A spread of a 16th-century astrological text with a layered series of volvelles, or wheel charts that could be laid over the top of each page.

All images via The Library of Congress

More than 2,000 years ago in Hellenistic Greece, the astrolabe was invented as a kind of analog calculator to decode a range of astronomical observations, survey an area, or reckon latitude and time. Often made from metal, the tool was modified and further developed in the Islamic world, then later in Western Europe, throughout the next several centuries. By the medieval period, it had been adopted by astrologers and some physicians—the latter for whom religious belief and medicine were closely intertwined—to determine the course of the planets and their influences. And in the 16th century, the device found its way to scholar Leonhard Thurneisser (a.k.a. Thurneysser, circa 1530-96).

Thurneisser was fascinated by the workings of the universe, and his wide-ranging knowledge landed him a position as an intellectual and miracle doctor at a noble court in Brandenburg, Germany. Denounced as a serious scientist by some of his peers due to his interest in alchemy and astrology, he nevertheless published his findings in a phenomenal tome known as the Archidoxa in 1569, containing a collection of astrological predictions and ideas. Six years later, he released an addition to the volume called the Astrolabium, which used volvelles, or wheel charts, to provide individual horoscopes.

Richly illustrated with hand-colored plates engraved by an artist named Peter Hille, each page contains a different constellation and Des Menschen Cirkel und Lauff, or “man’s circle of life.” The volvelles, which could be layered on top of each page and spun in relation to one another, include the locations of fixed stars and Baum des Lebens, or “tree of life.” Bound in ornate leather, the book would have functioned as a kind of medieval Ouija board, in theory enabling the user to foresee their fate or predict natural disasters.

You can explore dozens more pages on The Library of Congress’s website, and you might also enjoy another 16th-century gem that can be read six different ways.


An astrological chart in a 16th-century book.

One of the wheel charts from a 16th-century astrological book.

One of the wheel charts from a 16th-century astrological book.

An ornately bound leather book.

A detail of stacking wheel charts.

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