Sources for History of Emotions: Alba Amicorum as a Cultural Phenomenon of Early Modern Times

By Robert T. Tomczak, Adam Mickiewicz University

One of the sources rarely analysed by researchers working on the history of emotions in the early modern period are the friendship albums (alba amicorum). By their very name, they can be considered key historical sources for the study of friendship. Moreover, for humanists of the early modern period, friendship constituted a major aspect of their lives. This was explicitly expressed in one of the albums:

Learning is the daughter of Labour, Culture of Learning, Friendship of Culture. Remove Friendship and there is no more charm to life.[i]

However, while dealing with friendship albums in the context of this study – concentrating on friendship – it does not exhaust their research potential. Therefore, it is worth presenting some historical facts regarding alba amicorum in order to emphasise their possible use in the study of emotions.

Album amicorum (1603–1614) of Heinrich Flück, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, f. 66v: N.N., S.l., s.a. Wikimedia Commons

Historical background

Friendship albums (alba amicirum, Stammbucher, Philothecae) originated in the sixteenth century in the academic community of Wittenberg (c. 1545) and spread quite rapidly in German states.[ii] Towards the end of the century, these albums also began to appear in England and the Netherlands. However, they reached their greatest popularity at the turn of the seventeenth century, although they were also used in the nineteenth (mainly by women) and twentieth centuries. Their main purpose was to obtain entries from people who were met on educational journeys (students, colleagues, professors), and, over time, also from family members, representatives of the same social or professional group, patrons and other persons of interest. These entries took the form of simple autographs, elaborate dedications, multi-part inscriptions, colourful miniatures and sometimes rebuses or funny collages. Their value lay in commemorating individuals, passing on inspiring teachings and thoughts, and in consolidating a positive image of the album owner in the form of praise, from which he or she could draw throughout later life (an element of narratives of self). Initially, albums were kept on the blank pages of printed books, especially emblem books, which were (sometimes) prepared with extra pages.

Physical appearance and form of albums

The most popular form of album was a small codex (about 200–300 pages, in duodecimo or in octavo) for ease of carrying. They were with blank pages or pages filled with manuscript or printed decoration, such as an outlined coat of arms or a banderol, on which the inscriber should place his motto. The entry could be accompanied by a miniature, commissioned from one of the so-called Briefmalern, or an amateur pasted-in graphic design or its fragment, and later also by paper cut-outs or embroidery (scrapbook). The subject matter, especially considering some authors of the works were students, was often frivolous: games, competition for the favours of ladies and bachelors, naked or semi-naked women. There were also verbal or pictorial moralistic and religious programmes, portraits of the authors who made their entries, views of cities and estates, and also various visualisations of the feelings (friendship) towards the owner of the album.

Album Amicorum of Leonardus Hartmann (†1772), Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KW 135 J 27, f. 019v. Wikimedia Commons

Traditional approaches in friendship albums research

The tradition of research regarding friendship albums has been so rich that even a brief overview of same may prove impossible. In fact, the first scholarly work on friendship albums was written as early as 1712.[iii] Since then, there have been many publications (mainly in German) dealing with the cultural phenomenon of the alba amicirum. English-language literature, on the other hand, is quite scarce.[iv] Traditionally, the friendship albums have been studied for their biographical, heraldic, genealogical, iconographic, codicological or linguistic value. They are also a valuable source for art historians, musicologists (given that musical notations are sometimes included as part of an entry)[v], librarians or art conservators. They are also used by historians, who deal with the history of education, travel, culture, dress, diplomacy, sexuality or even military history. More recent, there has also been research into friendship albums as objects and elements of social networks[vi]; or from the performative turn perspective.[vii] In the context of the ritualisation of certain behaviours and formulas associated with passing on friendship albums, Mary Carpenter Erler wrote the following:

Album amicorum of Paul Serres (1748–), Stadtarchiv Halle, Wikimedia Commons

The object reinforced the social connection between giver and recipient, establishing the book as a site of memory, its physical existence recalling various degrees and kinds of invisible links among its owners.[viii]

Albums and the study of the History of Emotions

It is therefore completely understandable that the interest in new research questionnaires, while using friendship albums, raises the interest of the researchers of the history of emotions. These albums present a very promising research field[ix], primarily because of their uniqueness, but also in their number, which is estimated to be between 25,000 to 30,000 copies (of various types) currently stored around the world.[x] However, this is a fraction of the overall number of copies that have survived to the present day. Furthermore, the research value of alba amicirum in the context of the history of emotions lay mainly in the fact that they were carried out for purely emotional reasons. The completion of studies abroad and the consequent return home was often the reason to ask for an entry in the friendship album (often in an inn). In a way, this also applies to the concept of the quality of anthropomorphising, proposed by Karen Lystra.[xi] It was also a form of confirmation of belonging to a group of students, scholars or travellers (i.e. European humanists), and therefore an important socialising element. Undoubtedly, this was linked to emotions and involved entering into an emotional community. The entries in the albums were thus testimonies of the joy of meeting and the sadness of saying goodbye.

