Wither's Volvelles

Frontispiece from Collection of Emblemes (Newberry Case f W 1025.98)
Wither's Volvelles

Emblem books were popular in Europe throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They contained emblematic woodcuts or engravings with accompanying didactic text. Taken together, their purpose was to pithily communicate a message that usually concerned political, religious, or moral teaching. Although they often appeared in books, the display of such emblems was not limited to the printed page. As Daniel Russell, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, explains, “these compact little compositions could be displayed on the reverse of medals, in festival décor, on costumes and in all kinds of political propaganda or religious pageantry.”

Here is the frontispiece of an emblem book within the Newberry’s collections - George Wither’s A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne; Quickened with Metrical Illustrations (London: A.M. for Henry Taunton, 1635, Newberry Case folio W 1025.98).

The images in this volume are the work of Dutch engraver Crispin van de Passe, and originally appeared in Holland two decades before the publication of Wither’s text. Wither, an English poet and author, believed the engravings to be excellent but their accompanying text “meane.” He added his own moral and religious verses to van de Passe’s engravings and the Collection of Emblemes was published in London in 1635. Wither’s verses were composed for the middle-class reader and consistently promote the Puritan virtues of diligence and thrift, qualities that are to be recognized and imitated.[1] 

This volume is of particular interest because it contains a pair of volvelles in its final pages. Volvelles are paper wheels fastened to the pages of a book, allowing them to turn in relation to one another. These simple moving parts could thereby be used as rudimentary calculators and memory aids. Originating in Germany and Italy in the late fifteenth century, volvelles became popular across Europe in the following century as printing technology increased in sophistication.[2] They were often included in “scientific” texts, for example astronomy and geography books in which solar motions and travel routes could be calculated. Volvelles, however, were also employed for humorous ends. Within Pietro Bertelli’s Disversarum Nationum (1589), for example, a reader can lift the skirts of a Venetian courtesan, or open the curtains to a woman’s private carriage.[3]

Wither included his volvelles for a quite different purpose. Blindly turning these two dials allowed a reader to select an emblem upon which to concentrate his or her attention. He intended for this “Lottery,” to be an entertainment, something he referred to as a “Moral Pastime.” As Rosemary Freeman observes in her English Emblem Books, “it obviously had the same appeal as a Fortune-teller at a party.” Here are the instructions that Wither provides for using the volvelles: 

“Turne about one of the Indexes in the Figures … without casting your eyes thereupon to observe where it stayeth until your hand ceaseth to give it motion. If it be the upper Figure, whose Index you moved than (sic), that Number whereupon it resteth, is the number of your Lot or Blancke. This being knowne, move the other Index in like manner, and that Quarter of the said Figure, whereon the same standeth…sheweth in which of the foure Bookes, or Lotteries, that Chance is to be expected, whereunto your Number doth send you, whether it be Lot, or Blancke. If it be any Number above Fifty, it is a Blancke Chance, and you are to looke no further. If it be any of the other Numbers, it sends you to the Emblem answering to the same Number, in the Booke next before the same Lotterie.”

Posted by Andrew Belongea, Program Assistant, Center for Renaissance Studies.

[1] Freeman, Rosemary. English Emblem Books New York: Octagon Books, 1978.

[2] Karr, Suzanne. “Constructions Both Sacred and Profane: Serpents, Angels, and Pointing Fingers in Renaissance Books with Moving Parts.” The Yale University Library Gazette, vol. 78 no. 3-4 (April 2004), pp.101-127.

[3] Ibid.

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