A caul or cowl (Latin: Caput galeatum, literally, "helmeted head") is a piece of membrane that can cover a newborn's head and face. Birth with a caul is rare, occurring in fewer than 1 in 80,000 births. The caul is harmless and is immediately removed by the physician or midwife upon delivery of the child.
The "en-caul" birth, not to be confused with the "caul" birth, occurs when the infant is born inside the entire amniotic sac. The sac balloons out at birth, with the amniotic fluid and child remaining inside the unbroken or partially broken membrane.
A child "born with the caul" has a portion of a birth membrane remaining on the head. There are two types of caul membranes, and there are four ways such cauls can appear.
The most common caul type is a piece of the thin, translucent inner lining of the amnion which breaks away and forms tightly against the head during the birthing process. “Infrequently, in past ages as now, a baby is born with a thin, translucent tissue, a fragment of the amniotic membrane, covering its head. The remnant is known as a caul." Such a caul typically clings to the head and face, but on rarer occasions drapes over the head and partly down the torso. In Germany, this would be called a "helmet" (Galea) for boys; and in Italy, for girls, a "fillet" (vitta) or "shirt" (indusium, camisia). In Poland, it is called a "bonnet" ("czepek"), for both genders.
The lesser common (unknown) type of caul tissue is adhered to the face and head by attachment points and is looped behind the ears, making the removal process more complex. In extremely rare cases, the thicker caul encases the infant's entire body, resembling a cocoon.
The rarest caul type is a thick, soft membrane of unknown tissue type, which presumably forms against the infant's head during gestation. "Cornelius Gemma, a sixteenth century physician ... described it quaintly as being '... the remnant of another membrane, much softer than the amnion, but nevertheless more solid....'"
The caul is harmless and is immediately removed by the physician or midwife upon delivery of the child. If the membrane is of the amniotic tissue, it is removed by easily slipping it away from the child's skin. The removal of the thicker membrane is more complex. If done correctly, the attending practitioner will place a small incision in the membrane across the nostrils so that the child can breathe. The loops are then carefully un-looped from behind the ears. Then, the remainder of the caul can be either peeled back very carefully from the skin, or gently rubbed with a sheet of paper, which is then peeled away. If removed too quickly, the caul can leave wounds on the infant's flesh at the attachment points, which may leave permanent scars.
The caul membrane in some cases will be put aside and given to the mother to preserve. However, the parents may or may not be told that their child was born with the caul. This depends upon the particular practice of the hospital or practitioner.
Birth with a caul is rare, occurring in fewer than 1 in 80,000 births. This statistic includes caul births, which occur more frequently than authentic en-caul births; therefore authentic en-caul births are rarer than the statistic indicates. Most "en-caul" births are premature.
In medieval times the appearance of a caul on a newborn baby was seen as a sign of good luck. It was considered an omen that the child was destined for greatness. Gathering the caul onto paper was considered an important tradition of childbirth: the midwife would rub a sheet of paper across the baby's head and face, pressing the material of the caul onto the paper. The caul would then be presented to the mother, to be kept as an heirloom. Some Early Modern European traditions linked caul birth to the ability to defend fertility and the harvest against the forces of evil, particularly witches and sorcerers.
A legend developed suggesting that possession of a baby's caul would give its bearer good luck and protect that person from death by drowning. Cauls were therefore highly prized by sailors. Medieval women often sold these cauls to sailors for large sums of money; a caul was regarded as a valuable talisman.
In the Polish language, the idiom "w czepku urodzony/a" (literally "born in a bonnet") means a person who is always very lucky.
The Russian phrase "родился в рубашке" (literally "born in a shirt") refers to caul birth and figuratively means "born lucky". It is often applied to someone who is oblivious to a pending disaster that is avoided only through luck as if the birth caul persists as supernatural armor, and in this sense commonly appears in titles or descriptions of Russian dashcam videos.
