In the first blog of 2019, our Human Remains Conservator talks about the superstitions surrounding Baby’s Cauls.
Rarely – fewer than one in 80,000 births – a child will be born with a veil over its face. These children were considered to be destined for greatness, and include Napoleon, Charlemagne, James I and VI, Byron and Sigmund Freud.
This veil, or caul, is simply the thin inner lining of the amniotic sac, the membranous structure which encapsulates the foetus inside the uterus. Part of this can become detached during birth and cling to the head or face. It would give the baby a strange appearance but can usually be peeled away easily without causing harm.
Even if the child did not achieve the predicted greatness, the caul was still a lucky omen: it was believed that those born with a caul wouldn’t drown. The membranes would be presented to the mother after the birth, and would often be dried by attaching them to a piece of paper, as the example in our collection. If you were in possession of the caul, you would share the child’s immunity from drowning. This meant that sailors would often go to great lengths to acquire one, with reports of one 19thC sailor paying fifteen pounds for this protective talisman – approximately 20 weeks wages for a sailor at this time. Dickens’ David Copperfield says “I was born with a caul, which was advertised for sale, in the newspapers, at the low price of fifteen guineas.”
Superstitions about the baby’s caul go back a long way. In Roman times, midwives would sell the cauls at high prices to lawyers who believed they would guarantee them legal victory. Powdered caul could be made into potions to cure malaria. Later on, coal miners thought that they could protect against explosions. Not all cultures saw them as lucky: in the Baltic, if the caul was dark, the child would become a witch or sorcerer; and in Romania, a child born with a caul would become a vampire when they died.
The caul in our collection came from a girl born in Colchester, Essex on the 10th April 1888.