The fall of the Land of Cockaigne: a tale of two blues

Four horses were standing in the yard threshing corn with all their might, and two goats were heating the stove, and a red cow shot the bread into the oven.

This surreal excerpt comes from the very short Tale of the Land of Cockaigne  from the Grimm Brothers. There is no plot, simply a recitation of preposterous scenarios.

It s obviously a tall tale, one where the storyteller is self aware, breaking out of the story to ask:

            Have I not told enough lies?

The Land of Cockaigne, a Medieval theme

The Land of Cockaigne, of Plenty, is an Upside Down World.  The established order is subverted: animals do the jobs of peasants, the clergy are punished, the poor are idle and fat. Like El Dorado, it is a land of riches untold, with an added element of humor and the grotesque.  Unlike El Dorado, it remains firmly ensconced in myth and metaphor.

Pieter Brueghel’s The Land of Cockaigne (1563). The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei via Wikimedia Commons

Pieter Brueguel the Elder’s 1563 unflattering but humorous portrayal of the Land of Cockaigne is combined with Flemish proverbs. He also makes a humorous and satirical  commentary on the failed revolt against the Spanish in 1560.

The idea of the Land of Cockaigne is found throughout Europe: the Italian Cuccagna, Spanish Cucaña, German Schlaraffenland, and Swedish Lubberland.

A proposed origin of the name is from the Pays de Cocagne

The southwestern region of France around Toulouse, Albi, and Carcassone is still known as Pays de Cocagne. It was home to the production of the most valuable blue in the late Middle Ages: pastel. The cocagnes (in French) were the round balls of paste formed after grinding the leaves of woad (Isatis tinctoria).

The traditional process to obtain blue from Isatis tinctoria included two fermentation processes and took over a year. The first fermentation process was accelerated by adding urine. (Natural dyeing processes release ammonia, an early example of noxious industrial emissions. Queen Elizabeth I forbade woad dyeing within five miles of her residences.)

Panoramic view of the hôtel d’Assézat. Construction started in this Renaissance palace in 1555. It now houses an art museum, the Fondation Bemberg. Source by Pom2 via Wikimedia Commons.

The period between mid-fifteenth and mid sixteenth century was known as the Golden Age of Pastel, and led to the construction of Renaissance mansions in Toulouse, such as the hôtel d’Assézat and Beyron.

In search of blue: a costly color

Chaucer mentions three core plants for dyers: woad (blue), madder (red), and weld (yellow). Woad, in the cabbage family, grows throughout Europe. Dyed fabric has been found in burials since the Iron Age (1st century CE).

Julius Cesar’s claim in The Conquest of Gaul that the inhabitants of Britain painted their faces blue has been interpreted to explain the name of the Picts. However, it seems unlikely that he is describing the Picts nor that woad was used as body paint.

Dyes for cloth made fortunes in SW France

The region’s climate and soil were ideal for woad cultivation and it was widespread already by the XIIth century. Initially centered in Albi in the 14th C, the shift to Toulouse enabled meteoric expansion.

The banking structure was better able to manage the risk associated with the time lag between planting and dye production.  The Garonne also provided a good means for export north and east.

Like so many booms, the pastel economy fell sharply. Many reasons have been proposed to explain the decline in the 1560s. These include a lack of investment back into the industry and dubious practices (adding chalk to the paste). Two years of heavy rainfall with abundant but low-quality harvests wreaked havoc on the pricing. The already precarious trading routes were severely disrupted by the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. Eventually, the easy access to indigo almost made pastel obsolete.

A color found in snails and leaves

The dye chemical produced from the lengthy and smelly procedure to produce pastel is indigo. It is also found, and in greater concentration, in the tropical indigo plant Indigofera tinctoria, from the pea family and native to Asia and India.

Indigo or indigo derivatives are also produced by several snails. In fact the chemical behind the famous Tyrian purple (great animation here) is di-bromine indigo.

Indigo in the left hand, woad in the right. From the blog Root Simple.

The ancients that knew both woad and indigo considered them completely different. Woad led to a different color, probably because the pastel technique didn’t lead to pure pigment. The components of red and yellow add a richness, a shadow to the brighter indigo blue.

Indigo, the devil’s dye

Although indigo had long been known in Europe, it arrived via overland spice caravans in such low quantities it could not compete. However after Vasco de Gama opened the maritime trade route, the Portuguese were importing it in large quantities by 1516.

This led to great consternation in France, Germany and England where the woad industry was a cornerstone of the economy. Its use was punishable by death in France and Germany into the XVII century.  Britain initially also forbade the use of indigo, but by 1634 indigo was one of the mainstays of trade of the East India Company.

Although indigo was cultivated in Spanish and French colonies and in South Carolina in the XVIIIth century, Indian production eclipsed all other sources.

Blue military uniforms

Napoleon tried to revitalize the French pastel industry, establishing an academy and using it for his uniforms in the early XIXth century. However, at the fall of the empire in 1823, indigo took over.

The color blue continued to play a significant role in French military uniforms during WWI with a shift from the bright indigo blue to a lighter shade after high death tolls.

The development of synthetic indigo in 1893 led to the end of large-scale indigo production, but not before the oppressive conditions of indigo plantation workers played a role the independence movement in India.

Today woad is used for its pigment and for medicinal purposes

Natural biodegradable pigments have gained in allure beyond craft dyers. Bleu de Lectoure is researching cultivation and extraction techniques, as well as applications for a sustainable activity. The medicinal properties of woad, long used in traditional Chinese medicine, are also under investigation.

Blue is always with us

It is obviously questionable to aspire to a Land of Cocaigne as there is no free lunch (an expression not shown explicitly in Bruegel’s work). But this story of blue shows that color transcends any sense of frivolous decoration.

It has the power to build empires and to bring them down.

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