And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

søndag 26. juni 2016

Brexit, Featherbeds and the Land of Cockaigne

I try not to be overly political on this blog, and I hesitate to use it as a platform for voicing my opinion on various political issues. This is mostly because my blog is intended to focus on research, academia, engagements with cultures of the past, and also to share the many beautiful and curious things I come across in my professional and also my personal life.

In this particular blogpost, however, I will be talking politics, and I will talk about the recent political farce which is commonly known as Brexit, the campaign that - successfully - urged for the UK to leave the European Union. The results were clear on Friday 24, the morning after the votes for the referendum had been cast, and I and several of my friends grieved tremendously for this result. Many of my friends are academics whose lives depend very much on the financial support from the European Union, and who are now facing a very uncertain future. Furthermore, the centre at which I work - the Centre for Medieval Literature - is a cooperation between the University of Southern Denmark and the University of York, a cooperation that has been possible because of the close ties between Denmark and the UK as members of the Union.

I will not go in great detail about why Brexit is a catastrophic farce. This has been done better elsewhere, such as here, here, here, here, and many other places. What angers me most in all this, is the way in which the British public has been manipulated and how they have been fed promises which leading Brexiteers then the very next day went back on. The result of the referendum came about in part through exploitation of fear and in part by way of promising a future which was claimed to be more financially secure. In a way, the Leave campaign painted a picture of this future in ways similar to what we find in Pieter Brueghel's painting below.

Het Luilekkerland, or the land of lazy-lucious
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1567
Courtesy of Wikimedia

In the history of European culture, we find many expressions of a materialistic paradise, an impossible country which satisfies the stomach and which abounds in a never-ceasing supply of food and drink. This place is sometimes known as the Land of Cockaigne, or as Schluraffenland, the land of lazy apes. It is found in Boccaccio's Decameron, day 8, third story, in which the poor painter Calandrino is dazzled by prospects of a materialistic paradise whose wonders include a mountain of parmesan cheese. We might also see a remnant of this, and also a subversion of the topos, in the description of the witch's house in the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, which like the architecture typical to Cockaigne is edible.

A somewhat similar day-dreaming permeated the Leave campaign. Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and the rest of the  Brexiteers tapped into a pool of anxieties among the elderly, among the less well-educated and among people living in cities without many prospects for the future. They played on a rising and poorly suppressed xenophobia, they nurtured a Euro-scepticism that sometimes seem to have been turned to hate, and they were very careless about facts. One of the two main promises of the Leave campaign was that immigration would be severely reduced, a promise which pandered to xenophobia and racism, which has now unleashed a load of nasty attacks on British citizens and guest workers, and which was then severely modified by Daniel Hannan the day after the referendum.

Borish Johnson and the non-promise of the 350 million pounds
Copyright Getty Images
Courtesy of The Daily Mail

Nigel Farage goes back on his promise

The second main carrot applied by the Leave campaign was the suggestion, as seen in the picture above, that the membership contingent sent to the EU should rather be spent on the National Health Service. This contingent was presented systematically as numbering 350 million pounds weekly, a number which was from the very start incorrect since it didn't take into account the rebate, i.e. what Britain received back from the EU in subsidies and funding. The anatomy of this scam was wonderfully explained by John Oliver recently. The bottom line is that there never was a 350-million-a-week sum to be had in the first place, and yet this number became the very symbol of what financial glories would await should Britain leave the European Union.

The very morning of the referendum result, Friday 24th of June, Nigel Farage stated in an interview on Good Morning Britain, as seen above, that he could not guarantee that this sum would be spent on the NHS. To add insult to injury, he furthermore stated that it was a mistake to make that promise in the first place - and he said that he himself never did make it - and that it Leave voters should not have voted because of this. As pointed out by Susanna Reid in the interview, this sum might have been a strong motivator for many voters, and she brilliantly showcased just how mendacious the Leave campaign had been.

What is particularly distressing, however, is to see the look on Nigel Farage's face when he defends himself with the claim that there will be "a ten-billion-a-year, a three-hundred-and-fifty-million-a day featherbed" to spend on whatever the country pleased. It actually does seem that Farage believes in this foolish fantasy, and he appears to have glimpsed by this number a short view of this materialist paradise that is the Land of Cockaine.

The ship of fools sails to Narragonia
Woodcut from Das Narrenschyff, Sebastian Brant, 1494
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The fantasies of Nigel Farage and the whole Leave campaign brings to mind another version of the topos of the land of overflowing, namely the motif of the ship of fools. This motif received its name and its most brilliant formulation in Sebastian Brant's satirical book-length poem Das Narrenschyff from 1494. The main conceit of this book is that all the fools of the earth - each type described in detailed in the various episodes of the poem - are embarking on a ship bound for Narragonien, or Narragonia, a kingdom of fools.

This is not to say that all Leave voters are fools. Although I think all of them made the completely wrong choice, I do not intend to insult their intelligence - at least not all of them. However, all, or at least most of the Leave voters were fooled. They were fooled by phantom numbers, by already-broken promises and by fear and greed. They were shown an imaginary featherbed of 350 million pounds a week to secure the health system - a prospect particularly appealing to the older segments of society, the majority of which voted Leave - and this featherbed will turn out to be non-existent.

The Leave campaign was a fraud from the very beginning, a ship of fools that is now driving the UK away from its ties with Europe, and which is making life difficult for millions of Brits and non-British residents in the UK. There are problems with the European Union, certainly, but the answer is not to defraud millions of people for misguided and imaginary gains.

Stultifera Navis, Jakob Locher's translation of Sebastian Brant's Das Narrenschyff,
Strassburg, 1497
Courtesy of Wikimedia


Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, translated by G. H. McWilliam, Penguin Classics, 1971 (reissued in 2003)

Sebastian Brant, The Ship of Fools, translated by Edwin Zeydel, 1964

Umberto Eco, The Book of Legendary Lands, translated by Alastair McEwen, MacLehose Press, 2013

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On the ship of fools in early modern culture

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