THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
The Land of Cokaygne
This highly satirical poem is theorized to have been written in the early to mid-fourteenth century by a Franciscan friar, possibly in Kildare, based on internal and manuscript evidence. Amidst the copious antifraternal attacks, the poet takes a swipe at cloistered monks, possibly Cistercians in Kildare. That order’s rule called for poverty, austerity, obedience, and strict dietary laws that excluded meat, all of which are violated in the poem. On a larger scale, the poet accuses the monks of many charges brought against all friars: opulence, gluttony, hedonism, and sexual misconduct. The poem begins lightheartedly but becomes more caustic, then vicious, and finally condemnatory in the penultimate scatological stanza. It draws on a parodic tradition going back as early as Lucian, and is an example of the way in which authors appropriated existing material such as myth, lore, tradition and literature and adapted it for their own purposes: here, to criticize cloistered clergy.
The poem is written in doggerel-like verse, as seen in the opening lines:
Fur in see, bi west spayngne,
is a lond ihote cokaygne.
Ther nis lond under heven-riche,
of wel, of godnis, hit iliche; (1-4)
Because of the difficulty in replicating the doggerel, it is translated into prose here to avoid the contortions needed to create the end rhyme, which can transform the flow of the original into artificiality.1
The Land of Cokaygne
Far across the sea, west of Spain, is a land called Cokaygne, the richest under heaven. Paradise is merry and bright, but Cokaygne is a fairer sight. What is there in Paradise but grass and flowers, and green branches? Though there is joy and great pleasure, fruit is the only food. There is no hall, bower or bench, and only water to quench man’s thirst. Only two men, Elijah and Enoch, are there, and live sorrowfully alone.2
In Cokaygne food and drink are had without worry, trouble or toil. The meat is choice and the drink is clear at every meal: noon, afternoon and evening. I swear this land has no peer under heaven or on earth for such joy and bliss.
There are many sweet sights; it is always day, never night. There is no quarrelling or strife, no death but ever life. There is no lack of food or clothing, and no man or woman is ever wroth.3
There is no serpent, wolf, fox, nor horse, nag, cow nor ox. There is no sheep, swine or goat, and no studs or places for breeding horses. There is no filth, and the land is filled with other goodness: no flies, fleas or lice in clothing or bed, town or house, and no vile worms or snails. There is no thunder, sleet, hail, rain, storm or wind. There is no blindness, and all is games, joy, and play. One is lucky to be there.
There are fine, great rivers of oil, milk, honey, and wine; water serves no purpose except as a sight and for washing. There are many kinds of fruit, and all is enjoyment and delight.
There is a fair abbey for monks, white and grey,4 and its chambers and halls have walls made of pies filled with fish and rich meats, the most delicious man can eat. The shingles on the church, cloisters, bowers and hall are wheat cakes, and the pinnacles are fat puddings, rich enough for princes and kings. All may be rightfully eaten without blame, for it is shared in common by young and old, strong and stern, meek and bold.
The cloister is fair and light, broad and long, a lovely sight. All the pillars are of crystal, with base and capital of green jasper and red coral. In the meadow is a beautiful tree, with roots of ginger and sweet cypress and shoots of zedoary. Its flowers are choice nutmegs, the bark sweet-smelling cinnamon, and its fruit delicious cloves; there was no lack of peppercorns.5 The red roses and lovely lilies never fade and are a sweet sight
There are four wells in the abbey, of treacle, healing water, balm and mead, ever-flowing streams from a bed of precious stones and gold. There are the sapphire, pearl, carbuncle, astriune, emerald, chrysaprase, beryl, onyx, topaz, amethyst, crysolite, chalcedony, and hepatite.6
The birds are many and of various kinds: the thrush and nightingale, lark and woodpecker, and countless others that never cease singing merrily day and night. Yet I have more to tell you. Geese roasted on the spit fly to that abbey, God knows, and call “Geese, all hot! All hot!” They come with plentiful garlic, the best prepared that man may see. The lark, stewed and powdered with cloves and cinnamon, light down into man’s mouth. No one asks for drink but takes his fill freely.
