The Münster Mash: Mythical Monsters at Maynooth

By Yvette Campbell, Assistant Librarian, Special Collections & Archives

CK 967 -Cosmographiae Universalis (1550)

The month of October marks the 820th anniversary of St. Canice’s Cathedral. To celebrate this occasion, I have selected an interesting piece from the St. Canice’s Cathedral Library Collection that also ties in with the celebration of Halloween.

Cosmographiae Universalis by Sebastian Münster printed in Basel by Heinrich Petri in 1550 includes approximately 900 woodcuts of sea and land monsters thought to have existed around the world. Aside from the famous maps present in the Cosmographia, the text is richly filled with woodcuts of flora and fauna, monsters, obscurities, Kings/Queens and customs. This success of this work was due to the notable woodcuts (some by Hans Holbein the Younger, Urs Graf, Hans Rudolph Manuel Deutsch, and David Kandel).

This Latin edition and the German edition, both published in the same year by Münster’s son-in-law Heinrich Petri, were the first of Münster’s works to contain town views. The map of the modern world, “Typus Orbis Universalis,” also first appeared in this edition, replacing the Ptolemaic world map used in previous editions.

Sebastian Münster (1488-1552) was a German cartographer, cosmographer, and Hebrew scholar whose Cosmographia or “Cosmography”) first printed in 1544, was the earliest German description of the world, and a major work in the revival of geographic thought in 16th century Europe. Although the Cosmographia records encyclopaedic details about the known world at that time, what is interesting from a modern perspective, is the speculations surrounding the unknown worlds at that time. It is highly likely that Münster relied heavily on the works of Roman author Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) for descriptions of the unknown lands and those thought to have dwelt there.

From left to right: Sciapodes, Cyclopes, Bicephales, blemmyae and Cynocephali woodcuts printed by Heinrich Petri (1550)


The Sciapodes (or Monopods) were a legendary people with one leg and one gigantic foot which they used like an umbrella to shade from the sun during extreme heat. A Sciapod is often depicted lying on their back in a curved shape, with their huge foot in the air. They were also popular in Medieval bestiaries and map illustrations of Terra Incognita.


More familiar to us, (thanks to famous fairy tales, Greek myths and Harryhausen movies) is the Cyclops. Cyclopes (‘wheel-eyed’) were odd-looking giants with one eye in the middle of their foreheads.


Two-headed people as pictured above in the centre of the image, were likely manifestations representing the duality of good and evil, fire and water, light and darkness – a common sight in many cultures and myths for thousands of years.


A Panotii

The famous mythical blemmyae or akephaloi (“headless ones”) are described and illustrated throughout numerous Greek and Roman sources. They were first mentioned 2,500 years ago by Herodotus in ‘The Histories’. Pictured here in the Cosmographia, the headless blemmyae were thought to have been cannibalistic creatures with a face on their chest and could reach up to 12 feet in height and 6 feet wide. Following reports of their existence by several famous explorers and as testament to the popularity of these creatures , Shakespeare even incorporated them into his plays The Tempest and Othello.


The Cynocephali, or ‘dog-headed’ people were one of the best-known monstrous races. They were said to be fierce warriors with the body of a man and the head of a dog. Other than the god Anubis in Ancient Egypt, both the ancient Greeks and the Chinese have recorded their sightings of these creatures in several surviving texts.


The Panotii or Panotiorum (All-Ears Islands) were a tribe of giant-eared people, measuring 27 inches in height who were native to the cold islands of the far north and slept snuggled up inside the flaps of their gigantic ears. According to some sources, they also used these wing-like appendages to fly.

Slideshow of other mythical creatures in the Cosmographia

For the month of Halloween, check out the Cosmographiae Universalis on display outside the Special Collections and Archives reading room located on Level 2 of the John Paul II Library. If you would like to learn more about the wonderful books from the St. Canice’s Cathedral Library Collection, check out our introductory video below as part of our Library Treasures series:

All images in this post © The Representative Body of the Church of Ireland from the collections of Maynooth University Library

St. Canice’s Library: The Otway-Maurice Collection

By Yvette Campbell, Susan Durack and Barbara McCormack, Special Collections & Archives

The Otway-Maurice Collection of St Canice’s Cathedral Library, Kilkenny is a very important collection which was recently acquired by Maynooth University Library on long-term loan from The Representative Body of the Church of Ireland for restoration and safe keeping with Hugh Murphy (Senior Librarian) and Barbara McCormack acting as project managers.

St. Canice’s Library Room

This is a unique collection of early printed books, mainly that of Bishop Edward Maurice, who was Bishop of Ossory in the mid-18th Century. It includes many fine examples of woodcut illustrations, historic bindings, and manuscript fragments. Particular highlights of the collection include: four items of incunabula (pre-1500 printing), a Shakespearean Fourth Folio (1685) and a Sarum Missal printed for Fleet Street printer Wynkyn de Worde.

