Social networking, early modern style
The album amicorum, or book of friends, or Stammbuch, was a combination of autograph collection, memoir, travelogue and commonplace book that flourished in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. Initially a university phenomenon, in which students loyally collected their professors’ signatures, friendship albums quickly blossomed across Germany and the Netherlands, compiled by young gentlemen (lawyers, diplomats, noblemen), who invited friends and eminent figures to inscribe their books. Signatories contributed a name and a verse or aphorism: to Christoph Fleckammer’s album, Henry Wotton added his famous definition of an ambassador as “an honest man, sent to lie abroad for the good of his country”. There were often watercolour illustrations, too, added by a signatory or gathered by the compiler as evidence of his journeys: the early modern equivalent of a traveller’s holiday snaps (Richmond Palace; Elizabeth I’s tomb in Westminster Abbey; the River Thames, littered with water taxis; a St George’s Day procession). There were also more curious allegorical scenes: a figure divided vertically in two, half preacher, half soldier; a young man perched precariously on a ball of Fortune, tugged on one side by beauty, on the other by money.
In part, alba amicorum served a moral function: readers looked back at virtuous lives to shape their better selves, “inspired”, the Protestant theologian Philipp Melanchthon wrote, “if only through the names of good men, to follow their example”. But they also vividly convey a busy social network: they attempt to catch, and fix, the lives that streamed past an ambitious young gentleman as he travelled across Europe. The compiler’s identity was the cumulative product of the world in which he moved: each new signature another mooring, and the album a space “wherein he will see himself as in the Socratic mirror”, one declared, “and will find what defects in himself he should improve”.