Welcome to EX LIBRIS No News News. Instead of a quick dopamine fix, this dispatch is designed to work like an extended-release pill: small doses of non-generic ideas to stir and tickle your neurons, for those who want a pause from the 24/7 news grind but can’t switch off their craving for words in a pleasing order. No News News focuses on one topic per issue, dedicating its first installment to the Middle Ages, too often disregarded and shamefully underrated. Good to have you with us!
No News News #1 has contributions from Charlie Robin Jones, Ella Plevin, Josie Thaddeus-Johns & Kristina Nagel
FIND SOMETHING COOL, MOVE ON
The Middle Ages have a bad rep. Whenever there’s any kind of crisis, an epidemic perhaps, there’s a common sentiment: “If things really get out of hand, our civilization will be ‘thrown back’ into that terrible, terrible period.” It’s so pervasive that the term “medieval” has become a byword for all things barbarous, brutal and backward. It turns out that the so-called Dark Ages were, in fact, not so dark. Of course, fiefdoms were real and life as a peasant didn’t allow for much individual fulfillment (the concepts of “weekends” and “sabbaticals” being quite alien back then). But there were, in many fields, developments of various kinds: slavery, as in the actual ownership of people, was pretty much abolished in this period, only to be re-introduced by those oh-so-humanist Renaissance Men. And then there was all this amazing art, of course: Byzantine mosaics, Hieronymus Bosch, gargoyles.
It’s fun to dig up these tidbits and see how they fare in our current conversation.
But still, why would anyone get hyped up about the Middle Ages? Well, we have a few suggestions that are resonating right now: the vigor and community in the Limbourg brothers’ illuminations, enchanted memes, the application of the term “neo-feudalism” in the critique of data capitalism, the rigorous self-isolation practice of anchoresses or an Instagram account devoted to male hotties of yore. One author even suggested that there might be a “medieval turn” happening in contemporary culture. Whatever it is, it’s fun to dig up these tidbits and see how they fare in our current conversation. Something for you to read in between the listicles and endless numbers pouring out of the news cycle that (we think) rewards investing a bit more time.*
That said: I sincerely hope that you find something in this first issue of No News News. And if you do, why don’t you forward it to a friend? But sure, sending it to your enemies will do as well.
*In case you really are worried about how long this might take: the estimated overall reading time is 16 minutes and 47 seconds. 18 minutes and 20 seconds if you let yourself be distracted by the GIFs too much…
FULL DISCLOTHESUREKRISTINA NAGEL
MEDIEVAL BIG FITS
Back in the Middle Ages, before the bourgeoisie flipped traditional dress codes on their head, sumptuary laws would allow only the lucky few to go all maximalist. And what better way to show off your riches than flaunting a few extra layers of that pricey oriental silk. No stealth wealth for me, Sire! In her work NEUROSIS (N3UR0515) from 2019 Kristina Nagel explores the idea of excessive use of fabric while also laying bare the “cheekier” side of those times.
When Kristina Nagel is not casting her visual spells for Ansinth and Office magazines, among others, the artist works on her Aesthetik 01 project. With phase one – a gallery space in Berlin Moabit – recently completed, Nagel is currently planning her next moves.
QUOTE UNQUOTEDIGITAL SERFDOM
Have you ever read the T and Cs and felt a bit…ransacked? (Bonus points if you’ve read them at all.) The system seems so overwhelming, so beyond our control, that it’s little wonder we see desperate aunts and uncles posting “FACEBOOK DOES NOT HAVE MY PERMISSION TO SHARE MY PHOTOS,” trying to stem an overwhelming tide of power grabs.
Indeed, critical minds have been warning us that the Internet is giving rise to “feudalist” power structures for some time now. While the term has fallen out of fashion with medievalists, it seems ever-more relevant to our contemporary knowledge economy. The tech companies, otherwise known as our lords, grant us small pieces of their Internet turf, providing us with just enough to get by – a viral dance craze here and a distracted boyfriend meme there. In reality we are laborers, kicking up valuable data to the almighty quadrumvirate of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google, otherwise known as FANG.
Even the rituals we powerless serfs undergo have a medieval touch to them: every CAPTCHA feels like administered torture. Lost your password? Simply give up your firstborn (well, their name, anyway). And the worst ordeal, of course: being kicked off of the very soil you’ve been plowing to build up your meager online existence. It all seems a lot like neo-feudalism, and we’re not the first to notice. These cybersecurity experts, professors and journalists have been ringing the alarm for a while:
“The sharing economy will go medieval on you.”
– Izabella Kaminska, FT Alphaville, May 2015
“We are just digital peasants, using the things that we have bought and paid for at the whim of our digital lord.”
– Joshua A.T. Fairfield, theconversation.com, September 2017
“These days, government has largely abdicated its role in cyberspace, and the result is a return to the feudal relationships of yore.”
– Bruce Schneier, WIRED.com, November 2012
“Paradoxically, the ephemerality — and sheer volume — of text on social media is re-creating the circumstances of a preliterate society: a world in which information is quickly forgotten and nothing can be easily looked up.”
