* in the land of cockaigne, v1


mia parnell dissects medieval food fantasy

The earth is swollen in the land of Cockaigne; a land of heaps and mounds, and of tipping and spilling and rolling. The grass is brown, and thin, and spreads over the ground like hair on some massive belly; the sky is the green of nausea. We see three figures beached on a little hill, over whom threatens to spill the contents of a table: two blond cakes, and herrings; an egg, some small vegetables, a roasted bird, and a smooth clay jug of chocolate brown, which is oddly visceral, and seems to melt into the wood with the consistency of a deflated stomach. A fourth figure to the left sits in a house of coloured tarts, and another to the right has half disappeared into an encroaching cloud, which despite appearing vaporous, reveals itself to possess the texture of dough. Things are unexpectedly solid here.



Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted this scene of peasant fantasy in 1567. Cockaigne was a land of plenty which figured in tales and legends, far from the hardships of rural life in the middle ages. In Cockaigne, there is no-one to regulate the distribution of food, which literally offers itself to its inhabitants - a bald goose lays down its head on a dish, a pig runs around with a knife tucked conveniently in its side, and at the centre is a little egg with its top cut off, now a mere reliquary for a knife. Although the work is usually interpreted as a condemnation of the deadly sin of gluttony, done in the comic mode characteristic of Bruegel’s depictions of the lower classes, it also provides an interesting illustration of the action of power upon the early modern body, and strategies by which this body could assert itself outside of the structures which defined and regulated it - namely, through the grotesque .


In their physical pathology (obesity), the figures of Bruegel’s painting lie outside the norm, and thus present a challenge to authority. Literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin is an obvious point of call to examine the subversive potential of this grotesque body. In his writing on French playwright Rabelais, he defines the grotesque as occuring when the boundaries of the ideal, ‘classical’ body - impenetrable, discrete and entirely self-contained - are corrupted, through such urgent activities as excretion, eating, and sex; manifested in the body through obesity, nudity, sweat, and gross exaggeration of body parts. Medieval virtues were in general associated with the safeguarding of these boundaries - chastity, frugality and living modestly - which were also linked to the maintenance of the social order. These spiritual values promised rewards to those who accepted subjugation without complaint - be that the sexual subjugation of women or the economic subjugation of the lower classes.


Consequently, this same rupture or penetration which is associated with pleasure is also implied to be what awaits the damned in Hell. Mortification of the flesh, in burning or cutting, as well as the visions of sodomy and dismemberment found in the works of Hieronymus Bosch, belong to the same process of boundary-breaking as the pleasurable and indulgent acts of eating, sex and self-exposure. This in turn bears resemblance to real-life torture methods of the period, the most pertinent perhaps being disembowelment, in which the self was not only opened up, but separated before one’s eyes. This promise of torture both imagined (in hell) and actualised (by the law) created a cyclical programme of sin and punishment, in which the body was kept in check by being threatened with its former pleasures taken to sadistic extremes. The resulting paranoia surrounding the body’s many holes remains today what makes sensual experience, in whatever form, knotted together with anxiety and guilt.


Bruegel’s vision of a Paradise, then, albeit a glutton’s one, bears some essential similarities to hell. In Cockaigne the body’s borders are also compromised - but compromised through temptation as opposed to coercion. One of the most enigmatic features of the painting is the walking egg at its centre, which proffers a spoon, inviting the peasants to scoop out its insides and eat them. Cracked eggshells were common memento mori, or symbols of the futility of earthly pursuits, in the early modern period, but this egg is also a figuration of the painting’s didactic message - of the proximity of gratification and evisceration, of pleasure leading to immediate punishment. This egg, planted right in the middle of Paradise, seems to have been plucked directly from Bosch’s ‘The Last Judgement’, one of many fantastical demons among an infernal scene of impalement etc. His presence in the scene is like that of a messenger from the world of the older Master, who Bruegel greatly admired and spent his early life translating. Out of Bosch’s egg, however, peeps a little lizard head, whereas Bruegel’s egg is voided, presumably having had its bowels spooned out by one of the Cockaignians. This little egg figures a promise: that it is only in the afterlife that one’s pleasures will be turned into one’s aggressors.


Like the snake, then, or the beautiful woman, food tempts not only by visual distraction but by its pure potential to destabilise the body’s equity. It is, in fact the final component of the originary act of sin in the Garden of Eden, in the form of the apple. This is precisely why Bakhtin saw the grotesque as having subversive potential. If we take the body, as was common in Renaissance period, to be a kind of metaphor for the structure of society (example: the monarch's body as body politic) then its points of vulnerability and weakness are sites of possible upheaval or “critical intervention” - and when it is the institution of the individual which is compromised, this intervention might take the form of collective action. Eating in particular, which becomes transgressive in the form of gluttony, is a process by which the self merges with the outside world through a literal ingestion and incorporation of foreign objects. In this way, the selfhood of people shown in the activity of eating is compromised: they are in a sense, caught at a point when the foreign object has transgressed their boundaries but has not yet become dissolved into their person; in an in-between stage of temporary fusion with the outside world. The desire to overindulge which characterises gluttony is a form of vertigo, a desire to relinquish control, to fall: a veiled death drive. All through the picture are undulations, wobbles, things on the brink of spilling over - the table bent towards us, the tumescent hills, and not least the human bodies out of their clothes.


