whets your appetite, you can learn much more about Cockaigne in Herman Pleij's Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life (2003).

A final, unrelated note for today: in my online searching for the definition of "cockaigne," I stumbled across a word I didn't know, but which I will certainly find occasion to employ in its first sense in the future:
cockalorum

1) a self-important little man
2) the game of leapfrog
3) boastful talk

3 comments:

  1. By an amazing coincidence, exactly those same index entries appear in the next volume of "The Complete Peanuts." (Yes, you'd be surprised by what's in some of the never-before-reprinted strips.)

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  2. sarah9:06 AM

    So that's why in the first step of the Joy of Cooking's recipe for "Brownies Cockaigne" it says to "climb the ten-thousand-foot mountain of pudding." I never got that until now.

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  3. Mmmm. Pudding.

    And Jim, I think the Peanuts index is more likely going to be something like:
    Fleas
    On Spike, 51
    On Olaf, 52

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