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.
Less than one in every 80,000 babies is born with a caul. These children, “born with a veil,” were considered either very lucky, or very evil. For centuries, the caul was seen as a powerful object, with all sorts of superstitious properties. Just as a baby “floated” in the amniotic sac, carrying a caul would protect the “caulbearer” from drowning. The caul was so valuable that people had it baptized and blessed, and even left instructions in their wills about their cauls.
While some claimed the caul was a sign of evil, for centuries people believed the caul granted fame and fortune to whoever possessed it.
The name “caul” may come from the way the sac draped over a baby’s head at birth, which looked like a monk’s cowl. The newborn baby might look like it was wearing a hood and cloak, similar to religious garb. One superstition claimed that a child born with the caul was destined for the monastery—or, according to folklore in Austria, a boy who carried his caul would become an archbishop.
A baby born with a caul was often said to wear a shirt or a veil, or sometimes a helmet. There were literally dozens of different terms to describe "en-caul" birth, and the caul had just as many alleged magical properties.
Between 1470 and the 1630s, France’s army nearly quadrupled in size. Spain’s army grew even faster, going from 20,000 troops to 300,000. In the same period, guns replaced swords and warfare became deadlier. No wonder soldiers wanted protection against the horrors of war.
The caul was believed to have all sorts of powers for soldiers: carrying a caul could reportedly protect a soldier from harm or cause the enemy to withdraw from the battlefield. In Germany, if a conscripted soldier carried a caul, it would help him return home sooner.
Shipwrecks were terrifying to sailors and merchants. Even Leonardo Da Vinci was horrified by the wrecked ships in the Mediterranean. He wrote, “Alas! How many ships have foundered there! How many vessels have been broken upon these rocks!” A sudden storm or an unusually shallow rock could mean death for hundreds of sailors aboard a doomed ship.
But the caul promised protection against drowning—perhaps because of the item's history. Babies in the womb could live in the amniotic sac without drowning, of course, so a caul-bearer could not drown. By the 19th century, sailors were willing to pay very high prices for the protection of a caul.