Alba am­i­co­rum

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Name: Alba am­i­co­rum.

Age: From the Re­nais­sance.

Can you be more spe­cific? Why’s that? Don’t you know when the Re­nais­sance was? Of course I do, but it cov­ers at least three cen­turies. OK, clever clogs: mid-16th cen­tury. About the time that young aris­to­crats and the chil­dren of the nou­veau riche started to in­ter­rail around Europe.

And what are they? Friend­ship books. Th­ese Re­nais­sance young­sters, es­pe­cially Ger­man and Dutch ones, would go around col­lect­ing au­to­graphs and tokens of af­fec­tion from the peo­ple they met and liked in th­ese beau­ti­fully em­bossed books. A cross be­tween a di­ary, a com­mon­place book and an au­to­graph book, they cre­ated a per­ma­nent record of some key pe­riod in a young per­son’s de­vel­op­ment, of­ten their time at uni.

Sounds sort of fa­mil­iar ... Well, so says the Bri­tish Li­brary, which is putting much of its col­lec­tion of 500 or so alba am­i­co­rum on show from 26 Fe­bru­ary.

What is the sell­ing point? Some­what in­ge­niously, the li­brary says the alba am­i­co­rum are ef­fec­tively early ver­sions of Facebook and In­sta­gram, with Re­nais­sance mil­len­ni­als get­ting sig­na­tures (one of the BL books bears the sig­na­ture of King Charles I, equiv­a­lent to a Lady Gaga to­day) and sketches (read: self­ies) of peo­ple they met, then boast­ing about them.

There is noth­ing new un­der the sun. That is very much the mes­sage. “Rather like to­day, they didn’t want those friend­ships to be a se­cret thing,” says the Bri­tish Li­brary chief ex­ec­u­tive, Roly Keat­ing. “They wanted a record to be made that they could show off about and ‘share’, in cur­rent lan­guage.” A bit of spu­ri­ous mar­ket­ing hype by the

li­brary, per­haps? You are such a cynic. There is schol­arly sup­port for Keat­ing’s view. “So­cial me­dia is a late form of the book of friend­ship,” Dr Earle Havens, a cu­ra­tor of rare books and manuscripts at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity, told the arts web­site Hyper­al­ler­gic in April. “Facebook is sim­ply do­ing some­thing that we’ve needed to do for a long time, which is cap­ture the ephemeral na­ture of friend­ship.”

To be con­fused with: Stamm­bücher, the Ger­man word for friend­ship books. The Ger­man states were the cen­tre of the craze, al­though the thirty years’ war didn’t help (either friend­ship or au­to­graph col­lect­ing).

Do say: “Won­der­ful idea. I reckon there is a com­mer­cial op­por­tu­nity for friend­ship books to­day.”

Don’t say: “Isn’t this a bit recher­ché for Pass notes?”

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