Midweek Writer-Rummage: The Caul

Today’s rummage through my research topics has unearthed ‘caul’. It’s a thin, filmy membrane, the remnants of the amniotic sac, that covers or partly covers the head of a baby at birth; such births are rare. This is not to be confused with the ‘en-caul’ birth, which occurs when the baby is born inside the intact amniotic sac. 

The Latin term is ‘Caput galeatum’ which literally means ‘head helmet’. The caul is harmless and is easily and quickly removed by the doctor or midwife following the child’s birth. A child born with a caul is known as a ‘caulbearer’. 

Cauls were/are used in a method of divination known as amniomancy (from the Latin ‘amnion’, which means ‘membrane’); this practice dates to, at least, Roman times. By inspecting the caul, the diviner predicts the baby’s future. If the caul is red, it is said the baby will have a happy life; but if it is lead-coloured, the child will have misfortunes.

There is written and oral references to cauls being kept as protective amulets. This, from 1507 (unfortunately, I didn’t make a note as to its origin):

I tell you for a trouthe that yf ony man bere ypon hym in some batayll the lytell moders wombe, knowe that he may not be hurte nor wounded in his body.

Historically, in ancient Rome, a child born with a caul was believed to be an omen of good luck. The son of the Roman Emperor Macrinus was born with a caul that formed a ‘diadem’ on his head; he was named Diadumenian (208-218). He served his father briefly as Caesar (‘imperial character’) when he was 9 years old, and as Augustus (‘majestic’) when he was 10. Turned out he was far from lucky – when the Syrian legions revolted, they executed Macrinus then Diadumenian in 218.

 Diadumenian

Diadumenian

The belief that a baby born with a caul signifies good fortune carried on into medieval times. It was considered an omen that the child was destined for greatness, and caulbearers were considered immune to witchcraft. Gathering the caul was seen as an important tradition of childbirth. By rubbing a sheet of paper across the baby’s head and face, the midwife would press the material of the caul onto the paper. The caul would then be presented to the mother, to be kept as an heirloom.

It was said that caulbearers are gifted to ‘see beyond the veil’; the ‘veil’ being the caul, and a term used to describe the separation between dimensions. Over the course of history, a legend also developed that suggested anyone possessing a baby’s caul would themselves be blessed with good luck, and the caul would protect the person from death by drowning. No surprise then that cauls were highly sought after and prized by sailors. Women often sold cauls to sailors for a fair sum, which they were willing to pay.

Caulbearers were said to be able to see the future. In Iceland, the child’s guardian spirit was said to reside in the caul and so it was carefully preserved. But not all believed cauls were a good thing – in Romania, it was believed that a child born in a caul would become a vampire after death.

References to caulbearers being special occur in literature from the Bible onwards; Moses was said to have been born with a caul.

 'The Finding of Moses' ~ Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

'The Finding of Moses' ~ Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

There are quite a few references in literature; I’ve included ones from books I’ve read:

The Grimm fairy tale, ‘The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs’, in which a poor woman gives birth to a son with a caul. It was interpreted to mean that he would marry the king’s daughter when he was 14 years old.

Charles Dickens’ ‘David Copperfield’: ‘I was born with a caul, which was advertised for sale, in the newspapers, at the low price of fifteen guineas…

Alvin Miller, the protagonist in Orson Scott Card’s series ‘The Tales of Alvin Maker’, is born with a caul in the first book, titled ‘Seventh Son’. Being the seventh son of a seventh son, the caul is a sign of his strong magical gift.

In Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’, Jack Torrance’s son, Danny, was born with a caul that made it seem as if he had “no face” when he was born.

There are more well-known people born with a caul than I realised, including

Charlemagne

 (detail from the Alexander Mosaic)

(detail from the Alexander Mosaic)

Alexander the Great

Lord Byron

 'Napoleon in Coronation Robes' ~ Francois Gérard

'Napoleon in Coronation Robes' ~ Francois Gérard

Napoleon

King James VI and I

Lillian Gish

 (by Allan Warren, 1968)

(by Allan Warren, 1968)

Liberace

… to name a few.