woensdag 2 maart 2016

Peasant Utopias and Dreamlands: Medieval Hopes to Big Rock Candy Mountain

"The concept of terrestrial, not-Heaven-bound, un-restricted non-religious happiness for working folks not viewed as an abomination by Christian churches is a relatively new idea. Fun for the rabbleous masses, stuff happening to the far west of the east-entrenched Eden* (as in the Steinbeck novel), was generally a no-go so far as institutions such as the Catholic church was concerned.  Medieval geography of imaginary places where happiness dwells included the Land of Cockaigne and the Isle of the Blest, places that represented both wish fulfillment and resentment at the strictures of asceticism and dearth.
The peasantry existed in a state of semi-amicable slavery under the  thought- and emotional-control of the aristocracy and the church, living in fear of their immortal souls dancing in the ring of fire for thinking heathenous thoughts, or persecuted by the legal entity for being too immodest. 'Fun' was a very expensive commodity, and was seen by The Church as being too expensive and rare to share.  Fun represented a departure from the routine, an affront to the teachings of scripture, a lessening of the control enjoyed by all ruling classes. And so Medieval legends such as the Land of Cockaigne, with its promises of unbridled eating and gluttony and sexual liberty and disobedience was a direct charge against the established distribution of power and wealth, and could not be tolerated.  Fun was kept for someone else. [...]

Atlantis and El Dorado might’ve been fancy sounding places to a lot of poor people, but Cockaigne must’ve sounded better by leaps and bounds—no piles of gold, no great extravagances, just rewards of plenty to eat and drink, and sleep, and some sex.  All of these promises existed so far beyond the pale of the Church that even thinking about a crust’s-worth of such anti-biblical carnage would send you straight to hell.  Which sounds terrifically strange to me now because the actions here, in Cockaigne, are largely passive (though of course hedonistic), and aren’t vengeful, hurtful, spiteful. It is mainly, well, lazy, full of sleep-inducing foods. Bittersweet dreams like this formed for themselves a basis of pure hate within the church, mainly because it was taken as a threat to the core fundamentals of religions at the time. It should be said that many of the tellings of this legend do have their fair share of anti-clerical runs, nun-hunting and monk bashings.  Oopsie! [...]

These are concepts that have existed for hundreds of years in different sorts of peasant paradises, not the least of which is the 20th century’s contribution of 'Big Rock Candy Mountain', a song composed by Harry McClintock (1882-1957). In many ways this song contains the most simple, most heartbreaking of the simple wishes of the American hobo of the Great Depression era. The 26 (or so) wants are spectacular in their smallnesses and simpleness (see below for full lyrics of the song):

(1) a land that's fair and bright (2) handouts grow on bushes (3) sleep out every night
(4) boxcars are all empty (5) the sun shines every day (6) cigarette trees (7) lemonade springs  (8) bluebird sings (9) all the cops have wooden legs (10) bulldogs all have rubber teeth (11) hens lay soft boiled eggs (12) farmer's trees are full of fruit (13) barns are full of hay (14) ain't no snow (15) rain don't fall  (16) the wind don't blow (17) never change your socks (18) little streams of alcohol come a-trickling down the rocks (19) brakemen have to tip their hats (20) railroad bulls are blind (21) lake of stew and of whiskey (22) jails are made of tin (you can walk right out again as soon as you are in) (23) no short handled shovels, (24) no axes saws or picks (25) you sleep all day (26) they hung the jerk that invented work.

These wishes are gathered together as follows:

Food: cigarettes, lemonade, soft boiled eggs, fruit trees, streams of alcohol, land of stew and whiskey
Geography: land fair and bright, sleep out every night, sunshine, bluebirds, no snow, no rain, no wind.
Social: handouts grow on bushes, cops have wooden legs, bulldogs have rubber teeth, (railroad) brakemen (who would normally throw hobos from the trains) have to tip their hats to the hobos; railroad bulls (the railroad cops who would be um pro-active and brutal in getting rid of the ‘hobo problem” from the trains);  revolving door jails are made of tin; no axes, saws or picks; and finally, no short-handled shovels.
Personal:  sleeping all day, sleeping out at night, and not changing your socks. (Not even a whiff of carnal anything.)
And of course the hanging of the man who invented the whole concept of work.

