03.03.25, Pleij, Dreaming of Cockaigne

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Anna Roberts

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.025


Pleij, Herman. Diane Webb, trans.. Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Pp. iv, 544. ISBN: 0-231-11702-7.

Reviewed by:
Anna Roberts
Miami University (Ohio)

This is a crossover book, and as such falls outside the scholarly focus of this list. It does not have the qualities of recent crossover bestsellers like Longitude, although it is quite clearly the fruit of many years of research and teaching, undertaken with joy and humor. The humor is awkward in translation, and the format of the book (over 400 dense pages divided into 41 chapters) is closer to a university lectures typescript than a night table offering for those dear to us.

The book is organized as a series of brief (roughly ten-page) chapters connected to two short Dutch poems and one prose text on Cockaigne, translated and edited in the book. The chapters discuss everything that could be relevant to the texts, for example oral tradition; comparison with other texts; and cannibalism. Repetitions are frequent (e.g., 3 and 30). Perhaps because the book is not primarily intended for scholars, it presents more material than the author wants to vouch for. For example, hypotheses made in the course of the discussion are not disproved but put into question in the end; propositions never become hypotheses, but appear as rhetorical questions (e.g., 340): "Whether the...material as such -^× in its raw state, meaning when it was not in the process of being recited or performed -^× contains moralizing implications is a question that cannot be answered." For me, this is proof that there is no viable position other than the totalizing, broad overview (Huizinga is mentioned on the jacket) and the focused case study. If this book does not work, it is not the fault of the author, a celebrated scholar. Rather, the genre seems an impasse.

Could undergraduates use it as a general introduction to the fifteenth century? I think younger readers would not be able to read their way through frequent double negations and slight distinction between essential ideas and details. A random sample, again from p. 340: "it would be difficult...to find someone who had no notion of such connotations"; "there was always the reciter, or a fellow listener, or another reveler whose explanations would leave no room for doubt as to the meaning of the text, performance, or ritual"; "...material left the sphere of the oral tradition and entered the sphere of the written word, being committed to paper in the form of version B."

There are three short appendixes with Dutch source texts, a bibliography and an index, and 80 in- text illustrations. The illustrations are cropped, which makes the book less elegant, but its materials and layout follow the high standards of the press.

Instead of footnotes there is a Sources section, listing references by chapter and page number in a continuous narrative. Assuming it is there (references I was hoping for are not included), the parenthetical notation is in the Sources, and the full reference in the Bibliography.

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Anna Roberts

Miami University (Ohio)