‘Friend Books’ – the facebook of 400 years ago

Social media may be the poster child of the 21st century. Being regarded as a blessing and a curse, some people are craze about it because of its convenience for communication and connection. However, it can also be a terrifying swamp of embarrassing photos and oversharing. Actually, users of ‘Friend Books’—the Facebook of 16th century didn’t need to worry about such a question.


Let’s date bake to the 16th century, at that time nobility of Northern Europe were far ahead of fashion when it came to social media. In 1560, the young folks of what’s now called the Netherlands and the Rhineland didn’t trade digital “likes” and tweets, but they did have a way to share their thoughts, comment on other people’s opinions, seek advice, and celebrate whatever song they were really jamming on with their friends. They were called alba amicorum, meaning “friend books” in Latin.


Dutch PhD scholar Sophie Reinders is an expert studying these fascinating pieces of history.


According to Sophie, alba amicorum were used to establish and solidify personal and professional relationships of Northern European youngsters of nobility as early as 1560. They were also used to reveal crushes,offer advice, share opinions, and offer comments on other people’s entries – sound familiar?


And like Facebook, it all started at university.

To record the professional networks they built during these tours, boys would carry a book with them in which they’d have scholars, philosophers, scientists, artists and fellow students write up a short entry, generally recalling their pleasant meeting and faith in the young men’s ventures into the professional world.

To get an idea, take a look at the very impressive album of Michael van der Meer (1590-1653):




Album_amicorum_of_Michael_van_Meer_013-930x636A full book would underline the boys’ social standing and heighten their chances in the professional world – much like a strong LinkedIn network today.


Boys’ alba amicorum often look very appealing, as famous artists would be requested to paint the men’s family weapons or lavish pictures symbolizing the well wishes they had for the young men and the adventures they embarked upon. (What I wouldn’t give to have my LinkedIn-profile picture custom made by Banksy…)

Unfortunately, girls rarely had access to famous artists. But that doesn’t mean that their versions of the friendship books were not as – if not even more – interesting.


Instead of notes from scientists and artists, the girls’ books were filled with correspondences between friends and admirers, inside jokes, and detailed accounts of social events. If the boys’ books were like LinkedIn, then the girls’ were like Facebook.


The album of Margaretha Haghen for example, includes this little (freely translated) gem:

“In Shrovetide, on day two,
We guests wrote this for you
And could not leave for home,
So tipsy we’d become;
Love made us so besotted
We left nothing in the bottle.”



The more people wrote in your book, the better you could show the rest of the world that you were a social and popular young lady. And by looking at who wrote what in whose album, Sophie now reconstructs social networks, friendships, acquaintances, and social exchanges from over 400 years ago.



Anyone else now craving an app that converts your Facebook page to an Amicorum style version?