Born with the Caul. What does that mean? To be born with the caul- spelled C-A-U-L, so not like “Who you gonna call?” – is something that happens to a small percentages of babies where they are born with a piece of membrane or amniotic sac covering their head at birth. It kind of looks like a lacy veil, except slimy. Its generally harmless, and its just something that sometimes happens, although it is pretty rare… less than one in 80,000 babies are born with the caul.
The word caul comes from Latin and it means helmeted head, which refers to the membrane covering the head. Sometimes babies are actually born inside the entire amniotic sac, which is also sometimes referred to as a “caul birth,” but that’s different than being born “with the caul,” which refers more specifically to the membrane covering the face and head like a veil.
Probably in no small part simply because it was unusual, but for other reasons as well, being born with the caul has had a long and interesting history in popular belief around various parts of the world.
I’ve come across stuff about the caul several times, but what really got me looking more into it was a book I started reading when I was working on the Satan through the Ages series. Its called “The Night Battles,” and its an account of witchcraft in Northern Italy during the 15 and 1600’s. And basically it looks at documented accounts of interviews conducted by Inquisitors from the Church of people who confessed to being “witches.” But, they insisted, they were “good witches,” or benandanti.
Throughout parts of Italy, and Northern Italy in particular, there was a popular belief that was particularly strong at this time, although it undoubtedly had much older roots, in two groups of witches- good witches, or benandanti, and bad witches- strega.
What really got my attention with this book is that there are two really, really similar accounts given by men who claimed to be benandanti. And these men lived in different areas at slightly different times and apparently had never met and had no knowledge of one another whatsoever. And yet, they both went into incredible detail about the experience of leaving their bodies and venturing in spirit to these gatherings of the benandanti. Both described being summoned by a bearded man, the leader of the benandanti, who carried a colorful flag, and being compelled to go on this journey of the spirit to convene in a certain field and do battle with the strega, the bad witches. And, both of these men reported that they had been born with the caul, and in fact wore their dried cauls around their necks as luck charms for most of their lives.
According to both of them, all men born with the caul were destined to become bendandanti for a period of time between their twenties and forties. It was almost like a military service- you were drafted as a young man and obliged to fight the strega several times a year. These battles between the bendandti and the strega, explained both men, pertained to- and in fact dictated- the success or failure of the subsequent years harvest. There were actually 4 battles, in total, concerning different aspects of the harvest cycles, and these took place during the Ember Days, or seasonal solstices and equinoxes. The benandanti were armed with bundles of fennel, the strega with bundles of sorghum, and its unclear whether these weapons were endowed with a magical quality or if they would simply whap each other with them… I would assume the former, but its never explicitly explained.
Now, the victor in these battles would make rounds throughout the towns and invade the wine cellars of the people. If the strega triumphed, they would not only drink their fill of the wine but they would also urinate- or worse- into the casks and ruin whatever wine they didn’t end up drinking. The benandanti, were they victorious, would also help themselves to peoples’ wine, but they would not, um, befoul it… because, after all, they were the good witches.
These tales of the night battles and the witches making their way into the wine cellars were fairly entrenched in popular belief at that time, and it was actually a folk custom to leave dishes of water outside of one’s door on the nights when the battles were rumored to take place. This was to appease the witches, slake their thirst, and dissuade them from entering one’s house and reeking havoc on the wine cellar.
The idea that being born with the caul sort of marks someone as destined to become a witch, or have some sort of supernatural capacity, is not limited to Northern Italy. I’m sure a lot of people are pretty familiar with the idea that vampires as we think of them today originated in eastern Europe, something popularized with the notion of the Transylvanian Dracula. Perhaps less well-known is the belief that, according to Romanian folklore, babies born with the caul are in fact destined to become vampires, or strigoi. Now, to clarify, traditionally strigoi weren’t always vampires in the way we think of them, per se. They could be more like witches or even hybrid human/animal beings or shapeshifters, but they were almost always equated with a thirst for human blood.
There are actually a couple different types of Romanian vampiric beings. The Moroi are another sort of class of vampires, who are often thought of more specifically as dead people who rise from the grave to feed on the living… which is a bit more in keeping with the contemporary idea of a vampires.
Now, I should mention that while our sort of contemporary understanding of a vampire originated in eastern Europe and really got codified in the 18th century, there were references to and beliefs in something akin to vampirism in ancient civilizations and in many different parts of the world. And that is something that definitely merits its own episode because. So, we’ll definitely get more into vampirism at some point.
