The use of volvelles in alchemy

By Zoe Screti

This research was supported by an SIS Grant. A longer piece on this subject will feature in a future SIS Bulletin.

Figure 1. The volvelle beneath the parchment lining of the end board of alchemical compendium Latin MS 65.

The alchemist’s laboratory was often a space which housed numerous tools and instruments. The recipes of three early modern English alchemists, Thomas Potter (fl.1580s), Clement Draper (1550-1620), and Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) all, for instance, called for the use of a glass stillatory, crucibles, ingots, marble stones, vials, alembics, philosophers’ eggs, rotundas, circulatory vessels, and urinals amongst other things (British Library, 1842). References to these sorts of vessels, tools, and instruments are commonplace in alchemical treatises, but there is a notable silence in these sources about the paper tools that may also have assisted alchemical practices.

Paper tools in the form of volvelles featured regularly in the libraries of alchemical practitioners, and their presence may suggest that alchemists actively used these tools within their practices. The most suggestive link between paper tools and alchemical practices comes from a fifteenth-century manuscript in Manchester’s John Rylands Library. Concealed beneath the parchment lining of the end board of Latin MS 65 – an alchemical compendium – is a volvelle (Figure 1) which allows the user to measure the movements of the moon, as well as certain planets. The location of this volvelle, hidden within a tome of alchemical knowledge, primarily suggests that its intended purpose was to support alchemical practices as it would have been within easy reach of the alchemist using the compendium. This link is further confirmed by the celestial bodies noted within the volvelle: Mercury (quicksilver), Saturn (lead), Jupiter (tin), and the Moon (silver), each representing a key metal in the alchemical process. Thus both the content of the volvelle and its placement are suggestive of its intended usage.

Books containing volvelles featured in the libraries of numerous prominent alchemists, including John Dee (1527-1608) who owned a copy of Johannes Trithemius’ Polygraphie et vniverselle escriture cabalistique (Paris, 1561) which contained twelve volvelles for calculating celestial movements. Other alchemists, meanwhile, produced their own. Notably, Leonhard Thurneisser (1531-1596) published Des Menschen Cirkel un Lauff in 1575, which featured an elaborate volvelle with depictions of two female alchemists at work beneath the moving parts. Like Latin MS 65, the proximity of alchemy to this volvelle directly correlates paper tools with alchemical practices, suggesting a link between the two that has hitherto remained unnoticed.

But why should alchemists have counted volvelles amongst their collections of scientific instruments? The answer is threefold. Firstly, astrological volvelles could inform alchemists as to when to conduct certain experiments so as to take advantage of planetary alignments. These alignments were believed to be important spiritually for the matter being transformed within the alchemical vessel, but more practically instructed alchemists as to the correct seasons in which to practice so as to avoid disruptive climatic interferences. Secondly, lunar volvelles could aid the measurement of time, offering in particular an insight into the lengths of nights and days, which may have been useful for alchemists determining when to tend to their work. Finally, pneumonic volvelles, such as Lullian wheels, could help to decode alchemical texts, revealing encrypted meanings, a process that was inherent to alchemical practice (Rampling, 2020). In their many varied forms, then, volvelles could offer alchemists crucial guidance on when to practice and how to understand their texts, making it perhaps unsurprising to see them featured in alchemical libraries.

My research, supported by a SIS Research Grant, has explored the presence of paper tools in alchemical laboratories, making it possible to demonstrate that volvelles were a common feature of alchemical libraries and laboratories. From volvelles nestled into the very fabric of an alchemical compendium, to Lullian wheels decrypting encoded texts, these paper tools were both useful and informative, ensuring their place in alchemical study.


British Library (BL), Sloane MS 1842: ‘Alchemical receipts’, fols.28r-54r; Sloane MS 3580 A, ‘The process for making gold’, fols.184v-187r; Sloane MS 3687, ‘Alchemical processes’, fols.105r-110v; Sloane MS 3688, ‘receipts from homfrae evans sone in lawe’, ‘Questions and notes upon the worke of Henry Tyler’, ‘The coppie of another Booke which I had of Mrs Jane Constable’, fols.3r-30r.

Jennifer Rampling, 2020: Reading Alchemically: Guides to “philosophical” practice in early modern England. BJHS Themes, pp. 57-74.

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