“Some night tripping fairy had exchanged/ In cradle clothes our children where they lay…” Shakespeare, Henry IV Part One, Act I, scene 1.
I have several times alluded to the very widespread belief in changelings, but I want to examine it more closely in this posting. It was an article of the fairy faith throughout the British Isles that our ‘good neighbours’ were not averse to snatching human infants if the opportunity presented itself. The fairy queen herself, is accused of this crime by Ben Jonson:
“This is she that empties cradles/ Takes out children, puts in ladles.” (Entertainment at Althorpe, 1603).
Why change children?
The fairies were believed to prefer infants with fair hair and pale skin and to take only boys (Rhys Celtic folklore p.221; Wentz Fairy faith p.148). We may recall the child over whom Titania and Oberon squabble in A midsummer night’s dream. She has newly acquired a servant, “A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king; She never had so sweet a changeling.” Oberon wants the youth as his ‘henchman,’ as a ‘knight in his train’ but Titania will not release him (Act II, scene 1).
What was the changeling?
In place of the stolen human child was left the ‘changeling’, a creature consistently identifiable because it looked like an old man- being ugly, deformed, small, weak and bad-tempered. Whatever care it received, the substitute remained frail and did not grow, being peevish at all times. In other words, in earlier times before medical knowledge had developed, if a newborn was discovered to be mentally disabled or defective, this was put down not to congenital or perinatal problems but to a supernatural intervention: the real child had been abducted and an ‘oaf’ (an elf) left in its place (the ‘ouphs’ of Shakespeare’s Merry wives of Windsor are derived from the same source). Drayton in Nymphidia sumarises the state of sixteenth century popular belief on pediatrics:
“…when a child haps to be got/ Which after proves an idiot/ When folke perceive it thriveth not/ The fault therein to smother;/ Some silly doting brainless caulf/ That understands things by the half/ Say that the fairy left this aulf/ And took away the other” (The court of fairy).
We may also note mention from Wales of a belief that the fairies might pay mortals to steal suitable children for them. Rhys relates the story of an old woman from Cwm Tawe who was believed in her neighbourhood to abduct healthy babes and replace them with old urchins in return for fairy gold (Rhys p.255).She would enter homes begging for alms and then offer to rock the cradle. Whilst the mother’s back was turned, the fairy whelp hidden beneath her cloak would hastily be swapped for the healthy child and the crone would make her escape.
The stolen children seemed generally to be well cared for and to enjoy life at the fairy court, spending their time in feasting, dancing and music. Hunt (Popular romances of the West of England) tends to support this in his story of Betty Stogs. He said it was believed in the ‘high countries’ of Penwith (Morva, Zennor and Towednack) that the fairies would take poorly cared for children and clean them. This was Stogs’ experience- she neglected her home and her child but the pixies removed it, washed its clothes and left it near the cottage covered in flowers.
There is, too, a little evidence that the fairies sought to make their captives immortal like themselves. In The faithful shepherdess Fletcher describes how the elves danced at a well by “pale moonshine, dipping often times/ Their stolen children, so to make them free/ From dying flesh and dull mortality” (Act I, Scene 2). This belief may go some way to explain an odd account from Wales of a suspected changeling that had to be dipped daily for three months in a cold spring, the result of which was that it thrived, growing ‘as fast as a gosling’ (Rhys p.256).
The theft of healthy normal babies and their replacement by an aged elf or a defective fairy infant was perceived to be a very common problem, then (note as a further illustration the song The fairy boy, by Samuel Lover, 1840, performed by Lucy Ward on her 2011 album Adelphi has to fly, Navigator Records). Children were especially vulnerable in the time before they were baptised and variety of protective measures were deployed. These included placing bindweed or iron (for example tongs or shears) around the cradle, the burning of leather in the room or the administering to the baby of either milk from a cow grazed on pearl-wort or water in which had been steeped cinders from a fire over which the child had been passed (Wentz, Fairy faith in the Celtic countries, pp.87 & 91). Sir Walter Scott in Borders minstrelsy reports that another protective was to weave wreathes from oak and ivy withies at the full moon in March. These were kept for a year and any children showing signs of consumption would be passed thrice through the hoops, thereby ensuring them against further supernatural assaults.
Exposing the changeling
The parents, once the presence of a changeling child had been realised, had to expose the substitute. If it was an aged fairy, some trick would be performed to get it to reveal itself, such as brewing beer in an egg shell, which would provoke its curiosity. It would exclaim that it had seen oaks grow from acorns and chickens from eggs, but it had never seen beer brewed in an egg shell (or pasties for the reapers mixed in a shell) . Sometimes the preternatural knowledge of the changeling might be exposed by chance: Wentz relates one Highland case where the child was seen to leap from its cradle to play the bagpipes when the parents were away.
Expelling the changeling
There were several other means of expelling a changeling. Salt might be burned as a magical means of repelling it or a shovel might be heated and held before its face. Magic was resorted to: the Cornish used a four leafed clover placed upon the ‘winickey’ impostor to recover the abducted baby and from Wales we learn of a curious ritual involving a hen: the mother had to find a black hen without a single white feather and had to kill it; then every window and door in the home except one would be sealed and the whole hen would be set before a wood fire to bake. At the point that all its feathers fell off, the crimbil child would leave and the rightful infant would have been returned (Rhys p.263).
If these attempts did not succeed and an infant elf was still suspected, far worse treatment could follow, typically placing the baby on a shovel over the fire- but throwing the child in a river, ducking it in cold water daily, neglecting its needs, throwing pieces of iron at it or, lastly, placing it outside at night or on the beach as the tide came in, might also be tried (Wentz pp.111, 146, 171 & 177). The idea was that the changeling’s cries would summon the fairy parents who would save their child and return the stolen human infant. Wirt Sikes in British Goblins (1880, c.5) discusses the Welsh tradition of the plentyn newid (the new child) and remarks disapprovingly upon the cruelties from time to time inflicted as a result of this changeling belief.
Some parents, however, accepted the ‘changeling’ as their own and cared for the disabled neonate just as much as they would be expected to do for a healthy baby. I have mentioned before how a mother who behaved in this manner was rewarded financially by the fairies during the infant’s life. Another example comes from a Scottish witch trial. John Ferguson approached Jonit Andirson for advice on his ‘shag-bairn’, a child the family suspected of being a changeling. Andirson confirmed their diagnosis and advised that she could not retrieve their baby from the fairies; however, if they cared for the changeling as their own, ‘they would not want.’
We have seen Ben Jonson’s mention that a ladle would replace the abductee. This suited his rhyme but is not traditional. Sometimes, rather than a living being, a ‘stock’ was substituted- a log fashioned in the likeness of the missing person who was, in actuality, ‘away with the fairies.’ This motionless, speechless form (a “a lingering voracious Image” in Kirk’s words) was left at the home in bed to act as a cover for the fact that the man or woman had been taken to fairyland for some purpose- perhaps as a midwife or wet nurse to a fairy mother. Some readers will recall that in Susanna Clark’s novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a bog-oak likeness is left in place of Lady Emma Pole who is abducted to dance at the fairy balls.
An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017); see too my books Faery (2020) and Middle Earth Cuckoos (2021). For a different view of fairy treatment of human infants, see my posting on fairy child care. See too my discussion of the ‘changeling incident‘ in Diana Gabaldon’s book Outlander. I’ve also posted a case study of a particular Cornish changeling case.