Today, however, we’re taking about the caul.
Beliefs about the caul run the gamut from extremely lucky to extremely unlucky, but it is almost always associated with fortune, for better or worse. Throughout much of Western Europe, the trend was towards good fortune, and the caul was believed to be powerful as a charm to prevent drowning. Because of this belief, there was actually a fairly well-documented trade in cauls throughout medieval and early modern Europe, and actually even into the time of World War 1. There are numerous accounts of newspapers advertising cauls for sale as talismans or luck charms, which were particularly popular with sailors.
Charles Dickens famously referenced this in the beginning of David Copperfield, where the protagonist provides account of having had his caul raffled off.
I was born with a caul, which was advertised for sale, in the newspapers, at the low price of fifteen guineas. Whether sea-going people were short of money about that time, or were short of faith and preferred cork jackets, I don’t know; all I know is, that there was but one solitary bidding, and that was from an attorney connected with the bill-broking business, who offered two pounds in cash, and the balance in sherry, but declined to be guaranteed from drowning on any higher bargain.
And just to prove that this isn’t confined to the realms of fiction, there’s a record of a bequest made from the will of Sir John Offley, Knight of Madley Manor, Staffordshire, which was probated on May 20, 1658. It reads, “Item: I will and devise on Jewel done all in gold enameled, wherein there is a caul that covered my face and shoulders when I first came into the world, the use thereof to my loving daughter, the Lady Elizabeth Jenny, as long as she shall live…” So, obviously a possession of some value, and interestingly worded… the use thereof… which no doubt implies as a luck charm, or some supernatural application. What else would one do with a bejeweled caul?
I think part of what I find so interesting about this is the ways in which the copious lore surrounding the caul actually gave rise to a variety of folk practices and customs. Its a fascinating case study into how a whole mythology can develop surrounding really anything slightly unusual.
To illustrate the just how far this belief in the power of the caul could go, there is an account of a bizarre incident that occurred in Paris in 1596, which was documented by a Parisian diarist named Pierre d’Estoile who documented daily life during the reign of Henry IV. According to his account, two priests who were also practitioners of sorcery ended up getting into a fight over a caul in a church. Apparently, one of the priests left his own caul on the alter by mistake, and it was later found by the second priest, who then refused to give it back. A noisy throw-down ensued in front of a bunch of people, which of course was scandalous in its own right, but even more so being between two priests in a church. The one who found the caul succeeded in keeping it, but was promptly accused of sorcery and thrown in jail. However, he escaped with the help of his friends and went on to take revenge on the other priest, presumably murdering him. So, clearly, in this case, that the possession of a caul was worth all of that drama shows the strength of beliefs surrounding its power at that time.
About 20 years later, also in France, a textbook on obstetrics written by the midwife to French court, Louise Bourgeois, contained a stern warning about the caul. Basically, she says never to preserve a caul because it can be used by sorcerers.
We can see an example of how this might occur in Robert Burton’s famous Anatomy of Melancholy, which was a book first published in 1621. On the surface, Anatomy of Melancholy is a scholarly medical textbook that explores what we would today probably call clinical depression, but in reality the book is about a lot more than that and its really quite vast in scope. And, in it the author references various love potions, whose ingredients lists, not to mention motives, definitely seem to blur the lines between medicine and sorcery…for example, one such concoction demands the dust of a dove’s heart, the rope with which a man was hanged, tongues of vipers, and, of course, a child’s caul…
There’s a tale from the Brother’s Grimm that illustrates this idea of being born with the caul resulting in good fortune. The story is called The Devil the Three Golden Hairs, or sometimes devil is replaced with giant because that was how story was originally translated from German into English.
It begins with a poor woman who gave birth to a son with a caul. In this case, his having the caul was interpreted to mean that he would marry the king’s daughter when he turned 14. They started young in those days. The king, upon hearing this news, was determined to stop this from happening. He went to the poor family’s house and demanded to take the boy back to the castle to raise him there. Instead, however, he sealed the boy up in a box and threw him into the river to drown. Rather than sinking, the box floated downstream until it was discovered by a miller and his wife, who took the boy in and raised him as their own.
Fourteen years later, the evil king happened to come to the miller’s house for some reason or another. Upon seeing the boy, he asked about him, and soon put two and two together after hearing the story. Once again, the king devised a scheme to off the boy and prevent him from marrying his daughter. This time he gave the boy a sealed letter and told him to deliver to the queen. The letter itself contained instructions to kill the boy immediately once he had arrived.
