The Volvelle: The Medieval Equivalent of a Smartphone App?
Did you know that the ancestor of smartphone apps can be traced back to the Middle Ages? The volvelle, a paper-based interactive device, had a multifaceted role during its historical use. It facilitated celestial calculations, aided medical diagnoses and guided navigation at sea.
Volvelles functioned as both a timekeeper at night so one would know when to administer medication and a mathematical tool, while also serving as a visual aid for illustrating complex theological concepts. Some have even described volvelles as a kind of early analog computer.
Ancient manuscript with a volvelle written in Latin and English on the right of the page, including movable pointer showing the zodiac signs and labors of the month, surrounded by figures of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. (Public domain)
Volvelles - Paper Wheel Charts with Multiple Applications
Volvelles typically consisted in one or more rotating paper discs, or “wheels,” with information or data written or printed on them. Users would rotate these discs to align different pieces of information, allowing them to perform calculations or find answers to specific questions—hence the name “wheel chart.” The fact that it was made of paper also meant that they were relatively easy to produce (thought when first created they were limited to the elite due to the high cost of creating parchment).
“Made from circles of paper or parchment, the volvelle was part timepiece, part floppy disk, and part crystal ball,” explained the J. Paul Getty Trust. Made out of paper or parchment, volvelles were made of 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 so-called “mystical volvelle.”
In fact, they bear a striking resemblance to astrolabes, ancient metal instruments that predate volvelles and served the purpose of observing and calculating the positions of celestial bodies. These days, volvelles have been overshadowed by the advent of digital tools. They do, however, occasionally appear in educational settings, where they serve as captivating curiosities, shedding light on the historical roots of calculation and visualization principles.
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19th century volvelle showing the times at different places compared to London and the constellations visible in the sky at different dates and times. (Public domain)
Llull of Majorca and the First Extant Volvelles
It is believed that volvelles were brought to Europe from the Arab world during the 11th and 12th centuries. Nevertheless, the earliest extant examples of this kind of interactive paper device were created by Ramon Llull of Majorca. According to Vice, Llull was “fascinated by an Arab device called a zairja, which was a mechanical divination device featuring rotating disks of letters that were meant to answer philosophical questions.”
Considered one of the greatest philosopher-scientists of the 13th and 14th centuries in Europe, Llull named them volvelles, from the Latin word volvere, which means “to turn.”
14th-century volvelle depicting an astronomical table, created using pen, black ink and tempera. (Public domain)
An article published by the J. Paul Getty Museum 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, according to History of Computers.
Llull 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 so-called “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, as well as the Ars Magna, which comprised Alia ars eleccionis, Ars eleccionis and Ars notandi. Within these three works, highlighted History of Computers, Llull “anticipated by several centuries prominent work on elections theory.”
Ramon Llull of Majorca was the creator of the oldest extant volvelles. (Public domain)
Using a Volvelle to Calculate Time at Night
The Getty Museum described 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!”
The timekeeping device showcased at the Getty is believed to bear a striking resemblance to one of Llull's volvelles, known as “The Night Sphere.” This ingenious contraption enabled users to calculate time during nighttime hours, overcoming the absence of a sundial. Llull meant it to be used so people could administer medicine at the most potent time, in accord with celestial body movements.
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An astrological volvelle. (Public domain)
Llull’s Mystical Volvelle and the Resolution of Religious Disputes
Believe it or not, but Llull’s first volvelle was ingeniously crafted to aid in resolving religious disputes. Through an intricate interplay of interconnected geometrical figures, meticulously adhering to a defined set of rules, Llull endeavored to encompass the full spectrum of human thought. “These declarations or statements were nevertheless represented only by a series of signs, that is, chains of letters,” stated History of Computers.
Some have gone so far as to claim that Llull was a pioneer of computation theory and have described his volvelle as the world’s first analog computer. “Llull's radical innovation was the first physical tool ever used by logicians―experts in logic . It allowed the user to combine seemingly disparate and incongruous aspects of thinking and language which he connected by intricate geometrical figures,” explained the National Catholic Register.
“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,” explained History of Computers.
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. (The History of Computers)
Medieval Suspicion of the Innovative Volvelle
Intriguingly, volvelles were believed to possess the power to foretell the future, while numbers held mystical importance well into the 16th century. Medieval times witnessed suspicions and accusations against volvelle users, as these devices were sometimes linked to malevolent practices and dark magic. However, as the tides of scientific thought evolved, volvelles found a new role in preserving and generating knowledge, emerging as valued tools in the quest for enlightenment.
Top image: A volvelle from a 14th century English manuscript is on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum/Getty
By Mark Miller
Kanas, N. March / April 2005. “Volvelles! Early Paper Astronomical Computers” in Mercury.
Martin, R. 23 July 2015. “Decoding the Medieval Volvelle” in J. Paul Getty Museum. Available at: http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/decoding-the-medieval-volvelle/
Miranker, E. 12 June 2017. “The Original ‘App’: Paper Volvelles” in NYAM History of Medicine & Public Health. Available at: https://nyamcenterforhistory.org/2017/06/12/the-original-app-paper-volvelles/
Pace, L. 25 July 2023. “Ramon Llull – Complete Biography, History and Inventions” in History-Computer. Available at: https://history-computer.com/ramon-llull-complete-biography/
Rothstein, A. 16 November 2015. “The Original Mobile App was Made of Paper” in Vice. Available at: https://www.vice.com/en/article/8q89gv/the-earliest-mobile-apps
Stagnaro, A. 30 June 2016. “Bl. Raymond Llull and the World's First Computer” in National Catholic Register. Available at: https://www.ncregister.com/blog/bl-raymond-llull-and-the-worlds-first-computer