Volvelles – Movable Circles in Books

Volvelles are one of the oldest forms of movable parts in books. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, volvelle is from medieval Latin volvella or volvellum, most likely from the Latin verb volvĕre, “to turn.” The OED defines volvelle as “an old device consisting of one or more movable circles surrounded by other graduated or figured circles, serving to ascertain the rising and setting of the sun and moon, the state of the tides, etc.”

In Early Modern times, volvelles were used especially to illustrate principles of navigation and astronomy. These “movable circles” were generally constructed of paper and attached to the book page using thread or, sometimes, glue. “Because of the precision required to record accurately certain types of data–charting a lunar eclipse, measuring nautical distance or calculating a mathematical equation, for instance–such disciplines were believed to be well served by the volvelle’s capacity for both rigorous alignment and reliable precision.” (Helfand, Jessica. 2002. Reinventing the Wheel. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, pp.18-19.)

The Claremont Colleges Library Special Collections has several examples of volvelles in Early Modern texts and at least one 2014 publication. Here are images of volvelles from some of those texts.


Calendarium. Joannes Regiomontanus. [Venice]: Bernhard Maler (Pictor), Erhard Ratdolt, and Peter Löslein, 1476.


Breue compendio de la sphera . . .Martin Cortes. [Seuilla], [1551].


La Cosmographia de Pedro Apiano. Peter Apian. En Anvers, por Iuan Bellero al Aguila de Oro, 1575. Apian’s volvelles are quite complex, each having several different movable parts.


Delineacion de lo tocante al conocimiento del punto de longitud del globo de tierra, y agua, y de la causa de las crecientes, y menguantes del mar. Juan González de Urueña. En Madrid: Por Diego Miguel de Peralta, impressor y mercador de libros …, año 1740


Diderot Decaptioned. Charles Hobson. [San Francisco, California]: [Pacific Editions], [2014]

In Diderot Decaptioned, notice that, different from the Early Modern volvelles, these volvelles are under the page and turn to reveal different captions for each image.

Forest of Dean Cross Section Map (1824)


A donation to the Woodford Collection, this hand-colored map includes coal deposits in the Forest of Dean, located in Gloucestershire, bordered by the Wye and Severn rivers, the site of important British mining operations in the early 19th century.

The plate above illustrates 5 separate coal basins in SW England; the one from the Forest of Dean by David Mushet is the bottom section. This cross section map includes several overlays that depict alternate geological views of the hills.

A closer view of one section of overlays:

“Section of the Strata of the Forest of Dean” by David Mushet, reprinted from the Transactions of the Geological Society of London (1824), accompanies the cross section map. Mushet was an influential industrialist and metallurgist who established an ironworks in the Forest of Dean.

Thank you to a scholar who contacted us recently with information regarding Mushet’s contribution to the plate [added 07.31/2014]. We’ve added the clarifying information to the paragraphs above. Many thanks!

The personal library of Alfred O. Woodford, head of the Pomona College Geology Department from 1915 until 1955, is the nucleus of the Woodford Collection. The Collection has continued to develop through departmental purchases, devotedly guided by Donald B. McIntyre, department chair from 1955 to 1984, and more recently, through personal donations from Pomona College alumnus, H. Stanton Hill.

Sphraera Mundi by Joannes de Sacrobosco

Impresso in Venetia per Francesco Brucioli, & i Frategli, 1543. call no. Hon Spcl Wagner QB 41 B78 1543. The Sphaera Mundi ( The Sphere of the World) is Sacro Basco’s main work on spherical astronomy of the Ptolemaic system, first written in Latin circa 1230. It became one of the most popular scientific works from the European Middle Ages. As many as twenty-four editions were published during the incunabula period only, and it remained in print well into the 17th century. Johannes de Sacrobosco, or John of Holywood, or Halifax, probably was an Englishman, although even his nationality is uncertain.

Special Collections copy was a gift from bibliographer and historian Henry Raup Wagner. It is profusely illustrated by a past user, probably from the 16th century, who couldn’t resist providing his own cartoon depictions of Sacrobosco’s text.