Go back to article: A history of amulets in ten objects

A caul, a whelk shell and hag-stones

Like the gold angel, medals, coins and other objects made from metals have often formed amulets, probably in large part due to their inherent portability and durability.[30] Yet the Science Museum collections show that amulets could consist of a great variety of materials, whether human, animal, vegetable or mineral, durable or fragile. Just like the hare’s foot, the efficacy of some amulets depended on the inherent potency of the material. For a later and materially varied example of this, let us turn our attention to our fourth amulet – a carefully preserved caul.[31] A tissue-like membrane enclosing the foetus in the womb, a caul is occasionally found around the child’s head at birth. Through time and across geographies, this object has been considered curatively and protectively potent simply due to its inherent and symbolic materiality (Roud, 2006, pp 71–2).[32] Those born with the caul in nineteenth and twentieth-century England were considered immune from drowning, with sources reporting incidences in which, if the caul was kept safe, the child to whom it belonged was spared from a watery death (Muir, 1995, pp 27–8; B A, 1950; Hole, 1957; Tongue, 1965).[33] This example from the Science Museum is ‘regarded as lucky’, a widespread belief.[34] If the caul was sold, its potency transferred to the buyer. Notices in newspapers and ‘dock-side shop windows’ abound advertising this popular amulet; in 1835, the London Times marketed ‘a Child’s Caul to be disposed of, a well-known preservative against drowning, &c., price 10 guineas’ (Moore, 1891, p 157; Roud, 2006, p 72). Others made direct appeals; in 1920, around the time from which this example is dated, one notice read: ‘sailors will still buy cauls when they can, and have been known to give as much as £20 for one…no ship that contains a caul will sink at sea’ (Hole, 1957, pp 412–13).[35]

Figure 6

Colour photograph of an engraved heart shaped gold pendant

Locket containing a caul

This material method of prophylaxis was longstanding. Seventeenth-century physician and polymath Sir Thomas Browne recorded the knowledge of the caul’s power since antiquity, stating that in the life of Antonius this ‘natural cap’ was sold by midwives for their advantageous effects (Browne, 1671, pp 314–5). Browne similarly provides evidence of the caul’s potency in his own lifetime. Whilst doing so with contempt, noting that ‘great conceits are raised of the involution or membranous covering, commonly called the Silly-how’, Browne nonetheless records how this object was ‘preserved with great care, not only as medical in diseases, but effectual in success, concerning the Infant and others’ (Browne, 1671, pp 314–5; Muir, 1995, pp 27–8).[36] At the same time, Sir John Offley’s will recorded a bequest to his ‘loving daughter’; ‘one jewell done all in gold enameled wherein is a caul that covered my face and sholder when I first came into the world’ (Hackwood, 1924). Unlike the durable gold angel, the caul needed protection, and cauls were therefore preserved in varying ways. Just as the Science Museum example is safeguarded within an envelope, Offley’s sample was incorporated into jewellery, a similar example of which can be seen in Figure 6, a locket containing a caul from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, dated 1597.[37] Whatever the method of preservation portability seemed pivotal, important when remembering amulets’ fundamental relationship with the body.

The caul also provides us with an example of another common feature of amulets – that they were often rarities. Throughout history, children born with a caul have been so infrequent as to be considered important; in the twenty-first-century, they are known to occur in less than one in every eighty thousand births (Crawford-Mowday). Thus whilst the caul was inherently potent due to its prophylactic capacity, it was also invested with value as a rare object, thereby increasing its desirability as an amulet.[38]

