Tag Archives: 20th Century

What do the Great Depression and Pieter Bruegel the Elder Have in Common?

12 Aug

Funny how things are sometimes. For instance, yesterday I was listening to the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou and up came the song “Big Rock Candy Mountain”, which is a song first recorded in 1928 by Harry McClintock. In case you’re not familiar with either soundtracks or Depression-Era folk music, the song is essentially about a hobo’s paradise, full of plentiful food, alcohol, and other goods (streams of lemonade, licorice trees, a whiskey lake). On a whim, I ran a quick google on the song, to find out when it was written (e.i. whether it was actually from the time period that the movie was set in, or made up in the 2000s for the sake of the film). Turns out, it is originally to the time period. BUT, my dear friend Wikipedia also informs me that the “hobo’s paradise” described in the song, ostensibly describing a feeling particular to the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, actually has a connection to the Middle Ages. And there’s nothing I like more than a connection to the Middle Ages.

Turns out that the idea of a hobo’s paradise has been around for a long time, centuries even. In Medieval Europe (and following periods), the concept is called Cockaigne. Essentially it’s a lazy man’s paradise, where there’s tons of food and luxury goods and no one ever has to work.

In a fun bit of linguistic-ness, the name Cockaigne (which is the Middle-English iteration) is also recorded as the Latin Cucaniensis, or better yet, the modern English “Cuckoo-land”. German writings have it as Schlaraffenland, which, after much internet searching, I believe is not connected to monkeys/apes (der Affe/die Äffin). My favorite versions of the name are the Swedish Lubberland (“lubber” referring to a fat, lazy man) and the Dutch Luilekkerland, which Wikipedia translates as “lazy, luscious land”. Excellent!

Medieval folks (and, I’ll admit, Renaissance folks) really enjoy their utopias. Cockaigne worked itself into a lot of poems, books, and works of art. There are some particularly memorable Northern Renaissance paintings, such as this one by Pieter Bruegel the Elder:


Das Schlaraffenland, 1567. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, oil on wood panel. München, Alte Pinakothek.

Or, for people who like things who prefer things a little more Medieval, Cockaigne ends up as a topic for discussion in the Kildare poems, which date to the mid-14th century. Manuscript lovers and paleography buffs, feast your eyes:

The Land of Cockaigne, MS Harley 913, ff. 3r-6v. London, British Library.

As in the tough times in the early 20th century, the Land of Cockaigne was a popular topic among peasants and poor folks. Of course, back then, although the land of plenty was alluring, it was also a scary idea for the regular people (temptation being what it is, and all). So while it was nice to think that there was a magical bountiful place out there, it was also seen as tempting people to sloth and laziness and generally encouraging them not to be good, hardworking, God-fearing people. And that was definitely bad. I love a good moral conundrum.

The moral of this story is that Cockaigne is cool- cool enough that people have been talking about it for centuries! Cool enough that people sing about it, write about it, and paint it- now and then. In addition to the Middle Ages and moral conundrums, I also love me some artistic continuity. Now, if you’re ever sitting around playing six degrees of artistic separation (is that a real thing? It ought to be a real thing. I’m adding it to my list of party games), you will be able to instantly connect Pieter Bruegel the Elder and hobos in the 1920s, or Harry McClintock and Irish-dialect Middle English verse!


Historical Hotties: Hedy Lamarr

29 Jun

It’s been a while since my last installment in the “Historical Hotties” series, but while roaming across the internet yesterday, I can across my new favorite historical woman. I’m going to put aside my bias against the 20th century (it’s not history yet!). Seriously, this lady is awesome. Her name is Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler). Besides seriously considering naming my fictional first-born child Hedwig (boy, girl, doesn’t really matter- its a fictional child. How awesome is that name?), Ms. Lamarr is very cool is several respects. First, she was born in Austria-Hungary in 1913 (now-defunct country at a really critical time period- you’ll recall that thing they call the “Great War”; she was interesting even before she was born).

Of course, she is also world-renowned for her beauty (she is a Historical Hottie after all). She was a huge movie star in the Golden Age of Cinema, and was contracted (back in the day, a studio basically “owned” an actor via contract, actors couldn’t just run around making movies with any studio they wanted) with the biggest, baddest studio of them all, MGM (the roaring lion one). She was more than just any average pretty lady in a movie- she was a straight up sex symbol, right from the beginning of her career. At age 18, she starred in a movie called Ecstasy, in which she shockingly simulated lady-pleasure (this was in 1933 people!). Her husband was not pleased. (It didn’t help that the movie was about the stifled young wife of an evil older man- and her husband was more than a decade older than Ms. Lamarr.)

As you might know, things got rough for Jewish folks in central Europe right around the mid-1930s (Austria: the land of Hedy’s birthplace…also Hitler). The ingenious Ms. Lamarr disguised herself as her maid (very Padme Amidala) and fled the country in 1937. During the next year, Hedwig went from Paris to London, where she met studio executive Louis B. Mayer (the second “M” in MGM). Consequently, she moved to Hollywood and changed her name from Hedwig Kiesler to Hedy Lamarr.

In Hollywood, she became an even bigger star, usually playing super sexy roles. She made a ton of film between her arrival in the States in 1938 and the end of her cinema career in 1957. While balanced a very successful movie career and a pair of World Wars, she was married six times and had six children.

While that is all very well, what really makes her awesome in my book is the fact that, in addition to everything else going on in her life, she was also an influential computer scientist. I don’t know about you, but I can’t name very many famous female computer scientists (although, I admit, it isn’t my area of expertise- I can name a large number of influential medieval nuns). This famous computer scientist also happens to be a famous movie star (okay, I challenge you to think of a famous computer scientist/movie combo). She (and a neighbor named George Antheil) patented something called a frequency-hopping spread-spectrum communication system. I’m a little blurry on the technicals, but the technology she invented is the basis for everyday essentials like Bluetooth, CDMA (used by cell phones), and COFDM (used for wi-fi. Wi-fi, people- this is huge!)

The moral of this story is that Hedy Lamarr is undoubtedly a serious Historical Hottie (and general all-around total package).