– Max Read, New York magazine, November 2019
“We are riding the turbulent waters that have arisen from the unhappy confluence of corporatism, neo-capitalism, and feudalism.”
– Jack Self, Real Review #5, 2017
History teachers of the future might use a chart like this to educate naive students on the coercive system we have allowed ourselves to get caught up in. “The kings on top,” they will explain, “are the ones with the biggest granaries, bursting with hessian sacks of delicious data.” Meanwhile, today, there are very few peasants among us who aren’t working on tilling their land, thereby increasing their wealth. In this way, there’s an obvious link to the Middle Ages when everyone’s status was defined by their relation to the lordship.
Another link presents itself. The Black Death, in the end, killed so many workers that it shook the system. The previously established balance was off, which meant those who survived had more bargaining power to demand better working conditions. They were no longer forced to accept the social order that had been taken for granted. As a new (we hate to say it) plague sweeps the globe, we wonder: What will this mean for our current skewed and unequal world?
CHILLED CHIVALRYELLA PLEVIN
The light of the so-called Dark Ages fell upon shamelessly exquisite Gothic architecture and Byzantine artisanship, as well as many popular myths, legends and motifs. Perhaps the most enduring of these stories is epitomized in a line of La Queste del Saint Graal. As King Arthur’s knights surround the Grail – appearing suspended in the air behind a samite cloth – Gawain proposes they set forth on a quest to behold it unveiled:
“They thought it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group. Each entered the forest at the point that he himself had chosen, where it was darkest, and there was no way or path.”
This, as mythologist Joseph Campbell notes, is the Western ideal. To go into the same wilderness together, though at different points; to slay one’s own beasts, harvest one’s own fruits and tread a singular path. When dark days and dark places offer extraordinary bounties of dazzling things, perhaps one sees that they are not so dark after all.
While on lockdown in London, author Ella Plevin has taken to creating what she calls “Dark Age 2020 memes." Like this one of enchanted Italian DJ Gigi D’Agostino and a very arboraceous chalice.
An anchoress’s life of seclusion began with death. The female version of an anchorite, these women chose to live out their lives without leaving their tiny cell, devoting themselves to contemplation. First, a priest would recite the “office of the dead,” which does what it says on the tin, over the exact spot where she would kneel for the rest of her life, in a 12-foot square stone room, to pray. In the 12th century, there were around 100 such women, dead but alive, in England.
HOW TO BE AN ANCHORESS
An anchoress would have to apply to a bishop, so that she could become attached to a church. It was seen as a privilege to be kept safe and fed and clothed, even so modestly. A privilege to follow all these rules, to be separated from all pleasure and danger, accompanied only, perhaps, by a cat (allowed because it would kill the rats). Part of the draw, it’s been suggested, for women to become anchoresses was the avoidance of those other dangers: childbirth (perilous) and forced marriage (miserable and perhaps also perilous).
HOW TO BE ALONE
A 13th-century text called the Ancrene Wisse gives rules for an anchoress’s life, and they were strict and morbid. Silence, where possible; fasting, where possible; sunlight, human touch, embroidery, all kinds of delight, and even pain were all carefully rationed. There is no difference between an anchoress who is alive, and one that is dead, the author of the Ancrene Wisse says, because: “What is an anchoress but her grave?”
HOW TO MAKE THE BIG LEAGUE
It is almost unimaginable, to live as only a shell. Without distractions to fill us up, after all, what are we? But just like in James Bond, an ersatz death can bring transgressive freedom: you live, as the movie title goes, only twice. The anchoress Julian of Norwich even became that rare thing, a woman with spiritual authority in the Middle Ages. Her mystical revelations, which came to her during a near-death experience (a real one, this time), form the first text by a woman in English: God showed her the world, tiny as a hazelnut in her palm, she tells us, and her tone is fervent, her logic mystical. “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well,” she says. Useful words for the times ahead.
FURTHER READINGCHARLIE ROBIN JONES
A book of hours is a form unfamiliar to us moderns but was one of the most common formats of publishing pre-printing. At their minimum, they would be selections of prayers and psalms to be read at prescribed times of the day, by laypeople. At their maximum, they were complete schemas of orientation: guides to astrological, liturgical and social life, along with some gnarly images of Hell and Heaven.
The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry is an example of the maximum. One of the High Middle Age’s most beautiful illuminated manuscripts, and certainly its most famous, it was produced for a French Duke, John of Berry a.k.a. John the Magnificent, in the 1410s – and is one of our most luminous glimpses of the world, work and minds of the medievals. Its pages show the months of the year, and the accompanying labors needed: January is for feasting, March is for planting seeds, April is for courtly love, October is for plowing, under heavens painted with crushed lapis lazuli, with the immortal houses of the zodiac winding slowly overhead.
Mortal life, then, was a brief, brutal window between creation and a viscerally painful afterlife (they believed in Hell! Like, really, really believed in it).
