In obstetrics, a caul is a portion of the amniotic sac that clings to an infant as it is being born. As a result, the child is born either entirely or partially still inside the amniotic sac, which often forms a veil over the infant's face. Historically, cauls were the subject of many superstitions; someone who is born with one is known as a caulbearer. Statistically, about one in 1,000 babies is born this way, and this number is often lower in developed nations due to routine interventions in the labor and delivery process.
In Europe, many people believed that a child born with a caul would be protected from drowning as long as the tissue was preserved. Cauls were especially prized in fishing communities. Other superstitions included the idea that caulbearers were born to rule or lead, or that they had supernatural powers over water. One might, for example, make an excellent dowser, since he or she was supposedly in tune with water.
In some parts of Eastern Europe, people believed that an infant born with one was doomed to be a vampire later in life or after death. Some people destroyed cauls at birth to prevent this fate, and in other instances, the tissue was dried and ground into a powder that was fed to the child at a certain age, in the theory that this prevented vampirism.
Being born with a caul is not usually dangerous. The infant continues to receive oxygen and nutrition through the umbilical cord, and the sac can quickly be cleared away from the infant's nose and mouth so that he or she can breathe. In regions where people have superstitious beliefs, a midwife may take special measures to preserve it.
To preserve a caul, the tissue is allowed to dry out entirely and then it is stored on acid free paper or cardstock. It may be wrapped in plastic or tissue paper to prevent degradation; examples of cauls over 60 years old can be seen in the hands of their owners in some parts of the world. By tradition, a caulbearer's special status was usually only retained if the tissue was kept.
Due to the superstitions surrounding cauls, some people historically sold them or artifacts that they claimed were cauls. Advertisements offering these rare treasures for sale can be seen in some publications as late as the 1800s. Typically, the item was purchased as a protection from drowning.