Contemporary bound “stammbuch” of Henricus Horn of Hanover, bound 1649, George Peabody Library (all images courtesy Special Collections, Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University unless otherwise noted)

Our modern forms of social media have only been around since the turn of the millennium, but ways of documenting social relationships have existed since at least the Renaissance. We have Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but long ago, traveling scholars would collect entries in literal “friendship books” — alba amicorum — to document their professional and personal associations.

Similar to a yearbook or autograph book, the album amicorum was filled with signatures, personalized messages, and testaments of friendship. Inscribers would include bars of music, song lyrics, illustrations, crests, mottos — the rough equivalent, perhaps, of multimedia elements like YouTube links and photos. Later on, in the 17th and 18th centuries, following the invention of the printing press, scholars could buy friendship books pre-printed with emblems and decorative borders, so signees could fill the templates with handwritten notes and images.

An album amicorum entry that takes the form of a “musical acrostic for four voices,” inscribed by “Zacharias Eckhart Waltserhus of Thuringia, of the Musical Academy of Leipzig, December 1638”

When I asked Dr. Earle Havens, Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts at Johns Hopkins, whether the Renaissance created an early form of social media, he turned my question around. “I think social media is a late form of the book of friendship,” he said.  “Very often when technologies come out, people think of them as this brand new thing that falls out of the sky, when in reality, Facebook is simply doing something that we’ve needed to do for a long time — which is capture the ephemeral nature of friendship as we encounter our friends in the passage of time and across space.”

Spaces like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat serve as directories of social relationships, offering varying degrees of permanence. Whereas Snapchat is completely ephemeral, documenting fleeting sentiments, Instagram and Facebook offer multimedia histories of our relationships, and our shared histories with people and places.

Havens told me that the necessity for these spaces has always existed, and in the past, they were inhabited by books. “We’ve always needed these technological extensions, these prosthetic elements of our memories, because we can’t remember everything,” he said. Of course, there are some key differences between modern social media and alba amicorum. Unlike Facebook, in which many users only look back on memories when prompted, these books were actively used in a social context, where they were passed around, read, or perhaps dedicated with a raised glass.

An example of an entry in an album that belonged to a Castellio

Unlike modern social media, which can serve as an equalizer, these books were not democratic. “The ordering of the entries was based on status,” says Dr. Bronwen Wilson, Professor of Renaissance and Early Modern Art at UCLA. “You always put the most important signatures at the beginning of the book. When you look at books that are unfinished, you see blank pages, and they’re not just at the end. They’re also in the beginning, and sometimes throughout the text, because you wanted to save room for the most important person.” Some of the surviving books feature entries from power players. The scholar Michael van Meers collected entries from King James of England and Queen Anne of Denmark, both at the beginning of his book. This, of course, served to elevate van Meers’s own status, perhaps in the way that people share celebrity selfies on Facebook or Instagram, showing proximity to power.

Men and women used these friendship books differently from one another. Whereas men’s alba amicorum were often created by traveling scholars on the road, women’s alba amicorum were created in domestic settings, often signed by other women gathering at their homes, as in a guest book. Most of the research into women’s alba comes from historian Sophie Reinders at the University of Utrecht, who wrote her dissertation on the subject.

An example of a standard inscription in an album amicorum

As in a Rolodex, an album’s entries would be updated over time. For example, when someone passed away, the owner of an album might add a cross to that person’s entry. When a signee got married or had children, their entries would be updated accordingly.

“I came across a case of someone who had been ‘unfriended,’” Wilson told me. “There was an X put across the page. It’s conceivable that the person was deceased, but I very much doubt it.” Details like this are artifacts of the physicality of books. You can’t rip out one side of a page. “You’d lose a second page. You couldn’t just delete somebody. You’d have to put an X through them.”

According to Havens, other than alba amicorum, few books from the early modern period include such thorough documentation of the exact date, location, name of the person making an inscription, and the name of the person to whom it’s inscribed. It’s like early modern metadata. “They didn’t have cameras, they couldn’t take snapshots with a selfie-stick. In a sense, this is your ultimate selfie with all these people you like,” Havens said.

An example of a “friendship book” cover with the owner’s name

As much as we love to hate social media, it allows us to think globally and develop an idea of how we fit into society.  Scholars were just starting to travel during the early modern period, Wilson told me. The album of 16th-century cartographer Abraham Ortelius is a great example.  “As these people are starting to travel, you’re starting to develop an idea of who you are through your mobility and through the mobility of others,” he said. “A new kind of individual that understands his or her identity in relation to a wider geographical area.”

I like to imagine 17th-century gatherings of scholars and travelers, flipping through albums in a pub. It must have been a big deal to recognize an entry in someone else’s book, because the inscriber would have had to be well-known. Sometimes, entries in different albums must have overlapped, like the mutual friends of two Facebook users who went to college together, or work in the same field. “Many of us have people who we’re professionally associated with on Facebook,” Wilson said. “These books are about creating an understanding of who one is as a personality, and an intellectual and individual.”

There’s a Renaissance painting that starts to capture this constellation of ideas, Havens pointed out. In Raphael’s The School of Athens (c.1509-1511), philosophers from a wide range of times and places all gather in a single space. “That painting is, in a sense, a visual friendship book,” Havens said. “It’s like this ability to transcend space and time to bring like-minded thinkers together who share common interests. In other words, they share an intellectual friendship.”

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, “The School of Athens” (1511, via Wikimedia)

Kate Dwyer

Kate Dwyer is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Bon Appétit, TIME, Poetry, and elsewhere.

2 replies on “The Renaissance Roots of Social Media”

  1. When I was a kid in the late 60s and 70s we had autograph books that we’d pass around and have everyone sign. People would write quotes from songs or little poems, like in a yearbook. There were also “autograph hounds,” which I had and were stuffed animals that were made of fabric with flat nap and came with pens and people would sign that. Thanks for this article, very interesting!

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