On his way to the castle to deliver the letter, the boy asked to take shelter in an old woman’s house. She warned him that robbers frequented the house, but he was undeterred and fell into a deep sleep as soon as he laid down. That night, robbers came and read the letter. They took pity on the boy and replaced the letter with a new one, saying the boy should marry the king’s daughter immediately upon arriving. In the morning, they sent him on his way towards the castle.
The wedding took place immediately, as instructed, and was over by the time the king returned. Of course, the king is furious, and more determined than ever to dispatch his new son-in-law. So, this time the King sends the boy on a journey to hell, demanding that he return with three of the devil’s golden hairs.
On his journey, the boy first stops at a town where he is asked what he knows. He answers that he knows everything. They then ask him why the town’s well, which used to dispense wine freely, now won’t even produce water. The boy tells him that he’ll only reveal the answer on his way back, and passes on to the next town.
In the second town the people ask him why a tree which once fruited golden apples will now not even sprout leaves. Again, he says he will tell them on his way back. Next he comes to a river.
The ferryman asks the boy why he must always row back and forth and is never free to do anything else. Again, the boy says he’ll tell him on his way back. The ferryman takes him to the entrance to hell, on the other side of the river.
Once inside he meets the Devil’s grandmother, and tells her his story and what he wants. She promises to assist him and turns him into an ant, hiding him in the folds of her clothing just as the Devil returns for some dinner. He eats and drinks, and then drinks some more. Eventually he lays his head in his grandmother’s lap and falls into a deep sleep.
She pulls a golden hair from his head three times, and after each time he wakes up and briefly recounts his dreams to his grandmother. First, he dreams of a dried up well in a town with a big toad underneath blocking it up. Second he dreams of a tree that doesn’t grow fruit because a mouse is gnawing at its roots. And lastly he dreams of a ferryman who could be freed simply by placing the oars into another man’s hand.
The next morning, after the Devil had left for the day, the boy was transformed back into his normal form. He thanked the grandmother and headed off, telling the ferryman and the people of each town how to overcome their problems. As thanks, each town gives the boy a pair of donkeys laden with gold, which he brings back to the castle. The king, upon seeing this, becomes less interested in harassing the boy and more interested in where he got the gold, hoping to acquire some for himself. He asks the boy where it came from, and the boy explains that he got it on the other side of the river. Of course, the king sets off for the river where the ferryman thrusts the oars into his hands, thereby freeing himself and condemning the king to row back and forth for eternity. Meanwhile, our hero, born with the caul and lucky for life, lives happily ever after with his wife.
That tale is German, and I think its safe to say that Europe is where caul lore is most ubiquitous, and the 16th-19th centuries were when it was at its peak. Like a lot of medical or biological anomalies, with the Enlightenment and the development of the sciences, the caul lost much of its perceived mystique and came to be widely understood as nothing more than a piece of the amniotic sack that was occasionally present at birth. In this day and age, I think it would be pretty unusual for a sailor to wear his or her caul around their neck and use it to predict the weather. But, that doesn’t mean that caul folklore has, even in contemporary times and modern history, entirely died out. There is an interesting article by Carroll Y Rich from a 1976 volume of The Journal of American Folklore entitled “Born With the Veil: Black Folklore in Louisiana.” The author interviewed members of his own community who had either given birth to babies with a caul, been midwives for such births, or had themselves been born with the caul, which was the case for Donzelle Farrell, who gave the following accounts of experiencing foresight in relation to death:
I saw two mens-not in a dream this time. One of them was Louis Holley. He was standing down there at the railroad track. When I pass him and spoke and he looked round at me, I seen death in his eyes. He didn’t live many days. And then there was another one, Nick Lewis (we used to call him “Liquor”); he come out the post office as I was going in, and I turn round and look at him a long time, because I seen death in his eyes. That was Friday, and he died the next day, Saturday, at home. Oo-oo! And you remember Eva Lee Richard little boy, that one got shot? Well, him and W. Mason and another little boy was walking downtown and they met me right there. I never had seed a child dress like that in my life; it just hit me. He had on a pair of red, red pants and a snow white shirt, and I looked back and I could see something in it, but I didn’t know what it was. I just kept on watching him. You know, that little boy got shot before I got back home. And I saw that in town.