Movable parts such as tabs, wheels, and flaps were common components of premodern scientific texts. These features could serve as participatory pedagogical tools, calculating devices, or inexpensive alternatives to instruments such as the astrolabe. In this talk, I review a range of movable devices from the later Middle Ages, including their applications in cosmography, medicine, and the computation of the date of Easter. Focusing on astronomical volvelles, I then develop an ecological reading of these rotating discs, which encouraged readers to relate to the world around them in several complementary ways. Movable books could facilitate readers’ efforts to conceptualize their positions in the universe, an important aspect of premodern knowledge practices. Yet volvelles also call attention to the materiality of the texts in which they appear, and their susceptibility to damage visually suggests the impact of human actions. Often compared to modern apps, these devices therefore offer lessons for engaging with today’s media landscapes and their unseen material infrastructures.
About our speaker:
Aylin Malcolm is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Pennsylvania and the 2021–22 Brizdle-Schoenberg Fellow in the History of Material Texts. Their research interests include poetry and zoology in medieval England, the history of ecological crisis, and premodern gender studies. Aylin held a graduate fellowship at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies in 2019, during which they worked on medieval astronomical diagrams and their afterlives in digital spaces.