Figure 7

Colour photograph of a whelk shell amulet

Amulet Five – Whelk shell with reversed spiral, object number A666095

The worth of uncommon and exceptional items had long been recognised. In the Renaissance, ‘nature’s jokes’ were often collected in the form of flowers, seahorses, fossils, giants, unicorns’ horns, loadstones, zoophytes and of course shells and stones (Findlen, 1990, pp 292–3; p 303). ‘Rich elements of the quotidian’ such as shells were revered, and material irregularities were recognised as ‘sophisticated deceptions played out by nature in her leisure’ (Findlen, 1990, pp 302–3). Examining our fifth amulet – this whelk shell – the reversed spiral forms the focus of attention, and the description draws attention to its quality as a rarity.[39] Reportedly carried to ‘promote good health’ by a fish porter in Billingsgate, London (1850–1920), this type of amulet does not appear frequently in museum collections or among literary references, and so is perhaps an example of an item with less popular renown, yet with more personal value to the owner. Indeed, Lovett noted the ‘mascots’ carried by soldiers in the First World War, which included a ‘left-handed’ whelk shell. The word ‘mascot’ was used here to denote an object with a strong personal link between the luck-bringing and its owner (Lovett, 1925, pp 10–15, 18, 30, 34, 41–3, 70–2; ‘Mascot’, in Simpson and Roud, 2003).

Why did the Billingsgate fish porter value this rare whelk shell? Whilst we cannot be certain, objects such as this were anomalies, not in accordance with the established order and laws of the world, and have often attracted human curiosity.[40] As such, many rarities and wonders of nature such as this whelk shell could be imbued with value and potency. Access to these kinds of objects was restricted by their very scarcity, and they therefore carried a great weight both in terms of social and healing power. The owner of a rare object like this could possess and control that power, and had the capacity to monopolise it (Daston and Park, 1998, p 81).

Figure 8

Colour photograph of a number of holed stones threaded onto twine

Amulet Six – Hag stones, object number A666087

The same trend can be seen in our sixth object, this similarly natural amulet recorded as ‘eleven stones with natural holes, threaded on wire, hung at head of bed as charm against nightmare’.[41] Whilst the specific origins of their power remain unclear it is evident that these stones formed with organic irregularities, were known to have intrinsic potency, with examples of their use recurring all across Europe for hundreds of years (Roud, 2006, p 438).[42] In England this practice is evident from around the seventeenth century, yet sources show that the belief in the stones’ power was already renowned by this time. The use of holed stones was recorded by Pliny in Natural History, 77BCE, in which he records ‘a sort of egg in great repute…called “the serpent’s egg”’ (Pliny, 77BCE, Book XXII). Certain sources cite this object as functionally equivalent to the ‘hag-stone’, and materially they are the same.[43] Termed ‘ephialtes’ in the early modern period, Sir Thomas Browne noted of this nocturnal affliction: ‘what natural effects can reasonably be expected, when to prevent the ephialtes or night-mare we hang up an hollow stone in our stables.’[44] The stones had two main uses but protected against the same affliction, in which a witch or hag was believed to torment the sufferer at night.[45] The patient could be human or equine. When horses were found ‘sweating, exhausted and frightened’ in the morning, it was a common notion that they had been subject to nocturnal terror, often known as being ‘hag-ridden’. Similarly when humans suffered the ‘night-mare’, this did not simply signify a bad dream but a terrifying affliction in which a colossal weight could be felt on one’s chest (Ettlinger, 1939, p 152; Roud, 2006, pp 225; 437).[46] These holed stones (thus often known as ‘hag-stones’) were believed to prevent the nocturnal suffering for both beings. Although not apparently requiring any material alteration or preparation to render them efficacious, such stones were often used by being strung on a thread and hung in close proximity to the body in need, in stables or by beds (Grose, 1781, pp 57–8; Roud, 2006, p 438).

The human caul, animal whelk shell and the mineral ‘hag-stones’ demonstrate the material variability of amulets. Yet the three objects are further united by one important facet of value: their status as rarities. These marvels of nature help us to understand an important quality sought in curative and protective objects, and demonstrate that their knowledge and use was significant throughout society. Even if not prescribed within learned medicine, these amulets formed an important facet of healing. These rare, prized anomalies of nature were imbued with protective and/or curative powers, and belief in their use endured social, cultural and temporal changes.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191103/004