A caul (Latin: Caput galeatum, literally, "helmeted head") is a thin, filmy membrane, the amnion, that can cover a newborn's head and face immediately after birth.
It is said that Lord Byron, Jesus, Alexander the Great, pianist Liberace, poet Kahlil Gibran, actress Lillian Gish and Shakespeare’s Hamlet were among those born with cauls, a phenomenon, by one account, said to occur about once in every 80,000 births.
A child "born with the caul" has a portion of the amniotic sac or membrane remaining on the head. There are two types of cauls. The most common caul is adhered to the head and face, and looped around the ears of the infant. The rarer type drapes over the head and partly down the torso of the child. In Germany, this would be called a "helmet" [Galea] for boys, and in Italy, for girls, a "fillet" [vitta] or "shirt" [indusium, camisia].
One popular legend is that a caulbearer can see the future, and another says that a child born with a caul would grow up to become a vampire.
In medieval times, a midwife would rub a sheet of paper across the baby’s head and face, pressing the fetal membrane onto the paper and giving it to the mother as an heirloom. Medieval women often sold their cauls to sailors for large sums of money, a caul was regarded as a valuable talisman.
An ancient Chaldean text that good fortune would come to the entire household when a baby was born with a caul. It was said the Roman midwives stole cauls from newborns and sold them to lawyers for handsome sums because “they were convinced that ‘if they had it on them when they were pleading in court, it was a great help in winning the case.’ ”
The Catholic Church fought the caul superstition, notes the book “Welcoming the New Baby”: “. . . women anxious to reinforce the magic virtues of the caul would persuade priests to say blessings and masses of consecration.” In one case, a mother had the caul itself baptized when the baby was baptized and had nine Masses said over it. Even when bishops forbade priests from celebrating Masses over dried cauls, women hid them under altars.
A tradition of Iceland is that “fetal membrane appearing over the face at birth, is associated with a guardian spirit called a fylgja,” offering warning against potential danger.
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, published London 1850:
"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."