Aylin Malcolm (University of Pennsylvania): "Revolutionary Science: Movable Books and the Medieval Universe"

Workshop in the History of Material Texts

Featured Image: Astronomical volvelle from a fifteenth-century copy of Sacrobosco's De sphaera mundi. Penn MS Codex 1881, fol. 35r (detail).

Monday, February 7, 2022, 5:15pm, via Zoom
Volvelle from Penn MS Codex 1881

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.

Talks will be held live, in person, in the Class of 78 Pavilion, 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. They will also be available via Zoom (please contact Aylin Malcolm for details). All are welcome. If you would like to receive details on future talks, please sign up for our listserv using this link or visit the Workshop website.

The Workshop in the History of Material Texts is supported by the School of Arts and Sciences through the Department of English and hosted by the Penn Libraries. The co-directors of the seminar are Professor Zachary Lesser (English), Jerry Singerman (Penn Press, Emeritus), and John Pollack (Kislak Center, Penn Libraries).

Associated with the workshop is the book series in Material Texts published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, which includes many monographs that have emerged from presentations given at the workshop over the years.