I think that in all of these simple dreams, the 'short-handled shovels' one is the most tremendous, and most heart-breaking.  The short-handled shovel is a backbreaker, made for working in stubborn, small holes or tight places. If you needed to use a shovel on something, you’d want to use a long-handled one. Keep in mind that the song didn’t call for no shovels—just a decent one that you could work with humanely.

The song is beautiful and stands for a wide majority of thought in the U.S. in the troubled 1930’s. It is also in many ways related to the classic peasant utopias and dreamlands—perhaps it is just like Cockaigne, just removed 500 years.

Big Rock Candy Mountain, by Harry McClintock [1895 (written), 1928 (recorded)]

"One evening as the sun went down and the jungle fire was burning
Down the track came a hobo hiking and he said boys I'm not turning
I'm headin for a land that's far away beside the crystal fountains
So come with me we'll go and see the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains there's a land that's fair and bright
Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night
Where the boxcars are all empty and the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees
Where the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains all the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the hens lay soft boiled eggs
The farmer's trees are full of fruit and the barns are full of hay
Oh, I'm bound to go where there ain't no snow
Where the rain don't fall and the wind don't blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains you never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol come a-trickling down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats and the railroad bulls are blind
There's a lake of stew and of whiskey too
You can paddle all around 'em in a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains the jails are made of tin
And you can walk right out again as soon as you are in
There ain't no short handled shovels, no axes saws or picks
I'm a goin to stay where you sleep all day
Where they hung the jerk that invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains"

[JF Ptak Science Books, dd. 29/02/2016)

't Lekkerland

Hendrik van der Putte, ca. 1761-1765, Amsterdam

Reclame voor Luilekkerland naar Duits voorbeeld gesneden met het vertaalde gedicht van Hans Sachs uit 1530 met een moraal: ‘Want luy en ledigheyd noyt deugt en bracht.’ (hetoudekinderboek.nl

Cuccagna festivals

Frans Hogenberg, Sugar banquet for the wedding of John William, Duke of Julich-Cleves-Berg, and Jakobea of Baden, (1587) (Getty Research Institute)

"There were whole settings of large arches with cheese, sausages, and breads, [...] Those were made for people to take away. A lot of times, at the top there were fireworks and things like that, so it was kind of a theatrical way of showing food.” At the signal of the powerful host, citizens would rush to these arches to scarf down or carry away as much as they could. The Cuccagna festivals date back to legends of the Land of Cockaigne, a mythical paradise on Earth, where idleness leads to plenty — a theme 'that sought to distract poor and hungry people from the hardships of their daily lives, if only for a moment'"

Francesco Orilia, Cuccagna arch of bread, cheese, and suckling pigs, made in honor of Duke Antonio Alvarez di Toledo, Viceroy of Naples, on the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, 23 June 1629, 1630 (Getty Research Institute)

"The food structures that often towered over crowds at public festivals were equally extravagant. A woodcut by one Francesco Orilia depicts a Cuccagna arch, a type of freestanding monument that became prevalent especially in Naples over the course of the 18th century. Although some were varnished and painted and not intended for consumption, most had foundations of wooden scaffolding, papier-mâché, and stucco that were carefully embedded with a variety of foods."

Remondini family (Bassano), Description of the Land of Cockaigne, Where Whoever Works the Least Earns the Most, 1606 (Getty Research Institute)

"On view is one early-17th-century hand-colored etching showing such a whimsical land, where meatballs bob in lakes, chickens rain down from clouds, hills are made of sugar cakes, and Spanish wine flows as a river."
(Claire Voon, 'Sugar Castles and Suckling Pig Arches: The Edible Arrangements of Baroque Europe', 2015, Hyperallergic, dd. 29/02/2016)