Astronomical Compendia

Ok we need to talk about this. I just now found out about these things and they are literally the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

An astronomical compendium (plural = compendia) is an instrument that carry numerous devices for telling the time and performing astronomical calculations. Many compendia were made in the German lands in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. They are often beautifully engraved in gilt brass.

Typically such compendia carry a sundial, various lunar and solar volvelles, a compass, tables of latitude, and a perpetual calendar. Two characteristics are typical of the construction of these instruments: first, they were often made as lavishly as possible; second, they are ingeniously constructed, with as many instruments as possible filling the available space.

Most of the instruments on a compendium are used to simplify astronomical calculations. Many compendia have volvelles - rotating discs that show the phases of the Moon, the positions of planets, and other such phenomena.

Some compendia also carry stereographic projections. These are multi-purpose maps of the heavens, allowing many astronomical calculations to be simplified. Using these, people could determine the time of sunrise and sunset, and the position of the Sun in its annual (apparent) motion through the sky.


If you don’t think that’s the tightest shit then get out of my face.


Books as hardware

These odd-looking medieval books share one peculiarity: they were all made into interactive objects because actual turning discs were attached to the page, usually more than one. The makers of these manuscripts added them to calculate the position of sun and moon (Pic 1), the date of Easter (not shown), or make other calculations (Pic 3). Particularly intriguing is the set of cogwheels embedded in the bookbinding (Pic 2), which picked a random number used for a method of divination. More about these unusual books and their function in this post on my other blog, medievalbooks.nl.

Pics: British Library, Egerton 848 (top); Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby 46 (middle); Maastricht, Regionaal Historisch Centrum (bottom, pic my own).

Johannes Trithemius -  Rotating Paper Volvelle used as a Cipher Disc, “Polygraphy”, 1561.

A volvelle or wheel chart is a type of slide chart, a paper construction with rotating parts. It is considered an early example of a paper analog computer. Volvelles have been produced to accommodate organization and calculation in many diverse subjects.

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. 

Volvelles were said to be able to predict the future, and numbers had supernatural significance into the 16th century. Some medieval people suspected volvelles and the people who used them of having malicious intent and working dark magic. But volvelles were later prized, as scientific thought evolved, both for recording knowledge and producing new knowledge.


Smart page with string

These pages from a late-16th-century scientific manuscript share a most unusual feature: they contain a string that runs through a pierced hole. Dozens of them are found in this book. The pages contain diagrams that accompany astronomical tracts. They show such things as the working of the astrolabe (Pic 1), the position of the stars (Pic 4), and the movement of the sun (Pic 6). The book was written and copied by the cartographer Jean du Temps of Blois (born 1555), about whom little appears to be known. The book contains a number of volvelles or wheel charts: revolving disks that the reader would turn to execute calculations. The strings seen in these images are another example of the “hands-on” kind of reading the book facilitates. Pulling the string tight and moving it from left to right, or all the way around, would connect different bits of data, like a modern computer: the string drew a temporary line between two or more values, highlighting their relationship. The tiny addition made the physical page as smart as its contents.

Pics: London, British Library, Harley MS 3263: more on this book here; and full digital reproduction here.

Robert Fludd - Zodiac Man, “Utriusque Cosmi Maioris Scilicet et Minoris Metaphysica”, 1617.

The Zodiac Man dates all the way back to the Middle Ages and the body was seen to be divided up into regions just as the Earth was. The belief back then was that man was known as “a Little World”, the term they used to refer to this was ‘Microgasm’, which is known to originate with the ancient Babylonians.

The Zodiac Man was used in mainly in medicine by working alongside the Moon. Wherever the Moon and Stars are aligned with a certain Astrological Sign they correlated with a body part, bodily system, or the four Humors. The four Humors separate the body into four parts just as there are four Elements. The four Humors of the human body are Yellow Bile, Black Bile, Phlegm and Blood, it was believed that these all needed to be in balance in order to keep up with your Health. These Humors were used directly to treat illness alongside the Zodiac Man and were also used to explain and simplify concepts to patients.

