Weird History

The Caul: History's Strangest Protective Charm 

Genevieve Carlton
Updated October 6, 2017 32.4k views 15 items

Labor and delivery is already pretty horrifying, but for centuries mothers rejoiced if their baby was “born with a veil.” The caul, a piece of amniotic sac attached to a baby’s head at birth, was seen as a powerful sign dating back to the Romans. Historical superstitions about the caul claimed it could protect against drowning, provide good luck in court, and grant safety on the battlefield. But some caul superstitions were darker—a baby born with a caul might become a witch or have the power to see ghosts.  

What did people do with the amniotic sac? Midwives stole them to sell to lawyers, mothers had them baptized, and hundreds of people sewed them into pouches to carry at all times. Newspapers even advertised cauls for sale. The caul folklore is just one of many strange birth rituals from the past—and one of many historical uses for the amniotic sac.

Modern medical knowledge did not destroy the caul’s powers—well into the 20th century, people believed that the caul was valuable. During World War I, sailors snapped up cauls for protection in naval battles. Then again, people still carry rabbit’s feet and refuse to open umbrellas indoors—so maybe the superstitions about the caul aren’t so crazy.

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Cauls Were Even Advertised In The Paper For Sea Captains
Cauls Were Even Advertis... is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list The Caul: History's Strangest Protective Charm
Photo: Ivan Aivazovsky/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Those born with the caul were considered immune from drowning. In one story, a baby born with the caul was so powerful "that when his mother tried to bathe him he sat on the surface of the water, and if forced down, came up again like a cork.” Sailors were willing to pay big money for that kind of protection.

Cauls were advertised in British newspapers all the way until World War I. One ad, posted in the Bristol Times and Mirror in 1874, appealed specifically to sailors. “TO SEA CAPTAINS: For sale, a Child’s Caul in perfect condition. £5.” Cauls reached their highest price in the late 18th century, as Britain’s Royal Navy, led by Lord Nelson, waged great sea battles with the French.

A Lawyer With A Caul Would Always Win His Case
A Lawyer With A Caul Wou... is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The Caul: History's Strangest Protective Charm
Photo: New York Public Library/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The caul’s good luck powers were seemingly endless. A lawyer who carried a caul would win every case. One Roman author reported that midwives would steal cauls to sell to lawyers, who believed the caul would improve their chances during trials. 

The caul’s power over words could also silence enemies. In the 12th century, one man was arrested while carrying a caul. He claimed “this had been given to him by a certain woman for the purpose of turning away and stopping up the mouths of those who tried to speak against him."

Secretly Baptizing The Caul Could Increase Its Powers
Secretly Baptizing The C... is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list The Caul: History's Strangest Protective Charm
Photo: Antonio del Castillo y Saavedra/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Catholic Church did not officially recognize the caul—in the 15th century, St. Bernardino of Siena preached against the practice of having cauls baptized. In spite of this, many priests were willing to secretly baptize or bless cauls. This might occur when a child was christened.

In testimony before the Inquisition in the late 16th century, Italian Paolo Gasparutto admitted that his own caul had been baptized. “My mother gave me the caul in which I had been born, saying that she had it baptized with me, and had nine Masses said over it, and it had been blessed with certain prayers and scriptural readings.” Clearly there were priests who were willing to bless the caul––probably for a price.

A 17th Century Knight Even Included A Caul In His Will
A 17th Century Knight Ev... is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list The Caul: History's Strangest Protective Charm
Photo: Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

When Sir John Offley, an English Knight, died in 1658, he made sure to include his most precious “Jewell” in his will. His will described the item as “one jewell done all in gold  enameled, wherein there is a caul that covered my face and shoulders when I first came into the world.” Sir John clearly believed the item was precious—he kept it for his entire life, stored it in gold, and bequeathed it in his will.

The caul charm would go to his daughter, and then passed on to her male descendants. Just in case any of them doubted the caul’s power, Sir John made sure to add “the same jewell be not concealed nor sold by any of them.” Perhaps Sir John's descendants still have the strange amulet.