Our forebears often saw fairies- and knew that they had done so. The certainty about the nature of experiences that is frequently disclosed in accounts is derived from various factors- circumstance, context, experience- but in no small measure it came from the witness knowing already what to expect.
I’d like to look at this issue here, with particular reference to the identification of fairy changelings. I’ll start with a couple of handbills from the 1690s which advertised ‘freak shows’ in London. Even as recently as the nineteenth century, dead mermaids were put on display for the public to see; I assume that these were either confected fakes or they were the remains of manatees or seals or such like. Live fairies are another matter entirely, though.
In 1690 a ‘changeling child’ was displayed at the Black Raven tavern, West Smithfield. It was described as a “living skeleton,” which had been captured by Venetians from a Turkish ship. The girl had been born to Hungarian parents and was nine years old, it was claimed, but she was only one foot six inches high. Her legs, thighs and arms were very small “no bigger than a man’s thumb” and her face was as small as the palm of an adult’s hand, with a “very grave and solid” expression, as if she was sixty years of age. If the girl was held up to the light, you could see all her ‘anatomy’ inside. She never spoke, but mewled like a cat. She had no teeth, but she had a voracious appetite all the same.
A second hand-bill of about the same date advertised a “living fairy” who could be seen at the Rose Tavern, Brydges Street, Covent Garden. He was supposed to be 150 years old; he had been found around sixty years previously but had not aged since then. His head was a “great piece of curiosity,” having no skull and “with several imperfections worthy of your observation.”
Doubtless both of these exhibits were profoundly disabled individuals who were being exploited by the proprietors of the touring show, but my interest is in the fact that they conformed to pre-existing ideas of what a fairy would look like. What is, perhaps, most interesting is that the shared preconception seemed to be of a deformed and shrivelled creature- not at all the beautiful fairy princess we might be inclined to expect.
As I have often described before, one of the main occupations of British fairies was abducting people, most especially babies and young children. Whilst a toddler might just wander off and not return, a baby in a cradle tended to be substituted for a fairy replacement- the changeling or ‘killcrop’ (a term seemingly taken from German: Luther discussed kilkropffs, for example, which is very possibly how the term became familiar and entered English).
Changelings were accepted as being widespread and common. For example, in December 1846 the Newcastle Courant carried a feature on the Devonshire pixies, in the course of which it was noted, casually and very much in passing, that a woman who was a fairy changeling was at that very time living in Totnes. The people of South Devon were aware that this woman was a fairy and- it seems- were not especially surprised about that. Part of their certainty must (again) have come from the fact that she looked like a fairy. What did Victorians expect to see?
Scottish author James Napier recounted a changeling story in his book, Folklore, in 1879. The child in question was suspected of having been swapped because “it seemed to have been pinched” and subsequently, it became very hungry, “gurning and yabbering constantly.” These were give-away signs. Another Scot, John Monteath, described in his book on Dunblane Traditions (1835) that changelings were “unearthly skin an’ bane gorbels.” In Scots, a gorbel is an unfledged bird, so this phrase is suggestive of the shrivelled, skinny look of the infant. Likewise, in his story of ‘The Smith and the Fairies,’ John Francis Campbell described how the blacksmith’s son took to his bed and moped, becoming “thin, old and yellow.” (Popular Tales, vol.III)
In August 1892 the Dublin branch of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children issued its annual report. Amongst the cases featured was that of a child neglected by its parents because they believed it to have been a changeling. The reason for this (though it was probably worsened by their lack of care) was that the child was a “living skeleton,” which was exactly the term used for the girl advertised on the 1690 handbill. On New Year’s Day 1898 the Hampshire and Portsmouth Telegraph carried a feature on Welsh superstitions associated with New Year’s Eve. The paper reprted that it was still felt to be vital to watch a child’s cradle at this turning point of the year lest the tylwyth teg snatch the babe and leave a plentyn newid (a ‘changed child’). This fairy would be a “frightful looking, shrunken, puling brat, not infrequently becoming idiotic.” The paper added what a disgrace to the parents it was if such a substitution had been allowed to take place.
What’s consistent in all these examples is the starved look of the infant- despite the fact that they frequently gobbled up food. Perhaps it’s significant that in one Scottish poem a milkmaid wooed by a fairy gives her lover a crucifix to wear- and his glamour is dispelled, revealing him as a “brown, withered twig, so elf twisted and dry.” In another Scottish account, a man is sure that his wife has been taken by the fairies rather than having died. He has her coffin opened- and finds a dry leaf inside.
So fixed was the association between a whingeing child with an insatiable hunger and fairy abduction that Horlicks even made reference to the tradition in an advert for their product that ran during the late 1890s.
Although the Smithfield changeling was dumb, it was the preternatural knowledge and loquacity of the swapped infant that often gave away its true nature. Lewis Spence tells the story of a Sutherland woman out walking one day when her one-year old baby suddenly recites some lines of verse. She abandons the creature and runs home, fortunately finding her true child back in its cradle.
Changelings were not necessarily taken for malign reasons: the fairies often sought a playmate for their own children, but they didn’t give much thought to the feelings of the human family. Such was the desperation of those parents to recover their own bairns that many terrible measures were attempted. The case of leaving the child all alone out in the countryside that was just mentioned was very mild compared to some remedies. For example, people resorted to threatening suspected changelings with red-hot pokers, holding them on shovels over the fire or placing them in hot ovens. Such cruelty was provoked by the perfectly understandable anxiety to be reunited with the lost baby. The abuse was bolstered by the assurance that it was justified because the child no longer looked the same- instead, it looked like fairy.
For a more extended consideration of this subject, see my books Middle Earth Cuckoos (2021) and Faery (2020).