A Medieval Guide to Friendship

What kind of friend are you? A 13th-century writer looks at types of friends, most of whom you want to stay away from!


Boncompagno de Signa, who was born near Florence in between 1165 and 1175, rose to prominence as a teacher of grammar and rhetoric in Bologna. By the beginning of the thirteenth-century he had written on a wide variety of topics, ranging from punctuation to history.

In the latter months of 1205, while he was staying in Rome, Boncompagno composed the Amicitia, a guide to friendship, or more precisely a guide to what kind of friends to be wary of. The book is set as a debate between Body and Soul over what friendship really means. It starts off optimistically, saying that “friendship is the result of divine power and is found to the highest degree in men and angels. Friendship is a heavenly power which chooses to dwell only among the virtuous. Friendship is the root of innocence, the dispenser of all joy, the sincerity of true faith, the strength of eagerness, the foundation of peace, and the source of all good things.”

However, the Amicitia moves on to a bleaker look at friendship, finding it almost impossible to have a true friend. Boncompagno lists twenty-six types of friendship  – only three of them are positive (equal, faithful and real friends). The rest are types of friends that it would be better not to have.

Boncompagno first offers a quick explanation of these types of friends, and then adds some examples and anecdotes of what they are like. Some of his stories he seems to take from his own experience working as a teacher in Bologna, while with others he finds similarities  in the historical events of his day.  Here are some portions of his guide to friends:

The Powerful Friend

The powerful friend is one who rises to a high status, but since friendship ignores status, here there is a contradiction between the noun and the accompanying adjective. Indeed, there are some powerful friends, albeit rarely, who are willing to keep company with subservient friends; but beware of that powerful friend who wishes to imprison your will and keep it bound to his own. Only with difficulty can you look him in the face; since if you have to wash his feet you will not dare even to dry your hands in his presence.

The Vocal Friend

The vocal friend attends to his friends with words alone. For he says: “What a wonderful knight that count is, how generous and pleasing and how he blooms again in the cavalry!” Or again: “O what a good cleric he is, how well educated, and how he shines by the uprightness of his behavior!” In this way all are praised for their position and functions, but this is the way of dogs and birds and the testicles of goats that are sold in the butchers could be praised.

The “Here and There” Friend

The “here and there” friend runs to his friend and full of joy embraces him and vows his allegiance saying: “Behold I will come and be with you whenever it pleases you.” He goes and runs hither and thither, and with his friend tours around different places, but does not want to be of service in anything else to anyone.

The Conditional Friend

The conditional friend does not make a friend except under a condition, such as, “If you give me something, I will give you something; if you bring nothing, I will keep everything for myself.” What he is saying in fact is: “Choose whether you want to be my friend and come help me with your goods when I need them, otherwise what is yours is yours and what is mine is mine.”

The Imaginary Friend

The imaginary friend is the one whom you have never seen and yet love him and praise him because of some kind of image of celebrity, believing that he will be favorably disposed to being your friend. And yet you clearly know that this kind of friendship often comes to nothing and is stillborn.

The Shadowy Friend

The shadowy friend is eager under the shadow and veil of friendship to show his devotion in so many ways until he gets what he wants. For shadowy friends can truly be said to be like those many people who are infected with the leprosy of high office; since before they are promoted they hid the poisons of deceit and avarice by promising rewards and offering gifts to those with whom they wont to converse. I do not propose to instruct you any further concerning their deceits and mockeries since experience itself has taught you often enough.

The Counterfeit Friend

The counterfeit friend is one who speaks in a deceitful way and is never ashamed of lying…a certain man had a granddaughter who was lame and was very short in stature and so he was not able to marry her off. Therefore, he had shoes made with thick cork under her soles and ordered her not to move from her place. Thus the counterfeit friend deceives with a twofold deception.