G. Kohfeld, W. Ahrens, Ein Rostocker Studenten-Stammbuch von 1736/37 Zur Feier des fünfhundertjährigen Bestehens der Universität Rostock (Rostock: Universität Rostock, 1919), p. 11. Wikimedia Commons


Friendship albums constitute historical sources which are full of emotions. They were created because of the need to preserve the memory (memoria) of one’s pupils, teachers, colleagues or friends, and they served to reconstruct one’s own thoughts, memories, as well as the memory of friends (amicitia). Friendship albums can thus be called relics, as with each turning page by the owner, this could cause him joy and sometimes sadness. Each album, as a carrier of memory, was a strongly emotional artefact. Everyone who entered it joined an emotional community, which was built on similar experiences. Above all, the experience of studies, often abroad. Furthermore, friendship albums are inextricably linked with movement. They followed their owner and witnessed many emotional events. Thus, they constituted a cultural phenomenon and a kind of social medium similar to today’s inventions (posts, snaps, tweets), and, in that, they also enabled later contacts, social networking and the sharing of thoughts (in both private or public form). They were therefore objects that recorded emotions but also symbolised them.

Album amicorum of Cornelis van Blijenburch (1545-1618), Koninklijke Bibliotheek, 130 E 28, f. 160v-161r. Wikimedia Commons

Dr Robert T. Tomczak ( is a historian and researcher at the Faculty of History, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland. He holds a PhD from the Institute of History (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan) and is a former holder of Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship (post-doc at Basel University 2019/2020). Robert’s research focuses on the history of Poland, the Czech Lands and Switzerland, with particular emphasis on intellectual and cultural contacts (in the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries),

[i] Aneta Georgievska-Shine, ‘The Album Αmicorum and the Kaleidoscope of the Self: Notes on the Friendship Book of Jacob Heyblocq’, in The Anthropomorphic Lens: Anthropomorphism, Microcosmism and Analogy in Early Modern Thought and Visual Arts, ed. by W. Melion, B. Rothstein, M. Weemans (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2014), p. 185

[ii] Werner Wilhelm Schnabel, Das Stammbuch. Konstitution und Geschichte einer textsortenbezogenen Sammelform bis ins erste Drittel des 18. Jahrhunderts (Tübingen: De Gruyter, 2003), p. 244.

[iii] Michael Lilienthal, Schediasma critico-literarium de philothecis varioque earundem usu et abusu, vulgo von Stamm-Büchern (Leipzig, 1712).

[iv] Kees Thomassen, J.A. Gruys, The Album Amicorum of Jacob Heyblocq: Introduction, Transcriptions Paraphrases & Notes to the Facsimile, vol. 1-2 (Zwolle: Waanders, 1998); June Schlueter, The Album Amicorum and the London of Shakespeare’s Time (London: British Library, 2012).

[v] Samantha Owens, ‘Pictorial Depictions of Musicians, Musical Instruments and Music-Making in the Stammbücher of Paul Jenisch (1558–1647) and Johann Michael Weckherlin (1579–1631)’, De Musica Disserenda 15.1–2 (2019), pp. 159–77.

[vi] Bronwen Wilson, ‘Social Networking. The “Album amicorum” and Early Modern Public Making’, in Beyond the Public Sphere. Opinions Publics, Spaces in Early Modern Europe, ed. by M. Rospocher (Bologna/Berlin: il Mulino/Duncker & Humblot, 2012), pp. 205–25.

[vii] Christiane Schwarz, Studien zur Stammbuchpraxis der Frühen Neuzeit. Gestaltung und Nutzung des Album amicorum am Beispiel eines Hofbeamten und Dichters, eines Politikers und eines Goldschmieds (etwa 1550 bis 1650) (Frankfurt am M.: Peter Lang, 2002).

[viii] Mary Carpenter Erler, ‘The Book of Hours as Album Amicorum: Jane Guildford’s Book’, in The Social Life of Illumination. Manuscripts, Images, and Communities in the Late Middle Ages, ed. by J. Coleman, M. Cruse, K.A. Smith (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013), p. 505.

[ix] Joanna Woodall, ‘Love and Money. The Circulation of Value and Desire in Abraham Ortelius’s Album amicorum’, in Ut pictura amor. The Reflexive Imagery of Love in Artistic Theory and Practice, 1500-1700, eds. By W. Melion, M. Zell, J. Woodall, (Ledien/Boston: Brill, 2017), pp. 647–703.

[x] See: the Repertorium Alborum Amicorum project (

[xi] Karen Lystra, Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University, 1989), pp. 22–24.

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