In this desire of the Cockaignians to outgrow themselves; to grow and grow until they cannot move, they relinquish themselves to becoming objects. In sacrificing their status as subjects, however, they are also exempt from being subjected - from being restrained by the conventions of the classical body, by virtue or propriety, by a social regime which enacts itself on such a body. However, Bakhtin associates the opening-up of the grotesque body with regeneration, unity and life - of a oneness with the environment which the peasant classes celebrate and of a rural folk tradition that carries echoes of pagan sensitivity to the natural world. Bruegel’s figures here are, rather, inert and cadaverous. Food, as an object, has contaminated them - they have consumed too much; there was a tipping-point; they are now more object than person. In a parody of the rustic earthiness that Bakhtin so admired in folk culture, they have become one with the landscape, which is in turn one with them. The reanimated hog roast is more alive than the people are, especially when we look closely at the browning flesh of the man to the left of the table, seeming to flake into the earth. This inability to distinguish between subject and object engenders a profound sense of the uncanny, in the Freudian sense of the unfamiliar or un-homely - what is part of us and what is not? Forms escape precise definition - and thus inspire a kind of Sartrean ‘Nausea’, brought on by our ability to only fathom some of the objects in Cockaigne by their formal and tangible qualities. This failure of language again plunges us into vertigo. No particular word seems to designate something like the cluster of brown discs at the right of the work (are they biscuit? wood?). Forms are merely suggestive, things all share the same spongy quality - they might be cheese, bread or soil. Everything is both foreign and familiar, it carries the imprint of the human on it, be it that it belonged to it in the past, or will become part of it in the future. The whole painting is brown; everything is grubby, indistinct, and like the lump of meat by the hand of the central peasant, vaguely scatological. At a quick glance, the soft jug on the table glistens like an internal organ. In Cockaigne, there is no difference between the sense of something we have ejected from ourselves and something we wish to incorporate back into us - between object of disgust and object of desire.


And so, as the power to distinguish between the scatological and the delicious is robbed from the eye, the other senses begin to question themselves. The universal brown of the painting is a blind monochrome of pure sensation, where things are only differentiated by their textures and their tastes. As opposed to the still life as ‘feast for the eyes’, Bruegel here paints things as they are tasted, on the brink of ingestion, already invisible and half one with the body. If the eye is an organ of power, it is useless here, as in Cockaigne one must grope around blindly, make sense of the world with the hands and with the tongue. Before the passing viewer is allowed to rest a while, they are robbed of their capacity for deixis -that capacity to point and say, ‘This is X’ - which affords us the privilege of distance. Their tongue, otherwise occupied, has no time for speech. Made to confront the sudden collapse of the distance between what what one wants and what one hates, the viewer cannot reify the outlines of the body by defining it in a positive or negative relationship to other objects: food and shit are both marginal substances that belong to both the outside and the inside. And so, like the blanched fish of the deep ocean who have no need for colour; or a root vegetable which swells tentatively inside the earth, or like the distant figure trapped (or is he searching for something?) in the cloud of dough; the viewer struggles to orient himself within the work, both physically and between the psychic poles of desire and repulsion.


Something which is ill-defined, fluctuating, or marginal, however, cannot be subjected or incorporated into a structure of power and subjugation. Food is shit-like in Cockaigne, because what it signifies is Gluttony, and in this sense it is disgusting as it inspires fear of infection; infection of the soul, it holds on to part of us (our desire) and will drag us with it to hell. It inspires the same ambivalence as Freudian eroticism - what the man desires is the female sex, but this is only the negative signifier of the phallus, and thus horrific, a sign of his own castration. Once we submit ourselves to this fundamental unknowing, however, and make the realisation that transgression and pleasure are one; that sex will turn you pregnant, that eating makes you fat, that pleasure takes up residence within you like a tumour, we escape the moral trick that Bruegel attempts to play on his early modern viewers. A self-consciousness and embracing of the fact that evisceration holds the same fascination as eating… turns what could be a mocking satire into a rebellious, masochistic, coprophagic fantasy. It is uncertain which of the two Bruegel intended, but perhaps it does not matter, because a mouth open wide in laughter is also one (blissfully) unable to articulate either protest or assent.

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