The Haughty Friend

The haughty friend fill his nostrils with mustard and spirits so that any kind of friendship seems to stink to him. Out of an excess of haughty pride he can barely put up with others. In fact, he speaks badly of all, mocks everyone, criticizes other people’s behavior and praises his own.

The Withdrawing Friend

The withdrawing friend is initially ardent, then cools down, and finally fades away, and whatever he begins with enthusiasm he abandons with shame. For often he seems to boil like water in showing the warmth of his allegiance to his friends, and soon afterwards goes backwards like a shrimp and in the matter of affection becomes colder than ice.

The Fair-Weather Friend

The fair-weather friend spins like a wheel and judges according to circumstances…you have seen not long ago some of the people of Capua and Salerno who on the Lord’s Day went to meet the soldiers of the King of Sicily with leafy branches of trees and flowers, crying out loudly: “Long live Tancred, King of Sicily!” and, “Death to the German!” However, on the following Monday, when the army of the Emperor routed the soldiers of the King, these same people likewise went out to meet the soldiers of the Emperor shouting: “Long live Henry, Emperor of the Romans!” and “Death to the Sicilian!” For sure one can find innumerable examples of fair-weather friends in all of the details of such events.

The Mercenary Friend

The mercenary friend gives of his own property under the guise of generosity, hoping to receive twice as much in return, just as the people of Spoleto often do, offering shields and trappings for horses to princes, to prelates of the Church and to knights, hoping to receive the usual price and generous gifts in addition.

The Predatory Friend

The predatory friend has often pushed you into the snare laid by huntsmen, and with good reason I hold him to be an actor who can be compared closely to a dog…Any kind of fawner can be said to a hunter friend, and nearly all women are hunter friends since they do not cease to set up nets and lay snares in order to catch the souls, and the money, of the unwary.

The Turncoat Friend

The turncoat friend greets you with a jovial expression, embraces you in his arms with affection, and says “O inexhaustible spring and crown of philosophers!” But be careful, because in the same string of praise he will either turn up his nose or twist his lips in a sneer, or stick his tongue out behind you, or wink an eye making a gesture of contempt, or shake his head, or, like an actor on stage, will covertly make signs of derision with his hand or foot.

The Camouflaged Friend

The camouflaged friend is like a bird-catcher who lays bait so as to make someone fall into the evil will of his listeners. He is camouflaged in the same way as a woman uses make-up in order to increase her false beauty. The camouflaged friend puts on the rouge and powder of affection, so that the arrangement of his words has the appearance of the truth.

The Pleasure-Seeking Friend

The pleasure-seeking friend mixes vice and faithfulness together. Indeed, such pleasure-seeking friends equally practice adultery, fornication, plunder, theft, and other similar bodily pleasures, while often preserving a mutual faithfulness. On the other hand, some of these later go on from vice to virtue, but in most cases, as soon as the pleasure-seeking ends, so does the feeling of affection.

The Blinded Friend

The blinded friend is the one who submits to the will of a woman and places all of his hope in her. He is called “blinded” because his eyes have been darkened under the veil of worthless love and bodily pleasure, so that he cannot see the truth and no longer knows himself. For, the heart of a woman is like quicksilver which transforms all bodies and makes them like itself…Indeed, it is extremely difficult for any man, and especially for a young man, to avoid the wiles and snares of women. However, there are seven cures which will help blinded friends: the contemplation of our home in heaven, love of knowledge, hard work, the desire of gain, the game of dice and of hazard, frequent change of place, and variation in affection.

The Worthless Friend

The worthless friend like a woman reveals all secrets and cannot keep anything hidden. He is called ‘futile’, that is empty, because he emits vapor like a pumpkin with a hole, and his breast is like a sieve which does not hold what is clean but only keeps the thick residue.


You can read the full text and translation of Amicitia in Boncompagno da Signa, Amicitia and De malo senectutis et senii, by Michael W. Dunne (Dallas Medieval Texts and Translations, No.15) . Click here to learn more about Dallas Medieval Texts and Translations

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