“The Land of Cokaygne” by Friar Michael of Kildare, c.1305 –the first poem, a satire, written in English in Ireland.

[ I notice that my tech-wizard, website-designing daughter Sion is currently high-lighting in this website this book that I put out in December 2001.]

Let me say that I have not sold 100 copies of it in the intervening seven years –it took me the best part of a year to complete the research, write the story, translate the poem from it’s original Middle English (reading Chaucer in the original will give you a good sense of Middle English),
do the calligraphy, design the book, and then make the individual copies of the book.

As is too often the case with Small Presses, no other press –large or small– has done this book.

Which is why The Stone Street Press exists (though also –sadly– barely persists: that is a matter for another day. I will leave to others to figure out the return on a year’s work from the sale of a hundred copies.)

And yet, the rewards could hardly be greater. I am not complaining, but a few others do and I do appreciate their concern.

One such response came to me by email from Switzerland just a couple of days ago. Stephan Burkhardt, of Parnassia, introduced himself: he is very involved in the old ways of printing and making books. The name of his press, Parnassia, gives a good idea of his aspirations.

Stephan has already shared a great deal of diverse bibliophiliac information with me, for which I thank him. [I include his web address here for those interested to learn more of Parnassia: it is www.parnassia.org .] And he ordered some books from me, which was very nice of him. (If you want to do the same, do take a look at my website.)

Among the books he ordered were “The Life of Colum Cille” and “The Land of Cokaygne”. Considering his and Parnassia’s interests, I was not surprised by his choice.

I look forward to learning more about these kindred spirits –Stephan and his partner in Vaettis in Switzerland. And, of course, elsewhere.

I have a new year’s resolution for 2009: to share with my readers more information about my books. I forget how fascinating they all are –but of course I would say that.

****************************************************************

To this end, I reproduce here my Introduction to “Land of Cokaygne”.
Here is Part One of that Introduction:

“THE STORY OF ‘LAND OF COKAYGNE’ (circa 1305) and FRIAR MICHAEL of Kildare, author of the poem”:

“In the middle of “Land of Cokaygne”
a rowboat full of young nuns
suddenly throw off their habits for
a spot of nude swimming in the
river. Some young monks nearby see
the disporting nuns and get all
excited. While their abbot is busy
“ministering” to a local young
woman, the monks spirit the nuns
off to the abbey, where they teach
them, in the poet’s sly suggestion,
a whole new way of praying –with
knees in the air, rather than
classically genuflected.
Because of this irreverent portrayal
of mass clerical error, the poem, writ-
ten circa 1305 and hitherto anonymous, is
often attacked as being “anticlerical”
and “anti-Catholic”. I disagree…. I believe the
author of this extraordinary medieval
Irish poem, “Land of Cokaygne”, far
from being anticlerical, to be himself a
Franciscan Friar, Michael of Kildare, a
deeply religious man, and, further, that
his poem is entirely within the scope
of Franciscan satire and comment of
the early days of the order.

I recently became reacquainted with
“Land of Cokaygne”, when I visited the
New York Public Library exhibition,
“Utopia: The search for the ideal
society in the Western World”, in the
fall of 2000. The exhibition comprised
a long list of imagined futures and
attempted utopias that had over the
millennia crossed Western Mind. For
the most part it was a historical
parade of good ideas turned out bad,
and some evil ideas gone mad and
murderous. (I had survived my own
sixties utopian caper, a flawed idea
that became all-flaw and no-idea,–
which experience now informed my
visit to the exhibition at every turn.)
The message was clear: beware utopias.

But for all that, we still have to
dream, to aspire. The basic utopian
urge is surely an urge to improve. We
have to hope we can make things
better. Just consider the alternative:
now there’s a real sin against nature!

I was surprised at the importance
the exhibition accorded the “Land of
Cokaygne” in the evolution of the
concept of utopia. I knew the poem
slightly. Now I would take a closer look.

The universal and lasting appeal of
the poem is that it expressed the
medieval common man’s “If I ruled the
world” fantasy of heaven-on-earth: a
modern equivalent might be the fantasy
of winning the lottery. The land of
Cokaygne lay beyond the sea, a place
where every need and appetite was
met, where the living was easy –and
it was not boring like Paradise.

