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The Land of Cockaygne
London, British Library, MS Harley 913, ff. 3r-6v


The manuscript
British Library, MS Harley 913, ff. 2v-3r This poem survives in only one manuscript, London, British Library, Harley MS 913, a small (less than 6 x 4 inches), unadorned, and scruffy collection of various items in different hands and in different languages (Middle English, French, and Latin). Click on the image to the right for larger images of the opening of the poem.

It was probably compiled in Ireland in the early 1330s. There is some internal evidence for Franciscan origin: one poem is said to have been written by Friar Michael of Kildare, and the MS includes some specifically Franciscan material. The small format of the MS suggests a friar's pocket-book (friars went on foot, and needed to travel light). A few of the Middle English items, like Cockaygne itself and the long drinking song (making fun of local clerics and tradesmen) which follows it, were clearly for amusement; but most of the Middle English content is didactic, verse sermons and lyrics designed for the instruction of the laity.

The Land of Cockaygne
The Land of Cockaygne is a fictional and parodic otherworld, drawing on three main traditions:
1. Classical tradition: going back to Lucian's True History, a Greek work of the second century AD, which describes a comically paradisal land full of food, drink, and loose women.
2. Christian tradition: descriptions of both Heaven and the Earthly Paradise, the garden from which Adam and Eve were expelled, which was seen as a real, though remote, place on earth, visited by Alexander the Great. It was often placed far to the East (although Dante in his Divine Comedy locates it in the Antipodes, at the tip of the mountain of Purgatory).
3. Goliardic verse: one Latin poem of the twelfth century (Carmina Burana 222) is spoken by an abbas Cucaniensis, an 'abbot of Cockaygne' who presides over drinking and gambling, and the descriptions of the two abbeys in Cockaygne, which invert the usual norms of religious life, echo themes found elsewhere in Goliardic poetry (e.g. the description of the ordo vagorum in Cum in orbem universum, Carmina Burana 219). This strand seems to be distinctive to the poem in Harley 913 (which also includes some Goliardic verse); it does not appear in the surviving Old French and Middle Dutch poems on the same theme (see V. Vaananen, 'Le "fabliau" de Cocagne', Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 48 (1947), 3-36; texts and translations of the Dutch versions are included in Herman Pleij, Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life [1997], trs. Diane Webb (NY: Columbia UP, 2001)).

The translation
The translation is based (with a couple of exceptions, discussed in the notes) on the edited text in J. A. Bennett and G. V. Smithers, Early Middle English Verse and Prose, 2nd edn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968); you are recommended to consult also its comprehensive notes and Glossary. For an on-line text of the Middle English original, see the CELT (Corpus of Electronic Texts) edition at http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/E300000-001/ (this also includes the other Middle English poems in the manuscript, with a full bibliography). There are also interleaved texts and translations of the poems  'in Angela M. Lucas, ed., Anglo-Irish Poems of the Middle Ages (Blackrock: Columba Press, 1995).


Set up by Bella Millett, enm@soton.ac.uk. Last updated 28 May 2003 .