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. Consequently the advertisement was withdrawn at a dead loss ... and ten years afterwards, the caul was put up in a raffle down in our part of the country, to fifty members at half-a-crown a head, the winner to spend five shillings. I was present myself, and I remember to have felt quite uncomfortable and confused, at a part of myself being disposed of in that way. The caul was won, I recollect, by an old lady with a hand-basket.... It is a fact which will be long remembered as remarkable down there, that she was never drowned, but died triumphantly in bed, at ninety-two.
In Betty Smith's novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie Nolan is born with a caul. The midwife who officiated the birth stole the caul and later sold it for $2 to a sailor from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was believed that whoever wore a caul could not drown.
In the film Oscar and Lucinda, Oscar's father gives him the caul that was upon his head at birth. Oscar has a phobia of the ocean and of water in general, linked to the death of his mother when he was a child. He carries this caul with him until he dies, ironically, by drowning.
In the play Gypsy: A Musical Fable, Mama Rose tells Louise (Gypsy Rose Lee): "You were born with a caul. That means you got powers to read palms and tell fortunes – and wonderful things are gonna happen to you."
Another myth associated with a caul is featured in the short story "The Scarlet Ibis". When the main character's brother, Doodle, is born in a caul, his aunt states that cauls are made of Jesus' nightgown and everyone must respect Doodle as he may become a saint someday.
In Stephen King's The Shining, the 5-year-old son of the main character, Danny "Doc" Torrance, is born with a caul that made him appear as if he had "no face" at the time of his birth. Although his mother and father do not believe that Danny has "second sight", Danny does have precognitive abilities throughout the story. In the sequel Doctor Sleep, the character Abra is also born with a caul and has paranormal abilities.
In Majgull Axelsson's April Witch, both of the central characters Hubertsson and Desirée are "born to the caul".
In Ami McKay's The Birth House, the main character, Dora Rare, is born with a caul over her eyes. Because the character is born in a sailing town, the caul is considered valuable, and the mother gives it to the midwife for safe keeping. When the caul is presented to Dora as an adult, she does not allow her husband to take it and he drowns that very night.
Dean Koontz talks about cauls in his novel Whispers. Twins were born, both with a caul. "She was fascinated. You know, some people think that a child born with a caul has the gift of second sight." However, the mother believes it's the mark of a demon.
Tina McElroy Ansa's novel Baby of the Family features a lead character born with the caul and her struggles to deal with the ability to see spirits due to her family's inability to believe in the phenomenon and properly prepare her to deal with her gift.
In Orson Scott Card's novel Seventh Son, the first part of the series The Tales of Alvin Maker, Alvin Miller (the seventh son of a seventh son) is born with a caul, a sign of his extraordinarily strong magical gifts.
In Ole Edvart Rølvaag's Giants in the Earth, Beret and Per Hansa have a son Peder Seier (or Peder Victorious) born with the caul. Per Hansa was a fisherman in Norway before coming to the plains of South Dakota, and the symbolism of the caul is important to these particular immigrants. In an attempt to stay true to the original Norwegian text, the translation refers to the caul as "the helmet".
In Brian McGreevy's Hemlock Grove, Roman and Shelley Godfrey are both born with a caul, indicating their "supernatural" nature to their mother.
In Guy Gavriel Kay's historical fantasy novel Tigana, those born with the caul are marked as Night Walkers, men and women capable of entering a dream world to fight an unknown struggle for the land known as the Ember War. Possibly based on a 16th-century Italian fertility cult, the Benandanti.
Cauls figure prominently in two American novels. The lesser known is Tina McElroy Ansa's "Baby of the Family" in which the ritual of drinking caul tea, water mixed with placenta fluid, is performed to provide a shield of protection for the newborn. The well-known novel is J. D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," in which the main character, Holden Caulfield, who refers to his literary ancestor, David Copperfield in the novel's opening page, attempts to protect the innocence of children in acts and fantasy throughout the novel until he accepts in the novel's penultimate chapter that "if [the innocent] fall, they fall."
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