Mothering Sunday – Happy Mother’s Day!

Embryology and female anatomy: selected images from the St. Canice Library Collection

By Yvette Campbell, Special Collections & Archives

If anyone ever says childbirth is easy, show them this!

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Woodcut of childbearing – The “gagliarde” able to sit up, 1596. – Scipione Mercurio

To celebrate all motherhood on this day, have a look at some of the amazing images from a 16th century book on pregnancy from the St. Canice Library Collection here at Maynooth. This most important, curious and fascinating book deals with human ontogeny (from embryo generation to birth) and with female anatomy (mostly concerning pregnancy and childbirth). It was most likely used for instruction and learning. Scipione Mercurio, a friar, wrote this handbook in Italian rather than Latin: hence, midwives could understand it.

The work written by the Dominican friar Scipione Mercurio (1540-1615?), La Comare o Ricoglitrice, was published in Venice in 1595 & 1596 respectively; it is composed of three volumes which investigate pregnancy, childbirth, aid in case of difficulty during delivery, and obstetrical, gynaecological, and childhood diseases. The first volume is equipped with precious anatomical tables representing pregnant women, engraved in a copper slab by Francesco Valesio (1524-1592).

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Engraving of the labelled anatomy of a woman – Francesco Valesia (1524-1502)

Before the 17th century, when surgeons started to enter the labour room, theory, training and practice were assigned to midwives who used to assist their patients without the help of a physician or a surgeon. Because they embed a great number of didactic pictures, some of which may compete against any modern book of anatomy, embryology and obstetric, some of these are shown.

Some of the illustrations in the second volume are quite bizarre, when Mercurio shows the positions to be taken by women in case of difficulties during childbirth or when women in labour are quite overweight. Here are also represented the two proper positions for a caesarean section, distinguishing between the ‘strong’ women (the gagliarde), who could be operated while sitting on the bed, and the ‘weak’ ones (the deboli), to be operated while lying in bed.

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Woodcut of the “deboli” lying-down, 1596. – Scipione Mercurio

Mercurio states, that the woman was held by the shoulders by another woman, while the midwife stood at the base of the chair, ready to take the baby and, in case the obstetric chair was not available, the patient sat on the knees of the midwife herself. Men usually would not attend this event to protect female privacy, the surgeon was called only in case of embryulcia and embriotomy, to extract the dead baby from the mother’s womb. 

As this book deals with difficulties during delivery, perhaps this is why we see so many men in these images. By the end of the 16th century, however, childbirth in presence of a surgeon was an exceptional event: midwives summoned doctors very rarely.

Obstetricians were supposed to favour, if possible, the lying-down procedure, regarded by Mercurio as safer for both mother and child. The friar believed that lying-down avoided infections and stopped the bad tradition of laying the baby on the floor.
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Diagram of a baby leaving the mothers womb.

The volume is equipped with a rich critical apparatus of surgical instruments. The forceps, invented by Chamberlen in 1572, was the instrument that was to become the symbol of this new obstetrics: known as the ‘‘instrument of life,’’ it allowed surgeons to extract the baby alive by seizing it by the head with two pairs of pincers.

The Comare textbook was extremely successful in Italy and abroad, too, as it was edited twice in German. The main issue of this book is that the image of the midwife and her education come out as very positive as the author wrote: “Do not think my idea is educating and transforming my midwife into a physician“.

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Diagram of the baby in the womb

At this time the midwives were often not educated and usually they were taught by an older and more expert colleague. They used herbs, spices, sometimes magic and simple instruments to help their patients, such as a tiny rope to tie the baby’s limbs together, fats and oils to ease labour. For their deep familiarity with herbs and magic spells, these women had been very often blamed for sorcery and damned to the stake in a male society, where only men attended a formal education, their knowledge, based on tradition and female sharing of experience, was considered dangerous and able to undermine the teachings of men.

This changed dramatically in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the surgeon’s presence into the labour chamber led to a fundamental decrease of infant and maternal mortality, but transformed the idea of delivery into the idea of extracting the foetus alive from the birth canal and of easing the mother’s pains only. Schools for Midwifery were opened across Europe and women were provided with an educational curriculum and together with surgeons, they helped mothers safely deliver their babies.

As if mothers need reminding…



  • Vanucci, L., Frigenti, L., and Maria-Simonetta Faussone-Pelleggrini. “From conception to birth: ancient library sources of embryology and women anatomy kept in the Biblioteca Biomedica of the Università degli Studi di Firenze (Biomedical Library of Florence University)” Italian Journal of Anatomy and Embryology Vol . 116, n. 2: 93-103, (2011).


  • Lippi, Donatella, and Domizia Weber. “Crouching or lying-down? The reason of a (uncomfortable) delivery position” The Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine, Early Online 1-3, (2013).

One thought on “Mothering Sunday – Happy Mother’s Day!

  1. Lydia Black March 6, 2016 / 4:11 pm

    So interesting! I love the images. Great piece.

    Liked by 1 person

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