But there is much more to this poem
–a powerful satiric comment. But, by
whom? And on what? That is what
peaked my interest.

Dated to about 1305, or slightly later,
“Land of Cokaygne” is among the very
first poems written in English in
Ireland. It is one of some fifty-one
handwritten pieces, all but one of them
anonymous, in a single small (about
four inches by six, a Franciscan
travelling preacher’s manual) manu-
script book: Gutenberg, remember,
was still 150 years in the future. It is
sometimes referred to as “The Book of
Kildare”. It has been in the British
Museum Library since 1753: there it is
known as “Harley 913”. It had been
owned by the bibliophiliac Robert
Harley, (1611-1724), First Earl of
Oxford, and creator of that infamous
Georgian Savings & Loan scam, The
South Sea Bubble. Harley’s huge (but-
sometimes-of-dubious-provenance)
collection of books later helped form
the basis of the new great British
Library when it opened its doors in 1753.

There is only one poem of accepted
authorship in Harley 913: “Sweet
Jesus” was indeed written by the
Franciscan, Friar Michael of Kildare:
it says so in the last verse. It is a
powerful and deeply religious poem
on the very Franciscan theme of riches
and the rich as, at best, dubious
candidates for salvation. (Francis had
forbidden his friars to even touch
money.) As I have already stated, it is
my belief that Friar Michael also
wrote “Land of Cokaygne.”

The Franciscans in Friar Michael’s
day were still a very new organization.
St. Francis had died in 1226, in Assisi, in
central Italy. The Kildare monastery
was founded c. 1260 –a mere 34 years
later– by which time there were
already 30 to 40 Franciscan monasteries
in Ireland. The extraordinary rapidity
of this expansion is clearly an index
not only of the great Franciscan enthus-
iasm but also of its welcome early on. The
order emphasizes its “special connection”
with Ireland in its historical accounts.

As my essay will show, the Franciscans
from the very beginning had been deeply
divided within on issues of poverty,
property and riches. And as a new order
that was founded on Christ’s own
commission of Francis to “rebuild my
falling church,” it was powerfully
critical of clerical excesses, carnal and
venal, where it found them. And they
were not difficult to find: reputable
researchers examining at random papal
curia records of a single day (–July
22nd, 1322, as it happens) have found
484 cases of “priest’s bastards”, one
very palpable consequence of widespread
clerical concubinage. This early Francis-
can history is key to understanding
Friar Michael and the “Land of Cokaygne.”

The “poverty” conflict escalated and
often became violent over the first 100
years. Indeed, in 1322, Pope John XXII
excommunicated some thirty “pro-poverty”
friars and even had four of them burned
at the stake in Marseilles.

Could there possibly be a crueler
irony than that the basic rule of
Franciscan Poverty of founder and
saint, Francis, would become the very
premise of excommunication and the
inquisitional bonfires within a hundred
years of Francis’s death?

Incredibly, the answer is “Yes!” The
irony is doubled by the fact that the
Avignon Popes sought to “out-pomp”
all the kings and princes of Europe.
Pope John’s luxurious palace was “the
talk of Europe.” His court, notoriously
packed with functionaries, flunkies,
lobbyists and handpicked proteges –we
will soon hear of one who is sent to
Ireland– outshone all others in the
“extravagance of it’s style and the
brilliance of it’s feasts,” (to quote
Catholic priest historian Thomas
Bokenkotter’s “A Concise History of
the Catholic Church” of 1979.) Meanwhile,
because of their insane drive to raise
the money for all this, the hated papal
tax collectors were in turn being
hunted down, imprisoned, “mutillated
and even strangled by irate debtors.”

[End of Part One of Two Parts]

[Coming soon: The Franciscans come
to Ireland; fierce ideological split;
division and death; Friar Richard
Ledrede in Kilkenny; fierce Puritanism;
Witch Burnings at the stake
in Kilkenny “for heresy and consorting
with devils.” Friar Ledrede would have
been very much at home in Salem.
But satire would soon be flowing
from the pen of poet Friar Michael of
Kildare, just a few miles up the road
from Kilkenny.
up the road


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