Tag Archives: Renaissance

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!