Like all calendars, the Très Riches is a map: allowing navigation through time and the world. Existence, then, was a navigation between cycles religious, planetary and natural. Death would have been a visceral presence – the patron and his painters all died, probably of the plague, before the book could be completed. Mortal life, then, was a brief, brutal window between creation and a viscerally painful afterlife (they believed in Hell! Like, really, really believed in it).
Corporal life in all its transitory glory is on show here – peasants moon each other during harvest, scratch their balls by the fire, people fall in love, plow (a lot), sow and hunt through the labors of the year. Yet – despite or because of this – it seems kind of...fun? Terrifying, because you’re about to die of a hundred and one calamities, and you have to work really hard. But there is a vigor and community on show here. It’s a form of organizing and making sense of life, elevating labor and time into something ordered, cosmically.
Sometime last year, lying on my sofa in Berlin, I came across something online about March being a time to plant seeds and giggled to myself about posting it, like a dumb motivational speech about getting the seeds we deserve with some medieval shit in the background. A few months later, after a divine amount of life chaos, I found myself living back in my home city of London and visiting the vast, rhizome-y library of the Warburg Institute in Bloomsbury. In the midst of the stacks on alchemy, wizards and everything in between, I found a two-foot tall 1946 edition of the Très Riches, reproduced beautifully in a war-torn France. It was a brief, brilliant light, blasting through a dark mirror. The full, rich, strange images of a distant past melded with the present, through all the turning months and wheel spins of time. I posted a bunch of them on Instagram, and walked on through into the autumn sun, carefully putting the book back, ready for the next reader.
ARCHIVES OF THE INTERNETMALE HOTTIES
Some Instagram accounts are pretty much perfect. That is, they’re entertaining and not a total waste of time. One such specimen is @a.hot.medieval.guy.a.day. Started by medievalist Annick Kothuis to share her passion for “real people who lived 500-700 years ago,” it presented her rapt audience with one hottie per day for two glorious years. Kothius made the handsome, yet slightly bull-necked, Albert II of Germany her alpha and omega: the first as well as the final post. In between, Kothius gave us many favorites: wide-eyed but short-tempered John the Parricide, lingerie-wearing Oswolt Krel and of course, the gorgeous Fulk IV. Did she have a personal favorite among her selection of bygone charmers? “No, I hold them all dearly in my heart. There’s something special about all of them.” Bless.
PROCUREMENTYE OLDE STYLISH
Gosha Rubchinskiy’s FW18 runway presentation showed a particularly angel-faced model walking look number 11. With his scalp shaved almost completely – except for the iconic Adidas trefoil logo in the front – he stole the show. He also made us rethink a haircut: the tonsure, a.k.a. monk hair. Westerners will most likely associate the term with a style known as the Roman tonsure, where only a narrow ring of short hair is left standing – a halo or a crown. With a current lack of hairdressers to talk us out of it, is now the time?
Doric columns come with a square capital at each end. But when will the trend for these Greek columns itself be over? Our current aesthetic is still plagued by this austere (some might say boring) relic of early Nineties digital design. There just seems to be a never-ending drip of creative types “discovering” Athenian styles. We say: why not twist it up a little? Gothic-era corkscrew columns add some ornamental extravaganza to the minimalist decor of even the most hardcore Axel Vervoordt adepts.
Remember dinner parties? How about dinner parties in the Middle Ages, when a portable brass water dispenser decorated with animals and your odd philosopher would be used to wash one’s hands at the table? No? Well, while the food might have been a little…unconventional (beaver tails aren’t exactly mouth-watering), we can certainly get behind anything that livens up the chore of washing our hands…again…and again…and again. Twenty seconds after all, is plenty of time to fully appreciate these aquiferous artifacts.
Longbows are so Early Middle Ages - the discerning archer these days goes for a crossbow. The latest specimen that has fans drooling is EK Archery’s venomously-named Cobra System RX Adder. It’s the natural scion to the crossbows that swept battle grounds from Hastings to Cerignola after which, sadly, firearms would take over. Launching its bolts with a 130lb punch, the Cobra is the favorite of experts like the gruff-voiced Jörg Sprave of Youtube’s Slingshot Channel. Just wait until you hear his approving howl as he puts it to action.
So, Acne Studios has a Monster in My Pocket®-themed capsule collection, but no one has jumped on Disney’s Gargoyles yet? Let’s just say we see a great opportunity here, now that Disney+ is streaming all three seasons of the Nineties animated series. And until the official merch arrives, you’ll find us at our local Games Workshop copping some off-brand statues and figurines. Otherwise, why not go all in and invest in a replica of the HR Giger-esque Alien-style gargoyle that adorns Paisley Abbey in Scotland? Cute!
Every issue of No News News features a dedicated book plate. These ex libris, as they are also called, are commissioned works of art traditionally used to indicate ownership of one’s books. Like this one created by Jaroslav Horanek for collector Josef De Belder 1981:
Editor: Hans Bussert (V.i.S.d.P.)
Art Director: Enver Hadzijaj
Contributing Editor: Josie Thaddeus-Johns
Proofreader: Redfern Jon Barrett
Image credits: Kristina Nagel, Ella Plevin,
© 2022 EX LIBRIS Hans Bussert
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