Volvelle: The paper machine designed to calculate the time and compute the truth of religion
What if you could design a moving device from paper that invoked logical proofs and God’s attributes to settle religious disputes? Or what if you were able to make something more practical—a paper “machine” that told the time of night so one would know when to administer medication? A man who was considered one of the greatest philosopher-scientists of the 13 th and 14 th centuries in Europe, Ramon Llull of Majorca, did just this. Llull named them volvelles, from the Latin word volvere, which means ‘to turn’.
Constructed of paper or parchment, volvelles have moving parts made of paper that turn and point to celestial bodies on the timekeeper, or to the attributes of God and arguments for His existence on the mystical volvelle. They resemble astrolabes, which were made of metal and invented much earlier.
A volvelle from Martín Cortés’s 16 th century book Breve compendio de la sphera y de la aite de navegar , a seminal text for oceanic exploration. (Source: The Collation )
An article on the J. Paul Getty Museum website describes Llull as a mystic philosopher. Llull was born in 1232 on Majorca and died there in 1315. He had a religious epiphany in 1265 and became a member of the Third Order of St. Francis of Assisi, says the website History of Computers . He preached that the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam should be united. He also went to Tunis and tried to convert Muslims there to Christianity. By uniting the three religions he had hoped people of the one faith could fight the ‘hordes of Asia’ that were threatening and encroaching on the Middle East and Europe.
In addition to penning many religious treatises, he wrote on alchemy, botany, astronomy and other sciences. He also wrote the first Catalan novel, Blanquerna. He wrote Alia ars eleccionis, Ars eleccionis and Ars notandi. Those three works, says History of Computers, were “anticipated by several centuries prominent work on elections theory.”
The Getty Museum describes how the timekeeping, astrolabe-like volvelle worked:
“Determining time at night was achieved through the not-so-simple process of aligning the device with a pole star; closing one eye; centering the cross of circles on the face, equidistant from both eyes; and locating another star rotating around the central star. So long as you don’t move your head or hands in the least, you could determine your place in the universe!” You can zoom in on and examine this timepiece, which is on physical display at the Getty, here: Getty.edu.
The timepiece at the Getty resembles Llull’s volvelle that he named “The Night Sphere,” which allowed the user to calculate time at night, when there was no sundial. Llull meant it to be used so people could administer medicine at the most potent time, in accord with celestial body movements, the Getty article says.
The History of Computers site is more interested in Llull’s volvelle concerning God and says he was a pioneer of computation theory.
In the mystical volvelle, part of which is shown here, the letters represent the nine attributes of God: B=Bonitas, C=Magnitudo, D=Duratio, E=Potestas, F=Sapientia, G=Voluntas, H=Virtus, I=Veritas and K=Gloria. These words can be combined in various ways and worked with the rest of the volvelle to produce sentences that Llull thought contained logical truths. (Image from The History of Computers )
“The radical innovation Llull introduced in the realm of logic is, in fact, the construction and the use of a machine made of paper to combine elements of thinking, i.e. elements of language,” the site says. “With the help of connected geometrical figures, following a precisely defined framework of rules, Llull tried to produce all the possible declarations of which the human mind could think. These declarations or statements were nevertheless represented only by a series of signs, that is, chains of letters.”
Llull got the idea for volvelles from the zairja device used by Arab astrologers to compute ideas by mechanical devices.
An astrological volvelle ( Wikimedia Commons )
Volvelles were said to be able to predict the future, and numbers had supernatural significance into the 16 th century. Some medieval people suspected volvelles and the people who used them of having malicious intent and working dark magic, Getty.edu says. But volvelles were later prized, as scientific thought evolved, both for recording knowledge and producing new knowledge, the site says.
Featured image: A volvelle from a 14 th century English manuscript is on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum. ( Photo from Getty.edu )