An infant born with a caul – a full face mask of the membrane that covers an infant’s whole head or face is said to be a Caulbearer. Occurring in fewer than one in every 80,000 births it was considered highly supernatural and lucky. Claire Barrand looks at how Caulbearers and those “born behind the veil” have been represented within literature throughout popular British and Worldwide culture. She discusses how it supports the popular superstitions surrounding our own British folklore.
Here are examples of caulbearers in fiction…
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
David Copperfield recalls in the famous Dickens novel that he was born with a caul, which was advertised in the newspapers for 15 guineas. It was bid for by an attorney for a bill-broking business for £2 cash and the balance in Sherry, but his offer was declined. Ten years later the caul was raffled off, and he recalls feeling uncomfortable at the memory of “a part of myself being disposed of in that way.” An old woman with a hand basket won the raffle and never drowned, instead, dying “triumphantly in her bed at 92”.
“Hamlet” by Shakespeare
Hamlet is born a caulbearer. The story of Hamlet tells of him seeing his father’s ghost, who urges his son to seek revenge on the man who murdered him and stole his wife and upsurge of his throne.
Danny “Doc” Torrance in “The Shining” by Stephen King
Five-year-old Danny was born with a caul, and it appeared as if he had no face when he was born. Danny develops a second sight which is seen throughout the story. In the sequel Doctor Sleep, the character Abra is also a caulbearer and has paranormal abilities.
Poet – Major John Fairfax-Blakeborough
Major John Fairfax-Blakeborough Was an English folklorist and writer from Yorkshire and he wrote the following poem which describes the caul as being lucky. However it does not mention its protective properties against drowning.
“A lass if born in June with a caul
Will wed, hev bairns and rear ’em all.
But a lass if born with a caul in July,
Will loose her caul and young will die.
Every month beside luck comes with a caul
If safe put by,
If lost she may cry:
For ill luck on her will fall.
For man it’s luck – be born when he may –
It is safe be kept ye mind,
But if lost it be he’ll find
Ill-deed his lot for many a day”
“Caul” by Carol Ann Duffy
Scottish Poet and playwright Carol Ann Duffy won many awards for her literature, but one notable poem was called Caul. The poet was born a Caulbearer herself, her caul was sold to a sailor, and in her poetry, she reflects upon the implications of this by using the caul as a metaphor for her life. She indicates that the luck the caul was intended for her is now lost. Being probably far away at sea and shriveled, and as her life became a struggle, she feels the fortune that was meant for her has somehow slipped away. The further the caul got from her and was no longer in her possession.
Alvin Miller – “Seventh Son” of Orson Scott Card
Seventh Son is an alternate history/fantasy novel which became the first in a series of books called The Tales of Alvin Maker. Seventh born sons have magical abilities and being the seventh son of a seventh son made one extraordinarily rare and unique. Alvin is such a boy, and his supernatural abilities are made even more potent by the fact that he is also born under the veil in which a five-year-old girl present at his birth must save. This makes him the target of The Unmaker, an unknown evil force which tries to kill him.
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith
Character Frankie Nolan is born with a caul, the midwife stole it and later sold it for $2 to a sailor “ the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Cauls were a highly prized talisman for sailors, who believed that those who carried a caul could not be drowned.
“A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness
In this New York Times bestselling novel, the character Diana Bishop is born a caulbearer. Her parents see it as a sign that her destiny is to “remain between two worlds.”
“Gypsy (A Musical Fable)” – Gypsy Rose Lee
In the musical based on the memories of Gypsy Rose Lee, famous striptease artist, Mama Rose tells Louise “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.”
April Witch by Majgull Axelsson
Swedish writer wrote the prize-winning bestseller who sold over 400,000 hardcover copies. Two of her central characters are born Caulbearers. One of them – Desiree is a clairvoyant and omniscient.