"My mother groaned, my father wept,
Into the dangerous world I leapt;
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud"
Extract from the poem Infant Sorrow by William Blake.
Birth is a fraught and dangerous time and objects associated with it often take on deeply symbolic meanings. No object could be more imbued with superstitious potential than a piece of birth-associated human tissue. The Pitt Rivers Museum has several such objects including an object described as a 'Glass rolling-pin, painted and dated 1855; said to have contained a child's caul as a sailor's charm, Sunderland' [1917.14.33] which is described in our public web-based catalogue as a "food accessory, amulet and human body part". For me this object encapsulates the diversity and complexity of the Museum's English Collections. The object is located in a drawer in the Museum Court, amongst other amulets and charms, and takes the form of a hollow smoky-glass rolling pin painted with a picture of a ship in full sail. I have been fortunate enough to closely examine the rolling pin and it is painted with a ship in dark brown with light tan sails on a green sea and associated green floral designs plus what may have been an image of an anchor. Now badly worn, the paintwork on the rolling pin includes the phrase "a gift from Sunderland 1855" (or 1856).
It is thought to have once contained a child's caul but is now open at one end and clearly hollow and empty - however the association with a child's caul remains and it is that which I explore herein.
This article extract is from England: The Other Within - Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum project website.