Collection processing was carried out on a phased basis to provide access to the collection as soon as possible: the first stage was to list the material in the collection and then each item was catalogued to a minimum level before the final stage of full DCRM (B) compliant cataloguing can begin.

A substantial amount of work began on the collection in September 2015 which included a basic clean, freezer de-infestation and transportation from Kilkenny to Maynooth. It was strongly recommended that the collection be housed in an environmentally controlled storage area to prevent insect damage and deterioration due to fluctuating humidity and temperature. This was especially essential that all pre-1600 items (approximately 310) and other particularly rare and valuable items be housed in this storage area.

St. Canice’s Library Room

One of the highlights of the collection is a magnificent copy of Shakespeare’s Folio, one of the most sought-after books in the world. The First Folio, printed seven years after Shakespeare’s death, brought together 36 plays – 18 of which would otherwise not have been recorded. Without this publication, there would be no copy of plays such as Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and The Tempest.

This copy was published in 1685 and is the fourth printing in perfect condition. The book is also the only source of the familiar dome-headed portrait of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout.

Shakespeare's Folio
Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio 1685

Another favourite is our copy of The Ship of Fooles by Sebastian Brandt printed by John Cawood in 1590. Brant’s satire on human foolishness became a European bestseller. By 1574, more than 40 editions of the text had appeared, including translations into Latin, French, English, Dutch, and Low German. The text describes a fictitious sea voyage of 112 fools, each representing a certain type of human misconduct, to the promised land of “Narragonia.” The succession of fools is led by the foolish reader: convinced of his learning, he is engaged in chasing away the flies buzzing around his desk piled with books, but he does not open the books to gain knowledge. Brant does not so much criticise foolishness as remaining foolish by failing to recognize one’s own shortcomings.

The Ship of Fooles
The Ship of Fooles

One of the reasons for the work’s great success was undoubtedly the high-quality woodcuts that introduce and complement the text. Each sin or vice in the book is accompanied by a finely detailed woodcut that gives either a literal or allegorical interpretation of that particular sin or vice. Chapters are devoted to such offenses as Arrogance Toward God, Marrying for Money, and Noise in Church. Among the artists with whom Brant collaborated on this work was the young Albrecht Dürer, who soon after the completion of this work left Basel for Nuremberg.

Our copy of John Foxe’s The Book of Martyrs is a perfect example of a medieval book in all its glory – great binding, elaborate text accompanied by striking images.

John Foxe’s survey of Christian martyrs throughout history laid strong emphasis on those who had died for their faith during the reign of Queen Mary (1553-58), and was widely read during the 16th and 17th centuries. It had a great influence on popular opinion with regard to Catholicism over the following centuries, providing support for the legal oppression of Catholics until the 19th century.

Foxe's Book of Martyrs
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

While Foxe was by no means an impartial writer, and his presentation of history is selective and peppered with comment, his access to the evidence from very recent trials and eye-witness accounts renders his work generally reliable and fascinating.

As a Protestant in exile in Germany he continued writing, as news of the persecutions in England reached him. The first edition of his book, in Latin, was published in 1559, and contained little information about the recent Protestant martyrs, whose stories were included in the much fuller edition published in English in 1563.

Paradise Lost
Milton’s Paradise Lost

Our 1688 copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost is certainly an incredible treasure in this collection. Since its first illustrated edition rolled off the press in 1688, Paradise Lost has fired the imaginations of artists. Generations of painters, draughtsmen and printmakers have tried – and sometimes failed – to create a visual equivalent of Milton’s poetry. Between the late seventeenth and early twentieth centuries a flurry of illustrated editions of Paradise Lost appeared. Apart from being beautiful artefacts in themselves, these books and their engraved plates are an invaluable sign of what Paradise Lost meant to the periods that produced them. Satan, for example, looks very different in 1680 to how he looks in 1860.

Other items of interest include the oldest item in the collection – which are latin fragments known as binder’s waste from the early 1500’s; Books with such topics as Greek Mythology, Cannibalism, Demonology, Witchcraft and Botony; Epitaphs on the tombs in the Cathedral Church of St. Canice Kilkenny; material with provenance history from Queen Christina of Sweden to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The St. Canice’s Library Collection is certainly without a doubt a treasure trove that offers both researcher and enthusiast alike a chance to step back in time and discover a hidden gem. Below is a geographical map of the origins of the collection showing the places of publication across Europe from the 16th to the 17th centuries.

To date, 3152 books from the St. Canice’s Library Collection have been catalogued and can be accessed online via the LibrarySearch discovery tool.

Access to this collection is by appointment only – Please email



British Library

BBC News

Darkness Visible: a resource for studying Milton’s Paradise Lost





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!

Canice 2
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).

Canice 5
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.

Canice 1
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.

Canice 6
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“.

Canice 8
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).