When the monks go to mass, all the glass windows turn into bright crystal to give the monks more light. When mass has been said and the books laid away, the crystal turns into glass as it was before. Each day after their meal, the young monks go out to play. No hawk or swift bird is better at flying in the sky than monks who are in high spirits, spreading their sleeves and hood. The abbot watches them fly with much amusement, but nevertheless calls them down for evensong. The monks will not alight but fly farther in a flurry. When the abbot sees them fleeing from him, he takes a maiden from the company and turns up her white buttocks and beats the little drums with his hand to make the monks land! When the monks see that, they fly down to the maiden, gather around her, and slap her white bottom. After their work, they wend home meekly to drink and go to their evening meal in a fair procession.
There is another abbey nearby, a great fair nunnery up a river of sweet milk, where there is a great plenty of silk. When the summer day is hot, the young nuns take a boat and embark onto the river with oars and rudder. When they are far from the abbey, they make themselves naked in order to play and leap down into the water slyly to swim. The young monks who see them fly forth and soon come to the nuns. Each monk takes one and quickly bears his prey to the great grey abbey and teacher her a prayer with leg raised up and down. The monk that will be a good stallion and set his hood aright shall easily have twelve wives a year, through right and not through grace, to comfort himself. The one who does this best and prepares his body wholly for rest is hoped, God knows, soon to be father abbot.
Whoever wants to come to that land must pay a heavy penance: he must wade in swine’s dung up to the chin for seven years to win the place. Gracious and good lords, may you never leave this world unless you find your fortune and fulfill that penance so that you may see that land. We pray to God that it may be. Amen, in the name of St Charity.
1 For a verse translation, see Medieval English Literature, ed. J. B. Trapp (New York: Oxford UP, 1973).
2 Elijah the prophet (2 Kings 2:1-11) and Enoch the patriarch (Gen. 5:21-24) are the only two mortal men taken into Paradise.
3 In this stanza, the poet uses anaphora, the repetition of initial words in succeeding lines: “Ther nis lac of met ne cloth; / Ther nis no womman wroth. / Ther nis serpent, wolf, no fox” (29-31). The repetition has been slightly compressed here for readability.
4 According to the rule of their order, Cistercian monks wore clothing of undyed, thus colorless, fabric. Orders of friars were associated with colour (Carmelites, white; Franciscans, grey), but the poem’s context makes it clear that the setting is for cloistered monks, not mendicants.
5 Medieval plant names do not always correspond to modern names or plants, and some are now obscure. Here are the medieval names of the plants in this stanza, and their description: “Galingale” is either one of several plants in the ginger family or a species of cypress sedge, both with aromatic rhizomes. ”Sedwale” is zedoary, a tropical rhizome rarely used as a spice today, having been replaced by ginger. “Gilofre” is either a spice clove or the gillyflower (Dianthus, clove-pink), or possibly wood avens. “Cucubes” are Java peppercorns, reminiscent of allspice.
The fragrant herbs, spices and flowers in this poem were common in medieval herbers, or enclosed pleasure gardens, which were a luxury usually found in castles and monasteries. They appear in other poems, such as Pearl, written later in the century during the alliterative revival. In that dream poem, the narrator is lulled to sleep by the fragrance of “gilufre, gyngure, and gromylyoun, / and pyonys powdered ay bytwene” (“gillyflower, ginger and gromwell, and peonies sprinkled between”; 43-44).
6 Exact identification of the stones is difficult due to difference in definitions between biblical, medieval and modern terminology. However, it appears that twelve of the fourteen stones named in the poem correspond to those of the foundations and gates of the New or Heavenly Jerusalem described in Revelation 21:18-21. Considering the monks’ conduct, the association with the Heavenly Jerusalem adds blasphemy to their sins.
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