We're nearing the end of the school year and soon students, especially graduating high school seniors, will be begging their friends to "sign my yearbook." Little do the students know that the pithy observations, endearing epithets and codified farewells that they scrawl across endpapers and over and around photos partake in a tradition that dates back to the middle of the sixteenth century.
In medieval and Renaissance times, going to university was a peripatetic affair. Students would travel to various university towns--Paris, Louvain, Oxford, Bologna, among others--to listen to the lectures of the renowned scholars who taught there. Scholars themselves would travel to consult with and debate those at other universities. To record his meetings with academic celebrities as well as the new friendships he forged with fellow students, a student would bring a bound book of blank pages with him on his travels. In this book, the student's new acquaintances would inscribe their names along with mottos and maxims, tributes (often in verse form), and sketches of their heraldic crests or even illustrations of scenes or places to jog memories of shared experiences. The "album amicorum," or "friendship book," became a record of the student's intellectual as well as physical journey and, for modern historians, fascinating record of early modern European university life.
The use of alba amicorum was particularly widespread in Germany and the Low Countries and continued well into the eighteenth century. Literary salons kept albums of the luminaries who participated in the circle's discussions. Women created alba to mark special occasions such as weddings and baptismal celebrations. As pleasure travel became more widespread, travelers filled alba with mementos of the places they visited and inscriptions by their fellow sojourners and those they frequented in various locales. In upperclass and merchant households, visitors inscribed friendship books in tribute to the hospitality they received.
The Koninklijke Bibliotheka, the National Library of the Netherlands located in Den Haag, has a collection of 470 alba amicorum dated from 1556 onwards. It includes eleven alba from the Van Harinxma thoe Slooten family of Friesland. Click on the link at the very bottom of the page to view the collection. Although the descriptions 0f the alba are in Dutch, you can click on any of the covers to view sample pages from the album. This entry, known as "La Dame aux Plumes" ("Woman with Feathers") bears the inscription: "Bon vin, belles Dames et bonne viande / Pendu soyt il qui plus demande" ("Good wine, beautiful women and great food; / Hang him who asks for more").
An infinitely more colorful motto than the ubiquitous "HAGS" (short for "Have a great summer") that fills today's yearbooks!
Sources and further reading:
"Early European Notice of Marbling, and the Album Amicorum," in Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques and Patterns by Richard J. Wolfe (1990)
"The 'Stammbuch' or 'Album amicorum'" by Martin Hardie in The Connoisseur, Vol. 19: 1907.