Tom Hodgkinson: For an idle utopia, look to the 1300s

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The Independent Online

When it comes to dreaming of idle utopias, we really have to hand it to the medievals. In the British Library there sits a curious manuscript from the early 14th century. It is a poem called "The Land of Cokaygne", and it describes a fantasy land where no work is done and where ready-roasted larks fly straight into your mouth. Wine and honey flow in the rivers; houses are made of pies and pasties. Sex is freely available. Young nuns strip stark naked and are carried off by young monks: "Each monk taketh to him one/ And, swiftly bearing forth his prey/ Carries her to Abbey grey/ And teaches her an orison/ Jigging up and jigging down."

"The Land of Cokaygne" was a sort of fun Garden of Eden. Paradise, it was felt, would be a boring place. There was no booze and only water to drink, for one thing. But Cokaygne was full of sensual pleasure, and what's more, you didn't have to sweat and toil: "Though paradise is fair and bright/ Cokaygne is yet a fairer sight/ What is there in Paradise/ But grass and flowers and green rice?/ In Cokaygne there is food and drink/ Without care, anxiety or labour."

To the Marxist historian AL Morton, the dream of Cokaygne was the dream of the radical overworked peasant. Also called Lubberland or Poor Man's Heaven, it was a common fantasy across Europe in the Middle Ages, and was an expression of subversion. Everyone is equal and private property is abolished: "Al is commune to yung and old/ To stoute and sterne, mek and bold."

Cokaygne is a persistent idea. It was painted by Bruegel in the 16th century, and its ideas of common ownership crop up in utopias such as Thomas More's Utopia and William Morris's News from Nowhere, and of course in Communism. It also stretches back to antiquity: the Greek Stoic school composed a fantasy called the "Islands of the Sun". Writes the historian Benjamin Farrington: "Their life is passed in the meadows, the land supplying abundant sustenance; for by reason of the excellence of the soil and the temperate air, crops spring up of themselves beyond their needs."

In medieval Mummers Plays, we find similar ideas: "Now my lads we come to the land of plenty, rost stones, plum puddings, houses thatched with pancakes, and little pigs running about with knives and forks stuck in their backs crying 'Who'll eat me?'"

Cokaygne reappears in modern life. My own party turn on the ukulele is a song called "Big Rock Candy Mountain", which was written, or at least updated, in the early 20th century by the labour activist Harry McClintock, and is a direct descendant of the old poems, a hobo's paradise: "I'm bound to stay where you sleep all day/ Where they hung the jerk that invented work."

As in Cokaygne, alcohol and food flow freely: "There's a lake of stew and of whiskey too," while additions include cigarette trees and the additional spice of comically disabled authority figures: "In the Big Rock Candy Mountains/ all the cops have wooden legs."

When mentioning this to a friend of the Tory persuasion, he claimed that the Land of Cokaygne has come to pass, and it is called Tesco: ready-roasted birds, pre-cooked meals, aisles of booze, piles of cigarettes. The difference, of course, is that while supermarkets do indeed present a world of plenty, we have to work like dogs to pay them for it.

The attractions of Cokaygne are completely missed by our politicians, who truly believe that everyone wants to work hard. It has been left to the people to create Cokaygne, and this we have done, although in a temporary and generally commercialised fashion, through pop, literary and food festivals. At a festival, there is no work to do. You can use your leisure in a productive way, as the Greeks would have approved, by attending lectures, or you can sit drinking real ale all day long. The normal rules are turned upside-down and hedonism is accepted.

Alas! All the festivals are now over and we look forward to two gloomy months of toil before our spirits begin to be lifted by the medieval festival of Christmas, when we really should give ourselves up to 12 days of feasting and fun, as they did in old, radical, merry England.

Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of 'The Idler'