Europe was, at the time, required by law to calculate the Moon’s positioning before taking action on a patient or any kind of medical procedure. If the Moon was not in its correct positioning, nothing was able to be performed because it was deemed unsafe. They used a Volvelle, a rotating Calendar, to calculate the Moon’s position as well as multiple Almanacs which described different Phases of the Moon. Most of the ways that illnesses were determined and diagnosed was through the four Humors, especially through Blood and Yellow Bile, better known as Urine. This was one of the main ways people were diagnosed. Many pictures of the Zodiac Man solely depict the main body parts correlating with the Astrological Signs, but others go more in depth to then match the signs with internal bodily systems.

The Zodiac Man externally and internally:
Aries - Head, eyes, adrenals, blood pressure
Taurus - Neck, throat, shoulders, ears
Gemini - Lungs, nerves, arms, shoulders, fingers
Cancer - Chest wall, breasts, some body fluids
Leo - Heart, spine, upper back, spleen
Virgo - Abdomen, intestines, gallbladder, pancreas, liver
Libra - Lower back, buttocks, hips, kidneys, endocrines
Scorpio - Reproductive organs, pelvis, urinary bladder, rectum
Sagittarius - Thighs, legs
Capricorn - Knees, bones, skin
Aquarius - Ankles, blood vessels
Pisces - Feet, some body fluids


New acquisition opening: Orbita by Cuban book artists Chucho Romeu, Roberto Morales, & Ernesto Sargenton, 2013.

Made with Vine

muspeccoll tagged us in the book challenge and we happily accept. It’s always hard to choose but here are 10 of the many librarian favorites. 

1. Notes on Nursing: What it is and What it is Not by Florence Nightingale (pictured above): This book was hugely popular in its time and did much to dispel myths and distrust of hospitals and nurses. We are fortunate to have multiple first editions and it is a favorite to use in instruction sessions to demonstrate different printing states of the same work. 

2. Everything You Need to Erect Your Very Own Multi-Story Building by Chris Ware (pictured above): We are lucky to have a burgeoning comics and graphic novel collection including this interactive comic by Chicagoan Chris Ware. 

3. Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose) and Le Jeu des échecs moralisé (The Moralized Game of Chess): These medieval manuscripts were originally bound together, were separated in the 19th century, and reunited in the 21st century in our collection. Read more about it and see the digitized images here: http://roseandchess.lib.uchicago.edu/

4. Tamerlane and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe (pictured above): This is still considered one of the rarest books in American literature. Anonymously published in 1827 by “A Bostonian,” only 50 copies were printed. 

5.Ms. 931, New Testament. Revelation (Elizabeth Day McCormick Apocalypse): Believed to be one of the earliest works of Maximos who is thought to have been an Alexandrian archdeacon. Learn more and see the digitized illuminations here: http://goodspeed.lib.uchicago.edu/ms/index.php?doc=0931&obj=001

6.The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois: First published in Chicago in 1903, SCRC is home to a first edition. Our copy is significant not only for the work’s literary importance but also for the presence of a postcard photographic portrait of Du Bois dated 1904. It was recently featured in the exhibition Race and the Design of American Life

7. Seaven Bookes of the Iliades of Homere, Prince of Poets… . Translated by George Chapman: This is the first English translation of a Homeric text, published in 1598. Recently featured in the exhibition Homer in Print

8. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (pictured above): We hold many early editions of Woolf’s work published by The Hogarth Press. which was founded in 1917 by Virginia and her husband, Leonard Woolf. 

9. The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot (pictured above): Our copy is inscribed by Eliot to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry Magazine. 

10. Astronomicum cæsareum (pictured above) by Peter Apian: One of the most remarkable printed works from the 16th century. It includes 36 elaborately hand-colored woodcuts, 21 of which included woodcut volvelles, designed to help the reader identify planetary positions and alignments as well as other astronomical phenomena. Featured in the exhibition Book Use, Book Theory.

Thanks to othmeralia for starting this challenge and to muspeccoll for tagging us. We would love to hear from newberrylibraryhoughtonlib, and uispeccoll

“Volvelles (from the Latin volvere, to turn) were dials engineered out of paper that were often, but not always, circular in shape and which were usually sewn onto a sheet of paper. The dials then turned around this axis like a wheel on an axle.” — Suzanne Karr Schmidt (Cabinet Magazine)

The motel mileage calculator is one of the last popular forms of such a device, which served as a proto-computer before fizzling out around the time that IBM released the System/360. It is, in some sense, the perfect symbol of post-war road culture: the rest of the world was just a spinning wheel away, and you could go anywhere.