Born with a caul

Born with a caul
Ca. 1800. Foetus in amniotic in uterus. Wax tabled used as didactic material © Wellcome Trust Collection, Science Museum, London (UK). (CC BY 4.0)

Born with a caul


IV The passage into the world

In May 1698, the Holy Office of the Inquisition of Valencia questioned three witnesses from Castellón de la Plana in a trial of faith against their neighbour Jaime Martí Tarazo.

The midwife Francisca Cabo, who was around sixty years old, recalled that four children had been born in the town «with caul». This expression refers to children born with the remains of membranes on their heads or shoulders, which occurs when the amniotic sac ruptures too late during childbirth. It was believed at the time that these membranes should be kept. According to the midwife, these children had been «born with grace» because the caul was good for keeping firearms away from those who went to war and, «whoever carried it on him, would not be harmed».

Martí Tarazo was believed to have stolen an amniotic sac to make himself invulnerable to bullets; there were several incriminating facts. He had told a neighbour that he «could not be killed», which he allegedly proved on one occasion when asking a man to shoot him, after handing him a rifle. The collaborator tried to pull the trigger four or five times, but to no avail. Only when the accused took the firearm was a shot discharged. In addition, he would often «take some papers out of a bag and say, while carrying these papers, he couldn’t be killed». He also used to boast that one should believe that the devil had taken him rather than that he had been killed or wounded. To complicate matters, the accused was believed to not be very pious, as he and a friend of his «ate meat, sausages and other forbidden delicacies» during Lent «as if it were Easter time».

The record of this trial of faith, whose verdict we do not know, indicates that midwives were crucial in spreading superstitions about the alleged powers of the caul. In this example, the protective function of the amniotic sac in the womb was extended to the outside world. To this day it is still a good omen for a child to be born with a caul, although this is no longer believed to make one bullet-proof.

The ephemeral organs of the pregnancy – amniotic sac, placenta, and umbilical cord – hold the secrets of the formation of life, which is why they fascinated, and continue to fascinate, people of all cultures. [Tamara Hanus]